1. Why I Don’t Want to Write About Lyle Howe
When Lyle was on all the news outlets on Thursday after the charges on sexual assault were dropped, part of my reaction was, “oh no. I don’t want to write about Lyle Howe.” But if I don’t write about it, I said to a friend, it will be really obvious that I’m not writing about it because it’s exactly everything that I would normally write about.
But for one thing, writing about issues in the Black community is difficult. I’m sure there might be some readers at this point who think, oh, so it’s okay for you to write about white people, but then you give Black people a pass. And yes, honestly, that’s part of it. Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public has been a survival strategy of the Black community for centuries. And there’s a sense that, when we face so much racism daily, and when the media is always so ready to misrepresent us, Black people have historically banded together to keep community business in the community, if only to protect the entire community from meeting with the backlash.
So there are historical habits of silence. But beyond that, writing about the ways that race and sexual assault intersect is so difficult, as if Black women have to choose sides. If we talk about racism, then we risk being accused of minimizing sexual assault. But if we talk about sexual assault without discussing racism, then we ignore and erase our own experiences as raced women and how that affects the violence we suffer. There’s a saying, all the Blacks are men and all the women are white, that captures the ways Black women are positioned as though we have to choose between our gender and our race.
The last time I talked about Lyle Howe on record, I talked about many things. I talked about how Black and Indigenous women face incredibly high rates of sexual assault and how much less likely we are to be believed or to get justice. I talked about how it’s true that the justice system has never been just to Black people either as victims or as offenders, and that we can never ignore how racism conditions and impacts cases.
I talked about how the way the media was presenting the case — particularly when groups in support of Howe were discovered by the media — was as a choice between racism and assault, as though to acknowledge racism was to ignore assault, and as though we had to pick sides as to whether sexual assault or racism mattered, when in fact both realities affect Black women.
I talked about how if you read many of the comments in the Facebook group that horrified the media, you saw Black women who believed that assault was normal, and women who wrote about how they had the same things happen to them and the police never did anything, so why was it a crime now?
And I talked about how when people looked at these women and saw them just as victim blamers or rape defenders that they missed how many of those comments were written by women for whom violence and sexual assault had been normalized, was expected, and who had never had any of the damage done to them acknowledged or treated as assault.
I suggested that reading this group simply as women perpetrating rape culture and by being appalled by some of the comments missed the reality of how many of these women were speaking of experiences where they were victimized too: experiences that they had been told didn’t matter, weren’t worth prosecuting, and that were their own fault. For the media to portray these women as “the problem” without thinking about how sexual violence is epidemic in the lives of Black women continues the victimization of Black women, who could never be victims themselves, and never be traumatized — the same attitudes that prevent our rapes and assaults from being taken seriously in the first place.
I talked about how dangerous it was to position racism as only concerning Black men, and that we needed to think about how racism affects the lives of Black women in particular, and that we cannot address sexual assault among Black women without also acknowledging and understanding racism and how it is part of our daily lives.
And of course, the only quote that made the article was when I said that I also acknowledged that yes, there is racism in the justice system, as yes, there was also racism in the way the media chose photographs, and in their portrayal of Howe and the kind of discussion around the case. I said that we live in a world where the boys who raped Rehtaeh Parsons couldn’t be charged even when there was video, and that I wondered if Black youth would be treated the same way. And I said that acknowledging those things was not the same thing as not taking assault seriously, or not believing victims, because those realities also shape our experiences of justice, of courts, and of our own bodies. But of course, what everyone got out of what I said was that I was “defending” rape.
And that’s why my reaction was, oh no, I don’t want to write about this. But then, when we don’t write about it and when we fear trying to discuss the complexity of our experiences, and how we are torn different ways, and how our discourse and conversation about sexual assault doesn’t always sound or look the same as the one in mainstream media because our experiences in raced bodies are different, and how Black women are asked on all sides to choose — to choose to silence ourselves to protect our communities, to implicitly be asked to choose between allegiances with men in our communities or solidarity with women beyond them, to choose which of our experiences matter — then that silence contributes to our invisibility, and that invisibility in its turn contributes to our easy victimization.
I have other thoughts as well. I’ve long been talking about how Black defendants have to face all-white juries, and how racism affects us at every stage of the legal system. I hate that we only seem to be talking about it now as if our choice is either caring about and recognizing sexual assault or caring about and recognizing racism in the justice system.
As if, as I pointed out last week, incarcerated women, who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous, aren’t also hugely victims of sexual assault.
As if these issues only existed once the media took interest in Lyle Howe, and is if they don’t overwhelmingly affect vulnerable, poor, Black defendants who aren’t on the front pages.
As if this is some kind of diversionary bullshit issue that we only talk about so we don’t have to talk about rape.
And as if the fact that a woman felt she couldn’t testify again in court because of six days of cross-examination doesn’t matter and somehow has been lost in this binary that has been set up.
