The Right to Exist: Why Prairie School Districts Need BIPOC Support Positions Now

The right to exist.

Some folks would say, well, that’s bare minimum.  Life is a Charter right, alongside liberty.  It’s a given, a taken-for-granted, a gimme, a no-brainer.  But not for all.

Not for racialized children on the prairies.

My own experience as a Black student in prairie schools, before I became a Black prairie educator, was one that was not only steeped in white supremacy, but that also saw, as key ingredients, several examples of overt racism.  And here’s the tea on that: over the past twenty years since my own high school graduation, regrettably, not much has changed.  The stories that circulate among friends and family and within racialized communities about the immense racism faced by children in our schools today would gut the most hardened of listeners.  But beyond small familial circles, these stories often go untold and unheard.  Even worse, the perpetrators of such racism typically escape consequence from school leaders, who are decidedly unequipped to deal with this particular problem, however ubiquitous it may be.

Some stories of school-based racism, we do have the luck (and regret) to hear about more broadly.  And they should gut us all.  Last December, it was a teacher’s aide in Kamsack, Saskatchewan telling a 10-year-old Indigenous girl named Isabella Kulak that her traditional ribbon skirt wasn’t appropriate attire for the school’s formal day.  More recently, I read about James Lasu, the young Black boy from just north of Calgary who endured racist taunts and bullying at school, his classmates verbally equating him with a monkey.  When asked if any of his fellow students ever stand up for him when this happens, James, who loves art, music, and basketball, answered bravely, “They just watch me be hurt and cry.”

Like Isabella Kulak and her family, James and his family decided to speak up and speak out, and not without risk.  Their stories, two of countless similar ones occurring every day, made news, made people aware of these otherwise silenced atrocities.  What courage, what power, what promise these young people have shown.  In speaking up, they ring an important alarm.  But they also stick their necks out into the cutthroat and apparently lawless landscape of racist prairie cyberspace as well as a dangerous physical reality.

A child, however brave, should never have to do this. 

It is only the cowardice of legally responsible adults that forces them to do so.

The first person to speak out publicly after an incident of racism at a school should be the school officials, preferably the district director, to condemn the acts of racism happening directly under their watch.  I would say that the first line of defense ought to be the school district’s anti-racism consultant or advisor, except there’s just one problem with that idea; despite promising developments in some post-secondary institutions, these positions scarcely exist in k-12 education in western Canada – a glaring human resource omission with grave consequences.

In 2018, 13-year-old Kaleab Schmidt was found unresponsive at his home near Balgonie, Saskatchewan.  The young immigrant from Ethiopia died by suicide after experiencing unresolved racism at school, which was often explained away as “bullying,” a misnomer that ignores a problem with much deeper roots than this whitewashing term can capture.  But the absence of high-level educational positions filled by qualified individuals with knowledge of these important social complexities surrounding racism, allows such whitewashing to continue unchecked.  Meanwhile, Black children, Indigenous children, and children of colour are suffering. 

And some of them, like Kaleab, are dying.

When school-based bullying surrounds race, let us call it what it is: racism.  To disconnect this specific social evil from our intervention conversations is short-sighted and harmful.  Further, racism is a beast which extends far beyond personally mediated conflicts, and well into the fabric of our very society, and the everyday goings-on of life, death, and schooling on the prairies.  What of that?  What of the fact that BIPOC children and youth face racism daily as an expected element of their educational experience in this country?  What system-led proactive measures, interventions, or supports exist to counter this broader, more insidious form of racism?

Not even in our increasingly courageous public conversations around mental health do we dare to sufficiently explore the impacts of racism and colonization on the mental health of BIPOC people and youth specifically, who are almost always over-represented in statistics surrounding these issues.  Take the alarming suicide rates in Northern Indigenous communities, for example, where the rate is in some cases nearly three times higher than the national average.  Has it crossed nobody’s mind, no psychologist, no psychiatrist or counsellor’s mind that fighting through racialized colonial violence day in and day out and at every turn may have an impact on one’s mental wellbeing?  That this may be contributing factor worth further study?  Indeed, these connections have been studied and advocated for, though not nearly enough.  And without a race and power analysis of the mental health landscape, over-sanitized anti-bullying or suicide awareness efforts of any scope and on the part of any school system will fail to adequately curb adverse mental health impacts among BIPOC youth, as they will fail to address the root problem.  Indeed, these efforts are akin to those of a doctor trying to treat a cough that is cancer-related with whatever lozenges may be found amid the lint in their pants pocket, likely offered with some suspicion of hypochondria.

Although BIPOC people have grown accustomed to such gaslighting, we are far from comfortable with it.

