“I’m not racist, but…”

December 7, 2008
in Category: Articles, Canadian Politics
6 2640 0

“I’m not racist, but…”

We often forget that racism is not something we’re always conscious of inside ourselves.

Richard Pound, chancellor of McGill University, former IOC vice-president, and point man for the 2010 Olympics recently called Canada a “country of savages” prior to colonization. When First Nations organizations complained, Pound tepidly apologized, insisted he wasn’t racist, and attacked the complainants for belittling his work with Aboriginals.

Pound’s response was painfully typical. Have you ever noticed that virtually no one ever admits to being racist? Apparently, the only race-related problem Canada has is too many people being hypersensitive about politically correct language.

Yet Canada is deeply racist. One example: In 1999, Aboriginals comprised 15% of prison inmates nationally (20% in BC)-and up to 70% in certain provinces-while only comprising 3% of Canada’s population. After a precedent-setting, wide-ranging investigation, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded the primary cause of these “stark and appalling” facts was “widespread racism” throughout our justice system, from police to the judiciary. A decade later, the numbers are substantially worse. Nevertheless, we’d be hard pressed to find a constable or judge anywhere who’d admit, “The Supreme Court was talking about me.” Meanwhile, how many Canadians would dismiss the Supreme Court’s findings and, without researching, reflexively blame Aboriginals themselves?

This reminds us of something important: Racist attitudes are usually not conscious. We’ll say, “I’m not racist, but…” And then our racism streams out cloaked under what seems to us to be reasonable, rational facts.

Take Pound’s statement. And let’s be clear: I can’t know if Pound is a “racist person”. We can only assess whether certain attitudes, statements or deeds exhibit racist dimensions.

Pound claimed a French phrase from his La Presse interview was mistranslated “out of context”. Yet Quebecers were first to complain and, in context, it’s obvious why. The pre-Olympics Q&A centred on China’s abysmal human rights record. Pound stated Canadians had no business judging China when, only 400 years ago, apart from 10,000 Europeans, we were “a country of savages” ourselves. Pound later amended this characterization to “people in the wilderness” but notably, he never retracted his overall argument: it was simply fact that moral civilization arose here after Europeans arrived.

A defense of Pound in the Globe and Mail exhibited this same tendency to mistake racism for fact, when columnist Margaret Wente helpfully dispelled our collective “myths” about all First Nations societies in one fell swoop.

“The truth” Wente’s article elucidated with sublime conviction, is that four centuries ago Aboriginals were using stone axes in a “neolithic” state of “savagery”, employeeing in their lifestyles not scientific understandings of nature but “useless”, superstitious traditional knowledge. Positive Aboriginal contributions to the development of civilization in the Americas are “vastly overstated”, the article explained, and the notion that any First Nations societies were as “sophisticated” as European cultures is “just nonsense”.

Wente repeatedly quoted a single amateur historian to back these eye-popping claims, demonstrating abject obliviousness to the volumes of contrary evidence, to the Mayans, Aztecs, Iroquois, Inuit, Coast Salish… well, as a McMaster University scholar wrote to the Globe, demonstrating obliviousness, really, to pretty much everything we do actually know about the long, complex history of Aboriginal civilizations in the Americas.

Wente nonetheless finally suggested her perspectives were “not racist”; yet her article superlatively exemplified where racism blends with ethnocentrism (judging other cultures as inferior based on criteria specific to one’s own culture) while erasing reality. Conversely, would Globe editors ever print an unchallenged, non-factual rant “proving” all 17th century white Europeans lived in barbarism and contributed nothing positive to civilization?

Even when addressing racism directly, we’re often oblivious to our own racist tendencies. For example, editor Dave Obee launched the Times-Colonist‘s anniversary reminiscences this January discussing racism and how it was “next to impossible to read the old copies of the newspapers without it slamming into our faces.” Obee cited disparaging articles about “slant-eyed children of the Flowery Kingdom” and immigrants who “heap likee cheap workee”. The paper’s online archives at the University of Victoria likewise show First Nations groups were routinely labelled “savages”. Despite a “pledge to do better in the future”, Obee then proceeds to defend the infamous 1999 T-C headline about the boatload of Chinese who’d landed here: “GO HOME”. The T-C was widely accused of racism, Obee wrote, but “[t]hat was not true, and the words were chosen to reflect public sentiment rather than state an editorial position.” Riiiight. It was all just an eminently non-racist, logical act of professional journalism to conduct an utterly unscientific poll about Chinese refugees, arbitrarily focus on just one segment of public opinion, and publicize it in an outrageously inflammatory way…

Similarly, this summer the T-C published, “A bad decision on race-based fisheries”. Leonard Stern asserted that a Court decision upholding the right of particular First Nations bands to fish on the Fraser River twenty-four hours before anyone else could was a racist act of “reverse discrimination”.