I want us to talk about the exploitation of Black people in the justice system and how hard it is to get representation and to be seen fairly and how often we are unfairly convicted, and I want to talk about rape and sexual assault and how we still don’t listen to victims or believe them or give them justice. I want to talk about racism in Halifax, and how Black women are assaulted, and how we don’t even often have the words to name what is done to us. I want to talk about racism in the media, and sexism in the media, and how women are shamed and blamed, and how pictures of Black men are chosen that appear darker, and how all of those things matter. I want to talk about how hard it is to talk about race and sexual assault, and how when we can’t do it and when we shut down people who try we silence Black women even more. And I want to talk how the more we dismiss the reality of racism, the harder we make it for Black women to talk about our assaults, because in the face of racism, as I said, one survival tactic for communities is to keep it all inside. And how does that help Black women, when we have to choose between the safety of our communities and the value of our own bodies?
So I didn’t want to write about Lyle Howe. And I guess I really didn’t, because there’s so much I don’t feel I can say. But at least maybe in understanding that there are things we can’t or don’t or won’t or don’t know how to say is a beginning in thinking how Black women can be part of this conversation too.
2. Dangerous Offenses
Maclean’s published an investigation into the incarceration of Indigenous people in Canada. Nancy Macdonald shows how Indigenous people at every point in the system from policing to bail to sentencing to treatment within the institution to parole are treated more harshly, subjected to more discipline, and denied justice. The article details how Indigenous people are profiled, stopped and arrested, how they are more likely to be kept on remand, and how once they are incarcerated, they are more likely to be given high risk classifications because the very trauma and inter-generational oppression they are victimized by is now used against them to portray them as dangerous.
I thought about the story of a guy like “Massacre,” who was taken to solitary last night because he was paid to microwave butter and sugar (it makes a hot tar) and throw it in the face of another inmate. And the person who told me the story said, “and now he’s in the hole and they won’t even pay him, and what can he do about it.”
He grew up on a reserve an in foster care in Northern Manitoba. In the sharing circle for Indigenous inmates, he told the elder, “my philosophy on life is that one way or another we’ll all be released.” Meaning, he figures he’ll be “released” by death. He’s 21 years old. He toasts bread and stores extra slices in the fridge, because he grew up without even having food on Christmas day. Guys open the fridge and laugh at him because he’s hiding scraps in there. He never has phone calls. He only wears the “CorCan” clothing (the clothes issued to prisoners) because he doesn’t have anybody to send him a box with clothes, or shoes, or anything of his own. He’s already been transferred around three prisons in different provinces.
There’s the inmate who’s teaching himself Mi’kmaq words and who tells the Mi’kmaq guards, “open the door, nitap.” One of the sad ironies of colonialism in Canada is that for many Indigenous people, their first contact with their culture and language is while they’re incarcerated. When we think about prisons as “the new residential schools” it’s also a reality that the elders who had their culture and language and families brutalized from them now go into prisons to sit with the grandchildren of survivors in sharing and healing circles, children who never learned or had access to these practices before prison. The idea that it can be easier to attend a sweat or to smudge in prison than in school is not a point in favour of prison — the very fact that there need to be so many programs for Indigenous people in prison says more about a society where Indigenous people are “meant” to be locked away.
And at the same time as Indigenous communities are increasingly threatened and destroyed by fracking and oil and pollution, the children of those communities are being displaced into prisons built largely in rural communities who have lost sustainable industry and resources and now depend upon prisons for their economies.
There’s a connection in this way between stories like the fight against Alton Gas detailed by Miles Howe in The Coast, and the story about incarceration in Maclean’s. And while Indigenous people are being designated as “Dangerous Offenders,” all those offenses against land, people, culture, language, families, are not criminal, and not dangerous.
3. Canada’s Rosa Parks?
CBC has an article up by John Tattrie questioning whether Viola Desmond should be known as Canada’s Rosa Parks. The article deals largely with the ways that narratives of American racism are used in Canada to mythologize false anti-racist histories. By comparing Viola Desmond to Rosa Parks, even though Viola Desmond’s case was nine years earlier, the implication is that American racism is the “real deal,” while Canada’s histories of anti-Blackness are either ignored, minimized, or compared favourably to the American experience.
In my junior high school, we read Underground to Canada (complete with the “make a journal as if you were an escaping slave!” assignment) but learned nothing about histories of enslavement in Canada. At the high school level, To Kill a Mockingbird (with its mythologies of the “good white person“) is still frequently taught, while African Canadian writers, if studied, are confined to “African Canadian Studies” classes. When I presented at a conference in Memphis, people were shocked both at the existence of Black people in Canada, and in the realities of Canadian racism.
The thing is, Rosa Parks isn’t even really Rosa Parks, in the sense that the narrative taught about her “being too tired to give up her seat that day” is completely false, and erases the histories of organizing and protest that led to the carefully co-ordinated targeting of bus segregation. Nine months before Rosa Parks, a 15 year-old girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat (Rosa Parks is America’s Claudette Colvin.) Colvin was young, dark-skinned, and had become pregnant.
[Author of the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice Phil] Hoose couldn’t get over that there was this teenager, nine months before Rosa Parks, “in the same city, in the same bus system, with very tough consequences, hauled off the bus, handcuffed, jailed and nobody really knew about it.”
