Notes

Increasing disparity

A report released in 2008 by the OECD shows that in most developed countries the gap is growing between the rich and the poor. The important thing to note is that it is growing in most countries. This shows that this growing gap is not inevitable (not that we thought it was – but some do seem to). Since the gap between rich and poor has been growing in Canada and the US (we also have some of the highest child poverty rates), we need to start looking more to countries like France, Greece and Spain, all of whom have seen more equality of incomes over the past twenty years.

Check out the report – there’s also some cool mapping graphics showing the data they collected.

Build me a bridge …

An actual comment, left by an actual person on the Stuff White People Like blog:

I am so sick and tired of the fucking double-standard!!!
OMG! YES, ONCE UPON A TIME, WHITE PEOPLE HAD BLACK PEOPLE AS SLAVES! GUESS WHAT!?!?! THOSE TIMES ARE GONE AND PASSED!
MORE IMPORTANTLY, you should realize that the white people around today WERE NOT AROUND BACK THEN! We didn’t do anything!
So go ahead, cry me a river, build me a bridge, and GET THE FUCK OVER IT!!!

by Columbia on October 22, 2008 at 8:48 pm

It’s amazing to me that so many people believe history is over, in the sense that it no longer affects us. It takes so little to see how the history of race and racism in Canada and the US continues to shape all of our lives. Some of the most glaring examples include:

  • the (growing) income gap between white and black in the US – whites currently, on average, make twice as much as blacks
  • the high rates of poverty and illhealth among First Nations in Canada
  • the fact that every prime minister in Canada has been white and christian (although the election of the first biracial man for president in the US does not constitute evidence that race is no longer a factor in US elections, especially given that 95% of voters for McCain were white)
  • the long history, in both Canada and the US, of preferential immigration policies for white European immigrants

I guess if you don’t believe that history matters then it would be easier to believe the stories about meritocracy that get told to explain these disparities.

The Social Construction of Race

“Not all experience is social but the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point, therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social group background – the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing ‘social construction of reality’.” (Saxton, 1990/2003, p. 18)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increasing consensus in the academic community that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, while the mechanisms of racialization have changed, race as a social category and inequalities along racial lines persist. For example, Gissis argues “that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on” (Gissis, 2008, p. 438). This persistence has prompted an expansion of the ways in which race is analyzed and the growth of the field of whiteness studies.

Jacobson was one of the first scholars to trace the changing social categories of race and whiteness through history. He argues that race is based “in the contingencies of politics and culture,” rather than based in biological or scientific notions (Jacobson, 2001, p. 86). This premise is significant because it makes possible an analysis of race as a changing phenomenon, rather than a natural or scientific fact. It is also important because it affirms that it is possible to affirm that race is both a socially constructed category and continues to have material and political consequences in people’s lives (Brubaker, 2002). These two perspectives are too often presented as mutually exclusive. It is said that either race is socially constructed (and so it cannot have an effect on people’s economic or political lives) or race has an effect on people’s lives (and therefore cannot be socially constructed).


Some argue that this debate is irrelevant, because there already exists a consensus about the social construction of race (Arnesen, 2001). However, while there may be a consensus in the academy about the social construction of race, it is certainly not the case in North American culture more broadly (Barrett, 2001). A quick look at almost any newspaper will show a number of references to race that are either based on a biological or scientific understanding of race or do not challenge such an understanding, implicitly allowing readers to believe that race has a biological basis [2]. A poignant example was a recent Canadian edition of Time Magazine during the 2008 American presidential campaign. It features Obama’s face, but half has been photocopied in black and white, making his skin appears white. Four of the headlines on the cover also refer specifically to race, including the feature article “Why the economy is trumping race” (October 20, 2008). The consensus on the social construction of race needs to be much more widely accepted before scholars abandon this area of research.

culture remix

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether it’s possible (or how it is possible) to intervene in culture in ways that make space for other ways of being/doing. Some say that culture jamming isn’t possible because it just ends up reproducing everything that is being opposed, but tactical media practioners and theorists say and do otherwise. More on tactical media to come, but for now I came across this great remix of the song 10 Little Indians by Jackson 2Bears. The video is especially great (I particularly liked the animated facial expressions).

Natural attraction

An article about the aesthetic appeal of mixed-race faces was just listed on today’s links by racialicious. It definitely challenges the claims that are made about how it is ‘natural’ for people to find others of their own race more attractive (this claim is usually used to justify why most people choose partners who have the same skin colour). The author of the study conducted in Britain argues that the results prove Darwin’s theory of heterosis, that diversity in breeding leads to a stronger species. However, it seems like this might be a hasty conclusion, since it does not account for the ways that beauty norms are socially constructed. Women’s non-white faces and bodies have long been glorified as exotic. And implied in that exoticism is their sexual availability, often portrayed in naturalistic or ‘wild’ poses and outfits.

