On the backs of the oppressed.
“When my three sisters and I were little, my father told us that because of our skin colour there would be many instances when we would have to be far better than everyone else just to get the same level of respect. What a terrible thing for a parent to have to tell their child. What a terrible weight for a child to have to carry.” —Kwame Twumasi-Boateng
Last weekend, I volunteered as a facilitator for an anti-racism summit here in my new hometown. This new city is markedly less diverse than my previous one, and my difference—in skin color, ethnicity, and mannerisms—is often glaring. There have been overt racist encounters, yes, but there have been many more subtle, smaller instances as well; so-named micro-aggressions that are not noticeable to anyone but the person being aggrieved.
This is why I was so excited to volunteer at the anti-racism summit: Canada likes to think that it is better than our neighbors to the south, but the reality is that racism is just as insidious, if not as overt, here in our diverse, tolerant country.
There are many recaps of the event online, so I won’t go into details, but there is one thing that still bothers me. During the summit, the City Manager stood and told the crowd that City Hall was taking racism seriously, and that he had been tasked to write an anti-racism strategy, and that we should “commit to helping him.”
At its core, this is the problem with efforts at inclusion in this city: they are always positioned us vs. them, even when the vs. is friendly. Instead of saying, “you live with this every day, how can I help write a strategy that reflects your experience,” there was a paternalism to the City Manager’s statement; we don’t have to commit to helping you, Mr. Zuidema, because we live this reality EVERY SINGLE DAY. We are already invested because we can’t escape the discrimination we are decrying.
James Shelley captured it well when he said that exclusionary elitism lurks behind the rhetoric of inclusion:
Not only do bureaucracies often assume at the outset to know ‘the answers’, but they even more dangerously assume they are asking the right questions. In this forum, the ‘right question’ was not, ‘Will you commit to the process of helping City Hall fix racism?’ To think this is an appropriate question is to effectively demonstrate that you were not even listening the last time you invited people ‘to be heard’. It is, instead, perceived as a reiteration of the experience that ‘racialized communities already shoulder disproportionate burden of process.’ (How many times would you personally accept invitations to sit around tables with ‘the decision-makers’ if your previous consultations had not led to change?)
Exclusionary elitism lurks behind the rhetoric of inclusion. Who has the power to set the terms of this engagement? — this is the unasked question that almost all engagement stratagems complacently take for granted.
Inclusiveness is only a preoccupation for those with the power to consider themselves includers or excluders.
The next time someone asks me, “oh, what brings you to this neighborhood?” when I am mere steps away from my own house (it happens more often than you think), I will remember how, sadly still, the task of reaching equality lies disproportionately on the backs of the oppressed.