More on BIPOC and FIVM

There has been some productive discussion generated by the op-ed that I published in the Globe and Mail on May 28th, as well as a certain amount of unproductive discussion and diatribe. (In the article, I questioned the use of the acronym BIPOC in a Canadian context. The claim, in a nutshell, was that while the BIPOC acronym does a tolerable job at capturing the major dimensions of diversity in the United States, it fails to do so in Canada.)

I have for the most part resisted the impulse to respond to the various criticisms that have been made, because they are in almost every case based on a failure to read the piece carefully. For example, many people took me to be claiming that the victimization of Francophones was somehow greater than that of Black Canadians. One need only read the piece more attentively to see that I said no such thing. I merely said that they were demographically the largest group in this country to have been victimized by British colonialism.

I thought it would be insufferably professorial and ultimately not very productive to hop on Twitter and start admonishing people to read more carefully. But then yesterday I came across an open letter (or blog post?) criticizing my article, composed by three and then signed by a larger group of Trudeau Foundation Scholars. For those who are not in the know, these Scholars belong to a selective group of graduate students, beneficiaries of an extremely competitive scholarship program offered by the Foundation (of which I am a fellow). Reading through their letter, I had the exact same professorial reaction, which was “you should go back and read the piece more carefully.” In this case, however, dealing with such an elite group of scholars, it seemed to me that it would be less insufferable to point out how sloppy their reading skills are.

Let’s start with the technical fouls. The letter contains three phrases that appear between quotation marks, in a context that suggests that they are taken from my article. And yet, in none of the three cases is the material that appears between quotation marks actually a quotation from my article. For example, early on the writers say the following:

For Heath, Canada is characterized by an “exceptional” history in which race was not foundational.

When you start out a sentence by attributing a claim to a writer (“For Heath…”) and then you put something between quotation marks (“exceptional”), the reader normally assumes that the material between quotation marks is in fact a quotation from that author, from the text under discussion. Except in this case it is not. Nowhere in the article did I use the word “exceptional,” much less describe Canada’s history in that way. In fact I said nothing at all about whether race was or was not foundational in the history of Canada. All I said was that, unlike the United States, where the overwhelming majority of the current Black population are descendants of American slavery, in Canada the current Black population consists almost entirely of recent immigrants and their immediate descendants. (Those who follow the scholarly literature on pluralism and minority rights know that this is an extremely important distinction, although in a 700 word op-ed there was obviously no opportunity to explain this.)

Again, lots of people like to shoot their mouths off on the internet, and it’s pedantic to make a big deal out of being misquoted or having one’s view misrepresented in this way. But I think it’s reasonable to hold a group of Trudeau Foundation Scholars to a somewhat higher standard. Just making things up and then attributing them to the person one is criticizing is certainly not considered acceptable in academic work, but it’s also not a great way to win an argument. At best it makes you seem sloppy, at worst dishonest.

Moving along, things don’t get much better:

Heath’s most offensive suggestion is that the “victimization” of (white) French Canadians should be elevated above the experiences of racialized groups.

Again we have a quote that’s not actually a quote (“victimization”). I think the purpose of the quotation marks here is to cast aspersions on the suggestion that “(white) French Canadians” have ever been victimized. In this case, however, one should use single quotation marks (‘victimization’) – i.e. scare quotes – in order to distance oneself from the expression. Otherwise the reader can get the misleading impression that one is quoting from the text under discussion. (I know that Dr. Evil uses two fingers on either hand to indicate scare quotes, but technically he should use just one.)

And again, for what it’s worth, I did not say, nor did I suggest, that the victimization of French Canadians should be “elevated above the experiences of racialized groups.” This “offensive suggestion” that is imputed to me is based on an impressionistic, but ultimately inaccurate, reading of the text. On the contrary, I expressed considerable skepticism about what I referred to as “comparative victimization claims.” As far as I can tell, the writers of the letter agree with my suggestion that the BIPOC acronym should not be taken to reflect a hierarchical relation. The most charitable way of understanding the ordering in the U.S., I suggested, is simply demographic – Blacks are the largest minority group. In Canada they are not, francophones are.

French Canadians are, of course, not a racial minority. But that was the point I was making. There are many dimensions of pluralism and many forms of discrimination (e.g. language, religion, etc.) The obsessive focus on race that is characteristic of American political discourse is unhelpful in a Canadian context, precisely because many other dimensions of pluralism have greater salience in this country, especially because they form important subcategories within the larger racial groups. (Anyone familiar with the literature on intersectionality should have no difficulty grasping this point.)

