Archives for posts with tag: racism

A few years ago, I worked in a butcher shop. I learned the different cuts of meat, learned the value of a sharp knife, and ingested probably more than my fair share of raw meat juice by grabbing snacks after handling ground beef. Just a bit of extra iron; it’s fine. Anyway, while I was there, I accidentally stabbed myself in the face. I was tying up a roast, holding my knife point-up as I did so (don’t do this), and when the twine broke, my hand shot up, and the tip of the knife entered my forehead, just above my right eye. Another thing I learned at the butcher shop is that foreheads bleed quite profusely.

For a few weeks, I had a very noticeable red gash on my face, or alternatively, a conspicuous Band-Aid that didn’t quite give me the same tough-guy edge as Nelly’s. I spent these weeks contemplating what it would mean to have facial scarring.

Obviously it would not change anything about me. My personality had not been altered, my essential biology remained the same, even my apathy toward basic food safety when it comes to what I put in my mouth continued at its same charming rate. I had a scar, a mark on my skin. Nothing more.

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Elephant Man: A Social Construction

What I wondered about was how others might see me. If they were to stare, would they look away embarrassed if I caught them, or would they continue unashamed? Would they ask me how I got it, demanding I retell the same ridiculous story over and over, or would they uncomfortably skirt around it, pretending they don’t even notice? Would I be treated as an incompetent buffoon, someone worthy of pity and paternalistic “helping”? Laughed at?

How would I handle that? At what point would I start to question my self worth? How long would it take me to ignore the stares, absorbing them into my new normal, or would I always have to endure noticing them? Would I internalize their attitudes and begin to believe myself to be “scarred” rather than someone who just happens to have a scar? Would I act “scarred”? Would I start wearing hats and become less confident around women? Would I start associating any kind of rejection as an expansion of the way “unscarred” people would shun me?

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How long of being treated like a monster before you become a monster?

I am fortunate enough that the scar is hardly visible now. Just another scratch on a Jackson Pollock of pockmarks covered by the unkempt scruff and bangs of someone who is too lazy to regularly shave or get a proper haircut. The stares are gone and nothing was internalized. However, the scar, pockmarks, and eternal five o’clock shadow all reside on the same surface: white skin.

If people had the potential to treat me very differently based on an etching on my skin, what about the skin itself? When people say that something like race is a social construction, they don’t mean that blackness and whiteness don’t exist. I have a scar. It’s definitely real, and that’s definitely how I got it. Social constructions are attitudes people adopt based on traditions and shared values toward things that don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Something as superficial as a scar, for instance. They are “constructed” because they are built by social perception.

Does a bombardment of beauty standards define how people might look at a scarred face? How about movies where darker foes are vanquished by whiter heroes? Or a Eurocentric history that teaches a dichotomy between white civilization and coloured savages? What about timid news stories about violence committed by those with white skin compared to the more harrowing tales of violence committed by those with darker skin? Every act of racism perpetuates attitudes which further shapes the construction. By the virtue of something as arbitrary as my skin, I am automatically treated differently by society based on how it constructs the image of “whiteness”. How much of that have I internalized? How often do I act “white”? What parts of “whiteness” have been absorbed into my normal?

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At least I don’t give a shit about Pumpkin Spice.

Not everything that is a social construction is as controversial as race and gender (or beauty standards, for all my facially-scarred homies). Money is a social construction, for instance, as is the authority of a uniform. It is not necessarily a pejorative, but an appropriate description of how society functions. When the construction becomes particularly harmful is when we have to take a step back, collectively, and reexamine what is real, and what has value in and of itself.

Do people know what is meant when it’s said that ‘race’ is a social construct? I mean, I hope they do, since it’s something important to know. Given the increasing frequency of certain news items I keep seeing, the answer is probably not. Race being a social construct means that what people see as ‘race’ is ascribed by society, and does not reflect anything real. To be black in America is to possess ‘blackness’ which is defined by the history and contemporary reality of race relations in America. Blackness is laziness tinged with amoral greed, as defined by Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” rhetoric. Blackness is criminality, as personified by the ‘black culture‘ of the commercialized violence of hip hop, gangsters on TV, and then overtly legislated in the criminal justice system that pegs them as super-predators. In Canada, much of this carries over to our Native population, who must also endure the caricature of the Dead Indian, the feather-wearing Brave that no longer exists outside of its representation of our forlorn past. Most importantly, it is irrelevant to modern society. The more we perceive our Indians to be a thing of the past, the less likely we are to take them seriously today. Whiteness in turn has its own social construction: white people are more civilized (Modernization Theory posits that societies outside of Europe and its descendants are struggling toward a European model of civilization, since it allegedly has already reached the societal peak), and with that gift of civilization, whiteness is generous as it loves to impart that gift onto others (commonly called the white saviour complex). Despite those who seek scientific research delineating innate racial differences, the answer is that we’re all basically the same, and it is only public perception that defines what we call ‘race.’

