The public reaction to my recent post, Burning Bridges: The Unleashing of White Settler Racism in Thunder Bay in Moments of Catastrophe, heard here and here, has raised a number of questions about eliminating racism in Thunder Bay. The short article went viral within hours of being posted to my blog and to a local online news site, and spurred a plethora of racist responses. Given that the people of Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation are organizing to address racism in our community, it is important that our next steps account for the ways in which white supremacy reproduces itself even in those acts meant to dismantle it. As such, I felt it important to offer a reflection on what can be learned through a brief analysis of the commentary that followed the posting of the article.
Below, I’ve compiled and contextualized some of the more nuanced racist comments Burning Bridges received. This may help the local community recover from the racist violence we witnessed this week, which included the destruction of a tipi at Lakehead University, because it expands the definition of racism beyond only the most violent and obvious forms to include more subtle acts that serve to protect settler colonialism in northern Ontario. While Mayor Hobbs repeatedly stated in the aftermath of Burning Bridges that only a minority of people in Thunder Bay hold racist views, the quotes and analyses below tell a different story; they show that racism, defined broadly, actually structures the discussion about anti-racism in our community altogether. Therefore, if future acts of recovering from racism are to actually address Indigenous peoples/people of colour’s concerns instead of simply allowing the white majority to feel better about themselves by forgetting October 29th ever happened, we need to account for how it manifests in ways other than the most egregious of examples.
But first, I think its important to say that my post received many comments by people cognizant of how whiteness and settler colonialism intersect to form and protect the foundations of white privilege in Canada. These folks not only agreed that colonialism, racism and white power are real problems, but they were also in the trenches of the comments sections trying to educate the more racist and dismissive commenters. While there were many people who were awesome in this regard, Jamie Lee’s posts really stood out:
How Does White Supremacy Reproduce itself in Race Dialogue?
Many of the commenters dissenting against the points made in Burning Bridges made claims that the post was an act of “reverse racism,” stating that my use of the word “settler” was incorrect/offensive because, as Canadians, they were “born here,” making them ‘native’ to Canada (this absorption into the landscape is key to understanding settler colonialism) . Others were adamant that Anishinaabeg should just get on with life and stop complaining about a ‘supposed’ racism. Finally, many said that we’re all the same, which is a colour-blind argument saying that Anishinaabeg and Canadians should be unified as people and all will be well. I provide screen-shots of some of these comments below, but first its important to contextualize them.
Zeus Leonardo and Ronald Porter say that discussing racism in a white supremacist society is not safe for people of colour. In their view, white people who want to avoid looking racist will take over conversations in ways that silence people of colour from speaking the truth about how they are affected by white supremacy. They say that all this is done to control the space so that it is safe for white people at the expense of those who experience the violence of white supremacy, namely, people of colour (and, I would add, Indigenous peoples). This protects one of the most important foundations of white supremacy: whiteness is always seen as neutral, and therefore any attempt to make it visible as an ethnicity or pre-requisite for power makes white people feel unsafe.
Elsewhere, George Lipsitz has looked at how white people try to distance themselves from past racialized violence. He discusses how white students in the US try to undermine the intergenerational effects of slavery. He shows that some white students there argue that they don’t have anything to do with slavery, because it was in the past. This argument is meant to reduce feelings of guilt, while also playing a role in perpetuating the problem: when whites say they’re not responsible for past racialized violence, they’re invisibilizing how they benefit from the actions of their ancestors that structured today’s society in a way that whiteness opens more doors than any other skin colour.
This brings me to the myth of “reverse racism.” It doesn’t exist in Canada because our society is historically structured in such a way to privilege whiteness while simultaneously putting Indigenous peoples and people of colour at a disadvantage. Consider the fact that there are 600+ Missing, Murdered or Traded Aboriginal Women despite Indigenous peoples making up less than 5% of the total population. This is a form of structural racism because Canadian society permits violence against Indigenous women (and men) in the name of privileging whiteness, even while many individual Canadians would never support it. And so, as Sara Luckey so eloquently put it, “[r]everse racism isn’t real because we live in a culture that supports and enforces whiteness as the norm and [people of colour and Indigenous peoples] as other.”