Looking at the status quo in education so far, almost every school district in the country is likely to have an anti-bullying policy.  Very few, at least on the prairies, are likely to have an anti-racism policy, let alone an anti-racism advisor, someone with the tools to help students and teachers and administrators learn about, understand, and confront the ever-present and ever-suffocating force of racism that pervades school culture.  Often, school districts will sooner rely on professional learning for educators that focuses on the disturbingly lauded “resilience” of BIPOC youth, rather than find the bravery to look in the mirror at why such resilience has become necessary in the first place.  I’d say it is incumbent upon school systems to begin this much needed process of self-reflection.  Defensible interpretations of provincial Human Rights Code legislation posit that negligence on the part of school officials to address, if not enact preventative and proactive measures to combat racism, may establish grounds for legal ramifications.  Employment Act legislation similarly protects employees, i.e. educators, from race-based harassment at work.  And I encourage any and all victims of negligence in this regard to pursue such legal avenues with the greatest of resolve and ambition.

Systemic racism has been happily ignored for so long by prairie educational leaders that they may actually believe it’s not a problem worth fighting against; their inaction says as much.  While it may be easy for some to suggest that there is simply no racism in our k-12 education systems to begin with, without a doubt, the festering of racism on the prairies is coming to a head.  Incidents like those affecting Isabella Kulak, James Lasu, Kaleab Schmidt, and innumerable others are but the bubbling over of a full and boiling pot.

And it’s again easy to suggest that said pot is meant for melting, and that everyone ought to just jump into this mix and become, all of us, one thing: uniform expressions of the Canadian identity (which is all too often assumed to be monolithic and white).  But it is precisely this idea that we should all assimilate into socially established and vigorously policed white settler norms that raises the temperature of the burner on which our hot pot sits: Turtle Island.

Yes, our pot is but a young colony on land that is immortally Indigenous; lest we forget.  And in order to exist here cooperatively with Indigenous peoples and other groups, we must at bare minimum attempt to understand the socio-political climate in which we and our school systems all marinate here on the prairies, where past government sought through legislation to enforce the afore-mentioned assimilation ideal through the scourge of residential schools, whose spectre still haunts our existing institutions of learning, and indeed our society on this largely non-urban landscape.

In stark contrast to this sordid history, such natural beauty there lies, outside of the distracting bustle of the scarce prairie city.  My wife and I have long considered moving outside of town ourselves; there’s a place deep in our hearts that so values the openness of space, the quiet of solitude, and the calming lull of nature.  But upon deeper reflection, that dream is greatly tempered by the increased potential within rural areas of western Canada for overt racism to run rampant.  Know this; it is a mark of privilege not to have to consider the potentialities of racism when planning a geographical move.  Personally, I think someone who could create an app for predicting overt racism levels based on city, town, or rural municipality could become rich, as every BIPOC person considering relocating would benefit from such a technology. 

So as not to generalize, let me be clear; the world is full of social justice change makers who were born and bred in Canada’s so-called breadbasket, many of them white allies who, seeing their world for what it was and not what it was sold to be, decided to do something about it.  But the prairies are in many ways haunted by the openness of non-urban space that all too often seems to either push Indigenous people out or swallow Indigenous bodies up.  The shooting death of Colten Boushie still haunts us all.  Some days, what haunts me too is how, following the murder, some school districts instructed teachers not to facilitate discussions of the topic among students.  This, while Indigenous students and their allies everywhere were very freshly and very actively grieving, and were met in their own school communities, by their own teachers, not with open arms, but with plugged ears. 

I say to you that such a community is no community at all.

In willfully ignoring the grief of our Indigenous students, we ignore the stark reality of systemic racism within our own home: the prairies. And on this issue, a stance of silence is a stance of complicity. Following Colten Boushie’s murder, the officers tasked with delivering the news of his death to his mother, in the same instance, smelled her breath, asked if she’d been drinking, and told her in her state of shock to “get it together” while they, by some accounts, illegally searched her home.  And following the Stanley trial, the RCMP, rather than host town hall meetings on rural racism, moved swiftly to host town hall meetings on rural property crime, following complaints from mostly white farmers that slow police response times were to blame for farmers “taking the law into their own hands.”  In light of such alarming expressions of obvious systemic racism among police, is it any wonder that BIPOC students and families on the prairies are calling for the full removal of police from schools?

In illustrating all this, I hope only to highlight the deeply entrenched and staunchly protected colonial narratives that construct a rural Canadian white man as “king of his castle” as Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt put it in their book Storying Violence: Unravelling Colonial Narratives in the Stanley Trial.  If you haven’t read Storying Violence, do.  I would argue that it’s essential reading for every person living within the borders of what is now commonly called Canada.  Confronting difficult truths, not shying away from them, must be the primary element of any imagination of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. 

