Paradkar: Why I’m saying bye-bye to ‘BIPOC’ this year

While Paradkar’s points are valid when applied to the individual, groups are needed to assess differences in socio-economic outcomes at a broader level and understand the degree to which these reflect systemic or other barriers.

As Joseph Heath has argued, we need to stop using the American term BIPOC given that it reflects the centrality of Blacks in American history and exclusion, and use terms more appropriate to Canada’s history and context.

Needless to say, discussing terminology is easier than dismantling barriers and improving inclusion:

Who on earth is a BIPOC person?

BIPOC is an acronym that has flared into public consciousness since the 2020 summer of protests against police brutality against Black people. It stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and was quickly pronounced bye-pock.

I thought it held some promise then. It appeared to be a thoughtful political coalition term, acknowledging disparate impacts of white supremacy by singling out Black and Indigenous experiences, even though both “Black” and “Indigenous” are homogenizing identities in themselves, and not always disparate.

When it comes to police brutality, we’re not all in it together. Black and Indigenous people are treated more unjustly than just about anyone else in our criminal justice system. Other people are treated with disdain, but that contempt often stems from anti-Black, colonial ideas of refinement and race.

However, as with POC or person of colour, BIPOC got swallowed up, quickly lost nuance and got spat out at a racial identifier to say “not white.”

Colonized lands that grapple with human rights face a perpetual puzzle: What to name “the other” without saying “the other?” It has led to a long-standing tension on this continent, a tension between a racial identity and a political one, a tension between the labels white people want to apply versus how people identify themselves.

In Canada that desire for euphemistic framing has translated into various terms over the years. “Coloured,” “minority,” “diverse”. They bunch into one box people held together by the most tenuous of all connections, that of not being of European origin.

Words matter, and they are tricky. They swim in the sociological waters around them, meaning one thing at one point in time and something else the next.

Those sociological realities have now claimed the term BIPOC like they do other racial designations that are rooted not just in history but also prejudice.

I had never been called “East Indian” until I came to Canada. If anything I identified as South Indian, as in one who lived in the southern part of the country. Then I began to be called South Asian, another label I’d never heard before. It instantly flattened the vast diversity of all the nations on the Indian subcontinent into one homogeneous lump, but at least it was a geographical descriptor.

I then came across another widely used term: POC, or person of colour. It sounded a bit like “coloured people,” which I didn’t know then was a slur. I assumed it simply referred to the fact of melanin in my skin.

POC became more of a political identity over time when it bonded me with those who experienced similar responses to our non-European origins, including East Asians. In other words, when I underwent the process of racialization or the process of being forced to see that I was categorized as a certain “race” and feel its impacts. This, even though race itself is anthropological fiction, constructed as a tool of exploitation.

Early 1900s U.S. state laws defined a person of colour as one with some “Negro blood,” but in contemporary Canada at least, the term POC erased Black experiences and kept invisible Indigenous ones. The grassroots advocacy for change came from those groups, but its biggest beneficiaries have always been white women, followed by other people of colour. When the fight for civil rights in the U.S. led to the creation of “affirmative action” laws — or a push for corporations and universities to end discrimination — white women over decades received a far higher share of managerial jobs and degrees.

POC was supposed to be a collaborative term. But even when reduced to an identity, it was more positive than non-white, which sounded like a deficit, an accusation of something lacking.

It was also better than the revolting “visible minority,” which made no sense. Visible to whom? How does it account for those that might be “invisible” but still in the margins, such as First Nations, Métis and Inuit? There is also an irony in naming a global majority a “minority,” but more than that, colonization globally has showed that numerical domination has nothing to do with power.

In a city like Toronto where the presence of “visible minorities” causes white flight, statistics showing that it is populated by a visible “majority” causes white fright, and spawns far-right white grievance ideologies in the rest of the country.

Words are not the solution, but yes, they matter.

That’s why I heard alarm bells ringing when a corporate executive said BIPOC stats had gone up in their staff demographics, but a closer look revealed there were no Indigenous hires.

Emails from publicists began routinely throwing up lines like these: BIPOC founder behind (XYZ) coffee shop. BIPOC sommelier breaks barriers on wine’s role.

At a discussion on online harassment, a white woman described another woman at the receiving end of abuse saying, “And she’s bye-pawk. She’s bye-pawk.”

How does an individual become BIPOC?

In that moment I realized I’d gone from being Indian to being South Asian to be a person of colour to now being either Black or Indigenous and a Person of Colour. In the span of a few years, my identity had been diluted beyond recognition. This absolute homogenization is the opposite of what the term BIPOC was meant to do.

It’s true that some people are simply anxious to keep up with the terminology to signal support for anti-racism, but when they do so without paying attention to the nuance of those terms, and flatten our identities and conflate the unique struggles of different groups, they replicate the problem the terminology is trying to eradicate.

I am done. Bye, bye BIPOC.

In my work I opt to use individuals’ own preference for identities and describe backgrounds as specifically as I can. I’ve also deliberately used non-white, not as a racial identity, but to emphasize experiences of people who are penalized for not being white. I quite like the term “racialized” although plenty of people of colour have not awoken to their own racialization and plenty of white people have. I realize that “racialized,” too, is used as another word for “not white.” But like “marginalized” — an even bigger umbrella term — it at least insists on being seen as a process.

Several months ago, NPR journalist Gene Demby referenced the linguistic term “euphemism treadmill” on the podcast Code Switch. It’s a term that refers to polite words, softer words used to replace those that might give offence. But over time, these euphemisms become toxic by association and themselves need to be replaced. Demby pointed to words such as Oriental, Coloured or Negro that were all proper terms at some point.

“The terminology can only stay ahead of the negative attitudes for only so long,” he said presciently. “The problem is not the language we use to refer to people. The problem is the attitude we have when referring to those people.”


