The Fragile Oppressor

Image courtesy of EverydayFeminism.com

An aspect of my work that has been the bane of my existence an educative experience in recent years has been the time I’ve spent around a group of variously conservative, middle aged white men, many of whom teach history and with whom I regularly debate the foundational intersections of liberal and conservatism found in the socials curricula.

A running thread in our conversations over the past many years has been a frustrated effort on my part to explore the implicit ways in which (mostly) unconscious biases perpetuate the white supremacism North Americans have struggled with since the time of European colonization and settlement. As news cycles in recent years have become increasingly concerned with issues of racial violence in the United States, aboriginal activism and protest against racial inequality in Canada, and the root causes of white privilege and racism on either side of the 49th parallel, these conversations have taken on an ever-more vital (and heated) tone, often resulting in either they or I admitting that dialogue around these topics is impossible.

I often seek to poke fun at what strikes me as remarkable insensitivity, greeting these moments of terse debate with sarcastic interjections to the tune of, “Don’t worry, one day the world will understand the White Man’s burden.” But I have also tried to follow these sorts of barbs with what I hope are more nuanced explanations of what might be witnessed in the headlines by my colleagues or the demographic they represent as senseless racial outbursts.

Last year, when violence erupted around a Mik’maq blockade in rural New Brunswick, I replied to an email thread characterizing the results of police contact with the protest as “anarchic” by pointing out the nature of resistance in such a context:

“The land that the oil and gas exploration is happening on is Mik’maq land; it is to be held in trust by the Government of Canada for the benefit of those people (not balancing the New Brunswick provincial debt). The Mik’maq have asked that environmental (chiefly water), and human impacts (cancer incidents) associated with fracking be measured before exploration proceeds. The government refused to engage in any such research, and started planning the drill, after which the Mik’maq created a blockade on their own Treaty-guaranteed land to prevent furthering the project until such investigations could take place.

“The government using the threat of snipers and indiscriminate spraying of tear gas to enforce the injunction against the blockade is violence too, isn’t it?”

As a sample, the replies to this sort of argument represent the nature of the difficulty of engaging many white people in even beginning to hear opposing views on topics related to race in North America. The original addressee to my reply ignored any of this attending context, focusing instead on a semantic query: “Even if all of what you just said was true,” he began:

“How is burning a vehicle with a Molotov cocktail (a clear tool constructed to inflict harm, chaos, or injury) not anarchic?”

Another’s defence swerved further into dismissive hyperbole, offering that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms entitles Canadian First Nations to engage in violent acts against police “because they’ve been victims of a genocide by us white guys all these years.”

This sort of condescending reaction is par for the course when engaging on racial issues with a group of people who tend to perceive the march of modernity as one bent specifically toward confiscating advantages and rewards they have rightfully earned. Even as contradictory data washes ashore in an empirical tsunami, calling into question the logic of meritocracy whereby their demographic has overwhelmingly succeeded is a non-starter here.

To even identify the ways in which white males are advantaged in society is, to certain among this group, racism itself:

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 2.16.44 PM

As I described at some length a while back, my life and career represent a shining example of the benefits of white male privilege, as do those of my friends and colleagues described here. But these interactions present me with genuine confusion that struggles to explain how vehemently the prospect of acknowledging such privilege is attacked when raised, either in the media or our conversations.

To a man, my colleagues own homes and recreational properties. They are gainfully employed and enjoy regular leisure activities and vacations.

And yet a common theme in our discussion of modern social issues remains the sentiment that “the most prominent form of racism in the world” is practiced against white people.

Which is astonishing, really.

African Americans are murdered in the streets by police with impunity.

Indigenous Canadians overcrowd our prisons as well as lists of murdered and missing women.

Poverty, a lack of access to clean water, health and education services, and positive opportunities run rampant in these communities.

And yet somehow white peoplelet alone white men, manage to believe that they are society’s most persecuted group. Whether at the hands of indigenous peoples, French Canadians, women, or other minorities, the cost of greater equality to history’s oppressive class is at best an unrealistic venture they are reluctant to embrace. At worst it is what they decry as “social engineering,” a sort of social blasphemy, or “liberal fascism.”

Surely this would be something of an amazing feat if it weren’t such a destructive and tragic sentiment.

