Colour Outside the Lines #23: Scratching the Surface

Welcome to Colour Outside the Lines, The Avocado’s weekly discussion space for people of colour.

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The Prompt

This week, we’re going to have a bit of a more complex prompt that I usually put up, and I’m not wholly sure that I’m properly articulating the issue. But allow me to try.

In much of the developed English-speaking world, it’s generally acknowledged that racism is bad. As far as social norms go, this is a good one! Racism is bad. I mean, I hope no one reading this thinks racism is good; otherwise, what the hell are you doing here?

What this means is that white allies – or really any allies external to the groups in question – can be pretty good at identifying racism. However, they often don’t grasp its nuances. For them, racism is usually thought of as a rigid set of actions that could cause harm or offence to people of colour. They pattern-match current instances of it to past ones, often missing important or idiosyncratic context.

For instance, let’s look at an example from my hometown of Ottawa: the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of a white police officer, Daniel Montsion. For observers outside of the city, this pattern-matched to the kinds of incidents of police brutality protested by Black Lives Matter in the United States. But people within the city could better recognize the incident as a culmination of a couple of decades of tension between the city’s Somali community and its mostly white majority (the group most commonly represented in the city’s law enforcement). Islamophobia and poverty played large roles in those tensions, and starting and ending the conversation at “Daniel Montsion is a racist” would miss a lot of important context, nuance, and history; it’s a true statement, but it really misses the broader picture.

So let’s talk about this: Is this a phenomenon you’ve observed before? How do you feel when well-meaning allies can identify an offence but don’t fully understand it? What’s the best way to educate people about this?

As always, the prompt is just a suggested discussion topic. If you’d like to discuss any other racial or ethnocultural issues, this is your safe space.

An Announcement

Due to popular demand, this thread will be moving to Wednesdays as of next week. Ardhanari will still be handling the last thread of every month.