SEEING RED: A Canadian reflection on racism, life, and the anti-racist uprising in the United States

As a person of colour with a lifelong, nearly daily exposure to racism, either directed towards myself, or Black or Indigenous people, and in the last 20 years against Muslims, I have too long been aware of the extent of police brutality and the over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous people in jails, as well as the criminalization of Islam, in Canada. Racism was probably the first lesson I learned at school, along with English. 

As a young person my daily dose of racism came at school from kindergarten to the end of middle school, from peers and teachers. It was overt and naked, but as we grew into our teens, it transformed to more subtle and insidious forms. Part of the insidiousness is that we could not be angry about it, but always, understanding, educating,  and forgiving; reluctant Gandhians. When we were younger, the open name-calling allowed us to fight back, whether through physical means or compartmentalization. These differing and sometimes simultaneously adopted strategies were measures for survival, but we did not yet know it. 

One of the ways, white Canada downplayed its racism, was by telling us we had the carrot, while the stick was for American Blacks and people of colour. Canada’s smug official “imaginary” was one of liberal astonishment at racism. This allowed the gaslighting of generations on non-white and colonized peoples, who were held back from speaking about their lived experiences, and organizing on that basis, by the notion that things were not as bad as we made them out to be.

At the same time, in the mid-eighties, the state killing of unarmed Black men was a not infrequent occurrence in the mutliculturalist approach to racial and ethnic integration espoused by Canada. State assasinations of Indigenous people continued unabated since before the adoption of the Indian Act in 1876 and the over-incarceration of these two groups in Canada has been carried out in concert with the downsizing of governmental responsibilities and budgets in the most basic areas of housing, study, employment and health over the last 35 years, in particular. The 1992 Rodney King uprisings throughout the States spilled over here too. I was actually at the protests here back then. I share a poem I wrote at that time:

A New Remembrance

I read the news about L.A

In poverty our colour takes 

On its own life. Beyond us.

Our colour takes action

Amid broken glass, white hate,

Screaming sirens.

I read the news about L.A.

In misery our colour takes

On its own class. Beyond us.

Our colour demands vengeance

Amid multistory

Multinational millions

Concrete, artificial green.

I read the news about L.A.

In despair our colour takes

On its own voice. Beyond us. 

Our colour cries to be heard

Amid city streets,

Maze of housing projects

Police presence.

I read the news about L.A.

In oppression our colour takes

On its own history. Beyond us.

Africa, Asia, Latin America

The new south is born in all of us.

A new remembrance.

A myth of peace shattered.

How sharp its fragments

How deep it pierces.

I read the news about L.A.

In rage our colour takes

On its own weapons. Beyond us.

Our hands sharpened into swords

In our eyes, the gun’s sight

In our mouths words

Like molotvs explode

Breathe fire in this

oh-so-calm gas chamber

where they teach us to love the executioner

more than ourselves.

I read the news about Toronto. 

In each murder our colour takes

On its own spirits. Beyond us.

Our brothers haunt us

with their imperfections

their wrong turns

their mothers’ pain.

How we mass and break formation

Divide like continents

In that first broken splintering.

I read the news about Toronto.

Perhaps in justice our colour can take

On its own humanity. Beyond us.

When we recall all that 

They didn’t give us

They can never take away.

from Kaushalya Bannerji,  A New Remembrance, TSAR Press, Toronto, 1993

Malak Mattar, May 2020

So, in a sense it was no surprise to hear that the U.S to the South of us,  was the place where, in the last few months, Breona Taylor was killed as she slept in her bed, Ahmaud Arbery was lynched by a retired police officer and his son while jogging, a Canadian white woman tried to engineer the lynching of a Black New Yorker who was birding, and finally culminating in the on-camera execution of an unarmed Black man for passing an allegedly counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes.  In Toronto, this was followed up within days by the death in suspicious circumstances of an Afro-Nova Scotian and Indigenous woman, Regis Korchinksi-Paquet,  whose family called the police for help in taking her for mental health services. It’s part of the terrorizing of Black, Indigenous and others racialized as Non-white, that is so invisible, it is part of the very stitching of our social fabric. 

In Canada, there is a constant gnawing unease between Black/Indigenous/People of Colour (BIPOC) and police. Indigenous deaths in police custody and at the hands of settler vigilantes, the murder and disappearances of Indigenous girls and women, the disparagement and brutality towards trans racialized peoples, and the demonization of Muslims as part of range of exclusionary and discriminatory practices that start from experiences at daycares, grade school and highschool, post-secondary education, housing, going to the store, and employment, shift scheduling and payscales for people of colour, inequality in access to tranportation and “discretion” in applying the law and enforcing it through the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the provision of health care in Canada has been gutted in the last 35 years, while chemicals and toxins such as racism, predatory misogyny, poverty,  and unsafe working conditions have been underscored with the arrival of the COVID19 pandemic. The pandemic is inequality. The virus is capitalism that has infected everything, with a racialized construction of class and commodity, where white skin has a value not ascribed to ANY person of colour.

But back to me. Reading the stories of Black struggle, being comforted by my parents as a racialized child experiencing unintelligible hatred and contempt, learning about the Indigenous inhabitants of this genocidal country, being taught about the history of Nazi anti-semitism, were the ways I found self-understanding as a child of racialized immigrants. I did not have a teacher of colour until the second year of University. 

