A lot of the hype surrounding Avatar stems primarily from two divergent schools of thought. The first puts the emphasis on the technology that rendered the diegetic world of Pandora come to life, while recognizing that the storyline itself had many of the stock characters and tropes that are abundant in adventure films. The other school of thought does exactly the opposite. While identifying the unique nature of the cinematography, it dwells on the plot and its components, sometimes blowing things out of proportion to an extent to suggest that Avatar is a “racist” film. All the reviews of the film Avatar that I have been exposed to fall in one of these two camps and it seems a comprehensive cinematic analysis for a general audience is yet to be done. So here I go, taking you through my utter apathy for the Avatar franchise.
When movies are made, there are a lot of different influences that affect the finished product. Unlike a lot of books, paintings and music, films generally don’t have a real auteur. This makes it quite complicated to attribute all parts of a film to a single entity, or the meaning that is derived from it. However, the average audience does not care about the politics of representation in a film or at least pretends not to, but being oblivious to it does not enable them to escape the cognitive biases through the images portrayed onscreen, as they passively sit in the darkness of a movie theatre. Similar to the climate, trends in culture don’t just arise due to spontaneous generation, and this is the reason for it.
I’m more interested in what the commotion about Avatar means for us as a society. In North America, we often like to think of ourselves as a generally tolerant and fairly liberal society that has moved on from the baggage of racism, slavery, colonialism and sexism. Despite this, individual groups of people are still very much affected by these things in terms of how they perceive others. So, when films like Avatar cause an audience to become very much polarized in their opinions, all of the closeted biases of people come to light, and others, like me who were generally unenthused by both the cinematography and the general performance can distantiate themselves to understand what it all means.
The Na’avi are characterized as these apparently idealistic and harmonious group of humanoids that live symbiotically with the environment around them; led by an unquestioned benevolent chief who maintains peace. This is apparently all fine and dandy by us, although the idea of cults promising utopia is not foreign to us. That’s only because it is juxtaposed against this is the seemingly corrupt human society with purely materialistic goals. This is the sort of dualism that engages the audience, setting up expectations so you immediately know which group you want to side with. It doesn’t really matter anymore that that Na’avi are actually pretty darn superstitious and primitive by our standards, and that in reality, they would be the proverbial others for our concretely civilized world. We simply choose not to look at that because blue tree-worshipping humanoids are much more exciting than anything that is more moderate and less-idealized. Idealization of anything has a broad appeal and titillates the yearning for the simplistic in the hearts and minds of a generally lackadaisical audience.
A romantic plotline is always a plus for any potential blockbuster. It baffles me how after years of supposed breakthrough in the way people think about relationships (i.e. through the feminist and sexual revolutions), a good old fashioned romp in the forest readily turns into true love, even when it’s quasi-bestial. Time and time again, it reaffirms the traditional hierarchy and paradigm about relationships that is prevalent as if the aforementioned social movements might as well have not happened.
The special effects of Avatar is likely to be the most salient feature to be remembered for years to come, when the socio-cultural underpinnings of the film have been analyzed to death. The concept of having the actors perform the movements of the animated figures is definitely a remarkable breakthrough, though not enough to salvage Avatar from a generally overrated movie.
I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Avatar overall. It just didn’t keep its promise of an escape, which posing as a regular moviegoer, I sought. It didn’t show me escape. It took me on a roundabout trip around the regular power play between groups of people and a heternormatively driven subplot. Simply nothing awesome to be shaken up by.
Crossposted at: http://thylacinereports.wordpress.com
A 25-year-old Mohawk Women, Tiffany Morrison, went missing since June 18, 2006 and has never been seen since. The tragic story of not only Morrison but other Native women indicates the degradation of the status of Native women in their community and the continuing violence that are inflicted upon them. Authorities fail to take necessary precautions to ensure the safety of Native women which, calls into question whether the Canadian government is really committed in ending its history of violence, and oppression.
Before European contact, women were treated as equal to men in their societies. In Iroquoian and West Coast Longhouse Societies there were always both men and women leaders. They often took on leadership roles and had full voice when making decisions for the community. However, the forced assimilating of Native societies into the colonial hierarchical and patriarchal societies’ culture created gender inequity within Native communities.
Colonization has affected the way Native communities viewed women. Women face both racism and sexism. They also face high level of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. More importantly, they are underrepresented in political spectrums which results in male bias. One of the most influential Acts contributing to female- male inequality is the Indian Act of1876. In the Indian Act, all Native women lost access to their original communities as well as the right to participate in the leadership of the communities. Native women marrying non-status men or white men lose their status and their children’s status as Indians. This puts Native women in difficult situations since even if separated from her husband she will not gain back her Indian status and will not be able to go back home to her reservation. Native women marrying into another band will loses membership in her original band and gain membership into her husband’s band. However, gaining membership into her husband’s band does not mean that she also gains power, voice, and influence. Originally, men moved to the women’s community and the women were the head of the Clan. The Indian Act forces women to move to her husband’s band which means that she is no longer the head of the Community. Among many of her loss were her voice, her influence, her power, her family, her community, her dignity, her respect, and overall her Identity. It stops annuity and interest money for any women who had no children and who left her husband to live with another man. Only unmarried women could apply to be enfranchised. Married women were automatically enfranchised when their husbands apply and are qualified. These policies and programs are a way of controlling as well as assimilating Native societies into the colonial hierarchical, patriarchal societies’ culture. For example, children were placed in residential schools, away from their traditional learning and parents to teach them western culture. The “sixties scoop” placed Native children into non-Native homes, which was another attempt to integrate them into western society. These laws that were formed by the colonial and patriarchal mind set limit the ability for Aboriginal self- government to achieve success.
In traditional Native government women and men had an equal role to play in decision making. Political decisions were never made without the presence of both women and men. This type of government was the most successful in achieving community needs. The combinations of colonial and patriarchal bias resulted in the insensitivity to gender, culture, community well-being, and disrupted the relationship between women and men. Policy makers function in a colonial and patriarchal mind set, which ignores women’s needs. Hence, it is clear that colonialism has greatly created inequality among men and women in the Native community. The European way of life and legislature striped the status of women.
“There are intensely wound layers of sexism and racism that are at the root of countless acts of violence against Aboriginal women and at the root of inaction to protect and advocate for Aboriginal women.” (Tantoo Cardinal)
Today the realities of many Native women are similar to that of Tiffany Morrison. Indigenous women are more likely than other women to be victims of violence. Racist and sexist stereotyping of Native women encourage some men, predominately from non-Native communities with acts of hatred towards them. Government policies that broke apart Indigenous family put Native women and girls into vulnerable situations. Many police fail to put into effect the necessary measures to ensure their right to safety.
