23 March 2018

UNIVERSAL COMPLICITY

GHOSTS OF TORONTO'S PAST

BY: KATIE PAOLOZZA

In my last post, I worked around a central idea that colonial cultures, specifically North American cultures of colonial descent, have a systemic problem of willfully dismissing Indigenous history. This has been done in a variety of ways. 

Source: This blog post from 2013 protests people of non-Native origins dressing in Redface for Halloween. 
There is willful forgetting, like I discussed in my last post. There is also generational disassociation; for example, when people get personally defensive and uncomfortable with acknowledging the brutal reality of history, and are quick to remind everyone that they are not responsible for the sins of their ancestors. That attitude is problematic for lots of reasons, and perpetuates a harmful status quo, but what frightens me more is apathy. This also tends to trickle down from authority figures in positions of power to regular citizens in Toronto. I think sometimes in school we take for granted that people are liberal-leaning and do not have personal reasons to deny history or stay submerged in outdated cultural views. Ride the TTC without headphones sometime; there is a lot of hate and aggression floating around.  

People who are well-meaning yet ignorant might gradually become more woke as they are exposed to more cultures and intelligent conversations about race. People who are already educated and apathetic are much more dangerous. They employ a different kind of silencing technique. They don't shut down activists outright, and they don't publicly block out Indigenous voices. They listen, they genuinely understand, they make small immediate reparations with the promise of more to come, then they disappear and take the media coverage with them. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been accused of the latter many times, most recently this February when he spoke to the House of Commons regarding changes to the Constitution that would officially recognize and define the rights of First Nations.

Source.
I have no idea how much the prime minister personally cares about Indigenous rights. It's intrinsically debatable because any politician in the world that has risen to that level is far too entrenched in political strategy. It almost goes without saying that there is a disconnect between what is said, what is promised, and what actually happens. It's usually only the most conscientious, clear-minded people who are able to follow the path of bureaucratic and political procedures and test the veracity and legitimacy of the federal government as an entity. That's assuming, of course, that there was a tangible result to begin with.

We've all witnessed spikes in social awareness that seemingly spur positive change, only to then watch these issues disappear back into the ether and periodically re-emerge with no real progression. Every single Halloween there is a celebrity that dresses in Redface, followed by debates about how Redface is just as offensive as Blackface. It's a cyclical debate that never seems to get resolved, as both offensive costumes persist year after year. This happens all over Toronto as well, often without any awareness of how ironic it is: literally all of Toronto is stolen land. All of it.

Hilary Duff and then boyfriend Jason Walsh apologized in 2016 over this ill-conceived couples costume, but public relations damage control has also reached the point of saturation:

This controversial costume employed Redface and mocked abusive power dynamics between Native Americans and Pilgrims. Source.
There are countless yearly articles like this one that are photographic retrospectives and listicles counting down the most egregious celebrity costume offenses over the years, and many more articles that consistently spell out why any sort of cultural appropriation is wrong. North Americans also have a thriving tradition of dressing in Redface for sporting events or other unrelated cultural celebrations:

Source.
Tina Fey and the writers of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have openly discussed the cultural appropriation of Native Americans with questionable success, but with nowhere near the intelligence or sensitivity of older literary works that explore the same concept; like Nella Larsen's Passing. And much like offensive costumes or political rhetoric, the issue becomes an unnecessarily complicated debate. Reparations and restitution for First Nations and Native Americans is a clear moral imperative, so why do we struggle so much with defining the right course of action and implementing it? There are homeless First Nations People all over Toronto, and despite this horrific irony and the sheer visibility of the cracks in our system, there is still very little that is done on municipal, provincial, and federal levels to protect Indigenous rights and actually implement positive changes. I live near government buildings in Midtown, and for much of 2017 First Nations groups set up and enacted peaceful protests regarding Indigenous rights at Yonge and St. Clair, only to have the protest fade over months of indifference from the government and people passing by. There were also huge protests in Toronto recently regarding the Tina Fontaine verdict, and yet again it seemed like those in power were not giving much more than condescension. Some people obviously care, just not the right people.

Source
It's no accident or coincidence that people who choose to perpetuate cultural genocide have a bevy of legal and societal precedents to protect themselves. Even if Prime Minister Trudeau devotes his every waking moment to a universally accepted plan for reparations, he still has to navigate and apologize for systemic roadblocks that predate literally everyone. There are always people that will stand on the shoulders of historical bigots for their own self-serving interests. People like Donald Trump do not come from nowhere; they come from a long line of malicious entitlement. White colonists did not need to steal all of Toronto from the Mississaugas, nor did they need to spend the next two centuries trying to systematically destroy a culture they once relied on, but they too relied on historical precedence and apathy. 

Source.
Those who would silence the disenfranchised rely on our apathy and complicity. They also rely on the saturation of other atrocities. We can't donate time or money to every cause, and we can't spend every waking moment taking in and appreciating every tragedy that we see because there is simply too much ugliness in the world, and that's what the silencers routinely exploit. 

But we don't have to play along. It's more than possible to incorporate respect and sensitivity into our everyday routines. We do not have to repeat toxic patterns or let ourselves get confused by silver-tongued opportunists. No one can change that we live on stolen land. Yes, it was stolen generations before us, but we must keep our awareness of this fact conscious in our minds and hearts, because not only do we live on stolen land, but we also live with the people it was stolen from. First Nations people are our colleagues and friends, and they deserve our respect. More importantly they deserve a voice, and fair representation in all levels of politics.

There simply aren't enough powerful people that are listening. I speak from pragmatism and not cynicism when I say this. Because there are so many problems built right into Toronto's infrastructure, any equitable solution will be painful on all sides. I still say it's worth it. It may be difficult to predict the future but we can always retrace our steps in history and learn from the past. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and it's all right there in the pages.  

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