Storying Violence | ARP Books

We must own up to the fact that Indigenous peoples and other people of colour often do not feel welcome within the sprawling patchwork “kingdoms” of the prairies, schools and all, and that so-called trespassing there can signal death.  These historically entrenched colonial narratives that position white property owners as birthright royalty are still vivid today.  But they somehow omit that settlers could only build their so-called castles and their schools after “clearing the plains” of the Indigenous people and children who occupied and used the land responsibly for thousands of years prior, and whose inherent rights remain connected to it. 

As for my own story, it lies in the white-perpetrated kidnapping of my mother’s ancestors and their forcible removal from Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

That’s how I ended up here, on this side of the ocean.  As the so-believed property of the ancestors of today’s white property owners.

Now, to ask me to sit in a classroom somewhere on Indigenous territory, rural or not, and to request, however politely, that I don’t talk about my story or about how it is ongoing, or how it is inextricable from our contemporary relationships to each other and to Indigenous peoples, is unthinkable.  But this is precisely the strategically chosen and inherently oppressive education strategy persists broadly on the prairies.  And while it may have the intent of keeping up appearances or ensuring that kids “play nice” at school, it has the impact of essentially extinguishing my existence, because it extinguishes the story of my existence.

As for BIPOC people broadly, know this: our racialization is tied to much more than the colour of our skin, which is why everyone ought to stop saying such foolishness as “I don’t care if you’re blue, green, or purple!”  By all means, miss us with that.  Our racialization is not merely skin-deep.  It is tied to our stories, to our identities, our humanity, our cultures, and indeed to our modern existence in an evil but inescapable social hierarchy that beats us down constantly, sometimes literally. But this hierarchy, and those who, from its peak, maintain it, also beats us down the way a dripping tap beats on the eardrums and then the brain, until you can’t take it anymore.  Until it’s torturous.  Until you’d just as soon grab a sledgehammer as call a plumber. 

Call that abhorrent dripping white supremacy, call it microaggressions, call it shade, call it living in constant fear that if you express yourself, your racial identity, or worst of all, your demand for self-determination and liberation, you will be stopped from doing so, persecuted because of it, or eliminated altogether, perhaps even by those sworn to serve and protect you.

That’s how we live, if you can call it that.  In fear.  And in the words of the late Nina Simone, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me.  No fear.”

So, yes, racism is an immense and immediate problem in our school systems across the prairies and indeed the country.  And no, we are not yet free. 

Therefore, I join the call of educators like Helen Vangool for BIPOC support positions in every school and school district in the prairies and beyond.  I join the call for anti-racist and anti-oppressive education for every teacher and every student in every classroom in the country.  There is much more yet to do, but let us at least begin there.

We must confront the fact that colonization began on these lands hundreds of years ago, and that it continues to operate, sometimes especially palpably in schools.  But the fact that the operation of colonization has been occurring on these Indigenous lands for hundreds of years now, and is protected by all manner of settler laws, policies, and paperwork, does not automatically prove that the operation of colonization, then or now, has been in any way legitimate. 

The so-called owners of my enslaved ancestors had paperwork too.

So let’s talk about all of that.  Let’s talk about the notion of Canada for what it truly is: a house of cards, whose very foundation is the tremulous soil of colonization and racism.  Not even the most well manicured of lawns can conceal such ever-quaking earth, whose ear-pounding rumbling is nothing less than the karmic cry of our ancestors for justice on the land.

Now I have not come to be the big bad wolf and blow this house all down, but for the love of God, can we at least talk about it?  Some of us need to in order to be free. 

Some of us need to in order to live.

– KD

If you’d like to help advocate for BIPOC support positions and anti-racist education in prairie schools, please contact your school district today.  Click the links for live lists of Saskatchewan school divisions, Alberta school divisions, and Manitoba school divisions. Click on the name of your specific school division to find its main contact information. In your communications, please be prepared to challenge any responses that try to centre multiculturalism or cultural responsiveness as the work of anti-racism, as these are quite separate from anti-racist and decolonizing education, and are decidedly inadequate tools for overcoming oppression.

Questions to ask your school division:

  • Do you have an anti-racism or BIPOC support position in your school division?
  • Do you have a plan to create an anti-racism or BIPOC support position in your school division?
  • Does your school division have an anti-racism policy of which I can obtain a copy?
  • Does your school have a plan for creating an anti-racism policy? What is the timeline for doing so? Who is advising on this policy work and what are their qualifications?
  • What is your school division doing to actively combat systemic racism?  Who is responsible for this work, and what are their qualifications for doing so?
  • What proactive measures are in place within your school division to prevent my child(ren) from experiencing or witnessing overt racism at school?
  • What sort of anti-racism training do your educators and/or students receive? How regularly does your school division provide this training?
  • Who delivers anti-racism training to the educators and students in your school division? What qualifications do they have in this area?
  • Is anti-racism training mandatory for the educators in your school division? If not, why is that?