Not only white middle class men but other migrants to Canada must realize that very fact that we are living on stolen land and contributing to colonization gives us the responsibility to recognize our privilege that originates from the subordination of Native communities
There are no excuses for denial of justice and there are no excuses for the silence.
I remember walking out of my first year Introduction to Women and Gender Studies class, mesmerized after a passionate reenactment by a fellow student of Sojouner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech. Truth, an ex-slave, African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist is best known for her speech, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Truth’s speech was a direct indication of the racist and class bias that existed in the Early Women’s Movement. The repetitions of the words ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ in the speech exposed the fact that all women in the Early Women’s Movement did not include Native Women, Women of Colour, and Women of the lower class.
The origin of European feminist thinking involved comparing the ‘savage’ society to that of western ‘development’. British white middle class women compared themselves to ‘primitive’ women and saw themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘superior’. The idea that British women were progressive depended upon the belief that oriental women were in a primitive sate. Western feminist argued that non-western societies were in a savage stage of human development and that the women in those societies were helpless victims of male dominance and violence. This created a division of hierarchy within women themselves, the savage and the progressive, the colonized and the colonizers, western women and oriental women, Christian women and non-Christian women. The hierarchy within women roots from the notion that Christianity and the enlightenment raised humans from the Primitive stage of development to a more enlightened stage.
We must question the very notion of a single united women’s movement. The women’s liberation movement did not consist of one homogeneous group. The generalization in politics of essential gender identity and not acknowledging the differences that exist among women puts women of colour and Native women in difficult social and economic situations. It is important to consider the intersectional identities of these women based on race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and more, before creating and enforcing social programs and services.
The Marriage Fraud act of 1990 in the United States requires a person who immigrated to USA to marry a US citizen or permanent resident to remain properly married for two years before applying to become permanent resident. Under these conditions many immigrant women of colour were reluctant to leave an abusive marriage. Later this act was amended to include an exception in the case of domestic violence. However, the limited access to resources and the cultural barriers make it difficult for women of colour to gather enough evidence of domestic violence.
The double subordination of immigrant women of colour comes from the language barrier which makes it difficult to access resources without them depending on their spouses. Another problem maybe the isolation faced by many new comers in their new environment. In these cases women depend on their spouses to provide links to the outside world. Women of colour are the product of both racism and sexism which are the bases of marginalization.
Roma kids in Belgrade. Source: _sid_ on flickr
Europe’s Forgotten Homo Sacer (1)
Between June 4th and 7th citizens of the 27 member-states of the European Union will elect representatives to the European Parliament. Absent from the voter lists, however, will be millions of internal exiles. Despite having lived in Europe for as long as any other peoples currently residing and working in the European Union (EU), they remain invisible, undocumented, and overlooked. These are the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies.
Since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Marshall Plan, Europe became more politically and economically integrated and interdependent. The transition to the transnational integration of markets and the free exchange of goods was seen as an essential post-war policy. The United States and Western Europe produced a strategy for the continent to oppose the Soviet Union and its satellite states, who had reached the gates of western Europe and could feel the pulse of western capitalism. What was a largely economic association (known then as the European Economic Community) soon developed into a political body and was renamed the European Union. This body has focused until today on co-ordination of economic growth and universal policy commitments on governance, human rights, culture, and development.
Today, the EU resembles a super-state made up of over two-dozen governments. Beyond the policies of state co-ordination, progress, and growth, strict policies prohibit and restrict migration and immigration from non EU states. Unimpeded freedom of capital and labour within EU borders, however, is encouraged. Undocumented economic migrants and refugees fleeing to the EU are usually interned in camps when caught, deported by member states and organizations like the International Organization for Migration, or join the ever-growing exploited class of workers without rights, status, and protection. (2) “Fortress Europe,” as it is always often called, now exerts immense control over the domestic policy of states, and its influence permeates every sphere of life. Despite this power, the EU has been unable to change the lives of the 12 million Roma who live within its borders. They remain relegated to a status of internal exiles.
Long before the EU was created, the Roma were already “integrated” throughout the states of Europe. Their freedom of movement was not guaranteed by treaties or statutes, but by the reality of their lives. Chased from every corner of Europe and persecuted in every country they settled in, the Roma are met with hostility in lands they have inhabited since the 9th century BCE. Even today, this has not changed, despite the official resolutions, statements, and promises from the EU. Although they share a common Indian ancestry, there are few clear characteristics that allow comparison and identification of each country-specific Roma community with any other in Europe. Dialects, customs, and ways of life vary. The only clear characteristic that all diverse Roma groups have in common is their social status in each country of the EU. In every state, they are poorer, receive less formal education, and more marginalised than their non-Roma compatriots. (3) In many cases, unemployment in Roma communities is over 50%. (4) Access to public health, social assistance, and unemployment networks is restricted and often leads to further persecution.
The genocide of the Roma during World War II, in which 25% of their population was eliminated by the Nazis, is relatively well known. (5) Yet most citizens of the EU do little to address the inhuman conditions that the Roma continue to live in. The cameras and pens of the world press largely ignore the predicament of Europe’s most oppressed minority. Recent events in Italy and the Czech Republic, however, have alerted reporters and citizens about the chronic repression Roma people have been forced to endure. Last May, a wave of anti-Roma attacks dominated the Italian press. These attacks were in response to thefts and rapes that were allegedly perpetrated by Roma youth against what the media called the “domestic population”. In one occasion, a molotov cocktail was thrown into a camp outside Naples. Roma women and children were attacked by far-right gangs, allegedly for stealing. (6) The government responded by proposing radical and drastic measures, including the bulldozing of Roma camps, deportations, arrests, raids, and even called in the army to police certain districts of Rome. (7) Human Rights Watch has often condemned the heavy-handed and repressive policies of the Italian government surrounding the issue of Roma and immigrant rights. (8) Yet media reports surrounding the attacks focused on the supposed criminal nature of Roma populations in Europe and on an allegedly inherent tendency towards illegality. Missing from coverage was the painful history and sub-human living conditions that Roma people are subjected to, and any relation this may have with the thefts.
Neo-nazis and fascists often exploit thefts and crime as a pre tense to launch attacks and campaigns of hate against Roma and other minority groups in Europe. In the Czech Republic, extreme right-wing gangs recently attacked houses belonging to Roma, and in one particularly horrific incident, left a two year old girl burns on over 80% of her body. (9) More troublesome is the fact that nationalist parties throughout Europe have been using the question of immigration and growing minority populations as an opportunity to propose reactionary measures in the forthcoming EU parliament elections. (10) In Italy, Greece, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and other states, nationalist parties have enjoyed a dramatic ascendance in recent years. They have capitalized on the failed policies of the EU and the resulting anti-immigrant sentiment their failure has generated. Expressing the deep and latent racism of European society, but also flawed EU policies, these parties encourage hatred and propose Nazi-like “final solutions” to the problems that European integration has brought.
