Actually Dangerous Nonsense

What kind of a thing is racism? I recently read Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (1970), where she analyzes the different ways that people rule over each other, delineating five different instruments: power, strength, force, authority and violence. Taking as given that racism is a kind of rule by one class of people over another, which specific exercise of rule describes racism best?

To be clear, in Arendt’s time as now, racism is equivalent to the exercise of white supremacy. It is, as Mia McKenzie has pointed out at Black Girl Dangerous,  a system of oppression that denies people access to employment, education, housing, food, medical care, safety from police brutality, fairness in sentencing, media representation, and a host of other things, based on race.” This means that white people benefit from racism, at the expense of non-white life. (Okay, super awkward articulation there, of “non-white life,” but racism is more than anti-blackness. It is settler colonialism and mythologies of model minorities and so many other kinds of systemic disadvantages and destructive stereotypes that characterize the reality of people who do not share in the privileges that characterize whiteness.)

In Arendt’s paradigm, racism is not force. She reserves the use of “force” for technical language describing the release of energy, of either physical phenomena or social movements, that can be measured. Racism is not a release of energy so much as it is an organizing principle with deleterious consequences for those bodies and lives deemed racialized. Perhaps resistance to these forms of organization can be interpreted as forceful (think race riots or peaceful protest marches) but the regular deploy of racism is structural, an insidious order of things that works to make itself seemingly logical (think narratives of hard work justifying access to education or perceived danger justifying murder).

Arendt understands strength to be an attribute of an individual person or thing, like the hardness of a diamond or an undefeated boxer. The individualistic aspect of strength means that strength can be counteracted by cumulative address: diamonds, although hard, can be shaped (through bruting, where two diamonds are set spinning against each other), and the boxer, although brutal, can be beat down by a tag-team. The independent nature of strength does not capture the scope of racial oppression functioning across access to heath care and housing, rates of incarceration and unfair representations in the media (to name just a few places where racism manifests), where the individual’s resilience has nothing to do with their ability to access resources or be fairly treated. Racism precedes the individual; it is social inheritance.

Arendt characterizes authority as a reciprocal relationship, where its exercise is dependent upon the uncoerced recognition from the person subject to its demands. Clearly, racism is not a function of authority because racism is not unquestioningly acceded to by the people whose lives it attempts to exploit and destroy.

That leaves power and violence, and I believe that racism is a child of both these forces. Arendt states that power is the ability to act collectively, and particular forms of power exist so long as they continue to be propped up by a critical mass (not necessarily a majority and this is where violence comes in, “violence appears as a last resort to keep the power structure intact” [47]). Racism is a social phenomenon. It is registered on the innumerable lives it circumscribes, but it is deployed systematically, manifesting in centuries of customs and laws that privilege white life. There’s the bright glimpse of an otherwise in her observation that “it is the people’s support that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent that brought the laws into existence to begin with … All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (41). Although white supremacy is entrenched in Canada today, it is easy to imagine a world structured differently, regardless of how difficult it is to imagine the undoing of this one. There is nothing necessary about racism. But her observation also carries the implicit connotation that some critical mass of us are invested in upholding racism, a point she and I will return to below.

Arendt’s main claim of violence is that it relies on instruments, things like guns, bombs and prisons. Given the proliferation of black death at the hands of the state; the proliferation of wars waged by the US, Canada and many European nations in the Middle East and North Africa; and the proliferation of Black and Indigenous incarcerated people across North America, it is clear that contemporary instruments of violence are deployed in ways that maintain racist dispossessions of life, freedom, and human and natural resources.

In a discussion about the dangers of using biological metaphors to understand violence, Arendt notes that “racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition because it objects to natural organic facts—a white or black skin—which no persuasion or power could change” (emphasis added) (75–76). It seems she considers racism be violence only, but I say that it is power too. Racism is not just the tangible harms wrought, but institutions that support the exercise of violence and the logics that make certain kinds of violence legible or deemed appropriate. Arendt already admits that it is possible to act collectively—this is what power is at its core—so why is it a stretch to imagine that racism is one of the ways that power manifests? Recall that Arendt’s whole project is to understand the ways that people come to rule over each other. If “power … is actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means–end category” (51) then white supremacy is that ends and racism its means.

I wonder if Arendt’s focus on understanding racism as a kind of violence divorced from power is what allowed her to make claims such as the following:

It has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react to Negro grievances with the cry, “We are all guilty,” and Black Power has proved only too happy to take advantage of this “confession” to instigate an irrational “black rage.” Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. In this particular instance, it is, in addition, a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions. The real rift between black and white is not healed by being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. “All white men are guilty” is not only dangerous nonsense but also racism in reverse, and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality (emphasis added) (65).