Interestingly, these ideas about beauty have not translated into the modeling industry. For more about this, check out this post on  Stuff White People Do about racism in the modeling industry.

The web as democracy?

Increasingly, the web is an important locus of knowledge for Canadian and US culture.

This is especially true for younger and white demographics who have the resources to be plugged in. However a “digital divide” remains, with “varying access to certain media, particularly computers and allied technologies, related to differences in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and gender” (Roberts and Foehr, 2008, p. 11).

As a relatively new and rapidly changing technology, there is little consensus about anything related to the web. Some hail the web as a new democratizing force, with the means of media production no longer held exclusively by the richest and most powerful of our society. Gerodimos (2008) argues that issue based websites could be doing even more to capitalize on the emerging culture of user-generated content to engage youth in making social change. Adbusters, a long-standing advocate of corporate media critique, also views the web as a place for increased media democracy. This can be seen in their “Meme Warriors” campaign. The goal of this campaign “is to effect change and spread knowledge via the medium of online video. [Because] now more than ever, the tools of production are available to those of us who have no affiliation with media conglomerates.”

This campaign by Adbusters speaks strongly to the view that there is increasing access to the means of media production, but the story is not so simple. Not all user-generated content is equally “good” according to the memes of Adbusters. A logic of ‘us/them’ is being employed to mark the media conglomerates as ‘them’, against which a more innocent and progressive ‘us’ can be produced. Additionally, Adbusters does not say anything about who continues to be left out of the process of creating media. And there are a great many people who are left out.

In the early days of the internet, users were predominantly white and male (Nix, 2000, Cyberstratification and Social Distance over the Internet). Nakamura argues that the absence of people of colour in the foundation of the internet has resulted in discursive contours that continue to exclude non-white voices. And this disparity continues. Despite its wide usage around the world, the majority of users of the Internet are white, average or above-average income, and living in the US, Canada and Europe. Significant barriers continue to be faced by people who are marginalized by racialization and class (Mirchandani et. al., 2005, see also Nakamura, 2002).

We need to become more attentive to these contours, both online and off, if we are to change the way racialization shapes our lives in fundamentally unequal ways.

Guilt and Sacrifice

I’ve seen a number of films in the past little while that seem to have a reoccurring theme around those who are guilty sacrificing themselves for those who are innocent. Most recently, I saw The Brothers Bloom. A con story about two brothers who grow up in less-than-ideal foster care homes, moving from town to town. The older brother, Stephen, starts coming up with cons, not only to make a bit of extra money, but also to facilitate his brother, Bloom, having more social connection with the local kids. In the end, Stephen creates the perfect con (which he defines as everyone getting what they want). Stephen dies so that his brother can make a life with the woman he loves.

Throughout the movie, it is clear that Stephen is doing what he does for Bloom. And it is Bloom that has qualms about what they’re doing. Stephen’s character oscillates between being the forceful (and even manipulative) leader and a martyr, creating stories that will make Bloom happier. Even though what Bloom says he wants is to stop living stories that have been written for him, Stephen seems to think that he knows better what Bloom needs. I’m not sure if this is out of arrogance or delusion. Both perhaps.

It reminds me of another film I watched recently, Gran Torino. In this film, a similar theme plays out wherein Clint Eastwood’s character decides to sacrifice himself as a way to save his Hmong neighbours from the knot of complex and violent racial and class dynamics that they are trapped in.

I don’t know enough of christian theology to know exactly how these histories intertwine, but it seems that one couldn’t talk about guilt and sacrifice without reference to Jesus’ sacrifice for the sins of man. Is Clint Eastwood trying to pull a Jesus? Or is he trying to redeem his own sins by sacrificing himself to save others? Is this a selfish act, or something to be admired?

These spectacular solutions to messy problems miss the opportunity to explore less violent and more nuanced solutions. It makes it seem like other solutions are not possible, when in fact they might be. Even in the face of such violence. They might not be so quick and easy though.

Anti-racism tactics

Although I’m not the biggest fan of anti-racism work that is based on white people as allies, Paul Kivel (2002) has some great anti-racism tactics. His focus is on providing tactics to white people (which makes sense in so far as white people are the least likely to be already doing these things), but I think they may be useful tactics for anyone. So here they are:

  1. Assume racism is everywhere, every day.
  2. Notice who is the center of attention and who is the center of power.
  3. Notice how racism is denied, minimized and justified.
  4. Understand and learn from the history of whiteness and racism.
  5. Understand the connections between racism, economic issues, sexism and other forms of injustice.
  6. Take a stand against injustice.
  7. Be strategic.
  8. Don’t confuse a battle with the war.
  9. Don’t call names or be personally abusive.
  10. Support the leadership of people of color.
  11. Learn something about the history of white people who have worked for racial justice.
  12. Don’t do it alone.
  13. Talk with your children and other young people about racism.

What other tactics do you use to challenge racism?