The conditions in the Czech Republic became so bad this past year that many Roma people fled the country. Hundreds of them came to Canada. 2008 saw a 993% increase in immigration applications from the Czech Republic. (11) Since the winter of 2007, over 1000 Czech nationals fleeing persecution have sought refuge in Canada, most of them arriving in the GTA. When Canada lifted its visa-requirements for immigration with the Czech Republic in 1994, Canada received over 4,000 immigration requests, the overwhelming majority of them from Czech Roma. (12) These trends reflect the enduringly dire situation the Roma people live in. The European elections will come and go, but the crisis that plagues Europe’s largest and most neglected minority will remain. This crisis must be addressed systemically if the oppression of the Roma, and that of all other minorities, is to be eradicated. Canada remained silent about this issue during its annual Canada-EU summit on May 6th.
The summit, chaired by the Czech president, presented an opportunity to raise the issue directly, however the final declaration of the summit says nothing about the Roma. (13)
We can not allow for the oppression of the Roma to remain invisible. They are now here in their thousands and, like other communities, face a colossal struggle to gain status, find stable employment, and establish a dignified existence. The Roma, like every other immigrant group in Canada, must not be forced to substitute one type of exploitation for another. Only common organization and struggle that will address the greater issues facing immigrants can win justice and freedom for these oppressed communities.
1. This term refers to a classification in Roman law. It is attributed to a banned, exiled, and ostracized person.
4. D. Ringold, Roma and the Transition in Central and Eastern Europe: Trends and Challenges, World Bank, Washington DC, 2000, pp.10-16.
Since the initial publication of this piece, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has allegedly been killed by the Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers have surrendered. According to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaska this victory in his military campaign against the LTTE has ushered in an era of peace on the island. Thus, the demands we made below for a ceasefire may now appear moot. However, because of the Sri Lankan government’s continued refusal to address the structural problems that led to Tamil discontent in the first place and its refusal to acknowledge the horrific manner by which it killed thousands of Tamil civilians in the Vanni in just this latest round of war, there is enough reason to believe that violence will flare up again in the country, perhaps sooner rather than later. Any peace that does not recognise its own limitations will be shortlived. For this reason, despite the ending of Eelam War IV, it is still necessary that we work toward more humane alternatives, involving strategies to push the Sri Lankan state into a political resettlement.
– May 19.
The recent burst of mass mobilizations by sections of the Canadian-Tamil community in Toronto has brought to the fore several contradictions concerning the conflict in Sri Lanka and its presence in and connection to Canada. Mainstream media’s responses to the protests have been overwhelmingly racialist, exposing many of the limits of Canadian multiculturalism. In order for Canadian multiculturalism to accept any given group of people as a cultural community, it must define that group by differentiating it from a supposedly mainstream Canadian identity. This focalising Canadian identity—in effect a non-identity—is white and middle-class. Thus, when the Toronto Star publishes an editorial entitled “Protesters vs. the public”1 it effectively notes that the protesters are not part of the public by pitting (Tamil) protesters against the (Canadian) public. Rather than focusing on the war, media outlets have focused on the inconvenience posed to commuters, thereby shifting attention away from deaths in Sri Lanka to traffic regulations in Canada. Consequently, responses to the protests have largely demonstrated pernicious xenophobia. For instance, in the Toronto Sun, Peter Worthington argues that not using excessive force (e.g., water cannons) against Tamil protesters who block streets is tantamount to “reverse racism” against white Canadians.2
But if the coverage of the protests has made certain contradictions about the performance of cultural politics in public spaces in Canada apparent, other contradictions about the negotiation of those politics within cultural communities have also been rendered largely invisible. The impetus comes, once again, from a multiculturalism that defines ethnic, immigrant identities against a supposedly mainstream, local one. The act of defining a cultural community necessarily ignores the cultural, economic, and political differences that exist within that community. When these differences are ignored, political representation to mainstream political actors (i.e. those in the government, political parties, and state apparatuses) is mediated by non-elected, self-appointed community “leaders” who may not, and often do not, capture all cultural and political differences. In fact, the very articulation of those differences is precluded: a-cultural white English-speaking Canadians may lean left or right as individuals, or as voting blocs based on class and region, but the articulation of such political differences is absent in the representations of the politics of minority communities. The responses of politicians, activists, journalists, police and vocal sections of the public to the rallies protesting the war provide key examples of this.
The responses of politicians and police officials who addressed themselves to “the Tamil community” falsely suggest that all the protesters were Tamil and that all of Toronto’s Tamils supported the protests. The paternalism of Mayor David Miller’s deciding to tell “the Tamil community” what it “needs to hear from us”3 (whoever “us” is) feeds into the blatant racism expressed by other elements of the public. Thus, for instance, in The Globe & Mail Christie Blatchford uses the demonstrations to question not just protest tactics, but also the immigration policies that, according to her, have led to the presence of a worryingly large number of Tamils in Toronto.4
Parallel to Miller’s homogenization, though coming from the opposite direction, veteran dissident leftist Judy Rebick notes on her blog that, “in a brilliant action, the Tamil community [...] climbed the on ramp on to the Gardiner Expressway [...] and sat down blockading traffic for several hours.”5 While the action, as an object lesson in activist tactics, was brilliant, one can say with certainty that “the Tamil community” neither climbed onto nor sat down on the Gardiner. Rather, a more correct terminology would be what Rebick subsequently calls “a group of Tamil activists.” The tenor of her blog post, however, confirms that she views the Tamil community in homogenous terms. She goes so far as to end her post with the note that “we are all Tamils,” a statement that is problematic on two grounds. First, working in solidarity with others requires acknowledging the lived differences that separate us so that we might use those differences for the purposes of justice, rather than discounting them out of an unhelpfully over-forced empathy. Second, that kind of statement presupposes that there is only one kind of Tamil identity, which everyone else can access. Yet if Tamilness is an identity constructed solely on the basis of one’s presence at or support for the protests, not even all Tamils can be called such.
If Toronto’s Tamil population is being flattened into one homogenized entity by politicians and many leftist activists, that process is certainly not being opposed by some sections of Toronto’s Tamil community. The Canadian Tamil Congress, one of Toronto’s more prominent Tamil political groups, notes that it is “the unified voice of Canada’s 300,000 Tamils.”6 Its FAQ page shows that it ascribes to all Sri Lankan Tamils the desire for a separate homeland (Tamil Eelam).7 The history and current reality of a diversity of non-communal and Tamil organizations and individuals within and without Sri Lanka, with varying goals and political objectives—and varying definitions of self-determination for Tamil people—is elided by this construction of Tamil identity. It is impossible for the CTC to be the unified voice of Tamils when Tamils don’t have a unified voice. In other words, to return to Rebick’s rallying cry, we are not all Tamil, if only because there is no one Tamil identity we can be.
