1. Diversity & Intrusion
Tim has been noting the use of empty corporate-speak to sound like something’s being said, or problems are being solved, but really the words are being made meaningless.
In Nova Scotia, "innovation" means to keep listening to the same assholes who got us where we are now.
— Tim Bousquet (@Tim_Bousquet) December 14, 2015
Tim’s count of the words in the city’s Five Year Plan includes:
“development — 104
align — 41
collaboration — 26
innovation — 14
sustainable — 14
value proposition — 13
vibrant — 8
attitude — 7
wage — 0
salary — 0
Two of those words have real meaning — the two words that don’t appear in the Five Year Plan at all.”
Another word that should make the list of words that are supposed to mean something but don’t — or that, even worse, are used to drain the meaning from important words and concepts — is “diversity” (or “inclusion”). Talking about diversity means we don’t have to talk about racism. When institutions use the word “diversity” instead of “racism” or “racist” (or anti-racism/racist) they get to position themselves as the source of the solution rather than the problem.
For example, if you say “we strive to be a diverse institution,” that sounds a lot better than saying “we are really racist and we need to fix that.” Using “diversity” avoids actually identifying the structural and institutional inequalities and the ways the institution is responsible for them.
It’s sort of like how in Star Trek where we’re centuries into the future and racism is just gone! And we never have to think about how they got rid of racism and how they went about completely restructuring society, it’s just enough to know that the future is a multi-cultural utopia. That’s how institutions think about diversity — that we can just talk about how nice inclusion makes us feel but not have to actually address how to get there, or identify any of the causes that make things “not diverse.”
The thing about the word “diversity” is that if you think about it, the way it’s used by institutions/cities/corporations still centers white people. It’s like calling people “non-white” or using the term “minorities” — the underlying assumption in the word “diversity” is that it’s normal for white men to make up the boards or commissions or staff, and then adding a couple of Black/brown/Indigenous/LGBTQ/disabled/women (all treated interchangeably) makes things more equal.
The idea is that we naturally start with a base of white people, and then as long as you add a couple of “other” people it’s okay. We never ask, though, why it is that white men should make up the majority of positions of power, and how they got there, and why other people couldn’t get the business, or housing loans, or credit at the bank, or don’t have the “right” connections, or why all those “other” people don’t have generational wealth.
“Diversity” is good too, because it’s a catch-all term. Like at Dalhousie post-Dentistry, where the problem in campus culture was explicitly identified and named by Constance Backhouse as “Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia“, accompanied by a “ticking time bomb of racism.” In the latest update, these accusatory words have morphed into “fostering a culture of diversity and inclusiveness.” Diversity initiatives sound a lot more palatable than “rape threats” or “sexual harassment.”
By slowly shifting the language into “progress,” the university diverts (that’s a pun) the discussion from sexual violence on campus to positioning the university as a leader in diversity. Rather than talking about racist graffiti or homophobic slurs or chloroforming women, we can talk about “welcoming” and “safety and success.”
Talking about “diversity” also allows us to believe that the problems are cosmetic. What’s needed isn’t systemic change, it’s just a few diversity workshops. Rather than taxing corporations fairly or thinking about the wealth gap or why corporations get subsidies while they send jobs offshore, corporations can pay someone to come in and drum and now we understand racism and the problem is over. As Sherene Razack put it, we all know that Truth and Reconciliation won’t mean settling land claims, it will mean that now we all learn about sweet grass.
And because people have to come in to talk about sweet grass, or to do poetry on Black History Month, there’s an industry in diversity where if you’re the person who has to make a living doing the poetry or whatever then you can play along and make money as a “diversity workshop leader” as long as you don’t disrupt things by talking about racism or being angry or asking where all the Black employees are so that they don’t need to bring someone from the outside.
And since there’s a diversity industry, the “minorities” now have a vested interest in not protesting or fighting the system or in demanding full equality, because paying our bills now depends on being that token person who makes the place diverse, and who is “professionally” Black/Indigenous/not white, etc.
This also has the effect of suppressing radical politics and anti-racist organizing within communities and within institutions. When the institution is able to position itself as “diverse” and shield itself from criticism by touting all the diversity initiatives or events it endorses, then those people who continue to protest or talk about racism become even further marginalized. Why aren’t you on board with the diversity initiative?
