Strange City, Day Six: a surprise invitation during a month-long visit.
In this whitest of American cities, the women are friendly and warm to me and I’m told I have a Canadian accent. I am white enough in a room full of white women and enmeshed in a naturalized pallet: “Whiteness …scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. ‘Color blindness,’the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”
The leader of Saturday’s historical architecture tour kindly writes to invite me to attend his noontime talk at a private women’s club in a 1920s building that is on the US National Registry. Designed by architect Folger Johnson, the impressive structure, now almost a century old, is filled with carved ceilings and elegant rooms, handsome wooden engravings and fantastical wallpaper. The website promises “a women’s private club where friendships are nourished, dignity and graciousness are expected and beauty has been preserved.”
What is repressed?
The historian’s lecture surveys residential fusion and purist architectural styles from Neocolonial to Dutch Colonial, Prairie Four-square, California Storybook, and Arts and Crafts. Documenting gambrel roof and hip, turret and bungalow – the quaint and beautiful city emerges as house heaven.
Afterwards we repair to the garden and a lunch of sliced chicken breast with walnut sauce and leafy green salad peppered with preserved cherries. This luscious green serves as bedding for an expertly spiced poached apple shaped into a fan.
A woman in white arrives early on to administer with silver tongs the flakey pastry popovers. Iced tea flows.
I’m a tad underdressed, not “professional” – my cotton tunic and pants are smartened up with new black and white bone Goodwill earrings – a bargain at $2.50. I am missing the rainbow afternoon shirtwaist of the club’s host and the trim cotton and linen summer dresses or pearl-necked white blouses of my women table mates. The historian sports the requisite tie and jacket on a blistering July day.
The women’s conversation unfolds. Hikes to a Mount Rainier. A vacation in the Cottswolds. Plans to return to visit another English countryside elsewhere. And on to…. property. Urban development. Infill and the razing of history. The key emerging issue in the past five years of city growth, I’m told – the homeless. You’ll notice it when you walk around downtown they tell me.
(Truth be told – for my first week in the city, I’ve been neighbourhood bound across the river writing and reading and walking miles and watching too many movies that generously invade my borrowed house. This outing today is my first venture downtown.)
I hold off as long as I can. Then I mention Trump and how sorry I am. The woman in a coral sleeveless shift to my right likes to hike, she said earlier, and now she takes to the hills. She tells me that both the right and the left organize their arguments via fear. I don’t weigh in on the fallacious balance argument. Instead I repeat the obvious. Trump declares war whenever the domestic scene gets tough for him.
“Oh he is just kidding. He wouldn’t really follow through,” says the coral woman crisply.
Tell that to the South Koreans or the Iranians or almost anyone who is listening, I think. I don’t say this. Why? I’m cowed by these well-heeled women? Or is it the heat in the afternoon sun, my pale white left shoulder sparking red as it pokes from under the voluminous white umbrella’s shelter.
The conversation moves on. “What kind of research do you do,” someone asks hopefully.
Earlier I’ve spoken about my research, my mother’s Alzheimer’s, her orphaned mother and missing history, and the genealogical sleuthing that restores to me an intergenerational pattern of bastards and disappearing fathers, abandoned children, servants at 12, and other unearthed stories. So I proceed to shift further into my past research for Omar Khadr, Oh Canada and tell them about a decade of Omar’s imprisonment in Guantanamo, and his earlier torture in Bagram, the US military base in Afghanistan.
I begin with the Canadian government’s original note when they are informed by the US military a month after his July, 2002, capture in Afghanistan. They communicate how this prisoner needs to be treated differently because of his special circumstances. He was only 15.
After a month of interrogations and torture at Bagram, he was shipped off to Guantanamo, I say, and several women shake their heads. The Canadian government was no friend to him in the end, I confess, but stop mid-track. That is a very long story.
I don’t minimize Canadian collaboration in some of this horror. But still.
“How did Omar survive?” someone asks.
And I resume with his resilience and his education by a generous English professor who mentored and tutored him and gave him books by resistance leaders and pacifists. They ask about him now. And I go on with vague comments about his spirit. And I think about the generative restorative peace-making aspects of Islam and where he is now out of captivity. And his love of a beautiful young Muslim feminist human rights activist whom I admire. I share how Omar wants to be a nurse because they were the humans who displayed kindness towards him during his dozen years of imprisonment, the last two in a series of Canadian prisons.
Then I move on and enter into another 2002 linked torture case where a Canadian citizen was entrapped in a foreign mtorture regime thanks, in part, to the Royal Ontario Military Police.
