Getting Over Guilt

Reviewed by Scott Clarke

Reviewed in this article

Taking Responsibility Taking Direction: White Anti-Racism in Canada
by Sheila Wilmot, Arbeiter Ring, 2005.

How can toward activists move from a cycle of guilt and inaction over racism to developing anti-racist politics that effectively challenge white supremacy in Canada? Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction: White Anti-Racism in Canada is a timely and critical look at the anti-racist politics of ‘the left.’ Driven by the goal of building a movement for social change rooted in anti-racist socialist politics, Sheila Wilmot reflects on different forms of anti-racist activism in Canada, and suggests methods for more effective organizing in the future.

At a slim 151 pages, this book serves as an introduction to anti-racist socialist politics and the role of white allies. As this book is intended for those invested in political struggle, Wilmot could have delved deeper into the complexities of integrating her anti-racist ideals into organized forms of resistance. For activists who have been committed to challenging racism within ourselves and our organizations, Taking Responsibility Taking Direction will help to illuminate many of the ongoing struggles we face. Yet the text falls short in providing us with tools and in-depth personal accounts to increase our effectiveness as anti-racists in Canada. Despite these criticisms, I commend Wilmot for addressing white anti-racist activism in a Canadian context; the concise resource she has produced reminds us why we need to address anti-racism in our organizing, and it is a tool we can use to discuss, debate and analyze our politics and engagement with anti-racist activism.

Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction is the product of Wilmot’s involvement in two decades of community activism with grassroots anti-war, union and low-wage labour projects. As a result, the book is at its strongest when her theories are rooted in anti-racist praxis. At times, I believe she assumes too much of a shared knowledge with her readership, as she does not fully explain key concepts, nor provide enough context for her often Toronto-centric references. I did appreciate that this book does not strive to convince the reader that the Canadian state is based on an ideology of white supremacy, or that white people benefit from and assist in the perpetuation of racism. Rather, Wilmot works from these premises to address how racism functions within our social movements, and to highlight particular areas of mobilization against the racist functioning of the state.

Wilmot is justifiably cynical about the way in which anti-oppression politics are all too often watered down to de-politicized discussions of ‘respecting diversity’ within our movements. The book stresses that an analysis of oppression and racism must be rooted in the social and historical processes that have created our current political context. The anti-racist analysis conveyed throughout the book is rooted in “the relationship between everyday and structural forms of white racism; in terms of the various power relations and how we experience them… and with respect to how these power relations are reproduced within the historical context of imperialism and capitalism” (19). Using this framework inherently makes Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction stronger than many other works which attempt to discuss anti-racism and being an ally as if racism operated outside of other social and economic relations. This book is particularly successful in highlighting the importance of integrating an analysis of racism and white supremacy within a broader socialist politic. 

Wilmot attempts to root her writing in the historical construction of race and white supremacy in Canada through a short outline of “Canada’s racist history.” While the broad arguments in this section are pivotal to understanding race relations in Canada today, the historical moments she chooses to discuss seem almost as though they were chosen at random; Wilmot’s reasons for including them are rarely politically justified. In drawing links between the structural ways racism was articulated and enacted in the past and its contemporary manifestation, Wilmot could have more effectively expressed the importance of this history.  For instance, when discussing how immigration policy was often constructed with the desire to maintain Canada as a ‘white nation,’ Wilmot could have drawn connections between the 1906 Continuous Journey Regulation and today’s Safe Third Country Act. These two policies were used as bureaucratic tools to limit immigration due to indirect travel routes; the former effectively ending immigration from India at the time, and the latter similarly limiting refugees from many countries due to the lack of direct flight routes to Canada.

Wilmot’s writing on the initial colonization process in the Canadian state complicates and challenges traditional and radical understandings of colonization. She relates how the British and French colonized through social relationships, religious teachings and intermarriage, often with the complicity of some First Nations people. Here she writes that oppressive power not only arose from direct violence enacted on the Aboriginal peoples, but that this violence worked together with land ownership and personal relationships to build a form of power that was “more insidiously about forcibly transforming people’s subjectivity” (43).

The idea that colonization transforms the self-identity of the colonized would have been useful to apply when looking at the effects of multiculturalism policies in Canada. After thirty years of various forms of official Multiculturalism, the state involvement in culture and identity has uniquely transformed the subjectivity of those living within Canada. Wilmot’s analysis of Canadian multiculturalism is effective in highlighting how it reduces anti-racist struggles to a problem of “race relations” in which racism and white supremacy take a back seat to discussions of cultural differences as the source of discrimination. Wilmot follows this argument, insisting that, “material and social benefits flow from oppression, not from being different.” While I agree with this sentiment, I don’t believe that oppression and difference are as mutually exclusive as Wilmot tends to treat them throughout the book. 

I would argue that part of the transformation of self-identity that multiculturalism has initiated exists in the way in which the state fictionalizes cultures and exploits fears of difference. This over-emphasis on cultural difference works to divide people, thereby limiting our capacity for unified resistance. As such, forms of cross-cultural education and attempts to complicate the too-often unified, static images of culture are necessary to strengthen anti-racist struggles and interracial alliances. Similarly, attempts to dislodge static and traditional images of culture through social and artistic mediums are essential in challenging state manipulation of cultural identity. Thus, Wilmot’s caveat that identity-based activism “it is not inherently transformational this cultural and other identity affirmation (i.e. celebrating and focusing on African/Jewish/lesbian identity) it is often about survival and by association, anti-racist” (84) comes across as paternalistic.