This allows those who advocate for greater equality or systemic change to be branded as “crazy” or “just wanting to be mad” or “nothing ever is good enough for you,” while dividing the members of the marginalized community from each other. Those who disagree with institutional policy or resist the institution’s branding of diversity can be further pushed out, while those who choose to try to work with the institution can be branded “sell outs.”
This is a classic divide and rule tactic that takes the power away from grassroots organizing and places the institution or the state in the position of granting favours rather than being pressured by a resistance movement.
Diversity also replaces “equal rights and justice” with the politics of representation. One effect of this use of identity politics in institutions is that solidarity between the white working class and “People of Colour” becomes discarded.
While every Black liberation movement recognized the interaction of race and class (and of racism and capitalism), the politics of representation defines progress as having any face (no matter what the political beliefs) in a “high” place. The reality that white working class people struggle alongside Black workers for housing, for fair wages, for pensions, for healthcare and services, and so on, is erased when social equality becomes about ticking off enough boxes. The rhetoric of “diversity” suggests that equality isn’t found in equal rights for the masses of people, but in “including” a few people at the top. As Paul Robeson said:
“This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up — and here is a study from Columbia University — for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean: I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in.”
Or, as Ajamu Nangwaya writes:
“It is high time for the community to become more politically sophisticated in its understanding of politics and representation. Many Afrikan-Canadians need to abandon the empty and useless politics of symbolic political representation.
It is this same line of thinking that had Afrikans in Toronto cheering for the appointment of Deputy Chief Peter Sloly as police chief in spite of his strong support of carding.
The appointment or election of one person to a seemingly powerful position is not a substitute for policies and programs that substantively improve the economic standing of the working-class majority.
The publisher/senior editor Arnold Auguste of Share newspaper is on-point with his expectation of Afrikan people in responsible positions:
“It is time we stop supporting people just because they share our skin color. We need more than that. We need to know that they share our values; our concerns; our fears, our sense of place in this society and, when placed in a position to make a difference, are willing to step up.
This brings me to the recent protests around consumer profiling at Sobeys, and racial profiling of Black people in Nova Scotia more broadly. One thing that strikes me about these protests is that both Mayann Francis and Ann Divine, who have been extremely vocal in calling out the racism they experience in Nova Scotia, formerly worked for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. The Sobeys protests — which are growing into a larger resistance to racial profiling and racism in general in the province — were sparked by the appeal by Sobeys of the ruling by the Commission acknowledging racial discrimination suffered by Andrella David.
Both Francis and Divine worked for the Human Rights Commission. It seems to me, then, that there is significance in them taking such a strong role in protesting this appeal. The Human Rights Commission not only provides rulings about discrimination — including various remedies like compensation — it also plays a role in recognizing racism. Black people can talk about racial profiling all we want, but until there is “proof,” such as that provided in a human rights case, our experiences are often “not real.” This is obviously a good thing, but the problem is that if the Commission rules against a complaint, or if the ruling is appealed, it is not just that the case itself is being turned down, but that experiences of racism more broadly are being invalidated.
As I wrote about Tony Smith’s complaint being turned down by the human rights board:
Rather than actually acknowledging not only the ways racism is embedded in the province, but also the ways that white society has consistently turned a blind eye, denied, blamed African Nova Scotians, and “gaslighted” complainers, African Nova Scotians are forced to constantly justify and argue every new incident, while white people act as the judges of whether racism “really” exists, or whether African Nova Scotians’ ability to identify their own experiences of racism is “just affected by the passage of time.”
…There is still no permanent understanding or willingness to recognize that African Nova Scotians are experts in their own experiences of racism, that we are not mistaken or “pulling the race card,” or just crazy, that we do not make up these experiences, that bringing these experiences forward is incredibly damaging and injurious, that these experiences are silenced, ignored, covered up and denied over and over again, that positioning white people to validate or accept whether something is racist is itself the result of racism, and that racism is not just cross burnings, or people using racial slurs, but is pervasive in workplaces, in the courts, and in the response of officials and governments and systems.”
