Unfortunately racism is an incredibly powerful and shockingly nefarious thing. It seeps into people's blood and bones in ways that they don't even notice. Racism is not just a conscious and blatant force. Rather, like many aspects of human relations, racism often lies in the background of people's conscious feelings. I once saw an illustration of this kind of subconscious racism in my own father who was progressively political and very conscious of the evils of racism. He told me the story very honestly because it was a wake-up call for him and the notion of hidden feelings and ideas. My dad was trying to find a meeting room in a hotel and he accidentally walked in on some kind of large social occasion where a man was giving a speech. As he opened the door the room suddenly went quiet and all 100 or so eyes turned and looked at him for a moment. He smiled nervously and left the room to continue his search for the intended meeting. It only later occurred to my dad, who was a very shy and socially awkward guy, that he hadn't become shy and self-conscious when all those people had turned to look at him. It took him a while to realize that his lack of customary shyness on this occasion had been the result of the fact that the entire audience in question had been made up of Chinese people. Now my father would never have had conscious racist thoughts about Asian people. He would never had thought anyone was inferior to him based on his, or their ethnicity. However, on this occasion he realized that his customary shyness was held at bay because he was not as concerned about how a group of Asians looked at him as he would have been if the group had been white. My father told me this story in part because it reminded him that racism is not always something that we can see or entirely understand at first glance.
Perhaps even more problematic than these culturally generated racist feelings are the racist notions and ideas that we have inherited from popular culture that we don't even realize have racist import. This systemic or cultural racism is particularly problematic because people who do not hold racist views unintentionally express ideas that maintain racists social and economic relations. Racism and sexism are built into our social and economic system and if you doubt it ask yourself why there are so few women CEOs or why indigenous people make up between 20 and 30 percent of Canada's prison population while constituting less than 5% of the general population.
As I talked about in my last blogpost, I believe that racism has been central to colonialism. It is important for colonial powers to create racist feelings against those they intend to subjugate or destroy because it paves the way to exploitation or genocide. Without racism people would object to the treatment of a subjugated people and they might put a stop to it. English people, even progressive ones, bought the colonialist lie that the people of Africa and India needed to be "civilized" and that allowed the real intent of colonialism - the rape and pillage of the resources of the "third" world - to go along smoothly. The legal and systemic racist policies gain their legitimacy through racist assumptions about the subjugated. "They are too ignorant to guide their own future," "they need the civilizing force of our religion," "left to themselves they are shiftless and lazy and need to be taught the principles of hard-work " etc etc. . . . These are the kinds of stories that colonizers tell themselves to justify their power, their exploitation, and their genocide.
Since I started writing blogposts about Chief Spence and the Idle no More movement I have received quite a few implicitly and explicitly racist responses. I have not published them for obvious reasons. For one thing, our culture and media have spent generations peddling their racism, often unchallenged, everywhere one looks. I have no wish to provide them with one more forum, however small, for their ideas. But it is an exhausting process. Some people just repeat the commonly held beliefs that Indigenous Canadians are lazy alcoholics who have plenty of opportunity but no desire for prosperity. It amazes me that this old, worn-out idea is still so commonly rehashed. Others, who are more conscious of potentially racist statements talk about the "need" for adherence to the process and other such nonsense. I find this idea, perhaps, even more offensive than the blatantly racist notions because it is so insidious. For generations indigenous people have been treated with violence by governments, their treaties have been ignored and the racist courts have ignored their rights. And yet as soon as indigenous people stand up for themselves and their rights against these abuses every white person in sight seems to have climbed out from under the rocks to insist that the Indigenous people should "respect the law" or "abide by the process" or "be patient" or "renounce violence" etc etc . . . .
It is pure hypocrisy to treat people with violence for generations, to take them from their homes and families and put them in schools where they are abused and robbed of their identities, to rig the courts so that their treaty rights are ignored, to create an economic system that is rigged against them, to ignore all their most basic rights, but then to insist that they work within that system, that they patiently respect courts and governments that have committed conscious genocide against them, and to call them terrorists if they adopt strategies that our government praises elsewhere. This is, perhaps, the worst kind of racism, because it is the racism of slow destruction with a legitimate face.
Racism is indeed a difficult and sometimes insidious force and we should all be careful about what we think, what we say, and what we do. Perhaps nowhere is fact more true than in our treatment of Indigenous people who have, perhaps more than anyone else, been subjected to racist abuse.