In 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen and owner of a computer company vacationed in Tunisia with his family including two young children, the former homeland of his wife – novelist, activist and PhD in finance, Dr. Monia Mazigh.
I describe Maher’s brief stopover in New York to change planes on his way home to Ottawa where he was subject to US extraordinary rendition from JFK to a Syrian grave-size dug-out dirt hole for more than a year of claustrophobic semi-internment interrupted by intermittent violent torture. Monia’s memoir Hope and Despair about her struggle to free her husband, describes her desperate intelligence – how as a small woman in hijab, she stands in the exit doorway of a room where a politician speaks, accosting him as he exits, and looking deeply into the eyes of the politician’s possibly more empathetic wife as she tells of Maher’s ongoing captivity.
I don’t detail her ongoing public intellectual activist work like this commentary on “what misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab” about a recent hateful encounter with a racist man on a bus near Ottawa:
As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.
My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.
Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.
No Black women here this afternoon in this private women’s club. No women in hijab either.
A final question from the quiet woman across the table, “Is Omar’s family still a terrorist?”
I am not sure what to say. Something reassuring. Omar’s father is dead. His family perpetually under surveillance. I remember the 2017 Radio-Canada interview when Omar jokes that everyone is fearful his family will radicalize him but no one is concerned that his more pacifist views might have an effect on his family.
One woman leaves. (Is it time to go?)
The remaining women stir in their chairs.
I console them and finish off with the good news. Each of these victims received 10 million dollars for their unlawful treatment, torture and enduring trauma. And so it goes. Sometimes justice for all.
Imagine someone’s lips open, a sharp intake of air. The tablecloth tightens under our hands as though hot air just blew across the sandpaper of exposed skin sharp with the painful friction of unspoken concern.
Whisper silent, the woman in white – Is she Hispanic? – sweeps by our elbows, almost invisible. Seven blueberry flans have arrived just in time.
Sometimes an exit is already an entrance and I am delighted to head for home in conversation when the woman across the table with the grey puff of hair framing a beautiful contemplative face begins to speak. She talks about her annual hikes up Mount O’Hara in the Rocky Mountains and I think about my colleague Juliette, nearing 80, who still clambers up there with her family many decades after her first visit.
In spite of this renewing fresh breeze of conversation, my id threatens to veer towards Trump again but I choke off the first words and dig into the blueberry flesh of tart sweetness.
The kindly architectural historian, a midWesterner until 2013, asks innocently, “What is the difference between Calgary and Edmonton.”
I set off with a few introductory notes spelled out in advance: this is no science and I am no expert but the economic formation of those who live there has been cited and explored as a factor. I go on….
The northern city of Edmonton was always a meeting place of different tribes, a place along a river coursing along a wide-banked bed from the Rocky Mountains to Hudson’s Bay. And later a fort and a settlement city of erasure. A city shaped in part by home-steading immigrants including an early wave of socialist Ukrainians, and of Germans known for their industry. And, of course, the Western shift across the mid-Albertan prairies – northerly enough – of British settlers with a history of collectivism, and the work of the early farm organizations and the 1930s farmer cooperatives that formed partnerships for health and wellbeing….
And I go on….
…The culture is different. More “progressive.” My neighbours who live in modest bungalows include Alberta’s social democrat NDP Premier Rachel Notley, a feminist labour lawyer, as well as the federal NDP Member of Parliament, a feminist environmental lawyer. Alberta social democrats recently overturned forty-one years of destructive Progressive Conservative rule. As only an Edmontonian can, I muse about the limits of our sister city: Calgary is distinct in its American connection, settlers drifting north from Montana. And southern Alberta’a political and economic history is all Texas oil executive urban headquarters, and the rural atomizing individualist ownership of vast ranch tracts.
At a certain point I think I am making this up but I am on a roll and when Texas arrives on our conversational map, I recall my only recent Texas story, my brilliant Indigenous anthropologist colleague Dr. Kim Tallbear’s escape from open carry in the classroom at the University of Texas, Austin. While I skip the Cocks not Glocks resistance movement in Austin, I expose the radical weirdness of Texas law’s insistence that all guns remain loaded in the classroom because too many accidents happen when loading and unloading bullets and magazines.
Unsurprisingly, Kim was afraid she might be shot in the classroom by a White Supremacist. Or perhaps a lazy gunslinger.
So lucky for us, Kim moved north of the 49th where she continues her work on science and Indigenity along with her critical work decolonizing sexuality.
