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My Definition Is This: Morning File, Saturday, September 23, 2017


Sorry for the late publication — my computer can’t handle WordPress today and kept freezing and then shut down.

1. Google Exists

Black people should start carrying dictionaries, so that when we’re stopped and searched, maybe the police have chance of stumbling upon a definition of systemic racism.

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Robert Devet reported on the announcement at the Police Board meeting of the appointment of Dr. Scot Wortley to investigate street checks and determine if they’re racist and how racist they are. It comes as no surprise that a white man would be appointed, since Black people clearly are not ever experts in anything, have no degrees or credentials, and are untrustworthy about our own experiences even when those experiences are backed up by over a decade of data.

Actual experience as a Black person living in the community and facing street checks of course makes one biased, but police insisting their practices of racial profiling are just “good policing” are objective and should be given the benefit of the doubt.

The very fact that the police apparently need a white man to verify the experiences of Black people is in itself evidence of systemic racism, but again, one is hardly surprised by these developments.

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More surprising is that in the six months since he was challenged in a public meeting to define institutional racism and was unable to do so, Police Chief Blais still does not know what systemic racism is. Robert Devet shared with me the full transcript of this exchange:

Q: We have heard mention of systemic racism, what is your understanding of that term?

A. That’s a good question, because I have been reading several articles lately about that term systemic racism, and how that morphed over the years. As the name indicates, being within the system that impedes individuals or specifically racialized groups to be able to live normal productive lives in society. I have heard the word on many occasions and I hope that the good Dr. will be able to enlighten us.

Q: Do you believe systemic racism exists?

A. I acknowledge that racism exists. We have seen the issues particularly in Quebec City earlier this year with the shooting of six men who were praying in a mosque, a few years back there was burning of crosses on a mixed race couple, to say it doesn’t exist would be a lie.

Q: I am not talking about racism, we all know that, I am asking about systemic racism

A. Well, systemic racism, in what sense? This is a thing we all need to look at and determine. I think the good Dr. is correct when he spoke about the whole issue of there being perceptions out there and looking at facts and drawing conclusions immediately upon seeing those facts instead of taking the time to understand what these facts mean, and that’s what we want to do.

Q: Sorry, with respect, so you believe that systemic racism exists?

A. I believe there is racism in our communities, and in our society, I need to see a good definition of what systemic racism is, before I can ask myself that.

Q: So you do not have a confirmed opinion on what systemic racism is?

A. In order to have a firm opinion I need to understand what people mean with systemic racism, and what I have seen so far, people are not agreeing on exactly what that means.

Gosh, the police department must really be in funding trouble if they can’t afford internet anywhere in the building! Maybe they should sell some of their semi-automatic rifles. Good thing there’s now a white man he can ask to define racism, since again, obviously Black people have no idea what that is.

Googling “what is systemic racism” immediately provides a number of articles, videos, and sites offering clear definitions, descriptions, and examples. What is Wikipedia? I still have my textbooks from teaching first-year sociology, all of which provide a basic definition, so if you need them, Chief Blais, hit me up. Uh, wait, don’t literally hit me.

If those definitions aren’t sufficient, the report Breaking Barriers to Excellence: A Report On the Education and Training Needs of the Halifax Regional Police Service in Diversity Management, published in 2004 and available on the municipality site, opens with the line “In the recent past, the media has cited incidents of racial profiling and systemic racism that exists in major police organizations including those in Nova Scotia.” The report goes on to give a number of examples of how African Nova Scotians experience systemic racism, including a significant amount of interview material. There is also an extensive bibliography.

If this report from 2004 is completely inadequate, that should be alarming, since it is the report that made recommendations about the anti-racism training that is given to the police. Do you mean to tell me that in the 13 years since this report, the police never thought to mention that they don’t understand words that appear on the very first page?

Image from Grizzly the Bear teaches kids about systemic racism!

How can it be that this report is so inadequate to educating the police when at the very same time they’re telling us they can’t be racist because they undergo anti-racism training? And if their anti-racism training is flawed in such basics as explaining simple words so they can be understood, how are they so confident now that their street checks are not racist when they don’t even have a working definition of what systemic racism is?

If a report commissioned by the police isn’t enough, many reports from the Restorative Inquiry into the Colored Home discuss systemic racism. For example, the Council of Parties Report from the winter of 2016/17 explains:

In information sessions around the province, participants identified institutional racism and discrimination as an ongoing concern. They noted that African Nova Scotians continue to be over-represented in the child welfare system and the correctional system, and that African Nova Scotian students are suspended and placed on Individual Program Plans at disproportionate rates. Parents, caregivers, service providers, and community members expressed concern that African Nova Scotian students continue to have a difficult experience in schools. People in rural areas, in particular, spoke of being reluctant to interact with many public agencies and services because they felt they were treated as second-class citizens. Many people stressed that these issues are not new: “It feels like we’re talking about the same things we were talking about 40 years ago,” one participant noted, a sentiment echoed in several sessions around the province.