At many of the protests, the LTTE-designed national flag of Tamil Eelam (which shares the Tiger emblem) has been a prominent fixture, LTTE soldiers have been venerated as freedom fighters, the prospect of Eelam has been seen as a necessary solution to the war, and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has been venerated as a national leader. While this set of views may be influential and even hegemonic within Toronto’s Tamil diaspora, it is not universal. Just as the actions of many of the Tamil demonstrators are not and cannot be the actions of “the Tamil community,” so too are the opinions expressed at these demonstrations not those of “the Tamil community.” In fact, those are not even necessarily the views of all of the protesters present at the rallies, but dissenting, non-LTTE views are not being heard.
To signal toward complexity and difference within Tamil communities is not to deny the Sinhala ethnic chauvinism of the government of Sri Lanka; its use of undemocratic and authoritarian practices to crush dissent; or its use of mass murder, ethnic cleansing and internal colonization against Sri Lankan Tamils. Nor is it to deny that militant Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka has largely been a response to the systematized and legislated discrimination of the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE is, in fact, a legitimate national resistance movement and was—until recently— the de facto governing entity in several parts of Sri Lanka. However, in its progress toward and current operation of that position, it too has often represented an ideology of ethno-religious chauvinism; has used undemocratic and authoritarian practices to crush resistant views and movements–including against dissident Tamils; and has used mass murder, ethnic cleansing and internal colonization against Muslims. The point here is not that the LTTE is just as bad as the government of Sri Lanka—which many Sri Lankans, Tamils and otherwise, think it is—but that a critical left view cannot support the LTTE, except tactically in opposition to the oppression of the Sri Lankan state. Nor can it support the LTTE’s ideology or practice. Thus, the assumption should not be made that support for Tamils in opposition to Sri Lankan state oppression is consonant with support for the LTTE.
It is important that critical leftists in Canada take concrete steps, working with members of the Tamil population and the Sri Lankan population more broadly, to bring to an end the oppression being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state, but without steamrolling the complexities of the conflict and those affected by it. We must stand for an end to Sri Lankan state aggression, but also for an end to the LTTE’s aggression toward dissident and minority groups. Toward these ends, some concrete steps we should seek to take include:
1. Demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
Critical leftists must stand up for the thousands being massacred in Sri Lanka. To this end, we should engage with supporters of the LTTE and others in demanding an immediate, permanent, and confirmable bilateral ceasefire. Protests calling on the Canadian government to take an active role in bringing about such a ceasefire are important and should be supported, though not uncritically.
2. Oppose the complacency and racism of the Canadian state, media and vocal sections of the general public; and oppose police violence.
The Canadian government continues to turn a blind eye to the conflict, tacitly supporting the Sri Lankan state’s actions. Politicians at all levels have spoken to “the Tamil community” in condescending ways. The media has focused more on the plight of commuters inconvenienced by the rallies than on the thousands of dying civilians. Many Canadian citizens have expressed their xenophobia calling upon Tamils to “go back home”.
Meanwhile, at the rallies, protestors have on several occasions been literally caged into tight areas and police officers have often used excessive force on them. Protestors have been arrested merely for speaking out,8 and, at times, have been brutalized with no provocation.9,10
Police violence and the complacence and racism of Canadian foreign politics, the media and vocal sections of the general public must be opposed loudly and forcefully.
3. Push for a political solution.
This conflict has no military solution. Critical leftists must not stop at the call for a ceasefire, but also push for a comprehensive political settlement that involves more than just the Sinhala-dominant Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. There are many more legitimate representatives of Tamil (including Tamil-speaking Muslim) aspirations and political views than the LTTE, whom the LTTE has repressed. Support must be given to them. However, there can also be no political settlement without the involvement of the LTTE.
The Canadian government does not label organizations as terrorist on the basis of objective criteria, but politically opportunistic ones. Moreover, designating certain groups as terrorist does little to clarify conflict situations, but more often obscures issues. Canada’s banning the Tigers as terrorists suggests that the problem of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism is not one of discrimination and disenfranchisement, but of immeasurable violence and terrorism, and that therefore the solution to this conflict must inevitably and solely come through the military elimination of said terrorist group. Critical leftists, however, must remain firm that any long-term and viable solution to the Sri Lankan conflict cannot be military; it must involve a political settlement.
4. Work toward cross-ethnic solidarity.
Following from the support for repressed and marginalized voices, critical leftists must promote cross-ethnic solidarities in Sri Lanka and in the Sri Lankan diaspora. The fictions of ethnic homogeneity constructed by Sinhala nationalism and by Tamil nationalism must be punctured and repudiated. This does not mean an opposition to the principle of self-determination. Yet however the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka choose to define self-determination, a lasting peace has to be based on the recognition of the vast complexity, intermingling, and transcendence of ethnic boundaries that constantly occurs in Sri Lanka – both in Sinhalese-dominated and in Tamil-dominated areas. Non-communal political formations must be supported.
To that end, critical leftists in Canada should work toward facilitating the kinds of cross-ethnic solidarity movements and conversations that have been mostly foreclosed by the terroristic strategies employed in Sri Lanka by the armed forces and by the LTTE. While acknowledging and addressing the limitations of Canadian multicultural policies here, we need to capitalise on our distance from the conflict, and the relative peace afforded by that distance (however racialised and restricted it is), to facilitate dialogue.
5. Oppose the Sri Lankan state; criticize the LTTE.
Successive Sinhala ethnic chauvinist governments have precipitated the crisis in Sri Lanka. They continue to do so with impunity. Critical leftists must be absolute in their opposition to the ethnic chauvinism and practical depredations of the parties controlling the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan state has been one of the most significant obstacles toward the achievement of a lasting peace.
At the same time, the LTTE has used civilians as human shields and has engaged in forced conscription. It must be therefore also be criticized and its particular human rights violations not excused or glossed over.
6. Oppose the role of international imperialism in the conflict.
The ideology of twenty-first century imperialism is manifest worldwide. In particular, in South Asia, the discourses of “wars on terror” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are smokescreens for governments and imperial actors like NATO and the United States to obscure real, legitimate and popular grievances by focusing instead on military campaigns. This is precisely the strategy currently being used by the state in Sri Lanka against its local Tamil grievances. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan state receives military aid from, among others, Pakistan and Israel—lackeys of American empire. China, too, in increasing its international political reach, has steadily provided arms and funding to Sri Lanka for several years. India has also played a major role through its intervention or absence of intervention, in line with its hegemonic designs in South Asia. Moreover, it should be noted that the governments of Russia, China, Iran, India, and many others are no better for the people of South Asia than traditional Western imperialists. The political elite of all these countries contributed heartily to the massacres of thousands of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka.