Much to my relief, however, Robin DiAngelo presents an aspect of whiteness that helps shed light on my experience in recent years, introducing the notion of “White Fragility.”

Plainly, this fragility represents an “[inability] to tolerate racial stress… triggering a range of defensive moves… which reinstate the racial equilibrium.”

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. Fine (1997) identifies this insulation when she observes “… how Whiteness accrues privilege and status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip and voyeurism and instead demands dignity” (p. 57). Whites are rarely without these “protective pillows,” and when they are it is usually temporary and by choice. This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”

Thus as these sorts of issues are raised – whether in current events, casual conversation, or professional development sessions addressing minority concerns (around race, gender identity, immigrant populations, etc) – “stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar,” triggering what DiAngelo calls a “range of defensive moves.”

Challenging whites’ objective-viewpoint or entitlement to racial comfort, acknowledging inequality of opportunity between racial groups or disrupting an expectation of white solidarity each becomes exceptional in the white dominant environment, and “in turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways.”

“When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable. Because White Fragility finds its support in and is a function of white privilege, fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources “lost” via the challenge – resistance toward the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings,” exiting, or a combination of these responses.”

All of which would more or less account for the range of “defensive moves” any challenges that various encounters have brought about in these interactions over the years (Even if all of what you just said was true…”), and seeks to uphold a racial inequality that will continue to benefit a particular class – and race – of people. After all, “if whites cannot engage with an exploration of alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.”

DiAngelo asserts that

“The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines, and results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.”

After all, it isn’t a cycle of oppression unless those who oppress never change, never let new ideas in, go to bed with the same worldview they woke up with. Which is where my years of banging my rhetorical head against a wall often leaves me frustrated and abandoning my efforts, however vital I see them to the progress of our schools and broader community.

But DiAngelo concludes with a few ideas that have compelled me to write and publish this post. Citing the collection of Derman-Sparks & Phillips, hooks, and Wise, she notes that “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.” 

This can be problematic, as “Many white people have never been given direct or complex information about racism before, and often cannot explicitly see, feel, or understand it” (Terpagnier, 2006; Weber 2001). But in this light, the lens of White Fragility is helpful in framing the problem “as an issue of stamina-building.”

“Starting with the individual and moving outward to the ultimate framework for racism – Whiteness – allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.”

In this view, “talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race.”

“At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information and be allowed to make connections between the information and their own lives. Educators can encourage and support white participants in making their engagement a point of analysis.”

Hopefully, in time, even if those participants are other educators.

On Reconciliation

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

“There isn’t a profession in Canada that shouldn’t be required to understand the aboriginal experience.”

So says the Commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission yesterday, a statement that will likely rankle those in Conservative conservative circles, but which I believe may not go far enough in addressing the Commission’s mission and mandate.

From the Commission’s Interim Report in 2010:

“We will reveal the truth about residential schools, and establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful, and that enables reconciliation.”

Lately immersed in Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, this mandate to establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful strikes me as narrowly placed on “professionals,” and more appropriately perhaps expanded to include all Canadians. Because wouldn’t establishing this “renewed Canada” stem from everyone on each of the sides of our nation’s “solitudes” understanding the experience of the Other(s)?

Isn’t this what is meant by “reconciliation”?

reconcile verb [ trans. ] (often be reconciled)

restore friendly relations between : she wanted to be reconciled with her father | the news reconciled us. 

cause to coexist in harmony; make or show to be compatible : a landscape in which inner and outer vision were reconciled | you may have to adjust your ideal to reconcile it with reality. 

make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed : it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the final accounts. 

Freire says that “the raison d’être of liberation education […] lies in its drive toward reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”

“The truth is,” he says, “that the oppressed are not ‘marginals,’ are not people living ‘outside’ society. They have always been ‘inside’ – inside the structure which made them ‘beings for others.’ The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.'”

Now, he is speaking of teachers and students and oppressor and oppressed almost interchangeably here based on the premise that the traditional “banking” model of education, in “attitudes and practices, […] mirror[s] oppressive society as a whole.” Following with this idea, our schools should then be tasked with understanding the breadth of the Canadian experience: aboriginal, French Canadian, female, new immigrants, our Anglo-European fore-bearers, and all points between and beyond.

