Speaking Notes: Disrupting Safe Spaces 4 Racism in Thunder Bay

Waverley Library
Thunder Bay, ON
October 8, 2015
Twitter: @damienlee

Download the accompanying PowerPoint slides, here.

As many of you will recall, the James Street Swing Bridge burned the night of October 29, 2013.  This fire sparked off a very public dialogue about racism: news reports were generated,[1] public speaking events were held,[2] and high school classrooms took the opportunity to define what racism looks like in real and immediate terms.[3]  While racism no doubt existed in Thunder Bay before that night, the burning of the bridge was a watershed moment in our collective anti-racism discussions, not least of which because it forced the issue of racism out from under the bed and into the limelight.  Anti-Indigenous racism in Thunder Bay could not be ignored, no matter how people wanted to write it off.  While the politicians looked for the culprit or culprits responsible for the arson, social media was on fire with racist slurs meant to do one thing: to remind Anishinaabeg that they are not safe in Anishinaabe Aki, or the Ojibwe Homeland.

It is the element of safety in anti-racism discourse that I want to focus on today.  What made October 29th “watershed,” is not just the fact that the racism expressed was so extreme, nor just the fact that Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation still have not fully recovered from it.  Rather, it was also that the burning of the bridge forced white people to see the type of violence Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay face each day.  Even if invisible to others, it showed that Thunder Bay is not safe for Indigenous peoples precisely because they are told, in varying ways, that their presence here is at best, tolerated, and at worst targeted for removal.  In short, “safety” was revealed to be a tenuous concept, as it was so swiftly taken away by those who wanted to punish Fort William First Nation for just being an Indigenous community.

Thus, just like October 29th shifted our conversations about racism, today’s workshop is meant to shift our focus once again.  I believe that rather than having all of our anti-racism work focused on safety, now is the time to flip the lens, to understand the role that whiteness plays in making Thunder Bay safe for racism. Towards this end, today’s workshop builds off of the six recommendations produced at the April 21st Shifting the Lens event.  Specifically, I will be building off of recommendations #1 and 6, which identified whiteness directly as something that needs to accounted for in anti-racism initiatives.  This is important because whiteness is rarely named in Thunder Bay anti-racism, yet white supremacy remains as one of the major reasons racism exists in this community today.  As the saying goes: We all know racism exists, but yet we don’t know any racists.  And so in order to frame today’s workshop, I will be arguing that rather than a focusing on safety, now is the time to ask risky questions.

Leonardo and Porter: The Myth of Safety
Indeed, the language and ideology of “safety” is pervasive throughout the mainstream anti-racism organizing in Thunder Bay.  A review of initiatives such as the “Respect” campaign developed by Confederation College students and later adopted wholesale by the City of Thunder Bay, or the recently announced Community Safety Awards Nominations – an initiative of the Crime Prevention Council – or the City of Thunder Bay’s 2015-2018 Corporate Strategic Plan[4] shows that “safety” dominates the language and focus of these initiatives’ goals.  I will return to this critique in a moment.

But I have to ask: Safety for whom?  While at first blush, we would assume that what is meant by safety is a “safety for all.”  But this is not necessarily true once we understand how racism works in a society structured in ways that protect white comfort at all possible turns.  While a great goal, “safety” as such does very little to change the generative causes of racism in the first place.  As I will argue, “safety” is a colour blind approach insofar as it does not name white supremacy, and therefore assumes that Indigenous peoples enjoy the same freedoms in this society as white people.  This is simply not true; we need only look to the phenomenon of Missing, Murdered and Traded Indigenous Women and Girls to see how our society is structured in ways that protect whiteness through the removal of – hence, violence enacted upon – native bodies.  So I ask: Can safety for Indigenous peoples and people of colour exist in a society always-already structured by white supremacy?

