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by Radhika Bhagat, Dean Quiring
"Racism occurs when a particular way of viewing the world becomes exclusive, will not entertain and negotiate with competing world views."
LIKE MANY SOCIAL ACTIVISTS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, we have sought to develop anti-racist practices, empower and remove barriers for the groups we serve. Increasingly, however, we have become uncomfortable with how these particular terms shape our understanding of these issues. We will attempt to briefly unpack the term "anti-racism" as it relates to empowerment and barriers, in order to show how these expressions dichotomize complex issues, ignore subtle dimensions and affect our involvement in "anti-racist" work.
Anti-racism. Stated in these terms the issue of racism becomes too cleanly split. A person is against racism or for it. At times one wonders if anyone is racist. Few in Canadian society openly state they are racist even though racist comments and activities can often be heard and seen in various settings such as cafes, bars and in institutions like education, health and justice. Racists are commonly perceived as people who belong to certain political parties or shave their heads, wear jackboots and shout blatant racist slurs rather than your co-worker, your mother or above all yourself. Dichotomizing racism facilitates an environment where only the most blatant comments or actions are recognized and addressed. Racism is a far more elusive construct than this. While there are many theories as to why racism exists, one strand of racism theory explores how racism may be embedded in one's world view or rationality.
"Rationality" establishes an ordering of information. As information is ordered and classified, a value judgment is being made as to its importance. In part, different world views can be accounted for through this process of ordering, classifying and valuing. An example of how "valuing" is embedded in ordering and classifying and reflective of a particular world view was a professionally produced poster we saw in an elementary school. The poster, which was placed in the school library, proclaimed the richness and wonder of the world's languages. Eight European languages were labelled with non European languages designated as "other". The school's population is largely made up of students of East and South Asian ancestry. Through this visual medium, the educational institution excluded the identities of the majority of students. Racism can be an unconscious expression of a particular world view. Racism occurs when a particular way of viewing the world becomes exclusive, will not entertain and negotiate with competing world views.
The "empowerment" of individuals and groups affected by racism is often seen as an aspect of being engaged in "anti-racist work". Implicit in the term "empowerment", however, is a power relation, "I have some power, you don't". Many in the health care sector attempt to make services accessible to all groups by addressing issues of race and diversity.
Often, groups perceived as marginalized are "empowered" by removing barriers to care. These actions generally stem from the workers' worldview and professional socialization of what it means to be marginalized and "empowered". Recently, one of the authors was engaged in qualitative research looking at the breast health practices of South Asian women. As a research team, we entered the study focusing on barriers to service these women. The women, however, spoke about their images of cancer, fears about this disease, how a diagnosis impacts the family, and resources they used to cope. Barriers to care were a small component of the story told. Terms such as "empowerment" and "barriers" can provide us with a false preconceived notion of the experiences of racial groups. The resulting approach can ignore or negate the skills, strengths and resources already existing in the group.
In order to unpack "anti-racism", we need to better understand the complexities of racism. Understanding racism begins by recognizing that it is a continuum that all racial groups rest on. Racism is not a dichotomy. We all see the world through a racial lens. We order, classify and value according to our world views. No matter how "progressive" we see ourselves as being, it is a personal issue that needs to be continually addressed. Seeing racism as a personal issue can help create a mindful- ness about our daily thoughts and actions. A mindfulness that helps us recognize it is a short and slippery slope to the beliefs and actions of those we'd like to think we have nothing in common with.
Radhika Bhagat works as a Community Health Nurse in Vancouver. Dean Quiring is an ESL Teaching Consultant with the Richmond School Board.
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