Charges of reverse racism, which are meant to describe racism against whites, express a white fear of violence, but it is a charge that breaks down when considered in relation to the collective nature of power and the instrumental nature of violence. Like Aamer Rahman points out in the video above, reverse racism would require a complete re-articulation of thousands of years of history in order to make the systemic dispossession of white life a possibility—there simply are not the support structures (philosophical, political or economic) in place to author such a reversal. Plus, it is not as though prison populations could be swapped out, one race for another, or the directions of warplanes reversed to lose their loads on North American soil. It is telling, for instance, that in a discussion of contemporary forms of violence, racism first enters into Arendt’s analysis in the context of this claim of reverse racism. (Literally, the first discussion of racism in her text is at this point. All other talk of racism follows this.) On Arendt’s own terms, the idea of reverse racism just doesn’t hold.

There are other troubling assumptions in this excerpt. In what sense is black rage irrational? She was writing this immediately following the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. What about that context could have led her to make such judgement? We have the privilege of seeing her ideas in an extended historical context, and we know that racism has not abated. Black rage was justified then, as now. It’s also strange how she uses “‘we are all guilty’” and “‘all white men are guilty’.” These quotations are not footnoted and so I assume she is scare quoting them—putting them in quotation marks to signal that she deems their claims inappropriate or misleading. But these claims correspond to the fact that racism just doesn’t happen, it is upheld. She participated in it. I participate in it. I can work to dismantle white supremacy, but feeling liberal is not equivalent to material change. Further, how is being guilty of racism equivalent to racism in reverse? In what sense could bearing responsibility for racism be a deployment of it? And lastly, yeah, we absolutely deserve an escape from reality: a utopic non-racist future would be a different reality, an escape from this racist one.

Arendt believes that the opposite of violence is power (not non-violence), and although she also admits that “these distinctions [referring the five major categories of rule], though by no means arbitrary, hardly ever correspond to watertight compartments in the real world” (46), perhaps her understanding of racism as violence alone is due to the dialectical relationship she constructs between violence and power. And yet, her proposals about violence, that it appears in the waning of power’s consensual hold, is a useful tool understanding the persistence of racism over time. It can explain how slavery became lynch law became the carceral state, how at every juncture where institutionalized racism is challenged, it’s instrumental nature changes form, new tools for the perpetuation and spread of violence to uphold certain structures of power. For instance, Sudbury’s “A World Without Prisons” clearly outlines how, today, the prison industrial complex secures a consistent and increasing set of inputs, read: prisoners, read: people, read: racialized people.

Arendt goes on to say that “Racism, as distinguished from race, is not a fact of life but an ideology and the deeds it leads to are not reflex actions, but deliberate acts … it [racial violence] is the logical and rational consequence of racism, by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system” (76). Reverse racism is not an explicit ideological system, not in a world that is already set up at every conceivable turn to privilege white life. The dangerous nonsense, I would say, is the very idea of reverse racism. Remember, those subjected to racism are already not consenting to its terms. The charge of reverse racism doesn’t represent a reconfiguration of power or a redistribution of the means to enact violence. The charge is, in fact, a tool that attempts to subdue the ongoing refusal of racialized people to be fully conditioned by the terms of racism, in order to secure to perpetuation of privilege and power as deployed in service of white supremacist logics.

Perhaps this seems overly critical of Arendt, but in a text that is about the precise use of language, I think it is fair to interrogate her use of it. And to be fair, bias and discrimination belong to us all, now as then. I wonder what others see in my framing of Arendt’s ideas, what biases or discrimination of my own that I am blind to?

(Page numbers here refer to the Harvest Books edition, published in 1970.)


Decolonization, Reconciliation, and the Extra-Rational Potential of the Arts

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what it means that “reconciliation” and “decolonization” circulate with such rapidity these days, in the art world and in academia in particular. And so, in a recently published essay, I try and make sense of the history of residential schooling in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process and what art has to offer these histories and our future.