Dangerous Space: How Safe Spaces Enable Racism – Part 2 of 2

This post is a continuation of Part 1, found here.

The largely white, middle class-backed safe space movement has reached more than just the national spoken word poetry scene.  It is in our schools, on our campuses, and in our workplaces, where equally white-washed anti-bullying campaigns have exploded, creating a Pleasantville effect, in which they leave social power critiques and discussions of systemic oppression tragically by the wayside.

Nationwide, cases of online sexual harassment and extortion that ended in youth suicide have been taken up primarily under the acritical banner of “cyberbullying”.  Meanwhile, discussions of sexism and toxic masculinity in formative educational spaces remain sparse.  While I of course agree with and applaud the intention of anti-bullying and safe space campaigns alike, under their current implementation models, both ultimately reproduce systemically racist and classist side effects, by adding significantly to the silence that enables the status quo.

Intended or not, one major result of safe space is tension and infighting among the left.  In the very climate which they have created, the collective left, who are exceedingly intersectional and multi-faceted in both identity and ideology, cannot begin to agree on which topics and subjects of discussion are taboo or allowable, and in what manner, or to whom, and under what personal or creative license.  Incessant call-outs and banishment for problematic position-taking, often related to appropriation, plague the left, locking its masses in almost cyclical discord.  Ironically, marginalized people, who have been denied access to anti-oppressive and higher education, which others can easily pursue, are often banished from safe spaces in light of holding sometimes problematic views that stem from that very lack of education. Subsequently, the mainstreamers who remain in the safe spaces lose access to the real-life anti-oppressive teaching that marginalized people have to offer.

And so the safe spaces cleanse themselves of non-white, non-middle class participation and perspectives. This, while Indigenous youth and women continue to go missing or be murdered, while unarmed Black men in the US continue to be executed at the hands of police, and while water protectors in places like Standing Rock face government sponsored tear gas, bean bag bullets, dog attacks, and water cannon blasts reminiscent of the 1960s.  As much as we’d like, our safe spaces cannot help blanket these victims.  Nor can we assist in their resistance from those far-removed places of comfort and protection.

The “progressive” approach has backfired here; our constant infighting brings to mind a quote from Black Panther Party leader and revolutionary Fred Hampton: “We said all power to the people. We said no matter what color you are, there are only two classes. There’s a class over here, and there’s a class over there—this is lower, this is upper; this is the oppressed and the oppressor; this is the exploited and the exploiter. These people in this class over here have divided themselves, they say ‘I’m black and I hate white people,’ ‘I’m white and I hate black people,’ ‘I’m Latin American and I hate hillbillies,’ ‘I’m a hillbilly and I hate Indians’; so we fighting amongst each other.”

For true radicals like Fred Hampton, who was killed by police while asleep in his own bed, there could be no such thing as a truly safe space (speaking to the level of privilege that our current safe spaces embody).  In fact, Hampton advocated for organized education and for open dialogue about experiences of oppression specifically to avoid an uncoordinated and thus ineffective resistance, which he forebodingly referred to as a “motionless movement.”

Safe spaces are certainly ideal, but perhaps a touch idealistic at times.  I do dream of a day when marginalized people can enter a school, campus, or poetry show with their identities and viewpoints affirmed and valued, and where their stories are validated and believed.  But to skip ahead to this imagined ideal through self-sequestering, coerced exclusion, and policy-aided silencing is to ignore one ultimately crucial step: the work of changing people’s minds – the work of fighting oppression.  Unfortunately, such work requires unmitigated diplomatic dialogue among opposing groups – the oppressed and the oppressors – something nobody enjoys, but that is perhaps a necessary evil at the right time and place.

If the recent climate in Canadian race relations has been any indication, there is a lot of mind-changing yet to be done. Public education is an effective resistance strategy that anti-oppressive leaders such as the founders of the Idle No More movement (Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon) have long been using and advocating for.  Their frequent and widespread teach-ins have arguably created some of the most impactful social change in recent decades. And following the recent murder acquittals of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier, both tried for the homicides of young Indigenous people, we have seen a resurgence of mass Indigenous-led protest and public education efforts; unfortunately these have been met with some of the most brazenly overt racist responses in recent memory.

