A quick note about “racism”, “prejudice” and “bigotry”

I begin this with trepidation . . .

In any discussion of the situation aboriginal people in Canada of late at some point some variation of the statement “White people can’t experience racism” comes up.  And, inevitably, a White person will reply with “huh? what’s that noise? I myself remember that time when . . .”   I well remember reacting the same way (thankfully, silently, to myself).

Yet, I can also remember being discriminated against on the basis of my fair hair and tall stature.  I can remember being offered only inferior products and being refused service because of my appearance or language.  This discrimination is the sort of thing people like me may bring up as examples of how their position is not exclusively one of privilege.

But, embarrassing as it is to admit, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come to realize that being offered bruised, green tomatoes because the southern Italian farmer saw your fair hair as German, or  being denied service because your English “yeh” was mistaken for a German “ja” is not in any way similar to what people of colour go through every moment of their lives.  Most obviously, I was able to use the magic word “Canadese” and suddenly I became a welcome liberating Loyal Eddie instead of the hated Fallschirmjäger I’d been a moment before.  There is no such magic word available to people of colour in White dominated Western Society.  What I experienced a few times in the 1980s in Italy was decidedly not racism. I was experiencing misdirected prejudice and bigotry based on a fairly justified forty year old grudge. Anti-German feeling in southern Italy was a painful memory of recent hurt, not an unconscious attitude running deeply through every part of Basilicatan society.

Not unexpectedly, the word “racism” has different connotations for those on opposite sides of the phenomenon.  For the person of colour, “racism” is a systemic aspect of the dominant culture, an inescapable part of life, colouring every moment.  There are countless essays on line explaining this fact.  I kind of like this one by Sara Luckey.

On the other side, “racism” too often is just another word for “prejudice” or “bigotry”.  Their experience is limited to individual acts of racially, ethnically, religiously based assumption.  A Canadian being mistaken for a German, for example. They’ve never experienced the systemic racism faced by people of colour.  An individual White person may well, however, be prejudged and face bigotry simply because of their apparent ancestry. Ill treatment may be based on an ugly prejudice and a contented indifference to the individual. Sometimes a magic word can turn the discrimination into special treatment, as I learned at that farmer’s cart beside the road from Avigliano.

As so often, particularly with charged issues, definition of terms is vital to shared understanding.  This situation is not helped by the fact that serious contributions are made to the discussion without clear definition, as in this Psychology Today piece in which “racism” is used to mean “prejudice.”    Contrary to what Dr. Mendoza-Denton seems to suggest, a white person being told “all White people are racist” is not in any sense the equivalent of living as a person of colour in a society in which the standard of personhood is a White male.  The White person is free to leave the conversation. The person of colour lives the conversation every day without escape, without any magic words.  The phrase Dr Mondoza-Denton mentions, “All White people are racist”,  is prejudice and bigotry, and so, distasteful, offensive, and of no help to anyone except those who want to shut down the conversation.  But, because of the real structure of power in our society, nothing is served by describing the statement as “racist”.

I’m sure that no cause, especially the struggle against racism, is aided by individual prejudice or bigotry.  I sincerely wish that such might be avoided in discussions of pressing social issues.  I also think it vital that everyone make a distinction between racism – systemic racism – which is a devilishly difficult problem, and simple prejudice and bigotry, which, while a lesser evil perhaps, serves subversively — one way or another and whoever it comes from — to prop up the systemic problem.

White people who claim to have experienced racist discrimination are, wilfully or not, belittling the experience of systemic racism.

And, on the other hand, anyone who judges an individual based on the colour of their skin rather than on the content of their character . . .

I think you can see where I’m headed.

I hope I live to a ripe old age . . .

I hope I live to a ripe old age for one big reason.  I want to be sitting in my rocker on my umpteenth birthday as some young journalist asks me: “To what do you attribute your longevity?”

I will smile, because I’ve prepared my answer.

