mardi 12 mars 2019

Troubled Waters


The warning on my kickboard has always struck me as ironic. Its life saving capacities quite real and its uses have often been other than those for which it was designed. I’ve shielded myself from and struck a number of bellicose white men with it. Swimming pools have proven to be cesspools of racial animus and toxic masculinities. If you’re not Black you probably missed the significance of the swimming pool and water in the Formation video. One of my mother’s parenting #goals was that her children be able to save themselves in large bodies of water. She was born and had grown up under British colonial rule in Mauritius (the island achieved independence only in 1968, the baggage of coloniality still a burden), as a member of the disenfranchised and formerly enslaved Afro-Creole population. She saw white people, descended from plantation owners who had built their fortunes on the backs and out of the wombs of her ancestors and whose white children were raised by her brown grandmothers, build fences into the sea in order to privatize entire swathes of the island’s pristine white sand beaches and keep Black and Brown bodies out of sight. She saw and knew of community members and friends and kin who were carried away like driftwood and drowned in the Indian Ocean’s turquoise waters for lack of basic swimming skills. Colonial subjugation and racist marginalization is always apparent in knowledge willfully withheld by white supremacist oppressors. Stories of drowning were part of the collective narrative and immigration a world away from the island didn’t dull a certain apprehension vis-à-vis Canada’s lakes, swift flowing rivers, muddy ponds, seasides and the treacherous embankments of slithering creeks.

I’ve always loved the water and took to swimming easily. My brother and I were greased from industrial sized tubs of Moisturel 3 times a week before and after Red Cross and private swimming lessons and scrubbed down with Johnson’s baby shampoo and variegated blue sticks of Fa soap as soon as we exited the pool –wasn’t no way Mama’s babies were gonna turn ashy and start smellin’ of chemicals from the white man’s chlorinated pools. Much later, my brother worked as a lifeguard, we got our water instructor and National Coaching certificates and I swam for the University of Calgary Dinos and on the provincial and national junior Modern Pentathlon teams. I’ve stared at thousands of tiled black lines, cruising up and down my share of Olympic and community sized swimming pools.

One of my first locker room memories is of a livid, naked white woman flanked by her friends in the women’s change room of the Glenmore Aquatic Centre in Calgary, yelling at my mother, my rolly polly 3 year old baby brother and myself, no older than 5, both wrapped in towels, stunned and clinging to her legs as she stood her ground, steely eyed and unblinking. We watched the flaccid pink flesh so different from our mother’s brown body that was firm and soft in all of the right places, shake with pornographic anger, the thin, bloodless lips hurling accusations in deliberately broken English so that our thick immigrant heads might understand that brown male children weren’t allowed amidst pink ladies and that if the brown immigrant woman insisted to the contrary, they would be sending her brown female child to the white men’s change room by herself. The violence of white people always ends up tripping over well-rehearsed tropes of racialized sexual fantasia and brutalization – it is after all an all-important play in their handbook of white domination and global colonization. The revenge fantasy par excellence of sexually repressed pink flesh.

I was 18 and away at a winter training camp in Red Deer the first time I screamed in the middle of a public pool. There had been a booking problem and our pentathlon team had been forced to train during public lane swimming times. A white woman had taken it upon herself to antagonize me as our squad had started a kick set. She accused me specifically of kicking too hard and getting her hair wet. The splashing caused by the rest of my teammates’ all white legs apparently caused her no trouble. She hissed and spat invectives every time I passed her. Our white coach was off flirting with a white lifeguard. My white teammates chose to see nothing. I had had enough. I stopped kicking in the middle of the pool and did the only thing I had learned would shut white people up and send them crawling for cover – public shaming. I started screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the pool of the Michener Recreation Centre in Red Deer, Alberta. I screamed about being attacked by a racist white woman. I screamed about being denied the naturally occurring physical and psychological inviolability and the legitimacy of place of my white teammates. I screamed with 500 years of racist anguish, oppression, apartheid and injustice on my teenage shoulders. The pool went silent. People gawked, discomfited and terrified. The philandering coach and the lifeguard rushed to the side of the pool. The racist blubbered through the requisite I-am-not-a-racist operatics. She got kicked out of the pool and all of the whiteness around me did its dandiest to cling to the fiction that nothing had happened. I shook with anger well into the evening. My teammates and coach ignored me. White stasis restoring itself on my back. I stared at the wallpapered abstracts of a Holiday Inn hotel room that night, willing myself to sleep, measuring the distance that separated me from my mother and Sam Cook’s long awaited change.