The trend is continental; indeed the climate in the US has also been shifting back toward acceptable, open racism following Trump’s “surprise” presidential election victory.  People in both countries, across the political spectrum, are tired of being quiet, or feeling muzzled, and basic psychology confirms the futility of placing a gag order on people’s searing emotions. Remarkably, in many cases, even marginalized people are tired of feeling over-sheltered from the everyday reality of oppression, which persists in spite of (and partly because of) safe spaces.

If these are among the most salient outcomes that safe spaces have produced, have they really been advancing our society? What becomes clear now is the need for a return to civil, open dialogue between social factions. At the least, it would be better than the firestorm of anger in which we now live, fueled partly by the futility of safe space ubiquity.

Conservative and neoliberal white men whom I’ve met in public, for the first time, have told me that they know which places in my town to avoid, places where they wouldn’t fit in, and which places to frequent instead.  While a part of me smirks in light of the fact that they are only now being forced to learn life skills that BIPOC folks have grown up learning for their own physical safety, I remain conflicted.  Unfortunately for these white men, and for society at large, their physical avoidance ensures an ideological avoidance as well. They have learned only to insulate themselves from opposing viewpoints completely, to wander through life with their views and actions unchallenged, forever reproducing systemic colonialism, racism, classism, ableism, and sexism as they go (much in the same way that social media can help us to create our own now archetypal ideological echo chambers).  And, as privilege would have it, these men will likely go on to become the bulk of our elected officials, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and police (fields in which their existing values will likely only be affirmed and perpetually solidified).  Further to the irony of this situation, we can begin to see how by sequestering ourselves in our own safe spaces, we have created opposite and much larger safe spaces for those whose views we are seeking shelter from, thus only empowering them further.

Public education is messy work that no one enjoys.  Perhaps this is why safe spaces have been rolled out as widely and enthusiastically as they have, because people are tired of that gruesome messiness.  And safe spaces do spare us that.  But we know from social research that emotional or mental discomfort (the mess) is not merely an avoidable inconvenience associated with taboo discussion, but rather an essential element of progressive human change.  That is to say that people’s principles must be challenged, even to the point of cognitive dissonance, before personal change can begin.  Unfortunately, in our modern safe spaces, neither discord nor dissonance is allowed.  And those marginalized people, whose counter-narratives of systemic victimization warrant our listening, are met not with deaf ears, but, absurdly, with ones that we have voluntarily covered in the name of justice.  For this reason, BIPOC and working class people can often feel that their experiences are not validated in modern safe spaces, leaving them paradoxically at peril among well-meaning allies.

Again, I want to stress that I believe in the limited use of safe spaces, and I certainly believe in their original intent, largely aimed at preventing harassment and oppressive bullying, providing opportunities for self-segregation, and protecting marginalized individuals’ emotional and physical safety.  To this day, a safe space poster hangs on my office door at work because I believe in these aims.  But I lament the cost of misusing and overusing these spaces to prevent important (if at times problematic) discussions about oppression, in which the scourge can be confronted, refuted, delegitimized, and done away with.  In the current era, leftists will often wag their fingers at appropriation, even to excoriate minutia (at times silencing and discouraging would-be cause supporters), but the ongoing misuse of safe space may be one of the unsung but more damaging examples of appropriation in recent years.  Those whom we exclude from safe spaces are consequently excused from personal accountability, responsibility, and from unlearning their problematic perspectives. I suggest that we intervene using a community teaching response when problematic perspectives are shared. After all, the problems underlying these perspectives typically pale in comparison to the unfiltered racism that we now see publicly on an increasingly alarming basis.

Somewhere along the line, conservatives and neo-liberals alike ran with the ideas of political correctness (another initially well-intended but since misappropriated venture) and safe space, and mashed them together, decreeing collectively that no discussions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, or other forms of human difference would be allowed in public discourse.  Hegemonically, the left has since obeyed and then cyclically reified this decree over time.

But, today, one needn’t look much farther than their own social media news feed to encounter open displays of racism, often posed more hurtfully and with more hateful pride than ever before.  These contemporary displays of hate are remarkable, but only mildly more damaging than the exceedingly widespread problem of ignorance, which is often silent and insidious simultaneously.  As luck would have it, discussions of race and difference in public fora has done nothing to change people’s lack of understanding and entrenched attitudes toward marginalized groups.  That is, it’s done nothing to change racism, which has only festered hotly in North America until recently boiling over.  Right now, the racist vitriol is sparking, and our institutions ought to be ground zero for this firefight. But the warm blanket of safe space may just be viable tinder instead.