To help us think through this question, I will be drawing on the work of African American scholars Zeus Leonardo and Ronald Porter, both of whom have published on critical race theory and critical approaches to education.  I will be quoting specifically from their highly influential 2010 article, Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian Theory of “Safety” in Race Dialogue.[5]  While their work is focused on dismantling anti-black racism in the U.S., I apply parts of it to addressing anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and, more specifically, Thunder Bay.  This is not to say that the racism experienced by African Americans in the U.S. is the same as that experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.  Indeed. they’re not the same.  History, power dynamics, and ultimate goals differ between African Americans in the U.S. and Anishinaabeg in Canada.  But if for no other reason, I am able to apply Leonardo and Porter’s work here because of the way “safety” has dominated the ideological underpinnings of mainstream anti-racism organizing in both Thunder Bay and the U.S.

Key to Leonardo and Porter’s work is Frantz Fanon’s writings on colonial violence, particularly Fanon’s definition of violence as neither inherently good or bad.  This may seem counter intuitive: many of us would say that violence must be avoided at all costs.  But in Fanon’s definition, we see that “violence” in and of itself is not inherently bad, but rather is judged by the consequences it produces.  As Fanon wrote, there is a difference between violence that is meant to dehumanize, disfigure and subdue, and a violence that challenges oppression and calls into question the positions of power white people enjoy as a result of historical colonialism and racism.  This latter form of violence is a humanizing violence, for it seeks to re-establish humanity not only to the colonized, but also to the colonizers.  Rather than seeing violence as only something enacted physically or always-only bad, Leonardo and Porter follow Fanon to define violence as including those acts meant to “[introduce] change into a social system.”[6]  This is a key point when re-thinking anti-racism in Thunder Bay, as our goal should be about restoring dignity to people, and restoring people to their rightful place,[7] which inherently will call into question the benefits white people have enjoyed in this society simply because of the colour of their skin.

It is here that the myth of “safety” is revealed.  For Fanon, a colonial society is always-already violent for the peoples being colonized.  A lack of physical violence does not necessarily mean that Indigenous peoples are safe.  White supremacy is more than men and women dressed in white hats – it includes how a society is structured so that white people enjoy unearned benefits while non-white people are denied freedom and life.  It also includes the phenomenon known as “white backlash.”  White people not only feel safe in their position as the dominant group in society, but also might protect that privilege once challenged.  So in understanding supposed “safety” in this way, its not surprising that when Indigenous peoples did challenge white comfort in Thunder Bay last year, we saw Tamara Johnson champion white backlash for political currency.[8]

Predicating anti-racism on “safety” therefore derails projects that can actually change the system, because “safety” or “right behaviour” has come to be a matter of protecting the intergenerational benefits white people enjoy without even knowing it.[9]  As Leonardo and Porter write:

Either [people of colour] must observe the safety of whites and be denied a space that promotes people of color’s growth … or insist on a space of integrity and put themselves at further risk not only of violence, but also risk being conceived of as illogical or irrational.  Thus, white privilege is at the center of most race dialogues, even those that aim to critique and undo racial advantage.[10]

In other words, “safety” is possible only so long as whiteness is not challenged.

“Respect”: Safety as Colour-blind Approach
Ok.  So, how does this apply to Thunder Bay?  I would argue that, by and large, anti-racism initiatives here set out with an incorrect assumption, namely, that “safety” is possible for Indigenous peoples and white people alike.  While the ethic of safety is pervasive throughout the mainstream anti-racism organizing within this community, given that I have limited time today, I will offer a critique of Thunder Bay’s most resounding anti-racism initiative as a way to develop a way of diagnosing “safety” approaches to anti-racism that you can take back to and maybe apply in your own organizations.

In 2006, Confederation College students established the “Respect” campaign.  According to the Student Union of Confederation College Inc. (SUCCI), the campaign originated as a short term initiative meant to address “incidents of inappropriate, disrespectful behaviour (swearing, racist talk, sexual jokes, bullying, etc.),”[11] and was meant to “help give permission for people to speak up when disrespect is shown.”[12]  Today, the City of Thunder Bay has officially embraced the Respect campaign, as seen in Goal #2 of the City’s 2015-2018 Corporate Strategic Plan.[13]  Indeed, one is hard pressed to move through any official city of college space today without seeing buttons and posters telling us to respect each other.