The international dimensions of the conflict are too complex to be examined in detail here, but we should engage in further study of the conflict’s global connections, because in resisting the violence of the Sri Lankan state, we are also taking a stance against certain operations of international imperialism. We must recognize, however, that ultimately the problem is one of Sinhala ethnic chauvinism and the lack of meaningful political representation of national minorities in Sri Lanka.
In conclusion, it is important to note that these six items should be regarded as points of departure for critical leftists. By no means is this a conclusive programme on how activists in Canada, whatever their ethnicity or personal connection to the war, should approach the conflict. That sort of conversation is much more difficult, and must be had in conjunction with all the members of Canada’s Sri Lankan diaspora, including its Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim communities.
From South Africa to Palestine, to name two prominent examples, Ontario students have played crucial roles in international solidarity campaigns. Beyond raising political consciousness and holding academic institutions accountable for their complicity, student involvement in these campaigns has made important contributions on their own campuses towards realizing the assertion that “education is a right”.
The right to education is more than the right to a seat in a classroom, it also includes the right to actively participate in shaping one’s education from the classroom to decisions affecting the university as a whole. The declaration that “education is a right” is a response to barriers put in place to deny access and meaningful engagement, barriers upheld by the disenfranchisement of students in decision-making structures. These barriers have only been strengthened by the chronic underfunding, increased privatization and skyrocketing tuition fees produced by neoliberal economic policies.
While students and their allies have framed the right to education in a global perspective, for instance through student unions affiliating with the Right to Education campaign run by Birzeit University students in Palestine, international solidarity campaigns have also been pivotal in local student struggles. This article draws on two cases of student activism at the University of Toronto (UofT) to consider the right to education in relation to the shifting rights of students within the university.
The first case examines the significance of going beyond accepted rules of dissent in advancing the campaign against South African apartheid in the 1980s, while the second case focuses on how changing university practices have attempted to limit dissent by reducing access to space in the current campaign against Israeli apartheid. In both examples student activism is centred on campaigns to pressure the university to recognize its complicity with oppressive regimes and take appropriate moral action. Through this activism students put forward a different vision of the university in which the institution recognizes its complicity, but also in which students have a meaningful voice in the operation of the university.
The University as a Space of Citizenship
Both cases of student activism represent shifts in student rights and redefine the “citizenship” of students within the university. I use citizenship because I find it a useful tool for considering who has rights – in theory and in practice – and how rights shift over time based on political moments and movements. Citizenship can be understood in terms of formal and substantive citizenship. Formal citizenship is membership in a nation state or political entity, while substantive citizenship is entitlement to civil, political, socioeconomic and cultural rights.
Like citizenship, “student” is both an exclusive and inclusive category. Addressing the exclusive nature of who is allowed to be a student is central to the broader right to education campaign, however this article focuses on struggles around substantive citizenship, or rights claims, made by current students.
As is the case with many social movements, including the civil rights and women’s movements, student struggles have advanced student rights such as the right to engage in political activities on campus (within set limitations) and participation (albeit minimal) in university bodies. If students and their allies had limited themselves to the rules of the day, many changes could not have materialized. This political engagement and expansion of recognized rights has in turn expanded notions of what it means to be a student within the university.
To qualify this, advances have been made in substantive rights and continue to be fought for, yet changes are by no means permanent nor are they all necessarily positive. We are constantly reminded of the need for resistance by the pervasiveness of injustices and again as regressive changes are justified with right-wing ideologies, particularly now under the cover of an economic recession.
Student Activism against South African Apartheid
In 1983 students and their allies began organizing to make UofT divest from apartheid South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Network (AAN) drew members from the African and Caribbean Students’ Association, NDP Club, Communist Club and Student Christian Movement.  Despite receiving a groundswell of support, the university refused to budge on its $5.5 million in corporate holdings. UofT continued to purchase more stocks in South Africa after a toothless policy tied to the Canadian Code of Conduct was passed in 1985. 
UofT President George Connell argued that the university should not “be committed to a particular political cause, no matter how worthy,” while students countered that investment was a political act that supported apartheid.  By 1987 the Arts and Science Students’ Union, Graduate Students’ Union, Native Students’ Association, Canadian Union of Education Workers and UofT Staff Association had all joined the call to divest. An opinion poll showed that 64% of students supported divestment.  Over 70 faculty members signed a letter in The Varsity that called for Connell to resign if he continued to refuse to support divestment. 
On March 4 1987, 28 students and one professor marched from the International Student Centre to Simcoe Hall and occupied the office of the president.  The sit-in lasted until the meeting of the Governing Council (GC) the next day, where a motion on divestment by a student member was to be discussed. On March 5 a rally was held outside Simcoe Hall and 200 students filed-in to attend the meeting. 
After governors voted to refuse to consider the motion, students spontaneously unleashed their frustration, chanting “freedom yes, apartheid no”. “One guy jumped on a table, next thing you know three or four people jumped on tables,” recalled former AAN co-ordinator Akwatu Khenti.  After ten minutes the meeting was adjourned and police escorted the president out. The image of students on tables made front page of the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.
The students’ actions were criticized in the corporate media (“Degrees In Shouting”),  with slightly more sympathetic coverage in the student media.  The same poll that found 64% of students in favour of divestment reported 27% of students supported the actions at the GC.  The AAN was unapologetic. Khenti stated that after “every institutional channel of redress … had been exhausted” students were compelled “to let the Governing Council and university administration know that the present state of affairs cannot go on.”  While the chair of the GC claimed that free speech had been “abused”, the student member stated that “The administration and Governing Council must share the responsibility for any disruption” due to their inaction. 
According to Khenti, following the actions of March 4 and 5, “The momentum for divestment began to move forward expeditiously” and “more mainstream folks began to get involved”.  Tom Parkin, also a former AAN coordinator, received a letter from an NDP MPP who had previously spoken at an AAN rally that said “This will not help your cause”. Parkin believes that “It did nothing but help our cause” because while it may have been impolite, no one was hurt and it “forced the discussion”. 
In September 1987, President Connell appointed history professor A.P. Thornton to prepare a paper on South Africa and possible alternatives to UofT’s present policy.  Thornton met with the AAN in October  and released his report in late November, urging divestment from South Africa.  In January 1988 the GC voted to divest its holdings in South Africa. 
Parkin described the appointment of Thornton by Connell for his “expert advice” as a way of “finding his reason to change his position”, or saving face for his policy reversal on ethical investment. “George Connell didn’t want to have students telling him what to do.” The divestment campaign was a “threat to his sense of control” and the university administration “didn’t want to have to be accountable” to students.  The strength of the divestment campaign, ranging from lobbying to powerful student demonstrations, was ultimately too much for the university to ignore.