So in other words, average, everyday Black people are fully capable of understanding and articulating what systemic racism is, how it has historically developed, and how it affects us today. But obviously, when we call for an end to street checks, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

A Review of Recommendations Addressing Systemic Discrimination in Nova Scotia and Canada: Annotated Bibliography from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is a 2014 report that compiles and summarizes the available materials produced in the province about discrimination. Pages 26-38 provide extensive materials discussing systemic racism in the African Nova Scotian community.

This report is of particular note, because if Blais feels the NSHRC is not producing adequate materials on race, one might therefore think that he would question the reliability of Wortley’s report which will be produced for that commission. Will Blais accept the findings of the report if Wortley concludes that street checks are racial profiling and should be stopped, or will he simply dismiss it as not a good report?

If the NSHRC materials aren’t good enough, what about the United Nations? The working group of experts (see, experts!) identified systemic racism in Canada, and even in this preliminary report they provide a thorough explanation of anti-Black racism historically and in contemporary structures in Canada, including policing.

Hell, I’m pretty sure Blais reads my stuff, and I’ve linked to this source every time I’ve written about Blais’ ongoing struggles to understand systemic racism.

It is not that no good definitions of systemic racism exist, it is that definitions that allow Blais to deny the police are engaged in systematically racist practices do not exist.

And if Blais does not accept the materials provided in reports commissioned by the police, in materials by the city and province, and even those provided by the United Nations, then why on earth do we need another report?

I’m sure between the four universities that exist in the city alone, Blais could find any number of academics to provide him with a definition without having to pay an expert from Toronto. I thought Halifax was a bold and innovative city — are we now to believe that our “creative workers” are so inferior that a simple definition of a basic sociological concept is beyond even our most accomplished professors? How do we justify the fees we charge students to attend these institutions, then, if we are all so incompetent?

If Blais is more informed than the many academics and other experts who have contributed to all the available reports, then perhaps he could write his own report detailing the shortcomings of all the current definitions and descriptions of systemic racism. What exactly is wrong with the already existing, already purchased, material on racism? This should be detailed so that our governments can make the appropriate updates and changes to the material on their websites.

Here’s one working definition of systemic racism: Systemic racism is when a police chief who doesn’t even know what racism is feels confident in dismissing the experiences and conclusions of Black people because he’s still sure he knows better than us.

2. Good Men and Dead Women

The man is “well liked.” He “was one of the best employees…ever…” He was a “standout athlete.” He had “many, many good qualities and he would have helped anybody always.”

This might read like the speeches describing the volunteer of the year. But they come from an article in The Chronicle Herald describing the man who is accused of murdering Susan Butlin, after sexually assaulting her, and months of terrorizing and threatening her so that she had to seek a restraining order. Following the alleged murder, he held an armed standoff with police for hours that ended with him shooting at police.

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This pattern of excusing, sentimentalizing, and praising men who kill women is unfortunately common.

Susan Butlin was “was sleeping with a baseball bat next to her bed and she was scared to death,” according to her close friend  Suzanne Davis. “She called the RCMP repeatedly and they would not help her, they offered no surveillance.”

Even though it was Butlin who couldn’t access help, who was apparently ignored by the RCMP when she begged for protection and was sent away, and who had to be coaxed to go to the police after being assaulted because like so many victims “she didn’t want to talk about it,” the article focuses on Junior Duggan’s alleged attempts to seek mental health care. Her death, it is implied, was not caused by the nice man who sexually assaulted and terrorized her, but by the failure of the province’s mental health system.

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In treating the murder of a woman as the result solely of mental illness, the article follows the narrative established in the media with Lionel Desmond. Shanna Desmond apparently told her family he was going to kill her, but in her case too, there was no help. Yet there is no demand for an inquiry into the resources available to abused women in the province.

Mental illness does not make men kill women. The failure of the province’s mental health systems is real, and it disproportionately affects the poorest, most marginalized people. In 2015, the Marguerite Centre, the only home for women recovering from addictions in the province, was in danger of closing. One reason? Men’s centres receive more funding than women. This is only one example of the systemic barriers that exist for women seeking care, and yet women are not constantly killing people.

Women with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault than they are to commit violence. Spreading the myth that mentally ill people are violent and prone to murder only increases the stigma towards mental illnesses and makes it more difficult for people to seek care.

It may be easier to blame something we don’t understand — why a man people care for can also commit murder, stalk and assault a woman, and threaten her repeatedly — on mental illness, which is treated as some unfathomable boogey man. But this refusal to even name the central issue — male violence against women —does nothing to help anyone.