In fact, the Court didn’t uphold the right for the Aboriginal race to fish on the Fraser, but only the right for particular communities which had historically held priority rights to fish there. So Stern’s argument was the logical equivalent of spotting Aboriginal elders bequeathing their personal property to their children and suddenly calling Canada’s inheritance laws racist; it was patently hypocritical, incorrectly focused attention on race, and inflamed race hatred.

In the end, we can’t be sure these people are racist. But we should all be more careful, recognizing that, deep down, we aren’t sure if we’re racist, either.

6 comments on ““I’m not racist, but…””

  1. Really enjoyed your piece. Just the right dose of sauciness and sarcasm. I announced at table once that I was racist. People’s eyes almost fell out of their heads. What I meant was that I am aware that racism can be deeply embedded into one’s subconscious no matter how hard they work against it. I think it was lovely how you used that age old response “I’m not racist, but…” which, of course, leads to a racist comment always. And the claim “I’ve done work with Aboriginals” means nothing, I can’t stand how many people will come up to me that they have dark-skinned friends to prove their racist, it’s just such a bizarre defense.

  2. Rob Wipond says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Aliza. Yes, I often think “racism” is really just a metaphor for a much deeper, more challenging problem that infects the human mind on a very basic level… Can I objectively recognize/perceive a racial difference in a person, without projecting any judgmental reactions onto that recognition/perception? While it may seem simple on the surface, in fact, it’s quite a challenge to separate out my perception of a rock from all my pre-conditioned beliefs about rocks, isn’t it?

    In this light, I often think that racism exists and continues to strengthen by virtue of our ability and desire to deny it exists inside us…

  3. GJTryon says:

    Quite the brief, Rob, for the innocent Indian, (as an old time racist like myself, Blackfoot bloodline notwithstanding, still insists on calling them) but a little too unbrief for me to wade though it all. And let’s face it, man, it’s not as though we haven’t seen it all before in the PC mainstream – if not in the writings of Rousseau! Even by the first few paragraphs, however, you’re begging a number of issues. ( Note that I don’t uses the term “begging the question” in the mainstream sense of “raise another question,” but in the strict sense of “assuming as given what in fact is in dispute.”) These are some of the issues so begged: Indians are not disproportionately jailed because they disproportionately break the law. The Supreme Court is not politically motivated in its decrees. The lack of any written language, much less history, by the Indians themselves, which reduces most discussions re their intellectual level at contact to mere conjecture, does not in itself suggest a developmental backwardness. etc. etc.

  4. Rob Wipond says:

    GJ: Um, if my 900 word article was too “unbrief” for you to bother reading its entirety, let me guess: 1) You also didn’t actually read that Supreme Court judgment (like I did), so you have no idea what issues were analyzed and how conclusions were reached. 2) You’ve also never bothered to actually study any history of North or South American indigenous people’s to know that some had very developed written languages and in addition a great deal of indigenous history was written down by Europeans since first contact. 3) You’ve never read any analysis of, and have no ability intellectually to even imagine, how it is that “disproportionately arrested” does not necessarily always equate to “disproportionately breaking the law”.

    And really why bother examining any of that, eh? It’s so much easier to simply accuse someone else of making assumptions, isn’t it?

  5. tgallo says:

    How can we be sure that the high percentage of Natives in prison is a reflection of racism.

    A couple of years ago I was assaulted by 2 young punks. When I told people the first question asked: “Were they Indian?”. Sadly….I had to answer “yes”.

    Here in Thunder Bay, ON there is a high percentage of violent crime by Native males on others…victims being both Native and non-Native.

    The question is why?

  6. Rob Wipond says:

    There are a lot of answers to “Why?” (and indeed to the concurrent question, “Why did so many people ask you right away if these were Aboriginals who attacked you?”) What the Supreme Court did in the case referred to was examine the issues and evidence at great length and conclude that racism in the justice system was indeed a major contributing factor to why Aboriginals are disproportionately in prison.

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