BIPOC or POC? Equity or Equality? The Debate Over Language on the Left.

Good discussion of the various positions and rationales, along with the risks of language debates distracting from addressing the harder intractable issues. I share the latter concern, as these debates are much easier than actual initiatives to reduce barriers and improve inclusion.

And a reminder that BIPOC is an American term, reflecting their reality, as Joseph Heath correctly called out in his The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race:

In California, a Black college freshman from the South is telling a story about his Latino friends from home when he is interrupted by a white classmate. “We say ‘Latinx’ here,” he recalls her saying, using a term he had not heard before, “because we respect trans people.”

In Philadelphia, Emma Blackson challenges her white neighbor’s assertion that Black children misbehave in school more than others. “It’s just my implicit bias,” the neighbor offers, saying that she had recently learned the phrase.

In Chicago, Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, wonders why colleagues and friends have suddenly started saying “BIPOC,” an acronym that encompasses individuals who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. Where had it come from? “There was really nobody to ask,” says Ms. O’Donnell, who is white. “It was just, ‘This is what we say now.’”

Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of last summer’s protests for social justice, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.

“You can’t change what you can’t name,” Cathy Albisa, vice president of institutional and sectoral change at the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, said.

For some people, though, the new lexicon has become a kind of inscrutable code, set at a frequency that only a narrow, highly educated slice of the country can understand, or even a political litmus test in which the answers continually change. Others feel disappointment, after so many protests last summer demanded far deeper change on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.

“I really believed America was having a reckoning when it came to race,” said Ms. Blackson, a Black graduate student in epidemiology who has expressed her disillusionment on Twitter. “So far it’s been a lot of words.”

Unsurprisingly, the language itself has become contested, especially by conservatives who have leveraged discomfort with the new vocabulary to energize their base of white voters, referring to it as “wokespeak.” One conservative think tank circulated a list of words — including “microaggressions” and “Black Lives Matter” — that it said could alert parents that what has been labeled “Critical Race Theory” is being taught in their children’s schools. 

The new language extends beyond race, adding phrases and introducing ideas that are new to many Americans. Gender-neutral terms like “Latinx,” for people of Latin American descent, “they/them” pronouns that refer to a single person, and “birthing parent” or “pregnant people” instead of “mother,” to be inclusive of trans people, are also gaining traction.

Some activists defend the focus on language, saying that the way people use words is not mere symbolism but is necessary to achieving justice.

“Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”

Mr. Robinson added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”

Still, some other self-identified liberals who said they care deeply about social justice feel uncomfortable with some of the changes and the pressure that can be associated with them.

Ms. O’Donnell of Chicago said that, especially when she is among other white, college-educated liberals, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”

And Stephen Paisley of Ithaca, N.Y., said he cringed at hearing libraries described at an academic conference as “sites of violence,” which is intended to reflect biases in how their rare books collections are curated. Rather than language that “tries to guilt people into action,” he said, he wishes the message was “white people, too, suffer from living in a society in which racial injustices and inequities persist.”

Many of the words surfacing in today’s language debates are not new.

“Implicit bias” traces to the work of psychologists in the 1990s, when the field began to document the subconscious associations that cause people to harbor stereotypes. The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.

But it is only recently, Dr. Hudley said, that “all these terms are swirling around more in the public consciousness.”

The murder of George Floyd by the police and the outraged protests that followed — in large cities but also in small towns and suburbs across the country — was one catalyst for spreading the terms. The words reverberated across social media and book groups. The word “racism” is being looked up online twice as often as before the killing of Mr. Floyd, according to Merriam-Webster, which has updated its definition to illustrate how racism can be systemic. And more companies, small and large, began requiring language training as part of broader programs they say are aimed at creating a more welcoming culture for diverse work forces.

In a reflection of its surging popularity, “BIPOC” (pronounced “bye-pock”) received its first Merriam-Webster dictionary entry this year, though a number of linguists said they were not sure how the term emerged.

One reason BIPOC has engendered both backlash and bewilderment, said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, is because it seems to be an example of “top-down language reform.” Widely shared over social media last year, its champions have said it is intended to emphasize the severity of racial injustice on Black and Indigenous people. But few Black or Indigenous people use it, language scholars say.

In a national poll conducted by Ipsos for The New York Times, more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt “very favorably” toward “BIPOC” as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.

In “Why BIPOC Fails,” an essay in a recent issue of the Virginia Law Review, Meera Deo, a sociologist and professor at Southwestern Law School, notes that the term can end up being “confusing” or “misleading.”

The acronym, which was widely adopted only in the last year or so, is often misread as meaning “bisexual people of color.” Asian and Latino Americans are often left to wonder whether they are covered by the “POC” part of the acronym.

Racial justice activists have also long distinguished “equality” from “equity,” but the latter has filtered into the mainstream more recently. Supporters of the word say that it is preferable to “equality,” which they argue suggests that equal treatment is sufficient to achieve fair outcomes — a premise they maintain disregards built-in disadvantages caused by past and present discrimination, and the need for policies to counteract them.

The terms can seem to change swiftly too. Some scholars are now arguing that “implicit bias” should be replaced with “complicit bias,” saying that the former has been used as a kind of exoneration from the biases one holds rather than a call to address them.

In another example, “L.G.B.T.Q.,” the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning, has recently incorporated an “I” for intersex, for people whose biological sex characteristics don’t fit the traditional definitions of female or male, and an “A” for either asexual — someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction — or ally. And the addition of a “+” at the end is aimed at indicating that the term should not be seen as comprehensive.

“I’m trying to think why it makes me so angry that they keep adding letters,” said Laura Bradford, 52, of Nashville, Tenn., who is bisexual and married to a woman. “It’s like, ‘We’re trying to understand, but you’re making it too complicated!’’’

