Race, Representation, and Good Intentions
By Bruno Cornellier
This morning, I read Chandra Mayor’s review of Debbie Paterson’s Sargent and Victor & Me (The Winnipeg Review, 28 February 20014). After reading Mayor’s text, I was shocked. Not by Debbie Paterson’s play (I haven’t seen it, and I know that she is a talented, clever, creative, and well-intended artist and performer). I was not shocked either by Chandra Mayor’s review (which I find quite insightful and useful for reasons other than her evaluation of the play itself). I was shocked by Gordon Tanner’s hostile response and Internet campaign against Mayor’s review. Tanner’s text is very revealing of the kind of unease I sometimes feel in Winnipeg when we attempt to do critical work about questions of race, identity, and representation. It seems that some of the only moments of real intensity in such debates correspond to the hostile backlash against the very people inviting us to think critically about these issues.
This is something that the few courageous people who publicly spoke about the problem of cultural appropriation around the WAG’s “well intended” celebration of “yellowface” a few weeks ago, also had to deal with: public outrage and extremely hostile responses and personal attacks. And why? Because these people/critics/intellectuals/students/citizens dared us to critically reflect on our own privilege as white subjects (regardless of our intentions, good or bad) when we encounter, represent, talk about, or mimic those who are implicitly designated as “others”. By simply disqualifying these critics’ intervention with statements akin to a reactionary “How dare you,” these kinds of anti-intellectual “pushes back” end conversations, foreclose dialogue, and validate the comfort of those who think it is enough to have “good intentions” when faced with their own accountability as people who are unequally located in a deeply racialized society.
Nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologists often had great intentions, and often felt genuine love, for the people they were living with and either trying to save, document, study, or represent. And yet, the lived, material, and persistent effect of their actions (and representations) on (or about) “these other people” can hardly be overlooked on account of the missionary’s or the anthropologist’s “good intentions”. And the fact that some of “these people” genuinely appreciated these actions or the way they were being represented by scholars or religious benefactors does not negate the importance of the critical work of others. Here again, I am not trying to compare Ms. Patterson to these missionaries (I repeat: I haven’t seen her play). Hence, my problem is not so much with Patterson’s work, as it is with Tanner’s dismissive response to criticism itself.
Race is much more complicated than racism. It is a malleable and multifaceted social and ideological phenomenon. It is not simply about designating who are the “bad racists” and who are the “good non-racists” (which is the least productive form of antiracist strategy). As subjects (white, black, brown, aboriginal, etc.), we are all located in a society and a modernity that has been constructed on race-thinking, and we differently profit from this powerful and residual legacy. We may want to think that we live in a post-racial world, but any attempt to deny the political traction of race in our society has the effect of reminding how powerfully these markers continue to structure our social and material lives. As such, we are all (consciously or not, and at different levels) understanding each other through race-thinking, and we are all speaking in a political and cultural language that is inflected by race and race-thinking.
What Chandra Mayor invites us to do is to be self-reflexive about the meaning and the power of our iterations (as white subjects) when we speak of/for “others”. And on my part, I invite us to stop hiding behind the liberal argument of “good intentions” (my intentions were good, therefore I have indemnity, I am a “good subject”). As white settlers in this country, we need to get involved in the difficult task of unlearning our racial privilege, and learn instead to be more accountable for the language we use and the representational tradition we locate ourselves in. Colonialism, in a settler state like Canada, is not simply something that was done in the past by “bad racists.” It is something that is happening in the present. It is about all of us because we do continue to profit from colonialism and indigenous dispossession (some more than others).
In our attempts to show sympathy towards Aboriginal people, we often unwillingly replicate some discursive or representational traditions stemming from missionary, “old school” anthropological, and colonial modes of thinking. This does not necessarily make us all “bad subjects” or “abject racists.” Instead of reactionary self-defense, what is needed from us is to acknowledge the reality of our colonial present, and to recognize that language and discourse are not simply about personal expression or sensitivity; the representational and discursive traditions we inherit and inhabit shape the way we perceive each other and understand each other. As such, they shape the way we experience each other, and ourselves, as well as the way we treat each other. In other words, representation shapes our material world. It shapes public policies. It shapes interests and indifferences. It shapes patronizing forms of pity/piety, as well as mediates our capacity for empathy. It shapes (for the better or the worse) our experiences and understandings of our social and material world.
We must stop taking language and representation for granted, and stop hiding behind our good intentions. To be accountable and self-critical is to have the humility to recognize that despite our best intentions, we may be wrong or misguided in our unintentional inhabitance of colonial modes of thinking, speaking, and representing. Once again, it doesn’t necessarily make us “bad subjects”. However, we must be ready to listen and to acknowledge the limitations of our intentions and knowledge. As a white Canadian man and settler, I still have a lot of unlearning to do myself when it comes to my own racial and gender privilege. And I thank Chandra Mayor for so eloquently and generously inviting me (and us) to be part of this pedagogical process of unlearning and accountability.