After moving to France, I soon found myself embroiled in a standoff with the parks and rec arm, helmed and staffed almost exclusively by white men, of the municipal council of Blois and its greater urban areas after challenging mis-management and pointing out gross behavioural problems at the pool I frequented. Word had it that I had been labelled “the crazy Canadian cunt” by this upstanding enclave of white sausages (or as the French call it, boudin blanc) and matters were resolved only by virtue of the fact that my white in-laws have a long-standing history and reputation in the town’s sporting milieu.

When I bring up the homogeneous whiteness of the pool population at Mount Royal University’s aquatic centre in Calgary, where I now train, I am roundly ignored. When I point out hostile and colonizing behaviour by white cis men at the pool and how this creates a toxic and unwelcoming space for all who do not qualify as white cis men, I am roundly ignored. When I point out the large berth of benevolence that is accorded these white cis men when they continually violate basic regulations, the university’s recreation administration thanks me for my feedback and sits on its ass. When I point out their inertia as proof of their total investment in white supremacist logic, well, you know the rest of that rhyme…

In multiple pools on both sides of the Atlantic, I have been spat at, insulted, I’ve had body parts deliberately grabbed in an effort to hinder my movements. I’ve been interrupted in the middle of training sessions, talked down to, talked about, told that I didn’t belong, been questioned, been complained about, been imposed upon for free counsel and training advice, been ignored, been denied, been dismissed, been hissed at, been the object of attempts at intimidation. I am and have always been, except on very rare occasions, the only melanated body and the only melanated female body in the pools I have frequented. I know that swimming pools have historically been the privileged domain of whiteness whether spelled out in de jure or informal fashion. I know that Black and Brown bodies hampered in water, that drowning Black and Brown bodies, that absent Black and Brown bodies are required and useful to whiteness. I see this Jim Crowed reality every time I enter a pool and my fast and skilled brown body is punished in varying degrees when I come and contravene white aquatic segregation, white exclusivity and white superiority. If I have continued to swim, well after quitting the competitive circuits, it is because of a long-abiding love of the sport and the joy I have always felt in moving through and being moved by water. If I continue to swim it is through sheer endurance and it has required enormous amounts of will and strength of spirit. This has been accomplished in spite of white racism’s and racialized misogyny’s hegemonies and it has been extremely taxing. I now have to swallow anti-histamines before hitting the pool in order to prevent shock, allergic reactions and things more sinister. What the doctor has diagnosed as cold immersion urticaria, I see as the effects on my body of three decades of internalized racist trauma tacked onto generations’ worth of white supremacist ordeals inscribed in my DNA.

jeudi 21 février 2019

The Trouble With Whiteness


Montage from slate.com with images from Prada, Moncler and Gucci


In 1979, Ahmed Ali Giama, a homeless Somali man, was burned alive for being black and poor in the Piazza della Pace, in the centre of Rome. In 1985, Giacomo Valent, a 16-year-old, was stabbed 63 times in a frenzied racist attack. In 2008, Abba, a young Afro-Italian was beaten to death with a crowbar, his killer claiming he hadn’t paid for a packet of biscuits. In 2012 an Italian right-wing extremist shot two street sellers dead and wounded three others in a racist rampage. In 2018, Idy Dienec, a Senegalese street vendor was shot dead at close range as he sold leather bags, umbrellas and trinkets on a bridge in Florence, one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. Earlier that same year a neo-Nazi sympathizer with ties to the League, (an anti-immigrant party, recently electorally crowned second biggest in the Italian parliament with a penchant for portraying migrants as criminals) opened fire on African migrants in the city of Macerata, wounding six before he was captured. Italy’s 2018 parliamentary election of the League and the 5-Star Movement, which emerged as the largest party in the vote, both have promised to ramp up deportations of irregular migrants. 