It is important to point out, however, that the “Respect” campaign suffers from the colour blind approach I just spoke about.  White supremacy is never named.  Rather, the emphasis is on promoting human dignity without actually doing the work to unpack how we all might be complicit with white supremacy.  In declining to do so, anti-racism campaigns in Thunder Bay that do not include and name white supremacy as the main structure of power to overcome, such as the Respect Campaign fails to do, merely reinforce whiteness as a system of maintaining power imbalances.  This maintains the safety for some, at the expense of the safety of others.  “Thus,” write Leonardo and Porter, “a space of [actual] safety if circumvented, and instead [race dialogue becomes] a managed health-care version of anti-racism, and insurance against ‘looking racist.’”[14]

Possibly more dubious, however, is the way in which colour blind “respect” can actually be directly co-opted by white people.  For one, anti-racism that rests on respect runs the risk of facilitating the white backlash that I mentioned earlier: white people may make the claim that they have been disrespected if their ethnicity is pointed out, or if the benefits they enjoy because of whiteness are called into question.[15]  After all, this will be a type of violence experienced by white people, but it is a humanizing one.  And no matter if you agree with what I’m saying today or not, I think we can all agree that the type of white backlash we saw in Tamara Johnson’s election campaign is not productive if we are serious about challenging racism in Thunder Bay.  And while I’m not saying the Respect campaign facilitated said backlash, my point is to draw your attention to the ways in which its underlying principle of colour blindness could be used in nefarious ways.

Taking Risks
Ok, enough critique.  If “safety” is a problematic approach, “risk” provides us with a way to take our anti-racism work to the next level.  After all, the Respect campaign was only ever designed as a short term measure.

To discuss “risk” as a foundation for anti-racism, I take my cue again from Leonardo and Porter.  In speaking about the role of white people in anti-racism dialogue specifically, they argue that whites must be ready to take the risk of feeling uncomfortable about their ethnicity being named, but also about connecting that ethnicity to the ways in which they benefit from historical colonialism/racism.  For most white people, this will no doubt be experienced as an act of violence enacted on the psyche; but it is nonetheless a humanizing violence in that it establishes the pre-conditions for them to enter into genuine interactions with Indigenous peoples.  In other words, it begins to restore their own humanity.  As Leonardo and Porter write, “[this] enables whites and people of color to remove the mask.  They may end up knowing each other more fully as complex human beings rather than the shell of one: whites assumed to be more superior than they are, people of color more inferior than they are.”[16]

To be sure, a number of negative emotions will arise as part of the process of taking risks in naming white supremacy.  These emotions should not be shut down:

[Those] who are interested in engaging in racial pedagogy must be prepared to (1) undo the violence that is inherent to safe-space dialogue, and (2) enact a form of liberatory violence within race discussions to allow for a creativity that shifts the standards of humanity.  In other words, anger, hostility, frustration, and pain are characteristics that are not to be avoided under the banner of safety…”[17]

These emotions – anger, pain, etc. – should be effectively embraced rather than swept under the rug.  Such emotions will be a natural reaction for many white people when we keep in mind that what is required to move in anti-racist ways will require the revoking of the entitlements they have gotten used to as a result of intergenerational racism and settler colonialism.[18]

Indeed, Leonardo and Porter locate the possibility for change within this very unsettlement:

Rather [than subdue negative feelings], whites must take ownership of feeling uncomfortable in critical race dialogue.  [They should be encouraged] to take responsibility for their feelings of inadequacy and defensiveness.  When paired with clarity in purpose and solidarity with the other, where judgment is practiced but one is never judged, discomfort [or risk] can be liberating because it enables whites and people of color to remove the mask [thereby creating the conditions to restore humanity to themselves].[19]

In other words, whites must be willing to “look racist” if they are to actually establish genuine relationships with Indigenous peoples and people of colour.