Here’s why I’ve lived so long – I’ll say –

Obstetrical hand-washing.
Childhood vaccination.
Public sanitation.
Clean municipal drinking water.
Public health.
Antibiotics.
My own family’s medical history.
Adult vaccination.
Electrification and urban street lighting.
Food security provided by modern agriculture.
Food security provided by modern pest control.
Disease prevention provided by modern pest control.
Food inspection.
Central heating and the reduction of home coal and wood burning.
Urban living.
A lack of large predators in North America.
Sheer luck in not being called to military service.
Adequate roughage in my diet.

And.

Not dying for some other reason at a younger age.

An open letter

The way I see it, my friend, is that a whole lot of organizations spend a whole lot of money on various sides of the whole oil sands, pipeline, climate change, etc. issue.  I don’t have terribly deeply felt positions on either “side” of the “debate”.  I have some nagging doubts about the rosy claims of the pro-development side.  I have written about some nasty destruction in the forests of northern Alberta. But, I also wonder whether the doom predictions of the other side might not be a little over-wrought.  I’ve also written about the sense of wonder I’ve felt when driving along “Upgrader Alley” north east of Edmonton.  I see it all as a very complicated tangle of legalities, moralities, and — more emotionally powerful than usually acknowledged — modern conveniences.  I’ve seen disappointing rhetoric on both sides: those who oppose oilsands development are said to hate Canada and hate prosperity for Canadians.  And those who favour development, or, horror, work for companies in the oil patch, are demonized as haters of the Earth.  Such rhetoric is, of course, absurd and inflammatory to the point of rendering discussion pointless.  Such rhetoric must be ignored

But, a whole lot of very ordinary, rational, plain-spoken people have their own, honest, deeply felt reasons for falling into line with one bunch or another of those lobbying organizations I mentioned.

One large bunch seems to deeply desire to make sure that humanity’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a liveable world.

Maybe they’ve been mislead.  Maybe they’re idealists.  Maybe they’re wearing blinders.  Maybe they’re dupes of Greenpeace and the Tides Foundation, but if they’re dupes, they’re dupes with some pretty noble and selfless goals.

Another large group apparently wants to maintain a national, local, and personal standard of living, and, if possible, extend that standard of living to a larger part of the world while trying to maintain a certain degree of environmental responsibility, but if you want an omelette, you gotta crack some eggs.

Maybe they’ve been mislead.  Maybe their idealists.  Maybe they’re the dupes of “conservative” foundations and think tanks, but if they’re dupes, they’re dupes who REALLY would like to maintain their present, globally exceptional standard of living.

I don’t know who’s right.

Maybe I’m naive, but, I sure know who’s motivations seem more attractive.

And, no matter what, economic growth cannot be sustained forever on a finite planet.  Some generation is going to have to put the brakes on – or have the brakes put on them.  Maybe, just maybe, we could be the ones.

Capitalism: A Primer

If you aren’t risking your own money on your own product, you’re not doing Capitalism.

If you’re risking your own money on someone else’s product, you’re doing money lending, not Capitalism.

If you’re working in a shop or factory or office that you don’t own yourself, you’re doing Labour, not Capitalism.

Very small, independent business people are the only people left in Western Society who still do Capitalism.

If Your Only Tool is a Hammer . . .

 

Society has come to demand a “business model” for every human effort. Artists have to have business models. Charities do. Hospitals and schools do. Schools, for goodness sake, have to catalogue their inputs and outputs, their production, their “outcomes” and present reports to “stakeholders”. Government services like post offices, social services, armed forces . . .

It used to be we valued these things for how they made life better, how they improved society and the world. We valued the “Public Good”.  Now we only ask for their “business model” and demand that we get “value” for our money.

I wish we’d stop.

And I wish we’d demand of corporations (and governments) that they make life better, that they improve society and the world.

I wish we’d stop and realize, and make our leaders realize, that sometimes – often – the bottom line is not the bottom line.