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, announced that she was sending staff to Italy to look into the protection of migrants after an “alarming escalation of attacks” against asylum seekers and Roma people.  

Elaborate and persistent webs of denial and tales of victimization spun by the state, the academe and the media have allowed Italy to consistently escape blame and responsibility for massive atrocities committed before and during the Second World War. Of more than 1,200 Italians sought for war crimes in Africa and the Balkans, not one has faced justice. Mussolini's soldiers murdered many thousands of civilians, bombed the Red Cross, dropped poison gas, starved infants in concentration camps and tried to annihilate cultures deemed inferior. American University of Rome historian James Walston states, "There has been little or no coming to terms with fascist crimes comparable to the French concern with Vichy or even the Japanese recognition of its wartime and prewar responsibilities". 

Italy didn’t require Hitler’s help in concocting its 1938 discrimination laws against Italian Jews. 

Italy’s colonising of Libya, Eritrea, Somalia and its occupation of Ethiopia, its gassing of, raping of, humiliation of Black subjects, its discriminatory laws and segregation of space, its poisoning of African land, its racist legacy and coloniality remain largely silenced and unaddressed. 

Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s minister for integration and the country’s first Black minister has faced constant racist abuse and death threats and lives under police protection. A fellow Italian MEP, Mario Borghezio, called her appointment “a shitty choice” by a “bongo-bongo” government, adding that she had “the face of a housewife”. A former vice-president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, said in a public meeting: “When I see pictures of Kyenge I can’t help but think of the features of an orangutan.” Other extreme-right politicians have called her “Zulu” and “Congolese monkey” and have used imagery on social media to depict  the minister as an ape. Matteo Salvini, the interior minister from Lega, compared African immigrants to slaves prompting Luxembourg’s foreign affairs minister seated nearby to angrily respond in French: “Merde, alors !” 

Present day Italy is, by all accounts, a historically sanctioned and ongoing toxic stewpot of Afrophobia, anti-Black racism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia, anti-migrant hatred, homophobia, class domination, patriarchal misogyny, cissexism and heterosexism.


I want you to think of all of these things when luxury fashion brands like Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Moncler currently embroiled in racist scandal and widespread criticism, wring their hands in public and claim racial ignorance and cultural naiveté when they get caught assed out. These racist corporate goblins know exactly what they are doing. They have been trained in colonial imagery and mythmaking and primed for the racial status quo. They bask, like gnocchi in butter, in carefully cultivated hatreds, generations old. This they enforce with relish, beknighted as they are by centuries of white racial legitimacy and superiority and artistic untouchability. At worst, they know the old adage to be true, bad publicity is still publicity. Don’t expect moral compasses where ruthless capitalism and engagement stats prowl. 

When Alessandro Michele, Gucci designer behind the blackface balaclava valiantly grasps at straws and laments that this was no blackface but indeed an homage to the late Leigh Bowery, a performance artist, club promoter and fashion designer fond of flamboyant face makeup and costumes; and a cursory Google search of Bowery reveals a slew of images of exaggerated makeup on exclusively white foundations, know that this is whiteness protecting itself at all costs even and especially when this runs counter to basic logic. 

When Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s president and CEO, states that “the lack of knowledge of diversity and the consequent understanding are not at the level we expected, despite all the efforts we did inside the company in the last four years” and that Gucci is now “evaluating all the processes” to ensure “the right level of awareness and visibility” understand that this is rich white man speak for a continued agenda of rich white man gatekeeping with a light spackling of commodified, tokenized, whitewashed, ineffectual black and brownness unthreatening to white supremacist hierarchies and interests. 