Susan Butlin’s name barely appears in the article. There is no picture of her, but there is a picture of the man who is accused of her murder. The message is that women’s lives matter less than the men who kill them.

Men will be humanized no matter what, but women can be discarded. Male violence will be written off as everything but his own fault. Every system will be blamed except male socialization, except the narratives that tell men when they are struggling it’s okay to beat or kill or take it out on a woman.

Making this murder about a man’s mental illness and not about male pattern violence means that we don’t have to hold men accountable for their own actions, not even the man who actually committed the murder.

In this devastating article from The Guardian, the sons of a man who murdered their mother and sister speak out against the media narrative that “normalizes” male violence. “People pretend it was random, because then they don’t have to confront the difficult issues causing it: the way men can behave and what they believe. He was willing to destroy the world before he changed his beliefs,” Luke Hart told reporter Rossalyn Warren. Hart and his brother Ryan worried that people who read the articles excusing their father, describing his actions as “understandable,” would encourage other men.

This kind of coverage, they note, only perpetuates male violence against women. “Vulnerable women and children are not treated as heroes, for standing up to their oppressors even when they are murdered, or given a national day of mourning,” Luke Hart said. “But they should be.”

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Susan Butlin lived for months in terror from her neighbour. Even though she didn’t want to talk about it, she had the courage to report her sexual assault. Coming forward against a man who is “well respected” in the community, a community where people in the article describe themselves as “intertwined” would have taken incredible strength. She never stopped reaching out for help, according to her friend, repeatedly going to the police to ask them to intervene. Even while she was experiencing these threats, she continued to try to live her life, and to house the students who needed her. She deserves better than to be relegated to the footnote in the story of a wonderful man who had the misfortune of killing her.

Susan Butlin’s friend said she “didn’t want to talk about” her assault. Because we do not have these conversations about violence in our communities, it isn’t surprising when her neighbours struggle to understand and name what is going on. Without supports to work through the confusion people feel about violence, and without the tools to understand how you can love someone and they can also do terrible things, people fall back on narratives that seem clearer. If he was mentally ill, then something outside of him did it, and the good man they know isn’t really responsible.

There is a place for compassion towards him, and he should receive help and care, but that place is not in an article that treats him as the real victim while erasing the woman who was murdered.

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Articles like the one published in the Herald do nothing to help us have those difficult conversations. They irresponsibly spread myths about mental illness and violence, and take the words of people grieving and in shock and use them to perpetuate narratives that are harmful to men and to women. It doesn’t matter if later articles include “her side,” or give a fuller picture. The damage is already done by publishing an article that treats a murdered woman as barely worth mentioning while praising and celebrating her killer.

We do not need to demonize people who commit crimes, or treat them as monsters. We can understand that human beings are complex, that people can be many things, that someone can be your loved one and also be a person who committed murder. It is actually the inability to grapple with that complexity, and the narrative that says that criminals are solely “evil,” that leads to narratives that insist on womens’ killers being “good men” and erasing and ignoring everything else.

Maybe if we were able to see that men like Junior Duggan can be both respectable and violent towards women, Susan Butlin’s cries for help would have been more easily heard. Until we understand that our brothers and neighbours and employees and the person who buys coffee from us every morning and smiles can also be abusers, and that violent men aren’t some sinister stereotype from whatever we imagine in movies and the news, and that being a good worker, an athlete, and a good neighbour has nothing to do with how good you are to women, we will continue to ignore male violence while women are alive, and excuse it once they are dead and gone.

3. Anonymous and One-Sided

As if publishing a one-sided account glorifying a man who killed a woman wasn’t enough, The Chronicle Herald also published an un-bylined article based entirely on an anonymous interview with a staff member at Nova Institution for Women in Truro about a Trans woman transferred to the prison.

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The reporter doesn’t bother to interview any Trans people or organizations advocating for Trans people or Trans prisoners. Instead, observations that this woman “looks like a man” are included in the article unchallenged. Similar transphobic speculations about her genitals are also featured in the article. No other perspective is given on these assertions about her body and about the bodies of Trans women. There is no material to give the reader any context of how and why these statements are transphobic, and how they are harmful to Trans women, and to gender non-conforming women and people.

Perhaps it doesn’t occur to the unnamed reporter that The Chronicle Herald is circulated inside the institution. I wonder if the writer ever thought about what it might feel like to pick up the newspaper and read about your own body being vilified and degraded. I wonder if it matters to the writer that as a prisoner, this woman is in a vulnerable position, that she can hardly call the newspaper to give her own side, and that she has no way of knowing which staff members feel so cruelly towards her while she is completely in their power. I wonder if the writer thought about her being an actual person at all.