He also believes Colvin is important because she challenged the law in court, one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama…
…When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”
The same issues of “respectability politics” are present in the Desmond case — a pretty, light-skinned, business woman — and suggest to us how race and class also intersect in Canada. These issues of respectability continue to influence how Black lives are valued today, and which issues of racism gain priority. When we tell young Black men that they should “pull their pants up” in response to police shootings, as though they could save themselves from police brutality if only they invested in a belt, we are practising these class politics. The image of the “welfare queen” directed at Black single mothers claims that the generational poverty cycle caused by systemic neglect and lack of access to jobs, housing, loans, education, resources, health care, healthy food, etc. is in fact just the fault of lazy Black women who can’t stop having babies. Black children suspended from schools at three times the rates of white students must be because they wear hats and listen to rap music, not because of culturally inappropriate curricula, racist stereotyping by white teachers, or the criminalization of Black children from a young age. Black people are told that if we just acted “right,” stopped dancing on the football field, spoke “proper” English, showed our ID when stopped, then we would stop bringing racism upon ourselves, as though the reason for racist violence and discrimination is the behaviour of Black people, and not the action of whites.
These ideas of respectability also influence which issues are publicized and who directs the conversation on racism. All those incarcerated Black men are seen as “deserving” of what happens to them, so we barely have conversations about racism in the justice system. But Black celebrities don’t get Oscar nominations, and there’s weeks of think pieces.
As a Black academic, I am more likely to be heard when I write about racism in the university than Black women getting fired from the cleaning jobs or evicted from housing or having their children taken from them. Black History/African Heritage Month can inadvertently further these class politics when we focus on “notable firsts” or “community successes” while not making space to discuss the issues that impact Black people living in poverty. Often gala events are directed to the community’s middle-class, while working class members can’t or don’t attend. Often, impoverished Black people rather than white racism are seen as the obstacle to community success, a narrative promoted in media and in rhetoric about “personal responsibility.”
Sometimes we talk as though poverty, incarceration, sexism, violence and marginalization entered the Black community at the moment Dr. Dre dropped his first album.
Thinking about Viola Desmond as “Canada’s Rosa Parks” minimizes Canadian racist histories and the presence of Black people in Canada. Thinking about Rosa Parks as the sole, and accidental, challenge to segregation similarly erases the contributions of working class women to the civil rights struggle.
As we continue to uncover and publicize Black histories in Canada, it is important that we also remember to tell all histories, and to honour the lives of all Black people, regardless of skin shade, class background, profession or supposed respectability. When we celebrate Viola Desmond, we must also remember today the numbers of incarcerated Black women who do not get pardons or get celebrated and we should fight the injustices they face too. We also need to seek out and recognize Canada’s Claudette Colvins, who also struggle in obscurity but who are just as significant. The pardoning of Viola Desmond in 2010 showed that in her story, justice was ongoing — and we can continue the fight for justice she represents by also fighting for a world where women like Colvin can also be on our stamps.
4. And now for something completely different…
Halifax police released this photo of a truck driver who went Godzilla on Halifax:
“At 6:50 p.m. on Jan. 12, the big red truck drove north on Barrington Street under the Macdonald Bridge. Its boom hooked power and telephone lines, bringing down part of a pole. The pole cracked into an SUV heading the opposite direction, police said.”
Wait, That picture looks pretty far away. I can’t quite see the driver. Let me zoom in…zooming in…almost got it…
It was a shitty day for heavy machinery:
“A municipal snow plowing tractor is believed to have been hit by a pellet gun early Friday morning, Halifax police say.”
Then there was the thief in the ceiling…
The couple believe the thief first got into the building — which has multiple tenants — by breaking through a window of a vacant store and from there, going up into the rafters.
Dust marks and other signs indicate the thief roamed around up there, Anderson said, before encountering a barrier that prevented him from getting into the variety store.
He apparently backtracked to his starting point and went up into the rafters again, she said.
Anderson said even that didn’t get the thief to his target.
“He knocked through to Nicole’s Barber Shop, realized that it wasn’t our store and proceeded back up into the ceiling and dropped down into our back room,” she said.
Well at least his agility is remarkable for a smoker, I guess. Silver linings.
1. Cranky Letter of the Day.
To the Cape Breton Post:
I see that Archdeacon Brenda Drake, Samantha Hodder and our chief of police want to change Cape Breton culture about drinking (‘Not so happy hour,’ Cape Breton Post, Feb. 17).
I am glad that the leader of the Anglican church finds it amusing as to how the local people chose to honour the passing of individuals. I am sure St. Peter will ID them when they get to the pearly gates and ask them about their own misdeeds.
Hodder paints a picture of nine-year-olds running around drinking beer. I don’t think they bought it at a hockey or ball game, or even saw it advertised on a sign.
I would venture a guess and say that Hodder is well educated, but before she paints a picture of all Capers being heavy drinkers and abusers she should check the data. Our rating of alcohol consumption is per capita is fifth place out of all Canada. All we need is more negative press about Cape Breton.
Out of the above three I put the most credence in the words of our police chief. He has the true data and he can pass an informed judgement.
The blame is being put in the wrong places. It is the parents job to insure a proper environment for nine-year-olds, not hockey arenas or ball parks and/or signs.