Current luxury fashion cannot be reformed for “diversity” and “inclusion”. It is unfit for sustainability. Unfit for humanity. Unfit for existence on this planet. It is not salvageable. It needs to be scrapped. To believe that this industry can be made to care about Black bodies and to be attentive to Black pain is ahistorical foolishness. Concentrating on individual racist imagery and products, individual brands and designers is also problematic as it obscures the larger poisonous picture – the systemically racist society from which they emerged and which continues to cultivate, institutionalize and normalize colonial imperialism, capitalist violence and white supremacist ideals.

jeudi 10 janvier 2019

Deconstruction as Healing

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk


There are serious and dangerous consequences to giving platforms to proponents of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal systems of oppression and exploitation and packaging social and climate justice issues as a dichotomous showdown between two equal and equally legitimate parties – something the white helmed mainstream media in Canada has a hard time comprehending, perhaps because they too also participate in and benefit from these self-affirming systems. This false equivalence or the fallacy of inconsistency is a readily occurring phenomenon in modern day journalism that relies on oversimplification, generalization, dominant viewpoints and ignorance to make its points quickly in the blitzkrieg format it is forced to operate in. In this case, journalists would want you to consider the hand-wringing anxiety and rage of a couple of professional white wailers who represent, benefit from and perpetuate oppressive white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist systems that threaten Indigenous survival and well-being and who have un-ironically appointed themselves as beleaguered, as holding the same weight and as being worthy of the same consideration as the fight for justice and self-determination of historically disenfranchised Indigenous peoples standing against and protecting themselves from the unending violence of white supremacist systems. White journalists in Calgary were unable or unwilling to identify and call out a freely operating white supremacist troll in their ranks. When the spewing of toxic untruths and bias is left unaccompanied and unchecked by a critical frame through which they can be viewed and broken down, these words are left to resonate as legitimate, reasonable and accurate in the minds of many. So let’s do something Canadian media thinks we’re too stupid to do… grab your brains and your metaphorical scissors, we’re gonna deconstruct some of the egregious bile and bullshit, filmed, transmitted and left uncommented, that came out of the mouths of angry, white men at the indecent counter rally that took place in front of the glistening corporate beacon of colonial spoliation that is TransCanada HQ in the place white people stole and called Calgary.

A note also before beginning… This took me an evening to write and contains knowledge gleaned through years of study, unlearning and examination. I don’t take this burden lightly, it’s important and necessary work to do. But it is a choice that costs. A lifetime of writing and reading, some of it excruciating, a lifetime of learning how to decolonize, deconstruct, heal and build fresh, raw exposure to the pain and alienation caused by misogyny, white wrath, resentment and denial - this is my daily reality. White people, white men are allowed to contaminate and destroy, self-righteous and unimpeded as they have always done, as they have been taught is their historically and racially sanctioned right to do - this is their daily reality. Their pollution is immediate and hallowed in minute long news segments. Don’t you dare tell me that this is a just world.



“These people have to respect the rule of law.”

‘These people’ is textbook othering. Othering allows the speaker to keep the inherent humanity of those that he others at bay, making the deriding, the dismissal and the ultimate destruction of their persons and their demands that much easier to accomplish. Claims that 'others' should be respecting the rule of law is especially rich coming from representatives of white settler society – Canadian history is littered with broken treaty promises on the part of the white settler state and, as we have seen unfold, Canada and its provinces have repeatedly proven themselves incapable of respecting their own laws, Supreme Court rulings, undertakings and signed declarations (UNDRIP) where Indigenous title and rights and law are concerned. Furthermore, white men’s laws and injunctions have no bearing on unceded Indigenous territory and do not supersede Indigenous duty to stewardship and protection of the land, the water, their beings and for future generations. Claiming otherwise is a clear alignment with white racial and white cultural supremacy theories and views. The settler "legal" system has been wielded against Indigenous peoples and their territories time and time again and must therefore be systematically and critically scrutinized.


“You all came here in your cars. You all wear Gore-Tex and have phones in your pockets made from petroleum products. The indigenous heat their homes with natural gas.”

Speak for yourself colonizer! My entire wardrobe on that day, save for the elastic in my underwear, was made from plant, mineral and animal material and was made and bought within my fibershed. I have never owned a mobile phone. I took collective transportation to and from the rally. 