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When the article isn’t concerned with attacking women’s bodies, it’s treating strip-searches as though the real victims of this degrading and humiliating practice are the guards. Here is how a woman I interviewed described what it feels like to be strip-searched:

“I grew up in abusive home where I was raped and continuously beat on. It makes me feel disgraced to have other people look at me while I’m naked. It’s very traumatic and brings me back to when I was a child being stripped down by my abusers.

It’s very degrading and uncomfortable. I feel very violated.”

The vast, vast majority of women in prison are victims of sexual and physical abuse. Strip-searching is a triggering event that women continually describe as re-enacting the rapes and assaults they experienced. Rather than advocating for an end to this violating practice, the Herald chooses to present the problem with strip-searches as only located in the bodies of Trans women:

“A female guard could be told to strip-search a male,” said a prison staffer who did not want to be identified. “Many (guards) do not want to do this and they want their rights recognized as much as the inmate’s.” 

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Martha Paynter, representing the organization Women’s Wellness Within, pointed out in interviews criticizing the article that “strip searches are not a right that needs protecting.”

Lucas Crawford in a response to the Chronicle Herald, ably refutes the assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that were uncritically reported. I am reproducing the majority of the article in full here:

Myth 1: Transgender inmates will commit sexual assault in prisons.

Reality: Transgender people are frequently the targets of violence, sexual and otherwise, within institutions and without.

As Shon Faye wrote in The Independent last week, “keeping female prisoners safe means dealing with the sexual assaults perpetrated by male guards.” Here are the words of a transgender woman incarcerated in New York State, when interviewed by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project: “The correctional officers are the ones who are the most violent. They’re the ones to be scared of … I’m raped on a daily basis… I’m scared to push forward with my complaints against officers for beating me up and raping me. I was in full restraints when the correctional officers assaulted me.”

It would help protect women much more if awareness were raised about this instead.

Another recent and representative example: an anonymous transgender woman told in 2016 that she was sexually assaulted 2,000 times during her four-year sentence (1.37 times per day).

Myth 2: The rights of prison workers matter more than prisoners’ rights.

Reality: If social media comments are an indication, many believe the purpose of rights is to protect “good” citizens who have “earned” them. However, rights are meant to protect people in difficult situations, no matter how they arrived there. After all, oppressed and misunderstood people and instances of genocide motivated the development of human rights.

The Geneva Conventions were not developed to protect the powerful from the marginalized, but instead to protect prisoners of war, civilians, the sick, the wounded and the shipwrecked. It is not the case, therefore, that rights can be suspended when a situation appears controversial. That is when rights are most vital.

So be imaginative, anonymous guard! Transgender people may have bodily traits often attributed to another gender. But aren’t all vulvae different, all penises different, and all bodies different from each other — in shape, size, colour and styling? Might you have something to learn from nurses and care workers on this count? Would it really be such a scandalous or traumatic event if you or a co-worker needed to witness a transgender body in a professional manner? As Bill C-16 enshrines “gender identity” (one’s sense of self) and “gender expression” (one’s appearance) as prohibited grounds of discrimination, it’s to your benefit to find a way to say “no.”

If not, consider that you have all the power in this hypothetical strip search. Given the real violence faced by marginalized people in prisons, your discomfort is misplaced and distracting.

Myth 3: Men will start identifying as women just to gain access to women’s prisons.

Reality: This has not been documented and is unlikely. Would you identify as another gender to gain access to someone sexually? Would you be comfortable being known as transgender when you do not actually experience it? Can you imagine everything someone would lose if they did this? (We can tell you: family, friends, respect, children, employment and more.)

Let’s humour this myth for a moment, however. Would you dismiss the rights of a population because of what a few members of that population could do? If so, we must suspend all marriage because of domestic assault, all pubs due to alcoholism, all masses and junior hockey due to pedophilia, and, of course, all prison guards…

In other words, marginalized groups cannot meet impossible standards. But proving a group’s perfection in advance is not a prerequisite for rights — neither for me nor for you.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Mr Wortley is from Toronto.
    Mr Wortley has been hired by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
    Mr Wortley will provide a report similar to other reports on the subject of policing and visible minorities.
    Mr Wortley is the go to guy on the subject.
    You can rest assured that his report will be in line with a common joke made when hiring a consultant. The joke being ‘We will make sure we hire a consultant who tells us what we want to hear “.
    His Ted talk may not fit with your narrative :

    El, tomorrow you and Rebecca Thomas and others could wander over to the BIO Open House and ask them when PM Trudeau will order a name change for the CCGS Edward Cornwallis. You can all stand in front of the vessel and make your views known because it appears our PM knows about Langevin but not Cornwallis. I am off to wave my fist tomorrow morning and give the ship a thumbs down.
    The next Open House is September 2022.

  2. Excellent column. So true about the systemic discrimination that the police don’t understand, even the chief. They’ve had 14 yrs to ask about it!