While white activists may not always recognize the importance or complexities of performing a culture that is relegated to the background in our white national culture, it is wrong to not support such actions. Furthermore, the active support of culturally-based activism and events that are not explicitly “political” is a way of building relationships where mutual respect and trust can be developed, rather than single mindedlycreating relationships with the goal of politicizing people of colour or recruiting them to join an organization. I do agree with Wilmot that an overinvestment in cultural heritage for white activists (i.e. Irish) is understandably not a radical anti-racist act.  I take issue, though, in the belief held by some white radicals, and which I can read into Wilmot’s writing, that marginalized peoples spend too much time working on their own issues, and often from within the system, versus working from a unified, revolutionary position.

Wilmot maintains that white-majority organizations resist prioritizing anti-racist concerns, and as a result, do not attract the involvement of people of colour. Rarely does she consider that it is the politics of these organizations, or the way they are articulated, that does not speak to the realities of many working class people of colour. Too often Wilmot suggests that white-majority organizations need to recruit women of colour to take leadership roles within their organizations in order for an anti-racist politic to organically grow within a broad-based grassroots movement. While I’ve simplified her argument, the sentiment I read into her analysis is typical of the ways in which white anti-racist activists often force a disproportionate amount of pressure and responsibility onto activists of colour when it comes to issues of anti-racism. Often, this occurs under the guise of “taking direction.”

As Wilmot notes throughout the book, women of colour are the most systemically marginalized and experience the most poverty in Canada. It is not a mystery, then, why many of these women are often unable or unwilling to hold leadership positions in organizations that demand countless hours of unpaid labour and it is irresponsible to expect vast numbers of working class women of colour to take up these positions. Rather, white activists need to invest more energy in developing anti-racist analyses and learning from each other, as well as from the many activists of colour working in our communities. For white activists to suggest that women of colour must lead political movements only alleviates the responsibility for white activists to bring anti-racism into all of our work.

While I was writing this review, The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials, which has seen the involvement of numerous white anti-racist activists in central organizing roles, experienced two major successes. On February 15th, Mohammad Mahjoub, one of Canada’s “Secret Trial Five” was granted release from Kingston’s “Guantanamo North.” In the subsequent weeks the security certificate legislation was struck down and the Canadian government voted not to expand anti-terror legislation. While the bail conditions for the men released from the security certificates are horrendous, and the current anti-terror legislation – and the manner in which it is enacted – is still abominable, the Supreme Court decision was a victory that came from the success of an ongoing activist struggle. I have worked on this issue with Arab people who expressed their reluctance to publicly organize around these issues due to fears of personal safety and the impact on their community. It seems an omission to me that issues of privilege on the part of white activists are not included within this book.  This is especially relevant when we see the ends to which the state has gone in targeting and profiling activists of colour struggling around anti-terrorism measures, immigration and status.

Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction could have highlighted The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials by including the perspectives of those involved in the campaign on issues of white anti-racism and how whiteness and/or racial identity effects their involvement. Many books centered on grass-roots activism take the opportunity to print in-depth interviews with a variety of activists doing work related to the book to supplement the author’s writings. While short quotes are included from members of No One Is Illegal – Montreal and Friends of Grassy Narrows (in Winnipeg), a more thorough inclusion of experiences and political ideas from members of these campaigns and others would have increased the skill sharing function of this type of publication. Wilmot’s obvious understanding of contemporary anti-racist struggles and challenges in Canada would have provided the context for fruitful conversations around the role of white anti-racist activists working in a variety of different struggles, and a better examination of the challenges and lessons learned.

Many community activists have also published articles that address race and “activist cultures,” which I think would have been useful to mention. With a strong emphasis on movement-building throughout the book, it is unfortunate that Wilmot did not address the anti-globalization movement that reached its peak in the early 2000s. As many of us question where the energy and mass support that surrounded our initial response to international free trade agreements has gone, it may be necessary to look at the politics of the movement and how race and gender played into them. As women and people of colour still experience the harshest effects of these agreements, we must question why this movement, in which students, the “black bloc” and trade unionists were often the most visible representations, could not sustain itself. 

Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction tries to do too much, while not fully achieving its goals in the process. Including larger contributions from respected activists to complement Wilmot’s writing would have strengthened the book and provided a stronger analysis of anti-racist praxis beyond the author’s own experiences. When writing on issues of identity and anti-racism, the need for multiple perspectives is especially important. Furthermore, this book could have been more useful to anti-racist activists if it addressed how whiteness affects our organizing and our politics, and how whiteness can enable us to take on different types of work in broad based movements given our current political climate.

While I believe her ideas on the future of anti-racist activism do provide a good groundwork for addressing our current organizing practices, Taking Responsibility Taking Direction does not contain the practical tools needed to take this book out of the realm of theory, and onto the streets, where it clearly wants to be. Wilmot’s vision of white anti-racist activists struggling with working class people of colour while riding an imaginary binary between taking direction from people of colour and taking responsibility to engage in anti-racist action over-emphasizes the differences between activists, as opposed to recognizing how our skills and lived experiences can provide the basis for us to work together towards more successful anti-racist political action.