There can be no greater national import, it seems, than reconciling these disparate threads into a Canadian identity that each of us can say represents us. 

Which is something you can be opposed to, I guess… no doubt there are those folks out there who believe that a society is established by the “winners,” and that the “losers” should “move on,” or “assimilate” or… starve?

But I would inquire as to the logic behind such a disagreement; based on what grounds should we be opposed to reconciling the myriad interpretations of our history, or our future?

Each of us has out own view of this story, this much we can hopefully agree is true; but the leap we make when we discount others’ interpretations of a shared reality is domination by definition.

There is only one type of fascism, and it is exactly this prohibition against disagreement. Somewhat naturally then, I would argue that this type of domination is antithetical to the idea of Canada we are taught to celebrate in our socials curricula, national holidays, and – before the recent rekindling of our obsession with the military – museums.

Here the argument revolves around the value of diversity in a culture; if there is no value in diversity, I suppose, by all means: let those who can’t adapt rot. But then, this is decidedly not how our country chooses to represent itself in its laws, civic institutions, or national character.

Doesn’t our work as citizens in such a country then revolve around creating a narrative that allows for the continued expression of the country’s diverse elements?

If not this, then what?

“Diversity for diversity’s sake,” one of my colleagues said to me the other day, “is meaningless.”

But this is patently false; in fact, diversity in a population is an evolutionary necessity. Homogenous populations are ill-equipped to adapt to environmental, social, economic or other changed: when cultures become too similar, in other words, they face a higher risk of extinction.

Diversity for its own sake then is actually an imperative element of survival, making its cultivation and celebration all of our responsibility; but only if you believe that the laws of nature which govern all other life on earth apply to us as well.

Which of course is something you can choose not to believe, if you like. But you may encounter some difficulty in reconciling that belief with your experience of life here on earth. This failure to reconcile reality with our inner lives and beliefs is a process known as epistemic closureit may please you to know.

But it is the essence of dogma, not philosophical discourse:

The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’

The TALONS meet the Golden Spruce

The Golden Spruce won the Governor General's Award for English Language non-fiction in 2005.

“… a creature that seemed more at home in a myth or fairy tale: a spruce tree with golden needles.”

The TALONS classes have been beginning their study of English, Socials and Science with the Governor General Award Winning Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant, and begun their blogging year with a host of introductory blog posts – in poems, painting, prose and no shortage of personality – covering the first four chapters of a book that is about more than trees:
It is not simply a tale of a tree. It is the tale of a people, of the changes made to a land ‘west of west’ , the mixing of two very distinct cultures.  The tale of  a region, one of the most rugged and natural left in the world. Haida Gwaii exists not far from places such as Danger Island and Danger Passage, and the names were not given idly.  It is a place hard to understand for those who do not live there, and I certainly don’t.  It is the type of place you need to experience to fully understand.

Liam

I glower upwards through the murky water as the hull of a human boat passes over my head. Foolish humans, I think as I lay in the depths of a rocky and jagged bank, with my hands behind my back. So greedy,so malicious. These new comers with their intrusive floating crafts, how I despise them all.

Donya

Megan's Hecate Visions

Megan

As the days go by

do they sit and cry?

the loggers who cut

down the ancients?

Kelsey

We had begun our journey like any other ship and her crew; a group of courageous young men and a ship better than any other. We were going to conquer this wild land and use to its fullest extent. Little did we know, we were in for no easy adventure. We left our hometown over half a year ago. It was after braving Cape Horn and sailing northward for thirteen thousand kilometres when the nightmare truly began. At first, we were simply surrounded by a thick, opaque layer of fog. Then, we had to face heartless winds, uncaring currents, and frighteningly random whirlpools. My socks were the first of my belongings to be terrorized by this inhospitable environment. Then it was our ropes. And finally, our stomachs.

Iris

Donyas Wildest of the Wild

Donya's Wildest of the Wild

Every so often, an oddity is sent upon us. A twist to a seemingly identical fill of trees. John Vaillant reveals a truth to difference; that noticeable is none, unless it posses a difference which appeals to a set of human eyes. The “golden” spruce was extremely noticeable due to its colour. Other natural monuments may be noticeable due to identifying features. But as they say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. In my opinion, beauty alone did not declare the golden spruce’s popularity.