Still, like many Americans, Ms. Bradford said that she had felt “woken up” last summer after educating herself about racism in America. And the identity-politics term that disturbs her most is the pejorative use of “woke,” a word that has cycled through several meanings, including one that reflected her own experience but now carries the implication that social justice ideals are absurd or insincere.

“It’s mean,” she said. “Being woke is about realizing that you’ve been hurting someone for a long time.”

Whether using certain words is an indication of a willingness to upend the traditions that reinforce social inequalities, however, is unclear. For white liberals especially, “there is social pressure to engage with these words in the social moment,” Dr. Hudley said. “They see this as part of what it means to be an educated white person in certain places and spaces, whether they agree with it or not.”

The current struggles over language reflect meaningful shifts in thinking on some essential issues, experts say.

The addition of the word “structural” or “systemic” ahead of “racism,” for instance, stems from a broader acceptance of the idea that racism is not just personal prejudice but a set of disadvantages that start with the average white child being born into families that are wealthier than others, and extend to laws related to housing and voting, bank-lending policies and education systems.

“Compared to 18 months ago, the term ‘systemic racism’ is being used across the board, whether people are talking about it or denying its existence,” said the historian Ibram X. Kendi, whose book “How to Be an Antiracist” has been widely read.

For Nancy McDonald Ladd, a white senior minister at a Unitarian church in Bethesda, Md., that is made up of mostly white progressives, the fixation with language stems at least partly from a sincere desire to reorient one’s worldview. It can be hard to stay on top of lexical tweaks, which include words that distinguish between defining a person and describing a situation — “unhoused” instead of “homeless.”

Although the Rev. Ladd has sometimes seen her congregants’ deliberations over words as a substitute for more substantive action, the language is “not just virtue-signaling,’’ she said, referring to expressions of opinion intended to publicly demonstrate a person’s good character.

“It’s this deep-seated anxiety about failing,” she said. “So they’re reaching, we are reaching, reaching, reaching for the perfect language.”

Language change, linguists say, has long been a tool in shaping social perceptions of identity.

“Queer,” once a pejorative for gay, has been reclaimed as a self-affirming term, especially by a younger generation of the LGBTQIA+ community. “African American,” which became prevalent in the 1980s after the Rev. Jesse Jackson objected that “black” reduced the complexity of race to a skin color, is now being superseded by “Black,” with a capital “B,” to underline a shared political identity among disparate groups.

Changes in language, of course, also make people feel anxious because they signify changes in society.

The honorific “Ms.” for instance, encountered decades of resistance before it became a widely preferred alternative to identifying women by their marital status.

Still others see the attention on language as a dodge.

Increasingly prevalent statements known as “land acknowledgments,” in which officials mention that a speech or public event is taking place on land once occupied by Indigenous people, have recently come in for criticism. Summer Wilkie, a member of the Cherokee Nation, suggested in a recent essay that they can simply seem shallow and take focus away from policies that support Indigenous people.

Those statements that are meant to convey “thank you” or indicate that the speaker is a “guest,” Ms. Wilkie said, are especially “empty and alienating.”

Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in liberal Marin County, has had a similar thought about white progressives who reflexively use “Latinx.” She has no problem with the term, which has been adopted by a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as being of Latin American descent, to avoid defaulting to the masculine “Latino” and to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. But how many white Marin residents making a point to use inclusive language, she wondered, also supported changing the zoning laws to create more housing opportunities for Latin American immigrants?

“You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she said, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”

Such observations are borne out in a national survey this year by Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Even white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial discrimination, she found, ranked activities like “listening to people of color” or “educating myself about racism” as more important than “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or voting.

One risk of using words without really meaning them, said Dr. Holliday, the linguist, is the overuse of a term — like “inclusion” — to the point where its meaning is diluted, which linguists call “semantic bleaching.”

Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in liberal Marin County, has had a similar thought about white progressives who reflexively use “Latinx.” She has no problem with the term, which has been adopted by a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as being of Latin American descent, to avoid defaulting to the masculine “Latino” and to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. But how many white Marin residents making a point to use inclusive language, she wondered, also supported changing the zoning laws to create more housing opportunities for Latin American immigrants?

“You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she said, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”

Such observations are borne out in a national survey this year by Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Even white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial discrimination, she found, ranked activities like “listening to people of color” or “educating myself about racism” as more important than “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or voting.

One risk of using words without really meaning them, said Dr. Holliday, the linguist, is the overuse of a term — like “inclusion” — to the point where its meaning is diluted, which linguists call “semantic bleaching.”


Joseph Heath: Woke tactics are as important as woke beliefs

Always interesting to read Heath and his uncomfortable observations and analysis:

After several years of creeping illiberalism under the guise of progressive politics, American liberals are finally getting their act together. They are pushing back, creating several organizations committed to combating the influence of “woke” politics and ideology. They have momentum, not just because many woke mantras like “defund the police” have proven spectacularly unpopular, but also because there is genuine growing alarm about the intolerant and authoritarian brand of politics that has become associated with the woke left.

Unfortunately, many of the woke genuinely do not understand why anyone finds their politics, or their political tactics, threatening. In particular, the accusation that they are being authoritarian, or that “cancel culture” is a threat to freedom of expression, is one that they are simply unable to process. 

There is a reason for this — and one that’s worth understanding. There are several key phrases that play an enormously important role in woke politics (e.g. “safety,” “mental health,” “microaggression,” “bullying” and even “human rights”) which they use to deflect the accusation of authoritarianism. If you adopt the right words, it’s easier to convince yourself that you’re the good guys even as you’re acting like the bad ones.

I want to take a shot at explaining how this works. 

The most important thing to understand about woke politics is that it is not a conventional form of illiberalism, it is better thought of as a type of “illiberal liberalism.” It involves making a set of political demands that are fundamentally illiberal, but then articulating them in a way that fits the conventional structure of liberal political discourse. Because of the way that their complaints are packaged, the woke are able to brush off criticism of their tactics.