As illustrated by the campaign to divest from South Africa, going beyond accepted rules of dissent can play a significant role in the achievement of a campaign’s goals. This example is one on many in the history of UofT where students have been left with no other resort due to their lack of input in decision-making. Examples from UofT’s official history, Martin Friedland’s The University of Toronto: A History, include students in 1967 stopping napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical’s recruiting efforts by blocking the entrance to the recruiting centre ; students in 1970 occupying an unused building and later Simcoe Hall to get the President to commit to funding a daycare on campus ; and students in 1972 holding a sit-in in Simcoe Hall, being evicted by the police, and responding with another occupation of more than 500 people to gain access for undergraduates to Robarts Library .
Other notable examples include a sit-in that was part of the campaign that ended Hart House’s men-only policy in 1972 ; a camp-out held in 1986 to secure space for the Women’s Centre ; and an 11-day occupation of the President’s office in 2000 that resulted in UofT being the first Canadian university to introduce an anti-sweatshop policy for university clothing .
Supporters of the AAN transgressed university rules by disrupting the GC meeting. While not sanctioned in any rules, the occupation of the president’s office received no criticism, even before the events at the GC meeting had taken place. Jack Dimond, GC Secretary and spokesperson in the absence of President Connell was quoted as saying “I’m calm, I’m a child of the sixties”.  Perhaps this response was due to the normalization of such actions and the minimal inconvenience caused because the President was absent.
In contrast, the actions at the GC disrupted business as usual by causing the meeting to be adjourned. It was a spontaneous protest against business as usual. Business as usual was investing in apartheid South Africa and by extension supporting the racist regime. Business as usual was a structure that restricted students to token representation and allowed their issues to be swatted off the agenda. The interjection by frustrated students asserted that such dismissals were intolerable.
By transgressing the rules students soon achieved their political objective of divestment. Students also demonstrated their agency as legitimate actors, regardless of their subordination within university structures. Divestment was a blow against the apartheid South Africa regime, but it was also a blow against the arrogant policies of the university administration and their indifference towards student and international human rights.
Student Activism against Israeli Apartheid
The current generation of Palestine solidarity activism at UofT and the hostility towards it has centered around the inception and tremendous growth of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). IAW began in 2005 at UofT and is now an annual event that has spread to over 40 cities worldwide . IAW in Toronto is organized by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) at UofT in conjunction with SAIA at York University and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at Ryerson University.
The purpose of IAW is to raise awareness of the apartheid nature of the state of Israel and support the call issued by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against apartheid Israel, inspired by the call from the African National Congress to boycott the apartheid South Africa regime.  SAIA engages in university-specific campaigns for divestment from Israel, ending institutional partnerships with institutions that support Israel and supporting the right to education denied to Palestinian students.
The climate towards Palestine solidarity activism has resulted in attacks from pro-Israel organizations and intense scrutiny from the university administration. Organizers have long complained about bureaucratic hurdles and delays with room-booking requests. In 2007 the administration attempted to unilaterally assign undercover campus police to events deemed “security risks” and bill event organizers a prohibitive $440 fee for their services.  After organizers refused to pay, the issue was picked up by campus media and the administration backed down. However, shortly after IAW 2009 the administration indicated its intent to “require that Campus Police be present at all activities where we have justified concerns about safety and significant disruption” and “be fair in our allocation of the costs”. 
Moreover, a recent Freedom of Information request produced an email trail that proved administrators all the way up to President David Naylor colluded to deny a room-booking request on technical grounds for a cross-campus Palestine solidarity conference organized by SAIA.  The emails show that administrators decided to deny the request before it had been made, after being alerted of the planned event by a staff person for a pro-Israel campus organization.
This harassment of Palestine solidarity activists is taking place in a context of increasing repression of dissent at UofT, other universities in Ontario and within broader society. At UofT posters critical of major donor Peter Munk of Barrick Gold were torn down on the orders of the administration for being “potentially defamatory”.  Students alleged to have participated in a sit-in against fee increases received criminal charges and code of student conduct investigation notices,  and students were threatened with code of student conduct investigations for disrupting a meeting of the GC on fee increases. 
At other universities Palestine solidarity work has also been targeted, with IAW posters banned at Carleton and Ottawa Universities,  the term “Israeli apartheid” banned at McMaster University  and the student code of conduct used at York to apply suspensions and hefty fines to SAIA.  This chilling climate affects not just students but faculty and staff as well. Further, the federal Conservative government took an interest in denouncing IAW,  as did the leader of the opposition party.  In March 2009 funding for immigrant services was cut from the Canadian Arab Federation for its advocacy on Palestine,  and British MP George Galloway was banned from entering Canada for delivering humanitarian aid to the elected government of Palestine. 
The situation on campus shows how access to space is tied to expression of dissent. Dissent requires a space to be expressed in. Bureaucratic hurdles, security fees and outright denial of space all attempt to prevent the expression of dissent. These tactics of curtailing access to space also attempt to impose a new “normal”. If in the 1980s an occupation of the president’s office was normalized as a result of the student activism in the 1960s, recent experiences suggest this is no longer the case.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. The code of student conduct was passed in the early 1990s, prohibiting disruption with the threat of expulsion and other punitive measures,  while “conflict management” has made managing dissent a professional field. Jim Delaney, director of the office of the Vice-Provost, Students, is the principal communicator or buffer between the administration and student groups, including in the cases of the imposed security fees and room-booking denial, and has made it known that he is pursuing a degree in Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University by contacting student activists with interview requests. 
Increased management of dissent has coincided with increased alignment between the university and private interests. This is partly due to a growing reliance on private funding and donations as neoliberal governments continue to underfund education, and partly a result of administrators holding the same neoliberal ideologies and choosing to run universities according to profit-driven business models.
In the midst of campus activism to divest from South Africa, a struggle against putting the bottom-line of investment returns above ethical considerations, President Connell delivered a speech to the Empire Club of Canada entitled “From the Ivory Tower to the Corporate Tower” advocating increased orientation to corporate needs.  Connell authored a Renewal 1987 document that was criticized for reducing a degree to a “commodity”, privileging applied science and graduate studies, and emphasizing “upgrading UofT’s relations with the commercial sector”. 
Since then this orientation towards private interests has solidified and developed significantly. In 2007 President Naylor spoke on “Ten Myths about Commercialization” at a one-day symposium on commercializing university research (with a $200 registration fee, $50 for students) at the MaRS Discovery District, a hub for commercialization closely affiliated with UofT.  Naylor pushed the Towards 2030 plan that advocated for further commercialization of research, deregulation of tuition fees and reduction of undergraduate enrolment. 