Subtle, systemic racism thrives also.  I for one was saddened, though not surprised, to learn that the recent Stanley and Cormier murder acquittals would both not be appealed by the Crown.  The question is not whether or not there were trial errors constituting grounds for appeal, but rather how and why the justice system, which operates on Indigenous treaty lands, is designed to consistently allow the wrongful deaths of Indigenous people to go unaccounted for.  In the case of Gerald Stanley, this question applies to everything from the RCMP’s handling of the investigation and evidence, to the jury selection and verdict, through to the lack of appeal, which, coming from the Crown, feels like little more than an apathetic pass.  Adding insult to injury, following the Stanley acquittal, the RCMP in Saskatchewan have begun hosting town hall meetings across the province to address rural property theft concerns from primarily white farmers.  It seems the RCMP in Saskatchewan are focusing on reconciliation, but, in this case, with non-Indigenous people.

At our own University of Saskatchewan campus, the Indigenous Students’ Council (ISC) has recently protested that university’s reconciliation efforts by encouraging non-participation from Indigenous students in university-led reconciliation events.  It’s apparent that the university had planned, like so many of our institutions, on moving forward with a “safe” version of reconciliation, without engaging in what Pam Palmater has called “the hard work necessary to make amends.”  Again, this type of idealistic jump is not possible. Not as long as it’s evident that colonialism and racism are still burning so brightly in this country.  In this self-preserving model of reconciliation, our institutions are comparable to Hamlet’s Claudius, who famously sought forgiveness for his sins while still benefitting from them. The ISC have embarked on what I believe is one of the most important solutions to the violent racism we’re currently facing in this country, and that is to hold institutions to account.  Considering the issue of racism is systemic to our society and goes far beyond the individual, sequestering ourselves in comparably tiny safe spaces beyond the reach of racist ideology would seem short-sighted.  Especially as, outside of those privileged safe spaces, people like Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine continue to be killed without repercussion.

In our society, the amnesty for oppression is ubiquitous.  Safe spaces have been misappropriated to the extent that, through their silencing effect, they now serve to protect oppressors from feeling like they are oppressing, rather than protecting the everyday victims of oppression.  Only this month, a Canadian anti-racism educator (whom I’ll not name here) received hate mail and personal threats after delivering a lecture critiquing systemic racism at a university campus.  Ironically, much of the backlash has positioned the white lecturer as a racist himself.  This notion would represent an incredible new twist on internalized racism with which I’m not familiar.  At any rate, it would seem that neo-liberal colourblindness, the PC movement, and safe space have gone so far as to bar even basic anti-racist discussion from reaching the public discourse.  In this peculiar version of social progress, racism itself is not taboo, but calling it out is.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, I suppose.  But alas, we know that the evil of racism and oppression thrives when unseen.

We need to see that evil.  We need to fight it.  And we can’t fight what we can’t see.

– KD

 

Dangerous Space: How Safe Spaces Enable Racism – Part 1 of 2

One effective way to educate well-intentioned but misguided people on issues of oppression is to illustrate the often remarkable difference between the intention and impact of their actions.  I’ll use a personal anecdote as a starting example.  When I first began my teaching career, and was the lone Black teacher on a small staff in a rural Saskatchewan high school, the staff and students began planning a mock “slave auction” in order to raise money for charity; this was apparently tradition at the school.  After some reflection, I decided to raise issue with the auction, addressing the school’s vice principal in private.  The mortified response I received was that it was never anyone’s intention to offend, and that they hadn’t thought about it from my (Black) perspective before.  People often take this position in situations like these, and it serves one main purpose: the maintenance of their own innocence.  But the offending parties remain culpable of having had a negative impact on those with less power in the situation.

I’d sat through a mock slave auction as a student in elementary school already, that one having been aimed at somehow teaching about Black slavery itself.  The jokey atmosphere and sexualizing elements (yes, even in elementary school) did not make me feel like the right type of learning had taken place, nor that the experience of my slave ancestors had been validated – quite the opposite.  I felt as if it, and I, had been trivialized, forsaken, forgotten.  As an eleven year-old boy, I didn’t quite have the full analysis at the time, though I certainly had the rotten feelings, and nor did I have the power to speak up, only the courage to endure.  As an adult working professional, I was not about to let my peers put me through the same rottenness, though they almost did.  In the end, the more recent event was re-branded as a “student auction”.  Baby steps.

Open conversations like the one I had with my vice principal are important.  In retrospect, I wish I might have had the chance to address the whole staff and student body about my reason for the complaint.  Although, a conversation of that depth and magnitude may have been too progressive even for 2006.  I should hope that such conversations might be acceptable, encouraged even, in the “safe spaces” of 2018, but I have my doubts.  What is needed now is a large scale discussion of intention and impact within the broader so-called anti-oppressive community itself.

