What’s wrong with being an ‘ally’?

On the surface it seems that there could be nothing wrong with wanting to be an ally to a social movement. Being an ally implies wanting to help, and what could be wrong with that?

There is definitely nothing wrong with seeing a problem in the world and wanting to change it. However the language of ‘wanting to help’ implies that it is not your problem. This implication is exacerbated by the way that the language of ally is used: white people can be allies to people of colour in anti-racism work; straight people can be allies to queer people in the fight for equal rights; able-bodied people can be allies to disabled people in making a more accessible world; and men can be allies to women in fighting sexism. The problem with this language is that it implies that these issues are problems for people of colour, queer people, disabled people and women, but that white people, straight people, able-bodied people and men can help. Not only does this miss the ways that white people, straight people, able-bodied people and men are part of creating or reproducing these problems (through denial of racism, accumulation of capital based on racist policies over generations, socially sanctioned heterosexual relationships and higher wages, just to name a few ways), but it also misses the ways that white people, straight people, able-bodied people and men might benefit from a changed culture (one that is, for example less segregated and more accessible).

This is not to say that everyone will benefit equally from a changed society. Or that creating and adjusting to changed social relationships will be easy. But I firmly believe that in order to create new ways of being with ourselves and with others, we need to get everyone involved in the process of creation.

Ethical clothing: Merino Ads

Is this ad racist? Or reproducing racist imagery?

Icebreaker Merino Wool Fall 2009 banner

I saw this ad in fiber options the other day. The person I was with did not initially read the male body as black (or even not white), which I found shocking as it seems obviously racialized as not white to me. This led me to reflect on how effectively white people are taught to not to see skin colour, which is part of what allows racialized advertising passes under the radar of racism.

I think what is especially remarkable about this ad is that not only is it so explicitly racialized, it is also gendered in interesting ways. The contrast of the larger black male body with the smaller white female body exaggerates the unrealistic differences between them. The woman’s legs are not even as big as the man’s arms!

nazi-race-posterNow this poster is more obviously racist. I doubt that anyone would be able to look at this poster and not see its racism, the prototypical “white man’s burden”. White people in North America have been so well trained to see the Nazis as racist, but sometimes I wonder if it is at the expense of being able to see other manifestations of racism.

What I find especially striking is the non-human characteristics of the brown body in both of the posters. I wonder if the folks at Merino know how obviously they are drawing on the long tradition of white racial superiority in their ad?

Another black athlete movie

TheExpressMovieI watched “The Express” a few weeks ago. It tells the story of Ernie Davis, a young black man who played US college football in the late 1950s. Like other recent movies (i.e. The Great Debaters and Glory Road), this is a movie about firsts. In this case, Ernie becomes the first black man to win the Heisman trophy.

It is also a story of individual achievement. Although American football is obviously a team sport, it is because of Ernie that the team wins. This is exemplified in the final game of the film when (spoiler alert) the team is winning at the end of the first half, then Ernie gets taken off (because of injury and the blatant racism of the opposing Texas team). While he sits in the locker room, Texas catches up and then pulls ahead, and it isn’t until Ernie forces his coach to put him back on the field that he makes an almost solitary touchdown and his team wins.

This genre of movies is growing. And I think it’s because it makes audiences feel good. Not only do we get to see ourselves as less racist than in the past because it is now common for blacks to be part of football, basketball and debating, we also get to feel less racist because we’re making movies about black history. But what kind of history are we telling?

I think that one of the central messages of these films is that if individual black people work hard enough, they can succeed. This is a comforting story because it means that structural change isn’t necessary. Rather, it locates the solution (and maybe implicitly the problem) in black people, rather than the structures that shape all of our lives. Even when structural changes are encountered, they are often simplistic ones like the “whites only” country club that is supposed to host the award ceremony for the trophy that Ernie wins. What’s missing is, among other things, an analysis of all the economic and political structures that keep higher numbers of non-white families living in poverty (compared to white families), with less access to health care and education.

I think we’re telling a history in these films that does not challenge the status quo, and that maybe that’s why there’s so much money getting put towards this genre of film right now.

Calgary Airport Indians


The luggage collection area in most airports is a pretty boring place. It doesn’t seem to be a part of the airport that gets much attention, despite the expensive renovations and art in many Canadian airports these days. Calgary, however, has decided to liven up their luggage area with a few scenes from the Canadian past – like this one, of Leah Beaver who, according to the caption, was a member of the Stoney Nation. She has been immortalized in plastic in the Calgary airport because the father of her daughter provided Mary Schaffer with directions to discover Maligne Lake in Jasper.

There is no additional context given for Leah Beaver’s life, nor for the current lives of Nakoda (Stoney) Nation, nor any discussion of the irony that Samson Beaver must have already known where Maligne Lake was if he was able to make a map for Mary Schaffer. Instead, the display airport_indian_caption – sponsored by Parks Canada – is an ad to get tourists to visit the national parks that surround Calgary.