Take an issue like freedom of speech. There are various versions of this traditionally liberal virtue; predominant among them, is that those who hold this belief are opposed to content-based restrictions on speech. In the old days, lots of politicians didn’t really believe in freedom of speech, as many among the ruling class maintained straightforwardly illiberal views. 

Consider, for example, the aftermath of the “police riot” that occurred during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. The Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, put the blame for the violence squarely on the protesters. In those pre-feminist times, it was a common tactic for hippie protesters to provoke police by describing, in graphic detail, the various sex acts that they intended to perpetrate on the wives and daughters of the forces of order. Humphrey found this intolerable, and so defended police violence in the following terms:

The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night in front of the hotels was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed, every human being, the kind of language that no one would tolerate at all. You’d put anybody in jail for that kind of talk. And yet it went on for day after day. Is it any wonder that the police had to take action?

This is good-old-fashioned illiberalism. Someone said something outrageous, something intolerable, and so needs to be punished for it. If you insult the police, you can’t complain if you get beat up. According to Humphrey, it was the content of what the protesters said that justified throwing them in jail.

What I find striking about this example is that people who want to censor speech don’t talk this way any more, because it is such an obvious violation of liberal principles. Modern enemies of free speech have found ways to formulate their demands for punishment in ways that violate the spirit, but still respect the letter, of those very principles. Most obviously, they take advantage of certain exceptions to the general prohibition on content-based restrictions.

Anyone who has studied free speech issues or read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty will of course be familiar with these exceptions. The biggest one is that, while it may not be permissible to prohibit the expression of an idea, any particular episode of speech can be prohibited if the performance of the speech act is likely to bring serious harm to some other person. Mill, for example, famously suggested that while it was permissible to publish the opinion that “corn dealers rob the poor,” chanting that slogan in front of an agitated mob outside the corn dealer’s home is another matter entirely. The latter can be prohibited, because it is likely to cause harm to the corn dealer.

While this caveat may seem reasonable at first glance, it creates all sorts of problems, precisely because the concept of harm is not well-defined. Notice that in Mill’s example, the speaker does not directly harm the corn dealer. The speaker rather incites the mob, and it is members of the mob who then pose a threat to the corn dealer (and that threat may never materialize). 

This loophole is the one that has been taken advantage of most aggressively by the woke left to push for restrictions on speech. When they come across something they don’t like, rather than calling for censorship on the basis of content, they will instead attempt to restrict it on the grounds that it causes harm. Of course, they are smart enough to realize that the mere fact that it upsets them is not enough to qualify as a harm. So they posit a causal connection to a more serious physical or psychological harm. For example, students who are trying to censor the expression of ideas in the classroom will claim that the discussion makes them feel “unsafe,” or that it threatens their mental health. What is crucial about this move is that it allows them to call for illiberal actions (i.e. censorship or punishment of speech) on grounds that are, in principle at least, not illiberal.

Consider a concrete example of this. My own academic discipline was rocked by a cancel-culture scandal in 2017, involving an article published by the Canadian philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in the journal Hypatia. In the article, Tuvel upset a lot of people by asking the awkward question why, if it’s all just socially constructed, we accept the claims of people who want to switch genders, but not those who want to switch races. What ignited the real controversy, however, was not the article, but rather the attempt by hundreds of academics to cancel it, by signing an online petition demanding that the journal retract the piece. 

This recent trend of demanding the retraction of controversial academic work is a perfect example of illiberal liberalism. Traditionally, the way that philosophers have responded to journal articles they disagree with is to write their own articles criticizing the view. Demanding that the journal retract the paper is an entirely different tactic. On the surface, it is not illiberal, since academic journals are committed to publishing material that meets a certain standard, and are committed to retracting work that is subsequently shown to have fallen below that standard. And yet at the same time, it is clearly punitive. Having published a journal article that subsequently had to be retracted is a major stain on a scholar’s reputation, and could easily serve as an obstacle to being granted tenure.

In the case of Tuvel’s paper, the purpose of the online petition was obviously punitive, since the case for retraction was non-existent. It was clearly a demand for censorship (something illiberal), but it was presented under the guise of a demand for retraction (something consistent with liberalism). 

In the petition letter, the central argument for retraction was made in terms of the “harm” caused by the article, as well as the claim that its publication was “dangerous.” Many wondered how an article published in a feminist academic journal, dealing with an entirely abstract argument about identity and social construction, could possibly cause harm. In its defence, some of the signatories pointed to the high rate of suicide among transgendered individuals, claiming that anyone seeking to ask questions or to debate their claims was putting them at risk of self-harm.

This argument is obviously spurious. The suggestion that upsetting someone who belongs to a social group with an elevated suicide rate should count as a “harm,” sufficient to justify restrictions on speech, is not a defensible conception of harm. Young white American men who own guns also have an extremely high rate of suicide, and yet no one worries much about hurting their feelings. More generally, expanding the category of harm in this way makes it so broad that practically any action can be construed as harmful, and therefore completely undermines freedom of speech. This argument was obviously being gerrymandered to prohibit the expression of a specific view that certain people found offensive.

What is crucial though is the form of the argument. By pointing to these ephemeral harms, those who are trying to engage in censorship of speech that they disagree with are nevertheless able to convince themselves that this is not what they are doing. The appeal to harm is a “fig leaf” argument, in that it conceals their true motive from others, but also, one senses, from themselves.

This analysis allows us to better understand some of the strange “snowflake” behaviour that one sees among young people of a certain political persuasion. Explicitly or implicitly, they have internalized the idea that in order to get other people punished for doing things you don’t like, you have to claim that they have harmed you. This is why they are so quick to claim injury (e.g. damage to their mental health, fear for their safety, etc.), in circumstances that a normal person would shrug off. They are like soccer players trying to draw a penalty. It’s not a “culture of victimhood,” on the contrary, it is more often an act of social aggression, since these performances of injury are typically carried out, not to attract sympathy, but rather punish and control others.

