Racism and Colonialism: Still Misunderstood

Racism and Colonialism: Still Misunderstood

This is a commentary responding to a letter to the editor of the Chronicle Journal, Thunder Bay, by Richard Mathews, Viewpoint article, October 8, A4: "Racism is misunderstood".

Mathews' discussion responds to a letter by a police officer taking issue with being labelled a "systemic racist", I gather, simply by virtue of being a police officer.  Unfortunately, Mathews fails to heed some of his own good advice: listening respectfully. As a result he does little to clarify our understanding of racism.

Mathews attempts to work an argument around the notion that individuals can't be "systemic racists" because "systemic racism" occurs at the level of the social system as a whole which he contrasts with "interpersonal racism" between individuals. The implication is that the police officer has confused the two, failing to appreciate that while he, the officer, may not be interpersonally racist, he, nevertheless, participates in a systemically racist society.

Mathews seems to ignore the officer's stated intent to "work collectively" with First Nations and his concerns about the "flawed system" which suggest the officer may not be as confused about the personal-systemic dynamic as Mathews' remarks suppose.

By contrast, I'm inclined to take the officer's remarks as saying (using Mathew's language), yes I may participate in a systemically racist society, but that does not mean I'm an "interpersonal racist" . Calling me a racist, ain't going to fix the system. Apparently, Mathews can't hear the officer saying this. I suspect he's not alone.

Which brings us to the key point, what is the relationship between interpersonal and systemic racism, as Mathews describes them.

Unless Mathews is a hardcore social determinist about such things, system issues are not simply necessary accidents, happening to individuals, operating at the social level. For example, the big 'isms', liberalism, communism, socialism, conservatism, etc., are all system-level forms of societal functioning and analysis. It does not follow that it is meaningless for individuals to claim to be liberals, communists, socialists, conservatives, etc., in order to portray their beliefs and actions at the interpersonal level and their intended effects at the systemic level.

Individuals' beliefs and actions contribute significantly to systemic, societal structures. That's one of the reasons why politics matters, why debate matters, why research matters, and why organized collective action matters. Mathews implies the officer confuses all of this.

For example, Mathews does not take us very far in dealing with "systemic racism", what I would rather call colonialism. And yet, it is likely that our organized beliefs and actions will be essential in order to democratically dismantle the colonial system.

Strangely, having suggested that the police officer misunderstands by confusing the two levels of racism, Mathews' goes on to do the same by offering solutions that largely only address interpersonal changes (listening, believing, sharing stories, accepting responsibility) without indicating how that might connect with eliminating the "imbalances and violence" he acknowledges exist at the systemic level.

His own account seems to indicate an all-too-typical example of missing the strategic difference between racism and colonialism: the strategic solution.

The strategic solution to racism is equality, whereas the strategic solution to colonialism is self-government.

Unfortunately, self-government gets no mention in Mathews' commentary, suggesting he is not going to clarify the relationship between the interpersonal and the systemic levels.

Mathews' suggested solutions are basically variations on equality, which is perfectly consistent with colonialism. Residential schools and the 1969 White Paper were two colonial attempts to achieve equality through assimilation.

Mathews does acknowledge the historical distinction between "conquered subjects" and "sovereign peoples" and characterizes reconciliation as "changing our economic, political and legal systems". However, it is not at all clear that that involves substantive nation-to-nation self-government or merely more equitable funding of child welfare services, nursing stations and working conditions, examples of imbalances and violence he specifically mentions.

Generally, colonial folks appear to latch onto the equality solution because it is consistent with their perception of the democratic principle of equality which emerged historically out of the struggle with an aristocratic society's principles of special rights and privileges.

Recall, in the context of East and West coast fisheries conflicts over traditional Indigenous rights, the non-native fishers complained about "race-based" fisheries. Racism will be used as an argument against self-government. That's why it's so important to build the anti-colonial argument on a different foundation than racial equality.

The historical and constitutional foundation of self-government in Canada is that First Nations, and I would include, la Nation Canadienne (French Canadians), and their children, the Métis Nation, were all living in self-governing societies at some point prior to the formation of the British-Canadian state. These nations have the right to self-determination and self-government. It is these nations which were colonized by the formation of the British-Canadian colonial state.

Was racism part of colonialism? Absolutely, however, we need to keep clear, that the important democratic value of equality is not used to submerge the equally important values of self-determination and self-government. Even when those latter values apply to minority populations. The democratic majority is supposed to be kept in check by the rule of law (the court system) which recognizes minority rights (section 35, 1982).

In summary, by dismissing the police officer's remarks as misunderstanding types of racism, Mathews seems to have failed to hear and understand what the officer was saying about the relationship between his experience as an individual (a police officer) and system-level stereotypes (the police): you can't fix the systemic colonial relationship by calling me a racist. On that, I entirely agree with the cop.

By strategically focusing on racial inequality, Mathews merely facilitates the colonial strategy of distracting us from the key systemic solution to colonialism which is self-government.

Here is the original article "Racism is misunderstood":

Here is the anonymous letter Mathews refers to "Police bashing rhetoric has to stop":