The Comments Received
What Leonardo, Porter, Lipsitz and Luckey are pointing to above, is that white supremacy perpetuates itself in North America based on a number of arguments that serve to reproduce and protect white privilege. Racism doesn’t always come in the form of physical violence or outrageous tweets. A number of the more classic (if more “subtle”) arguments designed to protect white supremacy and settler colonialism appeared in the responses to Burning Bridges:
1. Some noted that the post was an act of “reverse racism.” In particular, people took offense to being called a “settler,” and some sought to invisibilize their whiteness (to re-establish its ‘neutrality’) by asserting themselves as “native” to Canada. These are just four examples among many:
2. Other commenters posted that Anishinaabeg should just get on with life and stop complaining about racism and things that happened in the past. This is a tactic used to distract us away from the fact that white people in Canada continue to actively benefit from the very histories they say Indigenous peoples need to get over:
3. Finally, many commented that we’re all the same, and we should just live in unity and all will be well – something my friend Ant Lock calls the “Kumbaya” approach. This is a colour-blind approach to racial dialogue that ultimately silences Indigenous peoples because the terms of “unity” are defined by the dominant society; such definitions of unity allow for Indigenous peoples’ voices only to the extent that they do not upset the power imbalance. Here are a couple of examples:
As is clear in the responses above, racism can be “subtle” even while seeking to uphold the white supremacist order already in place in Canada. What these comments show is that the road to hell really is paved with “good” intensions. The question is, though: Good for whom?
Because racism in Canada is a structural issue (in addition to an individual issue), there is always a risk of reproducing racism in mainstream organizing meant to eliminate it. Mainstream anti-racism organizations and/or committees must thus be vigilant in self-assessing for ways in which they may be complicit in white supremacy and/or colonialism. Just as importantly, white individuals within such organizations must be willing to feel unsafe in their reflection process if they are to understand how their presence may re-assert white supremacy. This is a salient point to end with, since in the aftermath of the public demonstrations of racism in Thunder Bay over the last 36 hours, the City of Thunder Bay’s Anti-Racism Advisory Committee has been discussed as a player in moving us forward.
The Advisory Committee is doing good work, and it needs to continue to do so. But if there is anything to be learned from the commentary elicited in response to Burning Bridges, its that the structural element of racism needs to be foregrounded. The Advisory Committee’s extreme focus on “Respect” for cultural difference only goes so far; its focus on respect for difference maintains the “otherness” of non-white people while obfuscating the main problem: whiteness. If it continues down this path, the Committee will not be able to identify and dismantle the ways in which the City of Thunder Bay is implicated in broader structural racism in northwestern Ontario (for example, see Mayor Hobbs’s denial that racism in Thunder Bay is structural, here). This is a question of identifying the City’s blind spots in how it is complicit in an already white supremacist and colonialist environment. The best way to address this is to unsettle the settler within, or come to know and account for mainstream organizations’ complicity in settler colonialism.
Thus, in addition to mainstream anti-racism organizing in the area, it is just as important that those most affected by racism are given the opportunity to lead in addressing the problem. This should be given high priority, even if it means yielding to grassroots organizations or local reserves when planning and implementing anti-racist projects. Grassroots groups such as the Regional Multicultural Youth Council should be recognized and supported as leaders in dismantling racism in Thunder Bay.
That there was such shocking reaction to the racist tweeting the night of October 29th only tells me that racism in northern Ontario is too readily written-off as individual occurrences rather than understood as a problem that structures the very social fabric of Thunder Bay society. As one commenter put it today, we can learn from this issue to make real change. But that change won’t come if we simply go back to relying on the systems that were already in place before the James Street bridge burned in the night.