Inquiries and commissions and boards can be an important path in gaining recognition of racism and in “making official” our experiences. But it is not the only path nor the only recognition. Protest and resistance by communities to racism, and the work of organizing people not only to speak out but to recognize common experience and to fight together for justice, is necessary in setting the conditions for long-term struggle against injustice.
This collective struggle — the struggle that names injustice, that speaks out about it, and that fights for change — is the antidote to “diversity.” People banding together and deciding we’re not going to take it no more without waiting for rulings or policies or a strategic plan is exactly what this language of “inclusion” and “welcome” and “safety” is supposed to repress.
2. Across the Line
Look, I’m thrilled Black stories are being told, and, even better, that the histories and stories of Black Nova Scotia will reach the rest of the world. The experience of being Black in Canada is one of being largely invisible and mostly left out of histories. I love that there’s a movie about hockey that’s about a Black player and that acknowledges the little known histories of Black hockey in Nova Scotia.
The Cole Harbour “Riots” are a significant moment in Black history in Canada, preceding the Yonge Street Rebellion in Toronto. The events at Cole Harbour led to the BLAC Report, drawing attention to issues of inequality in education that still exist today. Knowing this history is also necessary in understanding the impact of political decisions today, such as the opening of the new high school in Eastern Passage and why there are concerns about what that will do to Black students. A movie exploring this history is important not just in putting Black lives onscreen, but in confronting issues of racism in education that are very real in our communities right now.
So I’m happy to see the preview for Across the Line and everything it promises for the continued telling of Black stories (too bad the loss of the film tax credit makes it hard for more stories about African Nova Scotians to be filmed).
I can’t help but notice, though, that the actors don’t particularly sound like they are from Nova Scotia. It’s a bit disappointing given both the distinctiveness of the North Preston accent, and the stigma surrounding that accent. (Hearing the voices of Up Home on the big screen in itself would do a lot to help break some of the stereotypes that affect kids from North Preston in the school system — I once had a white teacher tell me that “children from here don’t speak English.” She followed that up by telling me they only learned English properly if they went away to Toronto, as though living in your own community were to be backwards and “savage.”
The beauty and history contained in the accent and language of North Preston — which includes grammar and word choices that preserve African linguistic patterns — are frequently, because of their aural “Blackness” seen as a sign of students being slow or stupid. Hearing actors who not only look like them, but speak like them, would be powerful. It would push back on the assumptions not only about Black faces, but about Black speech and sound, that contribute to pushing kids out of the classroom in the school system, and criminalization and marginalization in broader society. When resumes with North Preston names and addresses are still being thrown out, hearing North Preston accents onscreen would be significant.
And while I understand that getting broad distribution for the movie and success at the box office is important so that more Black movies can be made, it’s also true that one of the ways Black Canadian identity and experience is made invisible is in the ways that Blackness is always seen as American.
If our accents have to be ironed out, or if it’s “more authentically Black” to sound American, it says something about the Black Canadian identity. When we have to code our experiences as American in order to fit with popular conceptions of how Blackness sounds or looks or what Black culture is — when the unique elements of North Preston culture are not to be seen in the trailer — then we continue to measure Blackness in Canada against America.
I’m not saying this one movie needs to save our culture and identity, or that any one story should be weighted with the entire history of a people — which is why we need to support things like a local film industry so our many stories can be told — but maybe as more of our stories make the screen, maybe we’ll be able to hear ourselves in our many accents, grammars, voices, and languages as well.
3. Laziest write-up ever. Guess I’m out celebrating Paul Robeson’s birthday.
Quote from the article:
Why are the stats especially skewed this month?
“They do the survey in the middle of the month; maybe everybody was out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or something.”
Similar to my thoughts above about North Preston language and the stigma attached to sounding Black, or sounding Black in the “wrong” ways, Parker Donham has a piece on The Contrarian about Chiac, “the peculiar mixture of Acadian French and English spoken by many New Brunswickers, especially young people.”
Donham quotes the filmmaker, Emma Jacobs:
“A couple of things contribute to the idea that Chiac is “bad French.” First of all, French speakers are expected to position themselves toward what’s spoken in France much more than English speakers do to, say, England. North American english also broke away from Europe a long time ago — same thing — but we’re not taught British accents.