Jonathan

They are gone now, the ancient chants that I used to hear, the heavy drum beats that would fill the night air with a pulse that could send shivers down your spine. It has come, and now it has gone. The houses they once occupied, bustling with life like an ant hill, have collapsed in on themselves. Now only moldering piles of wood that are giving in to the forests demands.

Megan

So now humanity (or rather, B.C.’s government) is faced with the decision of what to do with this natural resource. Do we chop it all down? (probably a bad idea) Do we leave it alone and make the mere thought of chopping down a tree a crime? (also, probably a bad idea) Personally, I think that there’s no simple answer to this question. Logging creates hundreds of jobs, and it’s one of B.C.’s primary ways of making money. However, we can’t just go off chopping down whatever we like. As you have no doubt heard before, trees are rather important to the environment, which, in turn, is rather important to us.

Nick

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

One of the surprises of last year’s socials units was the TALONS class‘ foray into publishing with Wikibooks. After more than a year spent within the confines of our district’s SharePoint Wikis and discussion boards, Wikibooks offered our first opportunity to publish and participate in a global dialogue of meaning, history, and identity.

This collective Wisdom of the Crowd is the appeal and power of crowd-sourcing; but the rabid tenor of many Wikipedia debates and discussions – not to mention the oftentimes thoroughly vetted and polished nature of Wiki articles concerning subjects covered in high school – makes venturing into that community a difficult proving ground for young students. Unless students are to be contributing coverage or information on an as-yet-undocumented subject or event – unlikely given the topics covered during the Socials 9 or 10 curriculum – participation in Wikipedia can be a difficult place to start.

Fortunately, the range and reach of Wikimedia Foundation‘s projects extend to include Wikibooks, a subject-by-subject collection of textbooks open to user-editing. Where similar articles – concerning Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, as well as information about Canada’s various First Peoples – on Wikipedia were (more or less) “complete,” I was able to find – to my great surprise – this time last year, that many entries corresponding to our mandated curriculum under the Canadian History text were blank. The class broke up into research groups and “adopted” pages on different groups of First Nations, geographic regions, or notable events and issues in Canadian history.

When we set out on the project many students were surprised that they were “allowed” to use Wikipedia at school, as in so many classrooms even touching down on the “world’s most-cited web page” is forbidden as a blanket policy to combat fears that students can too easily directly plagiarize Wikipedia’s answer to many questions asked as homework. And it is not that this never happens; students make use of Wikipedia and Sparknotes by default to answer traditional questions based around extinct modes of obtaining information.

But what if classroom projects and student research could ask “bigger” questions than when did it happen? or who was there? What if our assignments could facilitate students justifying their interpretations of history’s influence on the present moment and culture? And help them engage in this discussion with the world outside the classroom? To even begin such an endeavour, when faced with the prospect of setting out to research and discuss topics quickly glossed over in the narrow perspective of the classroom text, where would one find a better compendium of source material than Wikipedia?

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

What emerged in the course of publishing, far from an exercise in redundancy (merely copying text from the original Wikipedia articles to the empty Wikibooks pages), was a learning experience encapsulating literacy skills emerging as essentials in the evolving information landscape. Students tracked source material ranging from interviews  to academic papers, and collectively authored a first perspective in knowledge on their subjects. Students were forced to consider multiple sources in developing their own perspective on the complex questions of the Canadian Identity: the purpose of our history curriculum beyond what is written in the course’s prescribed learning outcomes.

During the project, students were not able to cite Wikipedia as a direct source, but encouraged to use it as a starting point toward authors of work on subjects referenced in the articles as a means of providing their published work with the strongest support possible. Students asked questions of experts from all over North America, read widely and were introduced to a variety of issues on the recommendation of public servants, non-profit organizers, academics, and politicians. In the end each group published theirs as a first perspective (in terms of the Wikibooks project) on the information of the day concerning a range of topics on the Canadian Identity. The work had to be cited and written in accordance with Wikibooks’ authorship guidelines, and opened the class’ work to the response and criticism, but also the benefit, of global study on the unit’s subject. From a pedagogical standpoint, the rigour and validity of the class’ use of Wikipedia (and reaching beyond the textbook in general) provided an experience richer in critical analysis and personal investment than many read-and-test units covering the same material.SGaang Gwaay