There are many factors that play into the currently cold climate within the multi-faceted progressive wing of this country and continent: liberal multiculturalism, the misuse of the safe spaces, the appropriation of political correctness, and the ongoing institutional silencing of the oppressed, among others.  But what these inter-related factors have collectively amounted to is an unfortunately self-destructive, disorganized, and anti-intersectional left, which has, in light of all its infighting, become easy for those on the right to critique, or, worse, ignore.

Infighting within oppressed communities has always bolstered the position of the oppressor.  One needn’t look farther than Tupac Shakur’s poignant analysis of state-assisted Black on Black crime in his song Changes for a striking example: “Give ’em guns, step back; watch ’em kill each other.”

Let us look to the microcosmic national slam poetry scene for insight.  Formerly regarded as one of the most compelling, progressive, critical, and radical art scenes in Canada (see my thesis, coincidentally titled “the safest place”: Anti-oppression in Spoken Word Poetry), the once afri-centric genre’s popularity and anti-establishment reputation are currently waning.  A well-intentioned, hardworking group of mostly white liberal organizers began making efforts to ensure the safety of slam poetry participants and spectators beginning shortly after the scene’s resurgence across Canada near the turn of the century.  The advent of trigger warnings for potentially upsetting content began to gain popularity shortly thereafter, opening a floodgate of other presumably progressive community actions ranging from coordinated audience protests of stage content, to informal excommunication and public shaming of poets, whose social crimes ranged from the very serious (i.e. actual crimes) to the mildly questionable faux pas.

The overall impact: a gradual decline in participating poets and spectators of colour, in anti-racist stage content, in literary merit, and in national interest in the once powerfully anti-oppressive genre.  Regarding trigger warnings, it would seem poets of colour generally didn’t like having to warn people that they were about to share their life experiences onstage (you know, in case anyone should like to leave and avoid hearing about them).  And since people of colour are statistically more likely to experience trauma, they are disproportionately affected by trigger warnings and other censoring mechanisms.  As Kendrick Lamar states on his track DNA, “Shit I’ve been through prolly offend you,” later clarifying for Rolling Stone that “I can’t tell you the shit that I’ve been through without telling you the shit that I’ve been through.”  I would posit that more offensive than sharing, without warning, what one has been through, is deciding that one’s life story and experiences of oppression ought to come with such warning to begin with.

Perhaps this is part of why here in Saskatoon, a more recently formed Indigenous Poets’ Society, separate from the mainstream local scene, has arisen, creating a truly safer space for Indigenous experiences of life to be freely shared and affirmed.  This freedom may have something to do with the tendency of dominant groups to informally (or, unintentionally, they may say) boycott minority events, sadly thereby avoiding potentially mind-changing and life-changing stories.

Of course, the intentionality behind trigger warnings is righteous.  And certainly, they do serve effectively to avoid re-traumatizing people with certain mental health conditions and past trauma.  Unfortunately, the bolder impact, or side effect, has been a continuation of the historical silencing of marginalized groups.  Indeed, a number of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour (BIPOC) who are poets in Canada have been disenfranchised and have felt devalued by the spoken word community, many of them eventually disengaging with their local scenes and with the art form itself.  The irony here ought not to be missed: spoken word is, after all, a modern extension of the oral traditions unique to the histories of Black and Indigenous peoples.  Their recent disenfranchisement from their own art form is not the fault of organizing committees alone, but rather of inherently oppressive systemic changes to the organizational format of spoken word, and socio-cultural changes that have permeated the national culture, the slam scene, and the spoken word community.

What has been lost is not just the important onstage presence of several BIPOC performers, but the radical anti-racist and decolonizing themes that they brought to the fore of the public consciousness through their art.  The ultimate result is their silence; once an outcome ensured by the oppressor, it’s now taken up via an inside job.  It seems the colonial reach is deeper and farther now than it was just a decade ago, which would suggest that those among the resistance ought to quickly change course.  Organizers everywhere must ask, safe space for whom and for how many?  And this extends far beyond slam.

Continued here

It Happens Here Too: #TakeAKnee and Racism in Rider Nation

When a black man in North America responds to racism by lashing out, justifiably, in anger, he is doing what no black man really wants to do – fulfilling a racist stereotype.  Unfortunately for him, the stereotype of the angry black man, then, removes the wind from one of the only sails he may have in this society: his passionate discontent for its horrific racism.  For a black man, to be outraged at racism does not draw attention to the problem, but rather only confirms the dominant culture’s view that black men are angry, violent, and dangerous – therefore reifying the very racism he seeks to destroy, hardening the very problem he seeks to overcome.

