In Canada, its never about race

A black immigrant in Toronto waves a household object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and most-importantly — dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon but their cries are ignored. Finally, they are forced to shoot him. He dies. A familiar tragedy.

In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant who was killed in his Manchester Ave. home on a Sunday morning holding a lawn edger. His death led to protests from the black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU. In 2015 the man is Andrew Loku, an refugee from South Sudan, who was killed holding a hammer. His death was investigated by the SIU; the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Separated by nearly forty years, both men died unnecessarily at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly haunting about both incidents is not merely the horrors of police violence nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the white Canadian media. In both Johnson’s and Loku’s cases white Canadian law enforcement, media, and judiciary frame the killings as unfortunate incidents & sad tragedies rather than as the racist behaviour of a racist society. The identical responses to both killings demonstrates very clearly how anti-black racism is at the heart of Canadian public discourse.

Black Lives Matter? Multiculturalism & Race

This post originally appeared in Now Magazine:

The shooting death of Andrew Loku by a Toronto police officer on July 5 is hauntingly similar to the killing of Albert Johnson by police in 1979.

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The shootings are separated by nearly 40 years, but both men were shot in their homes on a Sunday morning. Both were wielding household objects, Loku a hammer, Johnson garden shears. Both were black. And in both cases mental illness was cited as a contributing factor in their deaths.

Exhibit B — “fixed in the ether of history”

I’m particularly troubled by Luminato’s recent efforts to bring Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B to Toronto. Bailey’s artistic arrangement (creation? performance?) purports to represent the history of human zoos and link them to contemporary politics of surveillance, control, and imprisonment of racialized bodies. Bailey sees a continuum between the racist thinking of human zoos, the white supremacist devaluing of black bodies and subjects and contemporary imprisonment of so-called illegal migrants. Critics of his work however suggest that Bailey’s work reproduces the very structures of racism that he purports to critique and merely offers a space for white liberals to experience guilt while offering a space to gaze upon prostrate, abused, and denigrated black bodies.

Kehinde Andrews argues that “The exhibit invites liberals to feel the “discomfort” of their colonial history while fawning over the naked and prostrate black body” and perpetuates “the idea that black people are passive agents to be used as conduits for white people to speak to each other.” Rinaldo Walcott‘s series of tweets in response to the exhibit dispute Bailey’s claim that human zoos & their accompanying logic are a thing of the past. He also reminds us of the history of white liberal’s gazing at black bodies and insists that Exhibit B is nothing more than a continuation of devaluing, fetishizing, abusing, and dehumanizing black bodies in the interest of white liberalism. Walcott writes:

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Walcott also stresses the structural power that promotes artists like Bailey to talk about race & representation [as part of this he unfairly suggests that “you can’t trust” the words of actors in these pieces — because they wouldn’t critique Bailey because they need the work. This is a problematic and unfair speaking-for on Walcott’s part that dismisses views that don’t accord with his own]. He writes that “Only white men get to decide what is to be seen” and “White men always want to see art that subjects black people.”

Walcott’s focus on seeing implicates both the innate structures of white supremacy that support the decision to stage Bailey’s piece as well as the acts of seeing and gazing that the white spectator engages in when they attend the performance. Christina Sharpe extends Walcott’s critique:

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Coonskin: Redux

What I find surprising in the critical and personal responses I’ve heard to Django Unchained is the unwillingness to discuss what notions of race the film traffics in. What is Tarantino’s vision of blackness and whiteness and how does his aesthetic mode of borrowing from every movie he’s ever seen contribute to his notion of race, cultural difference, and racism?

The feud between Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee is one point of entry for discussing Django Unchained. Lee refuses to see the film arguing that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

At the heart of Lee’s critique, and much of the debate over Django Unchained are the questions of historical appropriation — who has the right to tell particular stories — and the question of realism. The latter question really asks, how can we tell particular stories? Is it disrespectful, irresponsible, or racist to depict slavery as a spaghetti western or in an unreal fashion?

I find it interesting that the question of race and the representation of racial difference always seems to gravitate around notions of realism. First of all, these forms of representation are haunted by the question of whether race, itself, is real. If we agree that race is not, of course, a scientific reality, then what is it? Secondly, what forms of cultural representation can do justice to the very real historical and contemporary practices of racism without affirming race itself as somehow real?