One student-solicited interview resulted in University of British Columbia Aboriginal Education professor Mark Aquash offering to spend an afternoon discussing the many tough questions surrounding Canada’s First Peoples that our texts (and oftentimes our teachers) are not well-enough prepared to confront. At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour dialogue – which covered the misunderstood labels of native, Métis, Indian, First Nations, Inuit, as well as contemporary conceptions of aboriginal land claims, reservations, education and welfare in the first person – a grade nine offered the following realization that I believe our texts are seldom equipped to facilitate:

All of [most] people’s anger and discomfort about Canada’s First Nations issues boils down to difficulties understanding the different ways our cultures view being human.

Of course, the statement is much bigger than a Canadian issue, and speaks to the extrinsic purpose of our education to teach empathy and understanding across the diverse cultures of our increasingly connected human experience. Thus the underlying purpose I hope the publishing project enables is to broaden the scope of the class’ discussion of our upcoming unit. I have been seeking classes or groups of aboriginal youth (wherever in the world they might reside, Canada or otherwise) to collaborate throughout the past year with the hope of working together to establish a dialogue or publication of student research and study of our local, yet universal history. I am excited to see the TALONS’ blogging network extend and to begin to see other examples of classes sharing their learning through social networks and blogging.

With respect to our First Nations unit specifically, I have only established a few “leads” in connecting our classroom to another in order to discuss this aspect of colonial history, something I think speaks to the pervasive lack of interaction and understanding between First Peoples the world over and European (or other) colonialist nations in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Delving into the history as we are taught it with the intention of authoring a contemporary narrative of Canada’s struggle to implement a truly multicultural society seems a good place to start though, whether we have company in this endeavour or not.

Many of the TALONS students are participating in the international Student Blogging Challenge this spring, and there is a momentum building around the shared experience that modern communication can offer. With this call to action, the class’ study of its upcoming history chapters is an opportunity to produce a collaborative effort to start a global dialogue of our relationship with this place in Canada, and the world, in this moment in time.

Cultural Geography Public Service Announcements

No sign of Boo BooAs a means to delve creatively into the cultural geography in Western Canada, our socials ten students will be undertaking the creation of public service announcements on issues relating to the present states of plants and animals across several different biomes. Having practiced digital storytelling skills in writing, performing and editing a brief time-line of human history in the local area last week, their sights will be set on documenting the evolving history of human interaction with, and use of, resource species such as the Rocky Mountains’ bears, the Plains’ buffalo, and the Pacific Coast’s salmon.

They were not a nation, nor even a tribe, but a loose association of groups consisting of up to a dozen families. All were, however, united in their allegiance to Tuktu – the caribou – which, in their millions, not only furnished the necessities of life but most of whatever else these people needed. Caribou skins provided clothing (the warmest and lightest known), footwear, tents, sleeping robes, covering for kayaks, even the heads of drums. Tuktu gave meat, and fat both to eat and to fill their lamps; sinews for sewing; and antler and bone for the manufacture of innumerable hunting and domestic implements, even including children’s toys. Tuktu was life itself to human dwellers in the Barren Lands.

Farley Mowat Walking on the Land

Unesco.

Each of the animals and biomes selected by the groups this week bear a similar tradition of use that reaches back to the dawn of humankind, and I look forward to seeing the class’ representations of these ecosystems as they once were, on through their current state. Even in our suburban setting, there is still a reverence for the outdoors in many of the class’ undertakings – whether natural or urban – and the energy in class today as the groups selected their biomes and animals and set out on research stemmed from a connection many members of the class feel with their local setting. In documenting the traditions of our ancestors on this land alongside modern Canadians’ stewardship of the country’s most valuable resources, the project’s lofty purpose will be to offer a message to those who will follow in our footsteps here.

“We are all five-fingered people, the holy people. My grandfather and uncles always said that when we are taught these things, they are for the people, the children, and whoever comes to you wanting your help and the medicine of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to help them.”

Brian Payton Shadow of the Bear

Hopefully we do better than Dwight.