The white racial lens or the white racial frame of reference is universalism on white supremacist crack and posits that white consumer experience of the world is a centralized, universally shared experience, the only way anyone experiences the world. I wear Gore-Tex therefore you wear Gore-Tex. I take my SUV to the Costco and fill it full of shit I don’t need and so do you. I trash the Earth for profit therefore you must do the same. Not naming the power that implemented unsustainability as a forced lifestyle for everyone is not only bad faith argumentation, it serves to maintain the dominance and the interests of the speaker. Petroleum based products, fossil fuel energy sources and associated lifestyles are considered inevitable, inescapable and final whilst still being painted as a choice. If I truly had choices at my disposal, if ancestral knowledge hadn’t been hammered out of my lineage through slavery, displacement, colonization, assimilation and oppression, if life on this planet was not ruled by unequal access to capital, if I wasn’t obligated to live in the sterile concrete of cities, if cities were not built of sterile concrete, if the housing stock available to us wasn't systematically outfitted with unsustainable heating and cooling systems, I would not be heating my house with natural gas. 

By not naming industrialisation, forced assimilation and relocation, the stripping of agency away from everyone not identified as white, the foundational violence and politics of erasure of settler societies, Eurocentric notions of progress, globalization and urbanisation under white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist and patriarchal systems that ruptured and swept away older, small scale, local and harmonious land based modes of existence as the reasons behind our current unsustainable lifestyles, dominant white power and interests are never acknowledged and challenged, cowing us into submission and postponing effective exploration of better alternatives. This is something that I often repeat to myself in my textile practice as a mantra, and is inspired by Kate Fletcher’s work: Realize that things are the way they are now because dominant cultural conditions intentionally created and maintained the current set up, squeezing out alternatives or making them appear unattractive. We deserve better alternatives. The first step towards this is liberating ourselves from the imposition of unsustainable white capitalist power and narratives and their insistence that they be our only reality.


“TransCanada has the approval of First Nations’ along the pipeline route.”

Knowing that the so-called “negotiations” regularly carried out between Indigenous communities and representatives of the white settler state and corporate colonialists are never conducted on truly equal footing, the word “approval” rings with hyperbolic mendacity. Arthur Manuel, in his book, “Unsettling Canada: A National Wake Up Call” traces a history of capitulation through coercion, trickery and desperation as the regular modus operandi during these “termination” table talks. One also has to address the problems within Indigenous communities of internalized racism and the espousal of white settler values garnered through state sponsored impoverishment, forced assimilation, cultural genocide, inter-generational trauma, interrupted knowledge inheritance systems and flat out “extinguishment” schemes and the problems of compromised and out of touch Indigenous leadership warped by decades of government and corporate funding. 

One of the Indigenous organizers of the solidarity event in Calgary declared on camera that for her, consent was “working hard to get a yes”. When colonial governments and corporations control the outcomes of any negotiation with First Nations and refuse to change anything in policy or approach or ends, when the inevitability of capitulation is accepted as a given on both sides, when opportunistic and self-serving Indigenous leaders and “the professional Indian negotiating class (…) negotiate to create processes because processes ensure them jobs and money, since government processes come with government funding pots” (A. Manuel, “Unsettling Canada”)… we are no longer talking about negotiation, we are not talking about approval and we are certainly not talking about consent. This is a tragic vaudeville paid for by impoverished Indigenous communities punished on all sides. The white man and those allied to his power don’t get to define the terms of consent. As explained previously, white men’s laws and injunctions have no bearing on unceded Indigenous territory and do not supersede Indigenous duty to stewardship and protection of the land, the water, their beings and for future generations. White Canada does not have and has never had the free, prior and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and therefore has no claims to development on this land. The approval of elected band members who operate only within the confines of their individual jurisdictions does not supersede or challenge the refusal of the hereditary chiefs. White settler illiteracy in understanding Indigenous hierarchies and the terms of engagement of Indigenous leadership is here greatly apparent.


“We won’t be ruled by a minority.”