I would like to conclude by providing the room with some concrete steps on how to move a risk-based anti-racism agenda forward.  These points are predicated on “flipping the lens,” meaning they are focused on helping you understand the ways in which you and/or your organization might be complicit with white supremacy as a means to end such complicity.  For example, rather than simply instituting changes predicated on “learning more about Indians,” the following might help you focus your attention on how white supremacy might invisibly protect white comfort under the banner of so-called “safety.”  The time has come for white people to learn more about their unearned power in this society, and about themselves as racial beings.

I will leave on the screen over our coffee break:

  1. Is white comfort being protected?
  2. Whose interests are at the centre of this project?
  3. Re sensitivity training: Is white supremacy included as part of increasing sensitivity?
  4. Does the proposed change/project take appropriate risks?
    1. Does it actually name white supremacy?
    2. Does it account for settler colonialism?

Thank you.

P.S.: For a more practical guide to developing ethical anti-racism in Thunder Bay, see my post Thunder Bay Settlers in Solidarity, Part 2.

1. Third, Barry, “TBT Newshour,” Dougall Media video, 14:54, October 31, 2013, http://youtu.be/b5pnylC88I8?t=2m2s
2. CBC Thunder Bay, CBC Community Forum: Building Bridges, held October 1, 2014, Confederation College, Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Download the poster).
3. Mr. Burke, “The James Street Bridge Burns, Dividing Thunder Bay: Racism or Ignorance on Social Media,” Mr. B’s Workspace: O.L.O.F. Grade 7/8 Online Classroom (blog), October 30, 2013, https://goo.gl/l3uh4F
4. City of Thunder Bay, Becoming Our Best: 2015-2018 Corporate Strategic Plan June 22, 2015, http://goo.gl/EzgCMN
5. Leonardo, Zeus and Ronald Porter, “Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian Theory of “Safety” in Race Dialogue,” Race, Ethnicity and Education 13 no.2 (2010), http://www.tedcec.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/leonardo-z-and-porter-r-k-(2010)-pedagogy-of-fear-toward-a-fanonian-theory-of-safety-in-race-dialogue-race-ethnicity-education-13(2)-139-157-.pdf?sfvrsn=0.
6. Leonardo and Porter, 146.
7. Leonardo and Porter, 146.
8. Libertarian Party of Ontario, Tamara Johnson’s election platform (full page ad), Chronicle Journal, June 10, 2014. (Download a copy of the ad).  Also listen to Tamara Johnson defend her ad on CBC Thunder Bay: Johnson, Tamara, Conversation with CBC Thunder Bay Reporter Jody Porter regarding Tamara Johnson’s June 10, 2014 Libertarian Party of Ontario ad in the Chronicle Journal, CBC Thunder Bay radio interview, 8:22, published June 20, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/superiormorning/episodes/2014/06/20/tamara-johnson.   For a response to said ad, see the joint Biskaabiiyang Collective-Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre letter, dated June 11, 2014, by clicking here.
9. Leonardo and Porter, 147.
10. Leonardo and Porter, 140.
11. SUCCI, Respect Campaign Impetus, downloaded September 28, 2015, http://succi.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/RESPECT-CAMPAIGNE-HISTORY.pdf
12. SUCCI, Respect Campaign Impetus.
13. City of Thunder Bay, Becoming Out Best, 8.
14. Leonardo and Porter, 147.
15. Leonardo and Porter, 149.
16. Leonardo and Porter, 153.
17. Leonardo and Porter, 149.
18. Specifically, these entitlements and benefits are found in the occupation, control and exploitation of Indigenous lands.  For more discussion on the relationship between racism and settler colonialism, see Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8 no.4 (2006), http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/89.pdf.  For more on how whites accrue benefits over time as a result of racism, see Lipsitz, George, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the “White” Problem in American Studies,” American Quarterly 47 no.3 (1995), http://socialhistoryofhiphop.voices.wooster.edu/files/2011/08/The-Possessive-Investment-in-Whiteness-Racialized-Social-Democracy-and-the-White-Problem-in-American-Studies.pdf
19. Leonardo and Porter, 153.

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