On Moral Courage and Heroes, (anti) Racism, and Beauty

by waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy

Last week, Dr. Cindy Blackstock was in my neighbourhood giving a talk titled, “Spirit Bear’s Guide to Reconciliation”. The day before, she was conferred with an honorary PhD in Law and celebration was in the air. Aside from Odawa Elders and Drs. Edna Manitowabi and Shirley Williams, Dr. Blackstock is the only other Indigenous woman I know of who has been conferred with an honourary PhD. A social work scholar and well known human rights warrior for Indigenous children in Canada,  I knew her talk would be in a field that I’ve had little to do with for over a decade. Admittedly, I was feeling a bit unsure about the significant presence of a teddy-bear as front-line in her talk and in the lunch I had prior to her talk (not with Dr. Blackstock but with another person who is a part of the “Spirit Bear” movement). I quickly checked myself on my epistemic arrogance regarding “the teddy-bear” and pushed myself to move outside my disciplinary boundary. Also, prioritizing learning from Indigenous womxn is a form of self-care. I know the important work that Dr. Blackstock has and does do and how vital and important Indigenous social work in a settler colonial context is to Indigenous peoples–all of us.

I’m so glad that I went.

So, so glad.

Aside from being an amazing speaker, Dr. Blackstock’s words, energy, and method were inspiring and rejuvenating. I was moved by her message of “moral courage” that everyone of us must have if we are to attain any kind of justice for our babies, children, and youth.

She called in her hero–Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, MD–who generations before, in the early 1900s, had informed the government of Canada of their discriminatory health care practices against Indigenous children (then in residential schools). He had been hired by the state to examine the health care of Indigenous children in residential schools as a result of the high rates of death. When the state ignored his recommendations to provide the same level of health care, he persisted in advocating for an end to the discriminatory practices and suffered economic and professional consequences. Dr. Blackstock emphasized his moral courage despite the consequences and indicated we all need to have this today in our work for creating a better reality for Indigenous babies, children, and youth which will be founded upon equitable treatment with all other children and ensuring all babies, children, and youth are treated well.

She shared wisdom from an Elder who told her to never fall in love with the institutions we embed ourselves in. The danger in doing so is that the values and ethos of the institution we work for may come into tension and conflict with our own values and morals. This may result in a displacement of our values and morals in order to be commensurable with our institutions. Suddenly, we find ourselves doing work that is very distant from who we are and what is right. In fact, this seems to result in what I have witnessed as being a kind of professional legitimation to being anti-social. How many times have I heard, “It’s my job” being used as a reason to do wrong. You know, like when RCMP, police, or security guards use physical violence, dogs, and the legal system against Indigenous peoples who are protecting their lands and water or non-Indigenous folx who are allied in such actions. Falling in love with our institutions (and the social dynamics that animate them) is something I have experienced in my professional and student life. Coming to grips with the reality that the institutions that we are embedded in may not reflect our values and morals is a tough one, especially if they provide us the resources we need to survive or sur-thrive. Yet, as Dr. Bryce’s and Dr. Blackstock’s lives show, having the moral courage to act true to what is right–in this case, fighting for equitable health care for Indigenous children no matter the consequences–is absolutely necessary.

Over here in the west coast nations, the Lekwungen and WSANEC folx raise their hands to those whose actions are deemed courageous, righteous, and reflective of being a good human-being who looks out for others. It is a fitting gesture for Dr. Blackstock and her message.

*

This week,  Dr. Robin DiAngelo is giving a talk on  white fragility from her latest book entitled the same. As a way to engage more deeply with the subject, a pre-seminar discussion was had last week which included reading three articles: “White Fragility” by DiAngelo (2011); “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes” by Alison Bailey (2017), and Comforting Discomfort as “Complicity: White Fragility and the Pursuit of Invulnerability” by Barbara Applebaum (2017).

I want to bullet-point some quotes from these readings that I found helpful, validating, empowering, and rejuvenating. Thinking that others might also find something of this helpful, I wanted to share:

  • “‘Racism is especially rampant in places and people that produce knowledge.’ – Anzaldúa, 1990, xix” (Bailey, 876)
  • “We know injustice when we feel it.” (ibid.)
  • “In general, white fragility triggers a constellation of behaviours that work to steer us back to epistemic terrains where we feel whole, comfortable and good. Consider how white folks repeatedly bolster our metaphysical wholeness with stories about our good deeds, merit-based accomplishments, immigration stories, or the long hours we’ve worked. These narratives keep us whole.” (Bailey, 880)
  • “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.” (DiAngelo, 54)
  • “Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual ‘race prejudice’, which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of colour …. Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of colour. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviours that some individuals may or may not demonstrate, and goes beyond naming specific privileges… (ibid., 56)
  • “Whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘Whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.” (Frankenburg in DiAngelo, 56)
  • “White Fragility” yields “a range of defensive moves” that “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” (DiAngelo, 57)
  • “A large body of research about children and race demonstrates that children start to construct ideas about race very early; a sense of white superiority and knowledge of racial power codes appears to develop as early as pre-school” (ibid., 63)
  • “Whites who positions themselves as liberal often opt to protect what they perceive as their moral reputations, rather than recognize or change their participation in systems of inequity and domination. In so responding, whites invoke the power to choose when, how, and how much to address or challenge racism.” (ibid., 64)
  • “While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro-level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial locations, to be active initiators of change. Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.” (ibid., 66)
  • “White Fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence and withdrawal are also functions of fragility. Who speaks, who doesn’t speak, when, for how long, and with what emotional valence are all keys to understanding the relational patterns that hold oppression in place….(ibid., 67).
  • “Comforting not only alleviates white discomfort and preserves white innocence, but is also constitutes feminists of color as the offenders. Feminists of color who offer antiracist critique are labeled as ‘angry’ and carry the burden of being blamed as the source of white discomfort.” (Applebaum, 865)
  • “Srivastava underscores not only that white tears terminate the conversation but also that white “calming techniques” provide absolution from guilt. In fact, white women’s professions of weakness serve ‘as a buffer from consciousness, responsibility, and struggle’ … When white discomfort is comforted, white women are relieved from all accountability. In other words, white comforting becomes the mechanism by which white women can avoid confronting their complicity in racism and whereby power inequities in the organization can be maintained.” (ibid.)
  • “Whiteness is … a doing: less a property of skin than an enactment of power reproducing its dominance in both explicit and implicit ways.” (ibid., 868)
  • “Rather than relying on the exclusively negative conceptions of vulnerability, Gilson suggests reconceptualizing vulnerability as encompassing as openness to change, dispossession, and willingness to risk exposure. … Gilson maintains that vulnerability is a common human capacity that, first and foremost, involves the capacity to be affected and to affect in turn. … ‘Being vulnerable makes it possible for us to suffer, to fall prey to violence and be harmed, but also to fall in love, to learn, to take pleasure and find comfort in the presence of others, and to experience the simultaneity of these feelings. Vulnerability is not just a condition that limits us but one that can enable us. As potential, vulnerability is a condition of openness, openness to being affected and affecting in turn.”  (ibid., 870)
  • “…epistemic vulnerability is not just about being willing to challenge one’s ideas and beliefs but, even more significantly, it is about a constant vigilance and willingness to change one’s self.” (ibid., 871)
  • “Critical hope, first and foremost, acknowledges that systemic oppression exists, and such hope entails responsibility to challenge what Boler refers to as ‘inscribed habits of emotional inattention’ and involves ‘a willingness to exist within ambiguity and uncertainty’ …. [It] does not obstruct purposive and critical reflection around one’s complicity in systems of oppression but instead encourages a ‘willingness to be fully alive in the process of constant change and becoming’…. [It] aims to encourage openness toward continued struggle and forefronts discomfort as a signal to be alert fro what one does not know about others but also about oneself.” (ibid., 872)

Today, UnSettling America published an important essay, “Settler Fragility: Why Settler Privilege Is So Hard To Talk About”, by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Here, Whitaker transposes the concept of racial fragility to relational fragility with place and people (i.e. settler colonialism). Another important transposition would be on the topic of sex/gender (i.e. male fragility, baby men) and class. The concepts of vulnerability and critical hope could be also easily applied.

*

Last night I attended a dual book launch of two Canadian literature texts. It was held in this quirky old building in a neighbourhood known as James Bay; the building known to be haunted, re-tooled into a pub known as The Bent Mast. It was located on a triangular block, on the triangular tip of a block that I’ve driven by a few times and was always curious about. It’s get dark here at 4:30–and dark here is not like dark back home. It is DARK. As in DARK DARK. As in layers and layers of thick blankets dark. Add the cloud, rain and dim street lights that characterize this city. Anyhow, as I walked up, I smiled. Ok, grinned. A curious place that I had been curious about, now a place I had a reason to be in. I was reading and happy to be meeting friends–some who value poetry and others who value friendship and jet as soon as you are done. ❤

On “meeting”, Amanda Jernigan, advisor editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2018 and contributor to What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (and whose long blond hair and whose unabashed love for literature reminded me so much of my first creative writing teacher, Alana Bondar-ban) gave a beautiful reading, quoting Dionne Brand and Souvankham Thammavognsa in conversation. I fell into it and am going to remain here for awhile:

Brand: … We met, you and I, in poetry. What an ordinary and strange place to meet. We didn’t meet on a dance floor or in a factory or in a store or in a line waiting for a bus, but in the structure of nothing, of ambiguity, and of malleability, of air and sound. I find that amazing.

Thammavongsa: Like someone working to connect people to other people and then listening in, caught by some urgency in the voice asking.