These two trends of increased management of dissent and increased privatization are not accidents. They are both products of similar right-wing ideologies in which the role of students and responsibility of the university to the public good are marginal at best. As reflected in its behaviour toward student activists, the university is far from neutral on the issue of Israeli apartheid.
Beyond investments, UofT supports Israel through relationships with Israeli academic institutions. Nine university presidents including Naylor toured Israel in 2008. Naylor joined other university presidents in condemning a proposal from Britain’s University and College Union to discuss an academic boycott of Israel on the grounds that it violated the sacred principle of academic freedom, yet has never shown concern for the academic freedom of Palestinian students and academics or the bombing of Palestinian academic institutions by Israel.
Faced with calls from supporters of Israel to ban IAW, the administration has so far refused to do so, and has instead deployed strategies to withhold and limit access to spaces for expressing dissent. Dissent would not need such intensive management if it did not pose a threat. Measures are needed to secure the university from dissent, to secure administrators from the claims and campaigns of students who threaten the operation of “business as usual” in their embodiment of principles of equity and social justice.
The response to these shifting conditions has been continued organizing. A “Freedom of Expression” campaign was launched in April to unify opposition to repression of dissent.  Silencing of dissent brings more attention to injustices that activists are organizing against, while the act of silencing also exposes the power structures that uphold them. Denial of access to space is one way to deny expression of dissent. Technical grounds have been used to make decisions appear neutral, however the clear pattern of targeting, particularly of Palestine solidarity activism, shatters the myth of neutrality.
Without the appearance of objectivity rules are exposed as biased towards the powerful. “The frequent use of force [or power] draws attention, far too graphically, to the existence of those ruling.”  These actions, which tip the balance between coercion and consent, expose the promises of equality, free expression and academic freedom as empty. This again is a struggle in which students are asserting their agency, resisting the marginal position the university wishes to confine them to, and actively seeking a real voice in how the university is run. Students are embodying their rights claims rather than waiting for rights to be granted or further stripped away.
Conclusion: Student Struggle/Student Rights
While the university emphasizes the formal membership of students, staff and faculty in a common university community, this ignores huge differences in power relations between administrators, employees of the university and students. This article has considered the shifting rights of students in the university through the cases of student activism against South African apartheid in the 1980s and the current campaign against Israeli apartheid.
In both examples student struggles are intimately tied to student rights, from transgressing university rules to advance the campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa to continuing to speak out and organize against Israeli apartheid in the face of increased repression. Through their activism students directly challenge power relations within the university, refusing to play a tokenistic role in decision-making and rejecting the complicity of their university with apartheid regimes. The right to education resides in the collective power of students. Student rights are non-existent without demonstrable student power.
 Interview with Tom Parkin, March 26, 2009.
 Akwatu Khenti and Carolyn Lynch, “Connell’s divestment stand ignores morality”, The Varsity, March 5, 1987.
 Richard Ellis and Lori McDougall, “Majority of students support divestment, poll says”, The Varsity, March 16, 1987.
 Undersigned, “72 Professors support divestment”, The Varsity, March 5, 1987.
 Jennifer Gould, “Students storm President’s office”, The Varsity, March 5, 1987.
 Gary Feld, “Protestors break up GC meeting”, The Varsity, March 9, 1987.
 Interview with Akwatu Khenti, March 20, 2009.
 Editorial, “Degrees in Shouting”, The Globe and Mail, March 7, 1987.
 John Hovland, “Intensity is no excuse for Governing Council rioting”, The Varsity, March 9, 1987.
 Richard Ellis and Lori McDougall, “Majority of students support divestment, poll says”, The Varsity, March 16, 1987.
 Akwatu Khenti and Bogdan-Eduard Ghetu, “Anti-apartheid groups clarify their position”, The Varsity, March 19, 1987.
 Gary Feld, “Protestors break up GC meeting”, The Varsity, March 9, 1987.
 Interview with Akwatu Khenti, March 20, 2009.
 Interview with Tom Parkin, March 26, 2009.
 Andrea Jacobs, “UofT appoints divestment officer”, The Varsity, September 24, 1987.
 Danielle Adams, “Divestment activists get moving”, The Varsity, October 29, 1987.
 Eric Geringas, “Report urges UofT divest from S.A.” The Varsity, November 26, 1987.
 Unknown Author. “UofT decides to divest”. The Varsity, January 25, 1988.
 Interview with Tom Parkin, March 26, 2009.
 Martin Friedland, “Student Activism.” The University of Toronto: A History (2002) p. 527.
 ibid., p. 535.
 ibid., p. 537.
 Graduate Students’ Union, “Activism: Victories” (2006), http://www.gsu.utoronto.ca/activism/victories.html.
 Helen Lenskyj, “Funding Canadian University Sport Facilities: The University of Toronto Stadium Referendum.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 28.4 (2004), p. 381.
 Jennifer Gould, “Students storm President’s office”, The Varsity, March 5, 1987.
 Israeli Apartheid Week, “History of Israeli Apartheid Week”, (2009), http://apartheidweek.org/en/history.
 Liisa Schofield, “Exposed: University of Toronto suppresses pro-Palestinian activism”, Rabble, February 18, 2009, http://www.rabble.ca/news/exposed-university-toronto-suppressed-pro-palestinian-activism.
 Cheryl Misak, “Update on Controversial Events at the University of Toronto”, University of Toronto, March 26, 2009, http://www.provost.utoronto.ca/public/pdadc/0809/47.html.
 Liisa Schofield, “Exposed: University of Toronto suppresses pro-Palestinian activism”, Rabble
 André Bovee-Begun and Naushad Ali Husein, “UofT admins rip off protest posters”, The Varsity, February 14, 2008 (accessed April 2, 2009), http://www.thevarsity.ca/article/2015.
 Committee for Just Education, “UofT PRESSES CRIMINAL CHARGES AGAINST 14 FOR MOBILIZING AGAINST FEE HIKES” (April 2008), Committee for Just Education, http://fightfees.ca/call-to-action/.
 Naushad Ali Husein, “Governors shouted out of Simcoe Hall”, The Varsity, April 12, 2008, http://www.thevarsity.ca/article/3239.
 SPHR U of O, “University of Ottawa Bans Israeli Apartheid Week Poster”, Mostly Water, February 21, 2009, http://mostlywater.org/university_ottawa_bans_israeli_apartheid_week_poster.
 Karen Ho, “McMaster ban on phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid’ stirs protest”, The Varsity, February 28, 2008, http://www.thevarsity.ca/article/2141.
 Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, “SAIA York Suspended / Fined: Call for Support”, CAIA website, February 27, 2009, http://www.caiaweb.org/node/1209.