Then Chiac is in the middle of an incredibly complicated, sometimes tense, relationship between French and Engilish in Canada. Canada has French language purists trying to protect the their language against the ubiquity of english in North America.”
Donham also brings up the mixture of English and Mi’kmaq spoken by young Mi’kmaq people. As I talked about above, I would also add in a different sense the ways Black people “code switch” between home language and “proper” English and the internalized valuing of “white” language over African linguistic styles and accents. African people all over the world are also reclaiming language that was long stigmatized and degraded as “bad” English.
Reading this article on CBC news about the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, I was struck by this quote:
“We’re coming up to 150 years old, Canada. There’s no doubt about it when you see, the Scottish culture and heritage is a big part of that, Canada and how it was developed,” said Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking, who announced the money.
“Our first prime minister was Scottish; this is one of the things we’re going to invest in.”
This is kind of an interesting choice in advocating for the preservation of Gaelic, since this article suggests that John Macdonald seems to have deliberately assimilated into Anglo-Canadian culture:
If it was the case that Macdonald gradually divested himself of his Scottish identity, how was this possible and why did it happen? Three elements may be discerned in Macdonald’s distancing of himself from Scotland.
The first is that he grew up at least one remove from the Scotland of his parents. His mother told tales of life in the Highlands; his own memories of Scotland were slight, and confined to Glasgow. His parents did not pass on the Gaelic. It is not surprising that, for a young man growing up in Canada, Scotland became a misty conflation of Walter Scott, kilts and bare bottoms. Then, too, we must factor in the apparent ambiguity of Macdonald’s attitude towards his father. ‘Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,’ so ran the words of the Canadian Boat Song, with its grudging tribute to Canadian abundance:
Fair these broad meads, these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers’ land.
This was tear-jerking stuff for people who had been driven out by landlord greed, but it was probably less inspirational if it happened to be all-too-obviously your father’s fault that you lived in exile from your father’s land. In 1879, Macdonald asked his sister Louisa to supply him with information about relatives whom she called, in a traditional phrase, ‘our friends in the Highlands’. Louisa consulted Maria (Clark) Macpherson, the cousin who had accompanied them to Canada in 1820. The two women came up with the vague allusions to a relationship with a clan chief, a female relatives with a titled husband, and even a vague link to Ossianic bard, James Macpherson – no doubt the stuff of many family legends. What is striking is that how little information Louisa and Maria could pool together. When even the womenfolk knew so little of ancestry, it is evident that the links had been virtually severed.
Secondly, while the Kingston Scots community in which Macdonald was reared may have seemed to emigrant adults a cross-section of the old country, in practice it operated more like a party or faction than as a displaced nationality. Between 1830 and 1834, the years in which Macdonald was training in local law offices, the Presbyterian Scots and the Tory Anglican elite joined forces to secure the charter of the Commercial Bank, Kingston’s vehicle to project itself as a financial centre. The Scots had thus achieved a measure of partnership in local affairs, with several of Macdonald’s own connections holding influential positions (he himself became the Bank’s solicitor in 1839). A quarter of a century later, Macdonald perhaps unconsciously pointed to the moral as he urged English-speaking Conservatives to work in partnership with French Canadians. ‘Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do – generously,’ he argued. ‘Call them a faction, and they become factious.’ Macdonald, the Canadian Scot, had entered adult life at precisely the moment when the Scots of Kingston ceased to have so much need to fight their corner on factional lines…
There was argument in the letter section of the newspaper that shall not be named a few months ago that I can’t link to about how Scottish Nova Scotia and Canada really is. Despite the comment on the article on the Gaelic College (“Now this is a culturally appropriate use of government money” — implied, not like those “other” “diverse” people) that champions Gaelic/Scottish identities because of their presumed whiteness, the evidence of Macdonald’s shedding of Scottishness actually indicates the ways whiteness is constructed. The romantic figure of the “Highlander,” like the last Mohican or the last Samurai, is nostalgic because as with all people and cultures destroyed by colonialism, once the people have been wiped out, the colonizer retroactively sees them as desirable and as possessing attributes he lacks and wants to appropriate (hence the ongoing love of headdresses.)
John A. Macdonald’s need to assimilate and “cleanse” his Scottishness — and the very need for the preservation of Gaelic as a language — reminds us of the fragility of whiteness.