So what, then, when one decides to enact an inherently peaceful protest such as #TakeAKnee?  The protests, which started a year ago with the now unemployed superstar Colin Kaepernick and have since spread vastly in reach, have touched even our home, Saskatchewan, where the Roughriders football team linked arms in solidarity with #TakeAKnee protestors during the national anthem before their game on September 24th of this year.  Is it possible to imagine a more inherently non-violent protest than this?  This silent, sombre, personal reflection on the state of things?  Clearly not.  Ironically, what is possibly the world’s most peaceful protest has been met with bitter outrage from many members of the dominant white group, including its most powerful leader, the president of the United States of America.  Prominent black American political commentator Van Jones has referred to this type of reactionary anger as a “whitelash.”  Yet so far, no one has implicated this anger as an inherent aspect of essential male whiteness.

Quite the contrary, in fact; the outrage targeting those who kneel in protest during the US national anthem serves chiefly to maintain the innocence of those who express it.  If the flag is to be a symbol of white American identity (and supremacy) then it must be upheld as infallible, venerable, and great.  The stalwart efforts of many conservative Americans to defend it as such solidify its exclusivity, which is the very aspect of it that black NFL players are protesting in the first place.  It’s no wonder then that the #TakeAKnee protests have caused such a stalemate in the US racial-political sphere, in which only those who defend the flag are allowed to share in its infallibility, veneration, and greatness.  After all, they believe it presently represents them well, and they are presently right.  They are wrong, however, to believe it represents black America with the same sort of prideful nuance in the current context.  For much of black America, to defend the flag as infallible is to erase the terror, inhumanity, and atrocities that the America it represents has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate.

Unlike the country’s white ancestors, the ancestors of most black Americans did not come to the United States by choice.  They did not choose to “join the union”, so to speak.  Their interest in saluting the flag of a country to which they’ve been assigned by ancestral kidnapping ought to be shaky at best.   To have such an interest be an admission of forgiving and forgetting, which, it seems, is what people want blacks to do.  To forgive and forget is difficult though, in light of the ongoing aftershocks of slavery that the US continues to experience: racism, police brutality and lynching, and the ongoing exploitation of black bodies through physical labour as in, you guessed it, professional sports.  Forget that the NFL team “owners” are predominantly white and the players they “own” are predominantly black.  Forget that the NFL has been legally implicated for negligence in the repeated traumatic brain injury of its players.  Forget that professional athletes in the US can still be victimized by police brutality in cases of mistaken identity (see tennis player James Blake).  The “shutup-and-play” mentality held by predominantly white sports fans smacks of an earlier more evil era, in which blacks were to be valued for their physical labour only, and not at all for their personhood.

In our own small, predominantly white province of Saskatchewan, Canada, we’re known for our “Rider Pride”, referring to our ongoing love affair with our professional football team, aforementioned: the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.  Many of the team’s players are black Americans, beloved here in Canada for their incredible athleticism on the field.  The enthusiastic people of Saskatchewan come out in the tens of thousands to support their players in live football match-ups in Regina, Saskatchewan.  The atmosphere at live games is often celebratory, rowdy, euphoric even.  However, when unarmed Roughrider Joe McKnight, who was black, was fatally shot by Ronald Glasser, white, in a road rage incident in Louisiana in 2016, nobody in the province said boo.  This, even though police in Louisiana released Glasser from custody despite finding him at the scene of the crime with a gun in his possession.  Glasser would not be arrested for manslaughter until four whole days later.  Police cited Glasser’s cooperative nature as part of the reason for his delayed arrest.  Sadly, in Saskatchewan, McKnight seems to remain nothing more than a forgotten footnote on a CFL stats sheet.  There was zero public conversation of note, let alone outrage, regarding his death or the implications of race inherent to its circumstances.  Zero.  It would seem that McKnight’s death and the questions of race surrounding it were outside of the local public consciousness.  But at the same time that McKnight was killed, the Roughrider flag flew proud in many a man-cave.

In our province, there has been no acknowledgment within professional football circles (and no doubt, few others) of the ongoing effects of anti-black racism in sports and society, save for a new celebratory “Diversity is Strength” campaign, involving no discussion of power or institutional racism. Meanwhile, black quarterbacks and coaches in the province and country often face vehement and racially motivated opposition from the so-called fan base.  Here in Saskatchewan, when we fly the Rider flag, we are indeed professing publicly a certain kind of love for our black brethren, but all too often, we risk ignoring, covering up even, any implication of racism in our province.  That is what symbols can do.  That is the power they have.  And so, sometimes, we must take a little of their power away.  And redistribute it, as justice would have it.

So power to those who will not just shut up and play.  Power to those who protest.  Power to those who question. And all power to the people.

– KD