Moving along, we have this nugget:

Canadian anti-Blackness is downplayed through a facile comparison with the U.S., notably on the subject of slavery as demonstrated by Heath’s odd “mathematics of suffering.” Heath’s analysis omits how the Americas as a whole have been undeniably marked by slavery and colonialism.

Again here we have a quote that is not actually a quote from anything in the article (“mathematics of suffering”), and not a view that I defended. I’m not quite sure what the first sentence is trying to say, but I do not understand how it could be construed as downplaying Canadian anti-Blackness merely to point out that most Black Americans are the descendants of people who were enslaved and brought to that country involuntarily, whereas the overwhelming majority of Black Canadians, like the majority of Canadian Chinese, the majority of Canadian Sikhs, the majority of Canadian Muslims, etc. either arrived here, or had ancestors who arrived here, as immigrants. This is an important distinction, because it has consequences for the type of political claims that these groups can make (as those who are conversant with contemporary scholarship on minority rights can appreciate – for my own discussion of the matter see here).

The second sentence is important in the way that it refers to the experience of “the Americas.” The phrase is repeated the sentence after:

The term BIPOC (or IBPOC) aims to highlight the specific histories and experiences of Black, Indigenous and other racialized peoples in the Americas, not to hierarchize them.

Here we have the major strategy of the letter-writers for defending use of the BIPOC acronym. The claim is that it’s not an expression specifically tailored to the political situation in the U.S., but rather one that reflects the situation in “the Americas as a whole.” This is why Canadians should be using the BIPOC acronym, because everyone in the Americas should be!

One need only think about this for a second to see how absurd the suggestion is. So people in Mexico should be talking about BIPOC? and in Argentina? in Jamaica? in Bolivia? Obviously not. This is exactly the sort of U.S. cultural imperialism that I was criticizing. People take the most parochial American habits of mind and generalize them, in this case assuming that everyone in “the Americas” has the same problems as the U.S., without recognizing any of the differences that exist in other nations, and other national histories.

With respect to the rest of the letter, there is not much to be said. Other than the specific points on which it misrepresents the text of the article, most of it doesn’t have much to do with anything that I wrote. The part where it agrees that the acronym could be changed to IBPOC is surprising, since that concedes the basic negative claim I was making. (As for the positive claim, I didn’t actually say that we should use FIVM, what I said was “if there is the need for an acronym to identify the most important minority groups in Canada, I would propose FIVM.” I actually have grave doubts about the usefulness of these acronyms.) IBPOC seems to me an improvement, although I would like to hear more about why, in a Canadian context, the B should be kept separate from the POC. For instance, why do Asians in the U.K. get their own letter (in BAME), but in Canada they don’t? Couldn’t we avoid a great deal of acrimony just by grouping them all together as VM (or ME)? Or perhaps stop using these acronyms entirely?

Finally, the open letter is prefaced by the following note:

[This piece was written before the islamophobic attack in London, Ontario.]

I suspect that this was not meant in an apologetic, Heath-was-right tone, but it could just as well have been. The broader point that I was making in the article is that the American obsession with race, and with seeing everything through the “lens of race,” is in many respects counterproductive, but is in any case inappropriate in a Canadian context. What I actually had in the back of my mind, as I was writing, was concern over anti-Muslim intolerance, and the way that the “lens of race” renders it invisible. This is why the language of ethnicity, or cultural difference, which has traditionally figured as central to Canada’s multiculturalism policies, is more appropriate (and successful) than the American framework, which insists on redescribing all group conflict in racial terms.

One final remark. Setting aside the letter-writers, I have to wonder what was going through the minds of the Trudeau Foundation Scholars who signed their names to it. At what point are academics going to realize that the impulse to jump onto these online dogpiles is completely antithetical to the ideals of responsible scholarship and rational discourse? Did they not bother to check the quotes, or compare the letter to the actual column, to see whether it bore any relationship? Perhaps they agreed with the general sentiment, and weren’t too worried about the details? Or perhaps they felt that it would be socially awkward to decline, and they didn’t want to create tension with their peers?

These are all understandable human frailties. But it is important to recognize that, if this is how you make decisions about your public pronouncements, you really should not be thinking of yourself as some kind of a hero of the resistance. Too many academics confuse critical thinking with mechanically reproducing the latest orthodoxies of critical social science. To be a critical thinker, you need to actually think for yourself. So when someone asks you to sign a letter, you’re supposed to read it through carefully, and decide for yourself whether it meets your standards of intellectual accuracy and integrity. The best that I can say, about the signatories of this letter, is that perhaps they didn’t.

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