Class and race

I just came across this video, Neoliberalism As Water Balloon from Tim McCaskell

Class structure
McCaskell sex structures
Gender and class
McCaskell sexual orientation structures
Queer folk and class
Race and class

It’s concise and well done, and makes some good arguments about how our economy is currently functioning to the benefit of those who are the top income earners and/or own corporations. As a side point to the main argument about neoliberalism, and I think as an attempt to have a more intersectional analysis, McCaskell makes a comparison between race, sex (by which I think he actually means gender), sexual orientation, disability and class. He argues that class is different than the others because in order to change it, we must change the structural shape of our society. Whereas the other social dynamics can be solved by fighting discrimination.

The visual metaphor that he uses is that if we imagine that society is currently in the shape of a triangle, economic class structures the triangle horizontally, while disability, sex, sexual orientation and race give varying degrees of vertical structure to the triangle – cutting across class lines.

It’s a compelling metaphor. And strategically used to highlight economic class, which is the central focus of the experiment and the short film.

However, there are three potential implications of this comparison that I find a little worrying. First, I think that it implicitly makes class more important than other forms of social structuring. This makes sense in the particular context of the film, because his main point is about class. However, I don’t think that a focus on class needs to come through a simplification of race, sex (gender), disability and sexual orientation. And I think we need to practice understanding how class, race, gender, disabilty, and sexuality have been, and continue to be, mutually generative and reinforcing.

Second, I think this portrayal runs the risk of diminishing the differences between race, sex (gender), sexual orientation and disability.

And lastly, based on McCaskell’s claim that in order to change the structures of sex, disability, race or sexual orientation we need to fight discrimination, whereas to change class we need to change the shape of our society, I think the implication is that class is structural, while race, sex (gender), disability and sexual orientation are just about the ideas that humans have. While it is not the only conclusion that one could come to, I think this argument leaves open the possibility of concluding that class is more real (i.e. less socially constructed) than race, gender, disability or sexuality.

This is precisely the tendency that David Roediger (1991) talks about in “The Wages of Whiteness”. He says that in many analyses of class, particularly in the tradition of historical materialism, there is a tendency to see class as more ‘real’ than race (p. 7). He attributes this, in part, to the academic argument that race cannot be seen as a biological fact (which has been revolutionary in the study of race and racism). In the context of an economic analysis that argues that class is not wholly socially constructed (but has real world evidence and effects), this has sometime allowed for people to come to the conclusion that class is more real than race.

white associations

I’ve been reading Hazel Smith’s The Writing Experiment, and here’s one of the word association poems that I came up with.

white wash
white soap
white clean
white whale
white board
white teaching
white knowledge
white supremacy
white people
white flowers
white goodness
white evil
white right
white rightness
white apart
white violence
white blood
white death

white face
face powder
powder kep
breaking connections
connecting back
white posse
white innocence

white guilt
white man’s burden
who’s burden
what burden
what white
white me

Second Life

I am fascinated by the ways that people’s lives intersect on and off-line. Second Life is particularly interesting because of how realistically it is trying to replicate people’s off-line lives.

Even more interesting is the racialization in Second Life. When you sign up for Second Life, you get to choose the starting look for your online identity (your avatar). The thing is, you only get to choose from these twelve options:

Second Life start page

Not only is it a pretty limited selection, despite the claims about it being Your World and Your Imagination, 10 of the 12 options are white! Although I haven’t seen their market research, it seems fairly obvious that their target market is mostly white, and between the ages of 20 and 30 — or at least would like to appear that way. So even if you aren’t in this charmed circle in your first life, you can be young, thin and white in your second life. I wonder if the makers of these default Second Life avatars thought about how they were representing the ‘world’ of Second Life? Because intentionally or not, they have reproduced the idealized norms of beauty and race.

Four meanings of multiculturalism

According to a recent publication by the Parliamentary Research Branch, Canadian multiculturalism has four meanings: as a sociological fact, as ideology, as policy, and as a process of group interaction (Dewing and Leman, 2006, p. 1).

These distinctions can help to pull apart the conflations that are often made in the uses of the word multiculturalism. Specifically, it helps to articulate how multiculturalism as a policy assumes that there is a problem, but does not necessarily articulate what problem it is trying to solve. Is it trying to solve the unequal distribution of wealth and resources along racial lines (i.e. racism)? Or differentiate Canadian policy from US policy?

Has multiculturalism come to be mobilized to create a ‘good’ white identity for Canadians, in contrast to the ‘bad’ assimilating Americans? While it may be true that Canada is dealing with diversity ‘better’ than the US, it is also dangerous to use this story of ‘better’ to avoid critique of the ways in which the approach of the Canadian government and Canadian culture are racist and continue to reproduce colonialism.

Its interesting that after defining these four meanings of multiculturalism, the paper goes on to talk only about multiculturalism as a sociological fact and as public policy.