Today’s Morning File is going to be short, because I’m off being a bridesmaid and stuff.
TOTALLY JOKING! They’ve known each other for years.
1. Shelley Fashan
There was a story this week about the St. John’s Telegram using its front page to highlight the abuse women receive in online comments.
That story followed upon the coverage of the racist abuse Leslie Jones suffered. As Septembre Anderson pointed out in that article:
Many black women, myself included, know exactly how Jones feels. We’ve dealt with an onslaught of racial and gender violence, both individual and co-ordinated attacks, for tweets ranging from the benign to the controversial. And, like Jones, we were temporarily or permanently run off Twitter because of the unrelenting abuse.
The more extreme expressions of racism or sexism are more recognizable and shocking, but often it’s those “benign” comments or experiences of discrimination that can be the most dispiriting. The experiences that weren’t “intended” and the person offending “isn’t a bad person,” the ones where we are called “too sensitive” or accused of “making it about race” if we address it, these experiences can be just as cutting, but because they don’t seem as bad or because people don’t widely recognize what is being perpetrated as racist or sexist, we are either dismissed, attacked for “pulling the race card,” or made to feel ridiculous for being hurt. These interactions have been described as “micro aggressions,” the “casual degradation” of marginalized groups.
On August 25, Shelley Fashan, who is running for City Councillor for District 2, appeared on the Sheldon MacLeod show. MacLeod certainly did not compare her to a monkey or call her any racial slurs. It’s quite possible listeners to the interview did not hear anything they thought was upsetting.
MacLeod introduces Fashan and asks her why she is running for Council. She responds by detailing a number of experiences that led her to running for office including campaigning against the C&D facility, her work with various human rights groups, and her longtime residency in Lake Echo. MacLeod then asks Fashan about the Working While Black Symposium, and Fashan responds by acknowledging that racism and racial profiling have affected her. Then the following exchange takes place:
MacLeod: As Jennifer Watts rightly pointed out that Council for the most part, the way the Council table looks, seems to be somewhat homogenous, that there are some perhaps opportunities to change the face of Council to better reflect the community in which it serves. I see here you were first African Nova Scotian woman serving on the East Coast Music Association. First African Nova Scotian woman on the Nova Scotia Arts Council. Is there a risk though that you will be seen more as perhaps a figurehead as opposed to a human with something to contribute to the political process?
Fashan: I have the same influence as anyone else. One vote. I can influence people. Because I’m not only African Nova Scotian. I’m from Lake Echo. I’m from Cherry Brook. I’m a bridge, if that’s what I would call myself, because when I talk about social issues, the feminist movement, when you look at that narrative, that included people like me. I struggle for women’s rights as much as I struggle for equal rights for any one else. I’ve worked in the homosexual communities working with workshops. I’m it, as far as I see. You know, because I can see. I can see so much more than someone who has had, you know, a really comfortable life. I’ve struggled so hard through my life that I know people who live in poverty and their issues. I just, how can I say, I can bring all of that, all of those people, those communities, together. My sons, they went to the Eastern Shore, Musquodoboit Harbour schools, you know? So I’m not foreign to the Eastern Shore. I am African Nova Scotian, that’s a part of who I am, but I’m much more than that one definition.
MacLeod: Well clearly that doesn’t define you, but it does make you who you are.
Fashan: Absolutely. Absolutely. Would you ask that to some other person? Would you ask that question to the [current] candidate? You wouldn’t ask him that, if he could represent all peoples. I can do that as well as be who I am.
Is there a risk though that you will be seen more as perhaps a figurehead as opposed to a human with something to contribute to the political process?
It is MacLeod who persistently introduces race into the conversation. While Fashan acknowledges a number of formative experiences that lead towards her decision to run for office, MacLeod immediately questions her about Working While Black. When she answers that question (ironically, given this interview, by acknowledging the effect racial profiling and stereotyping has had on her), he continues to focus on race.
Rather than using her experience on the East Coast Music Association and the Arts Council to discuss her involvement in the Arts, he uses her history as the first African Nova Scotian women in these positions to suggest she is a token. It is MacLeod who effectively racially profiles Fashan, insisting that her experiences as a Black woman fit only one mold, and can only mean one thing, and can only therefore be relevant to one group of people.
It goes without saying that when we are the first person after histories of exclusion, we did not create those histories, and we are not responsible for the fact that Black people were not represented before us. Being the first African Nova Scotian woman in any position does not make us a token or figurehead, it means we have had to break through systemic barriers preventing our participation. It means that we have fought for representation. To turn around and say the fact that we were formerly excluded and no one came before us means that our participation must be only because of race — as if race benefited anyone up to that point — and that therefore we must be only there to represent Black people is turning histories of racism against us.
We can’t win. Either we don’t participate and are not present, or we fight to be included and then get accused of affirmative action, tokenism, or only being there to speak for Black people.
And it should go without saying that every person, every Black person, is always a human. There is nothing we can do, including running for office, that makes us less than human. We do not give our humanity away when we join boards, or seek election, or speak about racism, or anything else. If we are seen as a “figurehead” for living our lives with the same opportunities as any other human being and citizen, then that problem lies with those who do not see Black lives as being entitled to the same content and experiences and rights as other lives, not with the Black person.
MacLeod acknowledges that Watts “rightly” addressed the lack of diversity on Council, but then he turns around and suggests that African Nova Scotians who get involved in the race are only “figureheads.” So diversity is all right when white people suggest it, but if Black people actually work towards it, we become somehow less than other representatives, and have less to contribute.