Which leads to ethnicity. Ethnicity is seen to be the ‘real’ race, since it is linked to a shared culture and nationality. People have an essence of Polish to them, for example, if their grandparents were born in Poland, and they eat lots of pierogi. However, ethnicity runs into its own problems. What happens if someone who is of third generation Polish descent lives in North America and is fully assimilated into North American culture? Do they maintain their Polish ethnicity? Would the same be said of a fully assimilated person of Korean descent? Alternatively, what if that Korean American really loved pierogi and ate just as much as our original Polish family? What if that Korean lived in Poland and participated exclusively in Polish culture? Can there be a Canadian or American ethnicity?

There are two factors that are at play in answering these questions. First of all, outward appearance: someone of Korean descent will never be considered as ethnically Polish simply because they look different. The second is blood: those who declared the assimilated Pole as still ethnically Polish will likely look to ancestry as the chief determinate. In Métis culture, there are those who demand that a bloodline to the original Red River Settlement is necessary in order to be a ‘true’ Métis. So ethnicity boils down to innate qualities derived from genetics, and what a person looks like, irrespective of how much or how little of their assumed culture they participate in. It’s gussied-up race, is what I’m getting at here. It’s the difference between saying black people smoke pot, which is an offensive generalization, and Jamaicans smoke pot, which alludes to Rastafarian culture, but in reality is simply refining a stereotype. Claiming an American or Canadian ethnicity is absurd because of the diversity within those nations, but that diversity apparently does not apply anywhere else.

People have different reactions to ethnicity. It’s almost a trope to ask Asians where they are really from, as if their ethnicity will determine every future interaction with them (Vietnamese people drive like this whereas Chinese people drive like this). Others are proud to be a part of a tradition passed on through the generations. However, participating in rituals, venerating symbols, and basking in the comfort of a common community are the markers of religion, not race. Believing in an insoluble bloodline that creates a human essence is a matter of faith, with all the spiritual significance and potential for destruction that that implies. And just as with religion, someone’s heritage can mean as much or as little to them as they choose. That is always up to them. If you find yourself assuming the importance of someone’s heritage, or making blanket statements about someone’s “culture”, then remember how ethnicity and race are interchangeable, and how this then would make you a racist.

Don’t be a racist.

The rallying cries to end racism, to end homophobia, and to smash the patriarchy are all passionate pleas calling for sanity in a world gone crazy with unfounded hatred and hegemonic power imbalances. They all wish for the same thing: the elimination of injustice. We want to destroy capitalism. We want to abolish racism. We use colourful language like this with grand images of violent revolution because it is an anger that stirs within us that wants to lash out in retaliation against the oppression that we see inflicted upon the less fortunate. Seeing the devastation that injustice can bring would indeed drive any rational person mad, so to condemn the seething reactions begotten by this social terrorism is as absurd as condoning the appalling apathy that inevitably accompanies it. I use “we” because I am not excluded from these feelings, though my preferences tend toward simmering cynicism over boiling rage.

What are these injustices? Racism is the preference of one race over another, often structurally enforced by anachronistic institutions built prior to the bleeding heart enlightenment. Basically samesies with sexism, replacing race with gender where appropriate. And so on. Now, obviously they’re not identical and intersectionality has come a long way in explaining why, but they do share one common element: they are all ideas. Ideas fused into systemic practice, yes, but at their foundation they are intangible worldviews.

How do you destroy an idea? Tangible things are easy. Audrey Lorde’s quotation about being unable to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools would be irrelevant if she were talking about a literal house. That shit would be a breeze to knock down. We have hate speech and anti-discrimination laws in Canada that prevent overt oppression meaning that, on paper, injustice has been triumphantly eliminated from our country. Well done, Canada! Except obviously it hasn’t. The tangible injustice is all but gone, leaving only the insidiously abstract injustice to be destroyed, and it seems the abstract is far more resilient.

Yet to destroy, demolish, dismantle, and decimate (if you wish to reduce injustice by a tenth) can only succeed negatively. What I mean by this is eliminating injustice can only ever negate the status quo. It seeks to thwart an inherently destructive idea with other destructive ideas. If you believe Lorde, then it’s simply never going to work.

Within the last year, there have been several sexual assault cases that were gravely illuminating about the flaws within our justice system. Kesha was forced to continue working with a man who sexually assaulted her. Brock Turner received a slap on the wrist. The judge for the Jian Ghomeshi case highlighted the problem by stating that without hard evidence, it comes down to the testimony of the accuser against the accused. This is then subject to often harsh cross-examination which can easily raise reasonable doubt as trauma is neither the best for memory nor unambiguous in its mental affectations. Thus, too often does justice ignore the victims of one of the most heinous crimes today. The legal system is an institution, but more than an institution, it is an idea. It is an idea that did not take into account the unique tragedy of sexual assault victims during its conception.

Screaming that the legal system is broken will not fix it. An argument could be made that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but imagine a group of workers complaining about the conditions of their factory to the owner. The owner may eventually implement a solution, but it will be a solution created by the owner who is likely going to avoid shifting the system too far as he is the one currently benefiting from it. Progress requires new ideas. The elimination of injustice will be the byproduct of these new ideas, not their predecessor.

The Broadway musical Rent has a lyric that states that the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation. This line is then followed by a jubilant WOOOOO! to celebrate its veracity. Peace is only the stagnation of where the war left off. Creation is the opposite of war because creativity produces something new. We need to stop trying to destroy, and start building.