This is also why HR departments have become an important vector for illiberalism. At my own university, for example, staff at the Office of Accessibility Services have attempted to censor the curriculum in certain philosophy courses. The logic of this is not difficult to see. Students realize that they are not going to get authors or texts banned by appealing to the faculty. So instead they go to their disability services counsellor and claim that they cannot attend class when certain authors are being discussed, because they feel unsafe. Staff have no particular commitment to academic freedom, and so are happy to take up the cause. 

HR departments aren’t full of cultural Marxists, they’re a liberal fig leaf used to cover up these fundamentally illiberal impulses. Most HR professionals have no particular ideology, they are just extremely averse to conflict, and think that the easiest way to make a conflict go away is for the person who is saying the thing that is upsetting other people to stop saying it.

As a member of Generation X dealing with young people, I sometimes feel like a hockey player watching a soccer game, trying to figure out whether the players are completely hamming it up, or whether they actually are that delicate. The answer is probably somewhere in between. I have no doubt that many young people truly are lacking in psychological resilience, but it is important to recognize that there are also important political motives at work that encourage them to act this fragile.

It is equally important to recognize the futility of calling them “left fascists” or authoritarian.  Not only do they brush off the accusation, but it encourages them to double down on the snowflake behaviour,because it’s precisely by claiming injury that they deflect the accusation of intolerance.


The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

Joseph Heath’s piece questioning the prevailing wisdom of Canadian diversity discourse and its reliance on American language and context struct a nerve and provoked a debate that earlier articles had not, including his defence of the term visible minorities rather than separating Blacks from other visible minority groups.

While I agree with his focus on Indigenous peoples and visible minorities, and use of those terms until the employment equity act terminology is changed. We also need to recognize the differences and the similarities with the USA, both overall and with respect to specific groups.

I am less convinced by his arguments of French as the other group, given constitutional guarantees and a provincial government with extensive powers (nationalist currents in Quebec might agree on the “oppression” aspect but would likely bristle at being lumped together with visible minorities):

One of the biggest problems in Canadian politics is that large segments of our population seem to think they live in the United States. How else can one explain the fools running around in MAGA hats and holding demonstrations in support of former U.S. president Donald Trump? Sometimes, I feel like I should shake them by the shoulders and shout, “You live in Canada!”

Unfortunately, I am beginning to feel the same way toward people who talk about “BIPOC issues,” as though it were normal for Canadians to use that expression. After all, BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous and People of Color”) is an acronym developed in the U.S. to discuss domestic race relations, just as BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”) is used in Britain.

Rather than developing our own acronym to reflect the reality of race relations and multiculturalism in Canada, far too many people have chosen just to use the American term. This cognitive capture by American social-justice discourse is, in many ways, just a left-wing version of what’s been happening with MAGA on the right.

All three components of the acronym, B, I and POC, are problematic in a Canadian context. Let’s start with “Black.” In the United States, there is good reason to put the B first, because Black people are by far the most important minority group in that country, making up more than 12 per cent of the population. Furthermore, as descendants of slavery, most can trace their ancestry in the U.S. back hundreds of years.

The situation in Canada is quite different. When I was born, in the 1960s, Black Canadians made up 0.2 per cent of the population. This number has grown to more than 3.5 per cent today, but the consequence is that the Black population in Canada consists almost entirely of immigrants and their immediate descendants. Furthermore, Black Canadians are not the largest group of recent immigrants, as they are outnumbered by both people of South Asian and East Asian ancestry.

Because of their distinctive history in the U.S., it makes sense to treat Black people as a separate category in that country. And because of their demographics, it may make some sense to put them before Indigenous people, who make up only 1.6 per cent of the U.S. population. In Canada, however, where Indigenous people make up almost 5 per cent of the population, it makes no sense at all to put the B before the I, or even to treat Black people as a separate category from other ethnic groups. Indeed, it is in many ways offensive to the distinctive status of Indigenous peoples in Canada to put the B first. From the perspective of many Indigenous people, the Black population of Canada are settlers, just like white Canadians – that is, part and parcel of the continuing colonial project.

As far as discrimination is concerned, comparative victimization claims are difficult to assess, but only someone who was confused about the differences between American and Canadian history could think that the suffering of Black Canadians outranks that of Indigenous peoples.

This brings us to the “POC” part of the acronym. This is slightly less important, but the term traditionally used in Canada is “visible minority.” And apart from being American, “person of colour” is not very popular among those it used to describe.

Finally, it is worth noting that the largest group of people in this country who were victimized by British colonialism, subjugated and incorporated into confederation by force, are French Canadians. This is why the status of the French language has served as the major flashpoint for conflict over minority rights in this country.

And so, if there is the need for an acronym to identify the most important minority groups in Canada, I would propose “FIVM”: Francophone, Indigenous and Visible Minority.

For all those who have enthusiastically adopted the BIPOC acronym – along with the American habit of analyzing social conflict through a racial lens – it is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. approach to race relations has been a recipe for conflict. Why anyone would want to import this way of thinking into Canada is a mystery to me. When people around the world look for models of pluralist integration to emulate, Canada’s federalism and multiculturalism policies are generally pointed to as among the most successful.

An important feature of these policies, traditionally, is that Canada has not sought to racialize what amount to ethnic differences among peoples. The idea that a recent immigrant from Ethiopia has something important in common with a descendant of African slaves whose ancestors have been on this continent for 300 years is not just a fiction – it is pernicious misrepresentation. Even the suggestion that all Black communities here face the same racism is likely to obscure more than it reveals.