Fashan responds by pointing out the number of experiences that have shaped her life, including her racial identity. It is MacLeod who sees race as only one dimensional, who cannot seem to imagine that one can be Black and fight against racism and live a full life with a Black identity, and also be other things. It is as though once someone is Black they can be and do nothing else. Yet then, when Black people do point out racism and how limitations are placed on us as Black people, we are generally accused of “pulling the race card.”
Would you ask this question of other candidates? Fashan challenges, and this is absolutely the heart of the matter. Are white men ever asked if they are only a figurehead? Are their experiences as white men and their accomplishments used to show that they only got their position because of race, despite long histories of exclusion of others that actually do benefit and privilege white men? Would anyone ever say to a white man, “I notice you served on a board. Did you only get that position because you were white?”
White men’s experiences are assumed to automatically be the only human experiences. That’s why white men can name themselves innovators and leaders and know what’s best for everyone. White people’s experiences and viewpoints and voices and opinions and issues are assumed to be universal. It is assumed they can speak for everyone. Nobody would ever ask a white person if they felt they were white as opposed to being a human.
And the thing is, I don’t think MacLeod was intending to be racist or disrespectful or offensive. I can believe that this interview took place in the context of MacLeod trying to highlight diversity on Council, and that he believed he was asking important questions about race. Unlike the people who tweet pictures of gorillas, he wasn’t trying to attack a Black woman.
But not intending racism doesn’t mean that therefore what happened wasn’t racist. Not intending to reduce a Black person’s fully lived life to the colour of their skin doesn’t mean that isn’t what occurred. Racism isn’t only — or even mostly — bad people meaning to do terrible things. It’s also good people who might mean well unconsciously holding ideas about race and about Black people. Because we live in a society where white men are empowered to speak for everyone and where their experiences are never doubted, and where Black women have to prove ourselves, MacLeod asked the questions he asked about Fashan’s ability to contribute to the political process and wondered if Fashan was a figurehead.
He isn’t the only person who thinks this way — it comes from the ingrained idea that white people are people, and Black people are Black people. Different people.
I saw Shelley at a community event a couple of days after this interview. I know Shelley quite well from her involvement in the community, and she is usually a very upbeat person. When she told me about this interview, she became visibly emotional and tearful. This is, obviously, not because she is an over emotional woman who can’t handle politics. It is because she is a person with a great deal of experience in government and advocacy running for office to represent everyone in her district who feels dehumanized by questions about her ability to do that based only on the colour of her skin.
Fashan told me that following this interview, the next day she attended a community event in Musquodoboit and she was asked if she was only interested in issues in North Preston. She isn’t from North Preston — she has lived in Lake Echo for 30 years, and her roots are in Cherry Brook.
“Why am I being viewed under a different lens or another lens than the other incumbent in this day and age? And the fact remains I’ve never lived in the Prestons…I’m African Nova Scotian, but I have fought for everyone else. When they limit that, when they just judge me on the colour of my skin, it’s just like, my God, why am I still having to defend my race?
…Some people say, oh, do you live in Preston? They already assume I live in Preston. Which is fine, I wouldn’t mind living in Preston, if I did live in Preston. So I’ll say no, Lake Echo. Oh, do you live in the trailer park?”
I know you’ll understand, Shelley Fashan said to me when she told me about this experience. And I do understand. But it’s not only important that I understand, it’s important that people who aren’t having these experiences as Black women also learn to understand. The question shouldn’t be, Can Black women represent everyone? It should be, Why is it still so difficult to see Black women as just the same as everyone else?
At the link: Q & A with “Matt Hebb — co-lead for the Dal’s strategic initiative on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as the university’s assistant vice-president of government relations, the man Tim gave the Examiner’s first “Bullshitter of the Day” award to — to help answer some of the most common inquiries” about the $300 000 trip to MIT.
This whole trip was characterized by a Dalhousie professor as: “This is like when little kids want to go camping or something, and they’re like ‘come on, let’s steal money out of mom’s purse!’ And the people who work in government are all, ‘Boo, my mom’s really strict, she’ll notice. But Richard, your mom won’t notice.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, my mom never checks her purse. But you have to put it back, okay guys?'”
3. I got the Conch!
Interesting article on CBC about the tradition of garden conches in Nova Scotia:
[Stephen] Archibald, who worked 35 years at the Nova Scotia Museum, first noticed the tradition of garden conches in the 1950s. He’s discovered they have a long, rich history in this province.
He said conch shells came to Nova Scotia in the 19th century on schooners transporting salt cod to the Caribbean, where conchs were harvested for food.
Schooners returning with sugar and rum would sometimes ballast their vessels with conch shells. Archibald said those conch shells likely then found their way into Nova Scotia gardens because of the Victorians’ enthusiasm for the exotic.
“I think once they arrived here people in fishing communities, like Lunenburg, realized: ‘These are lovely, exotic items. Let’s use them in our gardens as decorations.'”
This is an important reminder of the impact of the slave trade on Halifax. Halifax was the number one producer of salt cod for Haitian plantations, for example. Historically, the sugar and rum returning from the Caribbean was produced on slave plantations, and this flow of goods back and forth reminds us that cities like Halifax were also built on the backs of slaves and the money, industry, trade, and technologies resulting from goods produced in slavery. Even after the end of the slave trade in the early 19th Century, these trade relations continued to be based in roots founded in slave economies.