I learned so much in this research process, including that the construction of the TRC is a consequence of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. According to Paulette Regan,the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the agreement was articulated to address, in bulk, “over twelve thousand individual abuse claims and several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of approximately seventy thousand former [Indian residential school] students against the federal government and church entities who shared joint responsibility for the schools.” [1] The passage of the agreement was based upon an federally determined maximum allowable opt-out, which has been described by journalist Kerry Coast: “The Settlement Agreement was foisted on the Survivors as an ultimatum: if too many people dropped out, 5,000 or more, no one would be paid [the federally administered Common Experience Payment] at all…the Agreement then closed the door to court action against church or state by anyone who had lost their ‘language, culture and family life’, by asserting that the matter had been lawfully concluded by the government’s posting of public notices of its intention to do so and advertising the details.” [2] Coast goes on to detail that, before the Settlement Agreement, court cases were being “awarded damages approaching the million dollar mark.” The Common Experience payments were administered at a significantly lower rate. According to Service Canada, “eligible applicants may receive $10,000 for the first school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools, plus an additional $3,000 for each subsequent school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools.” [3]

I had not previously realized that the TRC process wielded such precise economic benefits for the state, but this highlights the fact that the horror of residential schooling as one manifestation of the colonial project, and the TRC as a gesture of reconciliation, cannot be interpreted as a fulsome and adequate redress to so many histories anchored in this place called Canada.

Although the commission closed its doors late last year with the publication of its massive final report, this is merely the transfer of obligation to Canadian citizens—settler, Indigenous, immigrant, refugee—to approach our relationality critically.

The distance is vast between rhetoric and action, and the ease of the former cannot displace the difficulty of the latter. The extra-rational potential of art gives us a way to consider the means of working toward a decolonized, Indigenized future other than through state sponsored and articulated processes of reconciliation. The extra-rational potential art is one way of interrogating the possible consequences of reconciliation and a place where needed alternatives can come into being. Our creative cultural practices are necessary for this future because they instantiate ways of thinking and being in relation that resist articulation elsewhere. Here, as David Garneau would say, refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule us.

[1] Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 6-7.

[2] Kerry Coast, “UN report misses the mark on Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Vancouver Media Co-op, accessed 19 April 2015,

[3] “Common Experience Payment,” Service Canada, last modified 05 September 2013,

Considerations, Happenings

Wood Land School Critical Anthology


Up in Vancouver at the OR Gallery until 23 April 2016 is Wood Land School Critical Anthology, an exhibition made from the remains of the Wood Land School Critical Anthology Symposium. It was an honour to participate in the symposium, presenting my paper-in-progress, “From Where Do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s Seraphine Seraphine.” The weekend of talks brought together artists and curators to address the lack of critical writing on the work of contemporary Indigenous artists. The presentations worked collectively to advance the discourse around Indigenous contemporary art practices. Ultimately, these papers will cohere into an anthology co-published OR Gallery, SFU Galleries and UBC Press at the end of 2016.

Wood Land School is an ongoing project with no fixed location and a shifting form. It seeks critical engagement within the realms of representation, film, contemporary art, land, and politics on Turtle Island and beyond. Each iteration of Wood Land School carries forth with it a commitment to address the lack of structural inclusion, both historically and in the now, in a multiplicity of institutional spaces. It is a conceptual and physical space for Indigenous people, with Indigenous people deciding its directions, structures and functions. An important aspect of Wood Land School is the inclusion of non-Indigenous people, so as not to exclude anyone interested in engaging with the complexities of the aforementioned issues.

For my contribution, I look closely at Krista Belle Stewart’s two-channel video installation Seraphine, Seraphine (2015). As presented at Toronto’s Mercer Union in 2015, three distinct perspectives consider how the Canadian settler colonial project has unfolded. First, there is a 1967 CBC docu-drama that follows Stewart’s mother, Seraphine, through the final stages of her nursing education. Second, there is footage from Seraphine’s participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2013 events in Vancouver BC. Approaching the documents as found footage, Stewart edits between them, creating a third document: an artwork steeped in the tension of what remains unsaid between the two screens, heavy with the weight of stories retold in such disparate circumstances, constructing a complex portrait of her mother through Seraphine’s softly commanding presence in both situations. Within the overlapping narratives of settler colonialism evoked in Seraphine, Seraphine, it becomes clear that adequately grappling with this gruesome inheritance will involve a complimentary measure of Indigenous self-determination and settler decolonization.

The presentations of my colleagues were stellar and I cannot wait to encounter their ideas again in the book, re-articulated through the lens of discussions we shared together over the weekend. As my dear friend Amy Kazymercyk summarized, our weekend together left these kinds of impressions: friendship, kinship, feral, feminine bush, formation, braiding theory, weave memory, residue, silence, refusal, abdominal pain, crying therapy, gut, intimacy, fisting, withdraw, rejective.


Reading Grace Lee Boggs

We went to see again and again the stage and movie versions of Hamlet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and King Lear, in the process developing a deeper understanding of the new social forces emerging in Shakespeare’s England and an appreciation of the power of the creative imagination to uncover contradictions of a complexity and at a depth that logic cannot reach.

—Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (emphasis added) (58)


When we identify ourselves…

Re-reading Malissa Phung’s important essay “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?” for maybe the twentieth time, considering the work that a concept like “settler” can do and being energized by Phung’s careful scholarship:

To self-identify as a settler rather than as a Canadian does not necessarily negate the rights and benefits of citizenship that settlers have come to accrue as a result of settler colonialism. But mobilizing all settlers to become aware of the ways in which their settler privileges are anything but natural and well deserved can constitute a first step in supporting Indigenous activism against settler domination.


The Word As Bait

As a child learning to write, these lessons in script were also the cultivation of a graphomaniac impulse. I would discover the shape of a word and I would write it over and over again, a long list of conjuring things into being, the world taking shape around me by virtue of writing it into existence. Of course, not actually making the world, but making my understanding of it. And still, to this day, this is how I lure meaning from experience and observation, how the struggle to precisely name the electricity of living is imperfectly resolved: in the translation to language, in the passage from hand onto page.

Although I write primarily for some semblance of emotional and intellectual order, what was first adopted as a survival strategy has become a professional tactic: my writing practice prefigured the central methodology of my curatorial practice. When I look at art, I need language to know what I see, to understand what I feel. Texts—essays, dialogues, incendiary screeds—oftentimes accompany the exhibitions I make. I do not intend them to function as explanation machines, but maybe the writing can encourage a slowness in contemplation. Curating is an opportunity to contribute to discussions around aesthetic and performative strategies that address the complexity of shared social spaces. My hope is to use language to linger in this process of self-reflexivity, the imperative incumbent upon myself foremost.

If writing is bait for my own construction of meaning, then maybe the word can be bait for yours.

Compositionally, my predilection towards language structures the way I propose relationships between the components of an exhibition, where I am less concerned with history than I am with poetry and dialogue. The strategies I use to arrange objects in space I have learned from those I use to organize ideas on the page—synonyms for the sea do not make a poem (or, not necessarily), and neither does a collection of objects, whatever material or thematic repetition they may perform together, make an exhibition. As the poet and activist Jackie Wang has said, to create a space for the imagination is to create a container for the un-containing and un-leashing of desire. The container should facilitate generative encounters and provide a ground on which energizing and magical experiences can take place. For me, the art is always in what happens during the encounter, for writing is first and foremost ENERGY and CONNECTIVE TISSUE—a relation. Its not the textual objects but the bonds that matter.” [1] A concern for language has taught me to pay attention to the spaces between things, to pay attention to the invisible but felt relation. Although all exhibitions ask to be read by their audience, by prioritizing strange intimacies and interruption I think a different kind of reading becomes possible—less about the right kind of scholarship, more about promiscuous curiosity. What is the bond that is being made through encounter? I cannot predict it, though I work to generate it.

The Iof the exhibition is an assemblage of the artistsworks, spatial conditions and social context, a kind of collective thinking that tends toward narrative. But the Iis unruly and speaks out against itself. It continues to talk after my back is turned, rewriting itself through encounters with its audience. If my first job as a curator is to compose, to write, then the reciprocal expectation is to heed the dialogue that rises, to find myself reading the traces that remain. My earliest impulses to write brought the world into existence. What is brought into existence now, or what I hope I am doing through this cultural work, is to encourage what might be delicate to come into the form of something more robust, giving ideas material form so that they make take root in others. And we will be bonded.

[1] Wang, Jackie. “Aliens as a Form-of-life: Imagining the Avant-Garde.” In The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde, eds. Lily Hoang & Joshua Marie Wilkinson, 325. Lebanon: Nightboat Books, 2013.


A Specific Poetic Literacy

In Susan Howe’s The Spontaneous Telepathy of Archives (2014), she quotes Robert Duncan on the specific capacities and compulsions of poetry:

The secret of the poetic art lies in the keeping of time, to keep time designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence. Counting the measures, marking them off, calculating the sequences; the whole intensified in the poet’s sense of its limitation…one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding (17).

Which she later follows with her own theory:

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree of in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us (63).

Where they first seem to counter each other—Duncan’s suggestion of poetry as order, Howe’s claim that the poetic moves against imposed logics—they come to echo each other in their measurement of poetry’s force residing in its capacity to mirror in a way that exceeds the image itself. For Duncan and Howe, the reflection engendered through the poetic use of language is somehow greater than the thing it describes.

This more than cannot be for the poet alone: to read these texts means to apprehend both an appearance of an event and a performance of it, where correlation does not strictly hold. To read poetry, on these terms, means to feel the space between the thing itself and the effects of contact with it. The intuition of this discrepancy must be a reason why, to write. The apprehension of this discrepancy is, then, a specific poetic literacy.