The idea that we should continue with the failed American BIPOC model instead of using the far more appropriate FIVM acronym is difficult to understand – except as a consequence of American cultural imperialism. How else could anyone get the wild idea that it might advance the cause of social justice to import American racial politics?

Source: The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

More neutral and less controversial question of the term BIPOC is seen in this piece by Azra Rashid:

On April 20, a jury in Minnesota found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Following the verdict, Canadian media was filled with extensive coverage and endless analyses of the story.

Many Canadians watched the racism unfold in the United States with a sense of moral superiority and relief that “this kind of thing does not happen in Canada.” The Canadian response to racism south of the border can be described as an Americanization of Canadian history. The media’s lack of coverage of racism in Canada, in its historically accurate context, is a cause for concern.

Different histories of racism

Canada’s history of racism is different than the United States.

In 1619, the first slave ship docked on North American shores, bringing 20 enslaved Africans. This was the start of the transatlantic slave trade that saw at least 300,000 Africans brought to and sold at U.S. ports. Historians estimate that in Canada, between 1671 and 1834, there were 4,200 slaves – about two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were Black.

Outlawing the slave trade and restrictions on non-European immigration later slowed down the growth of the Black population both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Immigration regulations introduced in 1962 in Canada eliminated preferences for immigrants of European origin for a points-based system, prioritizing skilled labour. As a result, the immigrant population became more diverse in Canada. Similarly, in the U.S., the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980 and the Immigration Act of 1990 have helped to increase the number of immigrants in the country.

Immigrants today account for 13.7 per cent of the U.S. population compared to 22 per cent in Canada.

The history of slavery and immigration provides an important context to contemporary conversations on racism. But an increase in immigration does not automatically lead to more or less racism.

In a country like Canada, it’s important for us to acknowledge our differences in history from the U.S., account for racism within a particular historical context and reflect on what racism actually looks like here.

Difference can provide a space for understanding the implication of race in defining the various experiences of racialized groups, instead of a universalized representation of race and racism.

Racism towards Indigenous people

Canada has a long history of racism towards Indigenous people – from the colonization of their land and enslavement to the violation of treaties and policies that led to residential schools and the ‘60s Scoop.

Abuse and racism suffered by First Nations, Inuit and Métis people at the hands of the government continue to take a toll on Indigenous lives. Many remote communities face challenges accessing basic necessities like clean drinking water.

Indigenous people in Canada also experience the highest levels of poverty: 25 per cent of Indigenous people live in poverty while 40 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty.

Accessing health care has also been a challenge for many First Nations people. Several months ago, Joyce Echaquan died in a hospital in Joliette, Que. Not only did she not receive the help she needed, but hospital staff told her that she would be better off dead. Meaningful action to fight the systemic racism Indigenous people are experiencing is yet to come.

In the U.S., genocidal policies aimed at Indigenous people changed when legislators passed a number of laws, most importantly the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which resulted in the U.S. government’s recognition of Indigenous statehood.

In recent years, some policies, especially those implemented by former president Donald Trump’s administration, have been diminishing tribal land rights, sovereignty and resources. The Keystone XL Pipeline project, approved by the Trump administration and cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden, was met with strong resistance from Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S. The project had the backing of Canadian government.

The American influence

The U.S. influences Canadian lives in many ways – from the economy to culture. Canadians often mindlessly consume U.S. media and politics without thinking twice about how those issues manifest themselves in Canada and what the differences are in the history of race and racism between the two countries.

The Americanization of Canadian culture is not new. In 1926, in an essay titled Is Canada Being Americanized?, journalist and philosopher C.H. Bretherton offered reflections on Canada’s movement toward American models of social and economic life. However, Americanization of Canadian history is a rather new phenomenon.

About a decade ago, a national survey of 18- to 24-year-olds found that only 46 per cent of respondents knew Sir John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada, let alone the racist policies he implemented in the country. Polls conducted more recently by Historica Canada show a similar lack of knowledge of Canada’s history.

The blame falls not only on our education system, but also on our news and media that continue to lead with American stories and fail to report on what is historically important and relevant in Canada. In the last 100 years, immigration reforms have made Canada more diverse, but the systemic racism faced by Indigenous peoples and immigrants fails to make a mark on the Canadian conscience.

The same day a jury reached a verdict in the Chauvin trial, a superior court in Québec decided to uphold Bill 21. The law prohibits public sector workers who are in positions of authority (including teachers, police officers and judges) from wearing religious symbols (such as hijabs, niqabs, kippas, yarmulkes, crucifixes or turbans) at work. The judge made an exception for individuals working in English-language schools. That story, however, was buried under the coverage of the Chauvin verdict.

While news outlets are flooded with stories on anti-Black racism, many stemming from the other side of the border, there’s still no uproar in Canada about legitimizing racism by targeting non-white communities.

Source: Racism & the Americanization of Canadian history: Why we shouldn’t look at ourselves through a U.S. lens

Canadian exceptionalism: Joseph Heath | In Due Course

Joseph Heath, of UofT’s department of philosophy, in a recent post paints an overly simplistic picture of “Canadian exceptionalism.”

While many of his points are valid, there is a surprising lack of a historical perspective in his treatment of integration and limitations to his analysis of the numbers and politics.

Historical perspective: Heath seems to anchor his post on the shift towards greater support for immigration in the mid-1990s – the inflection point when more people supported immigration than opposed.

But this ignores the longer term factors that are central to Canada’s relative success. First among them is a “culture of accommodation” that, however imperfect, reflects an early accommodation between settlers and First Nations (e.g., Royal Proclamation of 1763) and between French and English settlers (e.g., Quebec Act of 1774). While more observed in the breach than the observance for most of our early history, it nevertheless provided a way of thinking that underlies Canadian discourse.

