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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

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Oppressed People Aren't Here to Make Their Oppressors Feel Better (2022-02-21)

Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses. Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses.
Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses.

I have taken part in a number of different projects employers sponsored with the official end of reducing systemic racism and sexism in the workplace, thereby improving their chances of successfully hiring women and racialized people and persuading them to stay by the respectful characteristics of the workplace and the value and quality of the work. Whatever views we may or may not hold about employers in a capitalist system, these programs look and sound like they have seriously laudable goals. They should be successful at getting to some corporate-speak thing like a three hundred sixty degree win, because the boss, managers, and rank and file employees should all be getting something good out of it. Anybody could wonder what there is not to like about this. Of course, as we all know too well, racialized or not, female or not, the actual goals of such programs tend to be rather different than their official goals. Racialized people generally and women in particular can get fooled into pouring unbelievable amounts of time and energy into these projects, only to discover that this has all been diverted into the quite different goal of making the men and/or non-racialized people at the office feel better while genuinely changing nothing.

Back at university, I saw the same phenomenon going in with the various "bipoc" and/or women's caucuses, groups, and clubs. The administration generally takes serious interest in them after a particularly embarrassing incident on campus, or one off campus that makes the administration feel a dire need to be perceived as doing something. Then, suddenly they have not only time for those various groups who had already been striving to break down systems and structures of oppression at least in the classroom and on campus more widely, they have money. Of course, the time and the money come with terms, usually presented as requests intended to meet certain "needs." Suddenly, the administration perceives a "need" for sensitivity, anti-racism, and/or anti-sexism training. The money will support those activist types to line up or provide the training, of course. And those folks can go ahead and start collating, maybe even writing and filming educational materials. That would be great. And consulting with the library to improve the coverage of non-white males and their interests in the stacks and online resources. Oh, and serve on a range of different committees where their presence is needed to cover the "diversity" quota and maybe take part in some photo shoots for the publicity needed to change the university's image from all white and male to more like off white and a bit female. Never mind that the average university population now is majority female and often also majority racialized.

In other words, pretty soon, if those racialized people and women are not careful, they are fully co-opted into providing cover, plausibility, and feel goodness for the people who need to take genuine action to destroy systems and structures of oppression. Instead, they'll be run through a course meant to change them on an individual basis and give them an opportunity to confess their secular sins and get forgiveness in the form of credit for completing the course, and then go back to doing the very same thing. After all, there will be no paths from those courses to working together to make literal changes that will shake the accepted ways things are done. The publicity folders will look different of course. The updates always remind me of the way packaging for basic computer accessories changed a few years ago. First, the packaging began to feature pictures of people sitting in front of computers, sometimes even touching a mouse or keyboard, apparently on the principle of, "make it friendly by showing people using computers." The level of actual contempt for most people stuck using computers every day whether they want to or not, who don't need to be shown the computer won't bite or electrocute them is one most of us can estimate easily enough. Then apparently somebody in marketing went, "Holy! These pictures are not diverse enough, and these white men look like they are working. That will never do!" Then the packaging began to feature mostly black men in shirt sleeves and white women in skirt suits and stilettos (I'm not making this up!) in front of a computer, with their arms up in the air as if they were cheering at a sports event. No idea what this did for sales of those products, but the packaging has mostly gone back to not having pictures of people on it.

Here's the thing. Neither racialized people or women, or the groups they may create in order to help one another deal with the effects of structural and systematic oppression on them are there for the sake of their oppressors. They aren't there to absolve the sinner to go forth and sin all over again, feeling delighted and righteous immediately after they have done the equivalent of confession and saying a few prayers or doing some other small and ineffective penance. They are there to help racialized people and/or women survive an extremely hostile environment at minimum, to change that environment for good at the middle, and to contribute to total change in society at the maximum. None of those things centre oppressors. If anyone should be doing the work of training oppressors out of oppression, well that's for the oppressors who have finally decided that they are fed up with living in such an unethical way, and fed up with being complicit with holding up rotten structures and systems. Fed up, and determined to actually do something about it, not get a hit of self-righteous feel good and go home.

 

Humane Treatment

From the first moment that europeans learned about Indigenous peoples, they have come up with rationalization after rationalization for invading their homes, disrupting their societies, and exploiting them with no limits. Any of these reationalizations rank as insidious, but among the worst are those masquerading under the label of being "humane," a term now more often invoked in the context of treating and killing animals. The OED documents a somewhat less used meaning of "humane," describing it as referring to a branch of learning "intended to have a civilizing or refining effect on people." If we bring these ideas together, they seem quite uncontroversial and harmless. Acting in a manner that minimizes pain to other beings and encourages people to act in a more civilized and refined way seems quite reasonable if we don't press it too hard. If we don't try to find out what constitutes civilized and refined behaviour, and manage not to bump into any of the evidence for the persistent stereotype of the "Indian" who is stoic and can't feel pain among settlers. Even non-Indigenous people who decry most attacks on Indigenous peoples as unjustified begin to lose their sense of conviction as soon as someone claims enforced cultural change is meant to help them survive in the modern world, is meant to be a humane and helpful thing. Having accepted without question the assumption that Indigenous peoples are somehow locked into the past and must be prised out of amber and propelled into the present, the pseudo-logic of the claim sneaks easily by. Among the "humane" practices engaged in by united states and european promoters was the so-called "human zoo."