The historical silencing of oppositional and marginalized voices by those in dominant positionalities is nothing new. How does this claim work? Accustomed to being top dog, anything contravening what is deemed as the natural order, the unassailable status quo, is met with aggressive silencing tactics and rationalization of oppression. Here, the threat is clear – settler whiteness painted as the right kind of majority will put its righteous boot in the face of the wrong kind of minority brown-ness. The numbers game is used to legitimize certain views and dismiss those who do not share in these views and stand opposed to their unhindered continuation. A perceived white majority can bowl over the claims of a perceived brown minority and their unwashed hippie allies because this sort of oppression is seen as human nature and inescapable, reinforced by history told through a white racial frame of reference and white supremacist socialization. The perceived reversal of this status quo is considered heresy, unnatural and translates the terror of white men at losing their dominant positionalities. White men in power, white men with money will do whatever it takes to maintain that power and that money and the systems that produce that money and that power at the expense of those that they see as expendable. They will also not hesitate to be bad at math – a couple dozen corporate clowns and underlings and their political overlords vs. a country up in arms and a world discovering Canada’s true trappings does not a majority make.


“They use the courts when it suits their purpose and get angry when it doesn’t work.”

White settler society needs to understand that Indigenous peoples are not beholden to white legal frames. Colonial legal recourses are used, and often at great cost to Indigenous communities, when they are seen as beneficial to upholding Indigenous rights and title. This is illustration enough of the insidious ways in which white supremacy operates – that those whose responsibility is chiefly to the land and to future generations and to all life forms, must make their plight fit into short sighted, anthropocentric white legal and cultural frames of reference in the hopes of being heard, respected, understood and frankly, left the fuck alone by white settler society’s grubby, grabby, capitalist hands. The inability by the white settler state to respect the rulings of its own colonial courts – the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa ruling that recognized continued Indigenous proprietorship over their territories and the Tsilhqot’in decision that recognized Aboriginal title on the ground to almost two thousand square kilometres of Tsilhqot’in territory by the Supreme Court of Canada and the signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by Canada in 2016, is proof that white people’s words aren’t worth the paper they sully. Indigenous peoples are rightfully angry and tired of being repeatedly bullied and discounted by the hypocritical, ethnocentric white settler state. 

Article 40 of UNDRIP states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to access to and prompt decision through just and fair procedures for the resolution of conflicts and disputes with States or other parties, as well as to effective remedies for all infringements of their individual and collective rights. Such a decision shall give due consideration to the customs, traditions, rules and legal systems of the indigenous peoples concerned and international human rights”. In short, Indigenous peoples have right of access to fair and just legal procedures. There is no downside to Indigenous peoples seeking justice and demanding that we respect their right to self-determination. We are all saved (often from our own damn selves) by this. Those who have been serving as stewards of the land for thousands of years, who have that knowledge and commitment woven into their cosmologies and cultures, the very things that we lack or have been divorced from, are the ones best suited to build a better, fairer, sustainable world for all of us. 

It is important to note the white victimhood at play in this statement – when white people don’t get their way, they lash out or start crying, and as any black or brown person knows, white tears are toxic and burdensome and potentially lethal. White victimization – the ability of dominant groups to swap the cloak of power for the one of persecution at will whenever their unending stream of privileges is interrupted or threatened - insulates white society from taking a hard and long look at itself and addressing the ugliness of its truth. Whiteness also has a history of whitewashing its crimes. The media has played a central role in the amplification and the justification of this, normalizing the white racial frame and pushing white perspectives and writers, racist ideology and the justification of racist animus to the fore. White settler interests paint themselves as benign, at worst, and usually beneficial and legitimate. Any challenge is therefore seen as an unforgivable attack, necessarily illegitimate that must be quashed at once. This statement invalidates Indigenous peoples seeking justice by reducing this quest to some sort of game stacked against self-appointed white victims. Relaying it, providing a platform for its free and unchallenged expression demonstrates complicity and vested interest in the racist status quo. The need to entertain the opinions of neon nazis and angry corporate colonizers should always be resisted.