The emphasis on integration, as distinct from assimilation, emerged in 1959 as Canadian citizenship articulated that integration was a voluntary process, respect for cultural traditions was compatible with loyalty to Canada, and that the host society was ultimately responsible for newcomer acceptance. The “Other groups” chapter of the Bi and Bi Commission provided further elaboration of the integration process.

The “other groups,” such as Ukrainian Canadians, pressed for multiculturalism in order to recognize their distinct identity and contribution to the building of Canada. The end result was the multiculturalism policy of 1971 and Act of 1988.

It was not merely “inadvertently” that Canada ended up being more successful in newcomer integration, but a series of earlier actions and policy choices – immigration, settlement, citizenship and multiculturalism – that enabled us to do so.

Numbers: While Canada does have more diverse newcomers than most other countries at the national level, the same cannot be said at the regional or municipal levels. The various controversies that emerge from time-to-time in places such as Brampton, Surrey or Richmond illustrate that.

Political system:

Similarly, his treatment of how Canada’s political system lacks understanding of the numbers of new Canadian voters and their relative concentration in ridings.

The more fundamental reality is that no political party can win a majority (and would be hard placed to win a strong minority) without the support of new Canadian voters, particularly those in the suburban areas of Toronto (the 905) and Vancouver.

Moreover, he overstates the impact of the first-past-the-post system on the far right given that UKIP, at least in the 2015 election, was able to attract almost 13 percent (but less than two percent in 2017).

Personally, I find Keith Banting’s recent analysis of “Canadian exceptionalism” at a “Big Thinking” Parliament Hill event more convincing (see Big Thinking video).

The five factors of Heath:

1. Very little illegal immigration

2. Bringing people in from all over

3. A political system that encourages moderation

4. Immigrants are part of larger nation-building project

5. Protection of majority culture clear from the start

Source: Canadian exceptionalism | In Due Course

There is room in our circle for Joseph Boyden: Kinew

There has been considerable commentary on Boyden’s ancestry and claims to an aboriginal voice, ranging from defenders (Konrad Yakabuski’s Attacks on Joseph Boyden’s identity should set off alarm bells) to critics (Hayden King’s Joseph Boyden, where are you from?, Denise Balkissoon’s Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter from the broader cultural appropriation perspective).

Wab Kinew emphasizes a more reconciliatory approach, one that recognizes better the complexity of identities and belonging:

…Today my friend Joseph Boyden is the one in the centre of our circle being stripped of an identity. Though his disrobing is happening in the feedback loop of social media instead of a traditional arbour, as with the man at the sundance, many of the questions asked are legitimate.

Joseph Boyden will be changed by this. He owes some of our friends apologies for apparently misleading them. Media outlets will lose credibility if they present his as the voice of indigenous peoples. When he promotes his next book, he will be asked about his identity and this episode.

Already some non-indigenous readers are asking if they should read his work. His novels remain powerful. But they were always the work of a talented outsider. Even if he is Anishinaabe, he is not a member of the nations he wrote about – the Mushkegowuk, the Huron, the Haudenosaunee. Recognizing the distinctions will inform readers. So, yes, read Joseph Boyden. But also read authors who have lived a more indigenous experience.

The indigenous community also has questions to consider. First, why did we so quickly embrace someone who has long said he has little biological connection to us?

Our community hungers for reasons to celebrate, so when a brilliant artist claimed us, we claimed him. I am not sure this cost us much. While he should not accept award money meant to encourage writers who experience the very real challenges of growing up indigenous in Canada, his success did not prevent a half-dozen indigenous authors from releasing bestsellers in the past few years.

The second, and perhaps more important question, is what does it say that many of us have so quickly turned on him?

I am reminded of the man at the sundance. It could not have been easy, but he has returned year after year since his shaming. In the countless ceremonies since, all participating have repeated the prayerful Lakota words Mitakuye Oyasin (all my relations). The Anishinaabe and other peoples recite similar maxims. These axioms articulate the belief that every being is related to one another.

If we are to live this ethos, then perhaps the issue of how Joseph Boyden gained access to our circle does not matter as much as the fact he is present in our community now.

His place among us was built by writing about, giving back to and befriending us. Some, such as myself, continue to claim him. I can not give him a status card or confer on him the right to identify as Anishinaabe. But I can tell you if he keeps coming back, he will have a place in our circle.

I say this wishing he behaved differently. I want him to rescind the UBC letter, apologize for his comments about missing and murdered women, and be direct with us about his ancestry. If he is not native, he should confess. If he has one ancestor generations back, he should explain who they were.

Not long ago, a Lakota grandmother and I were teasing each other about that man from the sundance. “He’s your relative.” “No, he’s your relative,” we said to one another. But when the conversation turned to the now ailing man’s health the woman surprised me with her genuine sadness. The man was imperfect. He made us cringe sometimes. Yet, he was still a part of us.

There is room in our circle for everyone, even those who do not behave as we would like. We include them not just to make our circle bigger. We love one another as relatives because it frees our hearts from hurt and allows us to embrace the goodness in each of us. When we do that, we are stronger.

All my relations.

Source: There is room in our circle for Joseph Boyden – The Globe and Mail

Joseph Heath: How to beat racism

More Joseph Heath, this time on racism. Helpful to have so much of his book in the National Post, not sure if this is helping book sales for Enlightenment 2.0 or substituting for them:

… What matters is not so much the differences between individuals but which differences we choose to invest significance in. This is the good news on race. It suggests that the best way to overcome race may simply be to distract people from it. If there is nothing else to attract people’s attention, the set of physical characteristics that distinguish race will be regarded as significant, but this can be overcome by reducing the salience of these characteristics. There is probably nothing we can do to stop people from classifying others into groups and developing animosity toward those whom they regard as belonging to an out-group. Yet even if we are unable to change this basic feature of human psychology, we can develop an effective work-around, by manipulating the environment so that people classify each other in ways that are less socially pernicious. For example, instead of allowing people to fixate on inherited features of individuals — such as skin colour — we could encourage them to focus on arbitrary or symbolic features — like hair style. The advantage of hair style is that it can easily be changed, and so does not translate into permanent disadvantage for any class of individuals.