Human zoos are still a going concern today, although they have been cleaned up considerably and relabelled for present consumption. We usually encounter them now in the form of "cultural demonstration" exhibits that are part of world fairs and large-scale sport events like the olympics or panam games. Nowadays the participants are willing performers aware that they are creating a simulacrum to whet or satisfy outsider curiosity – the former if they hope to encourage tourism back home, the latter if they hope to discourage it. Or rather, I should say that to the best of my knowledge, today most performers are willing, choose to take part, and do not find themselves in conditions indicating that they are in fact prisoners or otherwise required to perform in certain ways regardless of their own views or cultural mores. The proportion of willing and well-treated performers was far different in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when human zoos were very much part of constructing "whiteness" and producing a version of the ancient roman "triumph" in which representatives of defeated peoples were displayed as living trophies of roman power.

Photograph of Lakota on tour in germany with the circus sarrasani, 1928. Original in the u.s. department of the interior archives, NARA-285597, scan via wikimedia commons, both in the public domain. Photograph of Lakota on tour in germany with the circus sarrasani, 1928. Original in the u.s. department of the interior archives, NARA-285597, scan via wikimedia commons, both in the public domain.
Photograph of Lakota on tour in germany with the circus sarrasani, 1928. Original in the u.s. department of the interior archives, NARA-285597, scan via wikimedia commons, both in the public domain.

Indigenous peoples from the americas were great favourites in the original forms of the human zoo, especially in the self-styled "wild west show." Among the best known of the wild west shows was that run by William Cody, and its run spanned the rise and decline of the human zoo in its second phase. It is a good example of the basic set up after reforms to end such practices as kidnapping people who would be forced to perform for or at least show themselves to gawking crowds. After the reforms, recruiting performers entailed persuading them and arranging their acceptance and signing of formalized contracts. Yet depending on their circumstances, they could be little better off than their predecessors who had been kidnapped and kept in cages or otherwise imprisoned for use as entertainment or "scientific study." Promoters found that missionary and government demands that they display "reformed" or "civilized" Indigenous people unhelpful, because they did not draw the crowds. People would not pay to see others dressed similar to themselves and demonstrating such "civilized" traits as christian conversion, ability to read and write, and conformity with sex role stereotypes. They wanted to see the other, not what could be considered ersatz versions of themselves. So the promoters searched for Indigenous peoples who kept closer to their own ways, or could be persuaded to put on those older ways for the crowd. The more exotic and dramatic, the better, as far as the promoters were concerned.

This could work out surprisingly well at times, as in the case of the Indigenous people recruited to perform at the columbia world's fair. The Indigenous participants all signed on to do the work, including a group of Kwakwakawakw led by George Hunt, who collaborated for many years with Franz Boas. As Paige Raibmon explains in her book Authentic Indians, the Indigenous performers very much managed the content and nature of their performances. They also saw fit to slip out of the fair grounds at night to sightsee and at times even do such scandalous things as have a beer. Yet things could also go terribly wrong, as Abraham Ulrikab discovered in 1880-1881, when he and seven other Inuit from labrador agreed to take part in Johan Jacobsen's travelling expedition.

Overall the whole trip sounded like a wonderful and potentially very profitable adventure. Other Inuit had already taken part in such travelling shows, returning apparently rich with a range of widely admired experiences gathered during their time away. By all accounts the pay was good, the Inuit would have an opportunity to travel europe and other places they might never otherwise have an opportunity to explore. Abraham Ulrikab's interest in the experience included these things, as well as a desire to gather sufficient money to pay off debts inherited from his father. Ulrikab and his family were baptized and practising christians, and the other Inuit were not. This suggests that as de facto leader of the group, Ulrikab was not inclined to reject unconverted compatriots out of hand, instead focussing on bringing together a group large enough to fill out Jacobsen's request for about a dozen Inuit for his show. In any case, Ulrikab knew how to read and write, and he kept a diary of the trip, which was translated, transcribed and published while the original found its way into an archive.

So far it is not clear why Jacobsen behaved towards the Inuit crew as he did, apart from invoking racism. He failed to have them vaccinated against smallpox, and turned quickly to physical punishment to "discipline" the younger Inuit. He trotted them off to be measured by scientists, then on a tour through germany, part of the present day czech republic, and finally paris. In the course of the trip, the Inuit were mobbed if they tried to move around outside of their enclosed performance space, soon finding themselves unable to do much touring on their own account. Worse yet, the Inuit soon fell ill with smallpox, and one by one died of the disease. Jacobsen ultimately had their bodies taken to Paris, where in time further measurement and curation of their skeletons in the muséum national d'histoire naturelle. Their bones remain in france to this day.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2022
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2022 20:48:21