 John Riddell, “Israeli Apartheid Week beats back attacks on free speech”, Rabble, March 16, 2009, http://www.rabble.ca/news/israeli-apartheid-week-beats-back-attacks-free-speech.
 Asam Ahmad, “‘Beyond the Pale’: Jason Kenney and the Criminalization of Dissent”, UofT Free Press, March 28, 2009, http://utfreepress.org/2009/03/beyond-the-pale/.
 University of Toronto, “Code of Student Conduct” (2002), University of Toronto, http://www.governingcouncil.utoronto.ca/policies/studentc.htm.
 Jim Delaney, “About Jim Delaney”, (2008), professional website, http://individual.utoronto.ca/jimdelaney/about.html.
 George Connell, “From the Ivory Tower to the Corporate Tower” (1985), Empire Club of Canada, http://web.archive.org/web/20071020083836/www.empireclubfoundation.com/details.asp?SpeechID=758&FT=yes.
 John Lorinc, “Connell wants an elitist UofT”, The Varsity, April 9, 1987.
 MaRS Centre, “Commercializing University Research” (2007), MaRS Centre, http://www.research.utoronto.ca/events/CUR%20Agenda%20MAY%2024,%202007.pdf.
 University of Toronto. “Towards 2030: Planning for a Third Century of Excellence at the University of Toronto” (2008), University of Toronto, www.towards2030.utoronto.ca.
 Unknown Author, “Launch: Freedom of Expression Campaign”, Rabble event listing, http://www.rabble.ca/whatsup/launch-freedom-expression-campaign.
 Sharon Wall, “’To train a wild bird’: EF Wilson, hegemony, and native industrial education at the Shingwauk and Wawanosh residential schools, 1873-1893”, Left History 9:1 (Fall 2002/Winter 2003), p. 3.
You say the World’s greatest poet is William Blake
I say the World’s greatest poet is a sistah with no name
You say the World’s greatest writer is Shakespeare
I say the World’s greatest writer is Zora
You proclaim Karl Marx to be the World’s greatest theorist
I proclaim Audre Lorde
You insist on giving me Rudyard Kipling and T.S Elliot and Walt Whitman
But what about all my sistahs whose voices were stolen from them?
What about the pieces of scrap paper on which they struggled to write on?
While their husbands beat them mercilessly
And their colonizers brutally raped them
What about them?
What about them?
You say the World’s greatest poet is William Blake
I say the World’s greatest poet is a sistah with no name
In this strange country
I feel the weight of one hundred years of oppression
One hundred years of misery
One hundred years of solitude
In a country far from my own
I feel the weight of one hundred years of colonization
One hundred years of beating
One hundred years of rape
In a strange country far from my own
I feel the weight of one hundred years of displacement
One hundred years of forced labour
One hundred years of rebellion
In a strange and far-away country
I reminisce over many sun-kissed days
The custard apples in my mother’s hands
And the vibrant laughter that echoed in the hills
In this deafening country
I despise the silence
I despise the rotten smiles
And I long for the kindness that has the power to heal
In this country with people not of my own
I long for the still quiet waters
And the roaring mountains
That dared to be
In this country not of my own
I long for people to wake up
To quit talking about post-colonial discourse
And realize that we are still living in a colonial era
In this country not of my own
I long for many things
White privilege is something that permeates every single vein of the society that we live in. Unearned race advantage and conferred dominance of white skin is something that people of colour come across and have to deal with on a daily basis. It is in classrooms, in board meetings, in coffee shops, at the store, on the subway, at the library, in the gym, at the bookstore, literally everywhere.
In the classroom, white privilege is a destructive force that is oppressive and violent to students of colour. Students of colour experience this violence differently. For some, it penetrates, angers and silences. Still, in that silence, students of colour are fighting. Fighting to breathe, fighting to reclaim our words, fighting to reclaim ourselves, fighting against an institution that creates and maintains white privilege, and fighting to rise up and be heard.
Unacknowledged white privilege in classroom settings does violence to students’ of colour psyches by recreating and perpetrating systems of oppression. This privilege manifests itself when a white student talks over or interrupts a student of colour, when a white student feels they can speak on behalf of marginalized peoples, when a white student uses demeaning language against an oppressed group, when white students gloss over issues of race or when a white students’ comments seek to erase and disregard the histories of people of colour. White privilege also manifests itself when white students in critical or marginalized studies feel the need to take up a significant amount of space in classroom settings.
Recently, I became very disturbed upon walking into a Caribbean Studies class and finding that most of the white students who were already the majority had taken up and filled the first couple of rows while students of colour were relegated to the back of the classroom. As the class continued, I was even more perturbed to hear white students speak boldly about issues concerning people from the Caribbean. I wondered where this certainty and self-assurance that commanded their language came from. Then it dawned on me. It was white privilege manifesting itself even in a Caribbean Studies class! Consciously or unconsciously, it is white privilege and this is the white privilege that needs to be named and challenged.
For some reason, I find that white students are willing to talk about racism as a detestable and shameful thing that happened in the past, but are less willing to accept that racism is still alive and well. More so, they are unwilling to accept that they themselves are perpetrators by way of racist attitudes and mindsets. Too many times have I heard on campus, “I am not racist. I have a black friend.” Or better yet, “I am not racist. I am just into exotic chics.”
These kinds of attitudes are racist in that they confine marginalized peoples to these narrow categories by playing on stereotypes. What I find most peculiar is that whenever there are issues of race to be discussed, the first thing that white students will do is distance themselves from the dominant group and claim alliance with marginalized groups. I find this truly alarming and it is crucial that white students who are genuinely dedicated to doing anti-oppression and anti-racist work, question this need for declaring their ‘ally’ status. Is it a way to claim marginalized status since they are now “no longer part” of the dominant group? Is it another cause or fad that is cool and looks good? Or are they really and truly distressed about their white privilege?
The consequences of unearned race advantage and conferred dominance in classrooms are serious and far reaching; yet many white students remain completely oblivious to the racist power dynamics they recreate in the classroom. These are the same students whom I often hear claiming they are allies and arguing that there are more pressing issues to be addressed instead of race and white privilege.
I usually wonder to myself when these students will get it. When they will acknowledge the privilege they carry around because of their skin colour and when they will begin to name and challenge it. This is the only way to build genuine alliance; especially in classroom settings, which usually call for group work.
Students of colour are not interested in being marginalized and ostracized in classrooms. Particularly in classes where we can finally reclaim our histories rather than being subjected to Plato and Aristotle or The European Renaissance. It is time that white students recognize the amount of space they take in classrooms and the different manifestations of their unearned race advantage. It is time they recognize and challenge their white privilege so that we can all create a better learning environment.