This may explain why the military and sports teams have been far more successful at creating racial integration than many other institutions in American life. What distinguishes both of them is that they cultivate very intense, particularistic loyalties. There is good reason to think that these forms of group identification simply crowd out the other ones based on race. This can be far more effective than asking people to subscribe to some universalist ideal, one that forces them to overcome or suppress their “groupish” instincts.

From this perspective, the real problem in America is not so much racism as it is race consciousness. (Indeed, to any non-American, the most oppressive feature of intercultural relations in America is not that people are racist, but just that they talk and think incessantly about race, even worse than the way the English talk and think incessantly about class.) And yet this feature of American culture seems to be one that everyone, white and black, conservative and liberal, is involved in a giant conspiracy to sustain and reinforce. This is because most Americans who are progressive on the subject believe that racism must be overcome directly, and that this can only be done by increasing sensitivity and awareness of racial difference. A lot of progressive black politics has done the same, by rejecting the older ideal of a “colour-blind” society and insisting upon the recognition and affirmation of a positive black identity. This winds up being an inadvertent recipe for the reproduction of racism. Even though the intention is to create a positive group identity, its dominant effect is to make race salient as a basis of group identity, which means that it will also, inevitably, become a locus of negative valuation for some.

Joseph Heath: How to beat racism | National Post.

Joseph Heath: The new nationalism

More excerpts from Joseph Heath’s book, Enlightenment 2.0, on one of the ironies of Trudeau’s policies promoting Canadian symbols. For the Conservative take on successive Liberal governments, see Chris Champion’s Tory History and Its Critics | The Dorchester Review.

So that is how, in a case of not inconsiderable historical irony, Trudeau — the avatar of pure reason — became the father of modern Canadian nationalism, in all of its most boisterous and vulgar manifestations. One wonders how he would have felt had he seen the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, with its giant inflatable beavers, table-hockey players, moose hats, dancing lumberjacks and voyageurs, and Michael Bublé dressed as a Mountie singing “The Maple Leaf Forever.” The phrase “What have I done?” might have sprung to mind. And yet, almost 40 years after Trudeau made the initial moves, one could see the power of the strategy. Quebec artists essentially boycotted the Olympic ceremonies, refusing to participate in what they rightly anticipated would be an orgy of Canadian nationalism. And yet when the curtain closed, they proceeded to complain about the lack of “French content” in the program. A principled commitment to national sovereignty is all well and good, but no one likes to feel left out of a party. As far as political dilemmas go, the shoe had been moved to the other foot.

Joseph Heath: The new nationalism | National Post.

Misunderstanding Canadian Multiculturalism : Joseph Heath

While I would characterize some of the issues differently, a good overview piece on Canadian multiculturalism and Quebec by Joseph Heath of UofT.

The defining debate for the Canadian policy was triggered in 1990, when a Sikh officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) requested a modification of the official uniform so that he could wear a turban instead of the traditional Stetson hat. While this created an enormous backlash in English Canada, observers were quick to point out the good news – to wit, that Sikhs in Canada wanted to join the national police force. The accommodation that was being requested – which the multiculturalism policy was broadly understood to license – was quite different from the type of accommodations requested by many Aboriginal groups, or indeed by the province of Quebec, which wanted to opt out of the RCMP entirely and create its own police force.

This revealed an important ambiguity in the concept ‘reasonable accommodation.’ The kinds of accommodations requested by national minority groups, such as French Canadians and Aboriginals, were aimed at changing things so that they would not be required to integrate into majority institutions – that is, so that they could instead create their own, parallel set of institutions. The demand for modification of the RCMP uniform, however, was a sign of an immigrant group wanting very much to participate in majority institutions, and requesting a change in the dominant practices in order to remove a barrier – conscious or inadvertent – to its full integration. The fact that such demands were being made was a sign that the multiculturalism policy was in fact working.

I think he misses some of the nuances between interculturalisme and multiculturalism but is correct that the similarities outweigh the differences (see Table 9: Diversity Paradigms,  Table 10: Multiculturalism/ Interculturalisme Comparison).

Misunderstanding Canadian Multiculturalism : Global Brief.

And some interesting commentary by Heath on a debate between Will Kymlicka and David Miller, on national vs subnational identities:

It is not the case that by adopting a national identity organized around the federal government, immigrants are simply buying into the national-building project of English Canadians. Walking around a major city like Toronto one could get that impression, but that is precisely because there are so many immigrants in those cities. Many older English Canadians are profoundly uncomfortable with the federal project, as witnessed by the fact that the current federal government – which rules, I should note, with essentially no support in Quebec – is very actively trying to undermine it. Thus there is, in Canada, a distinct national identity, at the federal level, which cannot simply be identified with the national identity of either English or French (or, obviously, Aboriginal) national groups. And so to the extent that immigrants gravitate toward that identity, they are not necessarily “picking sides” in the age-old disputes between Canada’s founding peoples.

More thoughts on Kymlika

Joseph Health on the Public Service

Attended an interesting talk this week by Joseph Heath on the three “poles of allegiance” of the public service: to elected officials, to the public, and to their professional values. Although his working through the issues in each category is a helpful analytical exercise, as a former public servant not sure that helps us much in the end in the Canadian context, where “fearless advice and loyal implementation” to the minister prevails.

My experience, as outlined in Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, was that whenever public servants deviated from serving elected officials, problems emerged. Should they try to serve the public in recommending Grant & Contribution projects, they missed the change in policy with projects being rejected. And should they try to follow their professionalism with respect to providing advice without taking political context into account, public servants were viewed as obstructive.

But alway good to have a theoretical framework challenge the status quo, and be provoked!