As soon as I had a choice, I chose what I saw to be my people– those remade as racialized– and entered the field of Latin American and Caribbean studies, where I was fortunate to be surrounded by excited, enthusiastic students and teachers, keen on un-educating ourselves from the invisibility of the victor’s history and exploring new ways of making meaning of social injustice and inequality. I have always looked to the global south for answers to questions of domination and imperialism and this has been so enlightening, when I see the responses to 500 years of conquest, enslavement and genocide south of the border. I have studied the construction of race and racism from 1985 to now. I have lived in highly racialized countries on a number of continents and in all, except for the country of my birth, I have held the status of a non-white person. I have sought relief from racism in Cuban Black history and seen the huge shortfalls of the Cuban Revolution in adressing racism and racialized poverty in Cuba, while admiring many of the gains of Cuban socialism and sovereignty. I include here a poem by revolutionary poet and intellectual Nicolas Guillen and performed by Cuban singer/musician Pablo Milanes. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T18ymPicE2Q

The Bourgeoisie

I feel no pity for the defeated
bourgeois. And when I think that I am about to feel pity for them,
I firmly clench my teeth and tightly shut my eyes.
I think about my long days barefoot and without roses.
I think about my long days without a hat and clouds.
I think about my long days shirtless and without any dreams.
I think about my long days with my prohibited skin.
I think about my long days.

“Don’t enter, please. This is a club.”

“The roster is full.”

“There are no more rooms in the hotel.”

“The gentleman in question has left.”

“We’re looking for a girl.”

“Fraud in the elections.”

“A grand ball for the blind.”

“Someone won the jackpot in Santa Clara.”

“A raffle for orphans.”

“The gentleman is in Paris.”

“The marquess isn’t receiving anyone at this time.”

In the end, I remember everything.

And since I remember everything,

what the hell are you asking me to do?

But ask them too.

I am sure

that they will remember too.

Nicolas Guillen ( Eng. trans. O.A. Ramos)

I have seen the experiences of First Nations people and Afro-descended peoples in numerous circumstances. And it seems to me, that the the leadership of the United States has been as active in fomenting racialized empire with its allies in the so-called developing world for huge profits and cheap costs both in and outside of its domestic territory. 

During the current coronavirus crisis U.S. billionaires have added $265 billion dollars to their pockets, while 40 million Americans and one-quarter of Canadians have lost their livelihoods. Workers speaking out about their unsafe and super-exploited conditions are being penalized and fired all over the place. Profitable long-term care homes for the elderly are showing themselves to be execution grounds. Personal Protective Equipment is unavailable to health care workers globally, while money is always found for toys for the boys in blue or khaki. 

That’s why these current protests have me seeing red! They are about George Floyd certainly. No one of conscience could not be destroyed by seeing the snuff movies that pass for mainstream news when you are Black, Indigenous, people of colour. The deaths and murders of poor and non-white people (often one and the same, but not always) are so ever present that they become part of the air we breathe. 

That’s why we can’t breathe.  But beyond visceral reactions to the psy-ops of these images of murder, we need to begin to rethink policing, the courts and prisons, and notions of emancipatory justice. Defunding the police is a huge part of that. That is a huge and hard battle. In particular with the criminalization of anti-fascism as a movement, now in the United States.

And we need to surround that with the work to make living with respect for Black, Indigenous  and racialized peoples a reality. That means an overhaul of the very nature of capitalism, which depends on these divide and rule tactics for its very existence. It’s time for a transformative movement that makes allliances out of solidarity, experience, and consciousness and that recognizes our rights to name our own truths. Because we can all agree with Bob Marley, that we need to “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. This is hard work to do if you are white, but even harder if you are not. Because you are always derailed at the point of credibility. and in terms of access to power, including platforms to speak out. The age of social media has brought that home to us time and time again. 

Because if we don’t do this work,  as hundreds of thousands of people have signalled—  a life on our knees, with the boot of white supremacy on our necks— is not worth living.  They are the people who grow and process and serve our food, clean our institutions, work night shifts at hospitals, transportation and gas stations and factories. They are the people who nurse our sick and look after our dying. They help us birth new generations. They are the people who have kids, are kids, and teach your kids, in spite of dwindling resouces for public education. They are students and unemployed, homeless condemned to misery on our bitter streets. They are us. 

They/We have taken to the streets at the cost of their own lives and those of their loved ones, in the midst of this highly contagious COVID19 epidemic that has already taken black and racialized lives at 4 to 2 percent higher rates than whites in Anglo/Francophone North America. 

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes – 1902-1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes – 1902-1967

If you would like to see some resources that speak to the issues I have raised here, I include them below. Here is a Triptych, I’ve done called “We’re All in This Together”.

For George Floyd/Never Again, Kaushalya Bannerji May 2020
Never Safe/For Breonna Taylor, Kaushalya Bannerji, May 2020
Oh, Kkkanada/For Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Kaushalya Bannerji, May 2020

Right Now:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/01/george-floyd-protests-cornel-west-american-democracy

https://www.mprnews.org/episode/2020/05/29/davis-floyd-protests-how-did-we-get-here

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1745921603637

https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/politics/george-w-bush-statement-on-george-floyd/index.html

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/02/it-just-doesnt-seem-right-pentagon-officials-on-edge-over-military-leaders-dealings-with-trump-297820

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/10/toronto-black-residents-more-likely-shot-dead-ontario-human-rights-commission-report

Way back in time!

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/05/george-floyd-protests-minnesota-urban-warfare/612421/?fbclid=IwAR18z9KQldcakRM-FIiyGJlWdZZ6AWQENzgWpRzZb-PqsMgbxEaxxIOh1Zk

https://ca.yahoo.com/style/time-talk-kids-books-racism-123300596.html

https://boricuaresistance.wordpress.com/2020/06/03/latinx-community-organizations-condemn-anti-black-attacks/

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