I wind down with this utopian observation: You ask, What is Edmonton like? A midwestern city with population waves of settler immigrants and a longer history of diverse Indigenous peoples, a stunningly beautiful river valley, a Parkland climate, and long and longer nights. Not to ignore there are some gun deaths and racist crimes and incidents. And the dead and disappeared to prove it. Look up the tragic cases of the missing and murdered Indigenous women for one community that has been profoundly harmed by abject bigotry.
I take a breath and think about silence. But my nostalgia for my home, flawed and frustrating as it can be, propels me forward as I speed up to supplement my northern tour with one of the most important aspects of my native city –
It IS Native. “Edmonton and surrounding area has the second largest urban Indigenous population in Canada – 52,100, or 5% of the populations.” And we have the largest fastest growing population of Indigenous young people in Canada. The city’s residents and leaders are Indigenous and nearby communities are inhabited by First Nations and Metis artists and writers and teachers and students and scholars and active leaders. The University of Alberta has the most impressive Indigenous scholar community including a remarkable Faculty of Native Studies. A gift to all of us. The work of Dr. Tracy Bear, Dr. Paul Gareau and others created an open online Indigenous Canada course available gratis to all.
I note in passing: Kim describes how Indigenous people are virtually invisible in the United States of America where distinctive lives and pleasures and struggles tend to go unremarked. In Canada, the recent travelling Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while controversial and criticized by many, has brought a public reckoning and more awareness of the history and the everyday contemporary privilege and racism that shapes us. It has made many settlers reflect on the Action Plan and possible actions to address that history in terms of education and resources. Canada is racist but as in America, some of us know what is what and don’t minimize settlement history or contemporary enduring unjust horrors. And though inadequate, the government has been making some positive changes.
Everyone but me has finished their blueberry flan. Mine, almost untouched. I wolf the deliciousness down.
I’ve gone on too long or something is not quite right as goodbyes are said. My promised tour of the building by the host is skipped in the interests of … who knows?
As I depart I tell the host that while I am here, I would be happy to volunteer to hold a writing workshop for women. I’ve done this for years I say, and it might be well received by the women here who are keen to write.
“No, we don’t do that kind of thing here,” she says briskly turning her back to disappear with her friends up the stairs.
Cell phones are prohibited in the club.
And as I wrestle to put away my ipad, I learn, so are photographs.
Thus this image of the wallpaper in the bathroom.
Leaping leopards on the move.
July 22, 2018:
I write this the day after the shooting on the Danforth Avenue in Toronto, underreported in the U.S. My deep love of the city makes me sick about this violence – the second recent event where multiple citydwellers have been murdered and attacked by a single actor in a city where violence is often confined to domestic spaces or public racialized attacks. A young woman and a girl died yesterday. The 18-year-old tripped and fell in flight and was shot three times on the ground as she lay dying. More than a dozen are injured. One older man, a bystander, testifies to a journalist the shooter had come up to him and told him to get out of his way, continuing on his deadly trail targeting diners in restaurants now shooting galleries. I haven’t seen a list of the dead. I wonder if the shooter picked on women in particular like the recent tragedy of the misogynist who mowed down women on the sidewalk of Yonge Street.
When the shooter’s name is released and his family writes about the young man’s mental illness, I prepare for the Islamophobic outpouring. And there is some. But the police repudiate the fake social media ISIS claim. For a moment, the anti-Muslim racism seems more muted this time – the talk turns to the availability of guns. And now I know the media to avoid – like SUN media that true to form responded to these events with various false narratives that promote Islamophobia.
Other questions circulate.
First, the anguished words of the shooter’s parents echo. What more can be done for those who need mental health treatment?
And second, Where did the gun come from? The Gun Registry abolished by our former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was initiated by the grieving survivors of the misogynist murder of 13 young women engineering students almost thirty years ago. Would a registry have made a difference in this case? Or was it an American import leaking across the border from the global armament temple to the south?
A more urgent response quickly emerges. “Abolish hand guns,” says the Toronto mayor. And the Canadian federal minister of public safety announces he will look into this.
The photographs of the dead ten-year-old girl and the eighteen-year-old woman stare out at us from the screen.
A New Yorker review of anti-racist educator Dr Robin DiAngelo who coined the term “white fragility” circulates on Facebook.
The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” DiAngelo claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This “good/bad binary,” positing a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, is itself a racist construct, eliding systemic injustice and imbuing racism with such shattering moral meaning that white people, especially progressives, cannot bear to face their collusion in it. (Pause on that, white reader. You may have subconsciously developed your strong negative feelings about racism in order to escape having to help dismantle it.)
This inspires journalist Antonia Zerbisias who reflects on Facebook about her response to the Danforth shootings in her Toronto neighbourhood :
“I’ve been thinking about racism since Sunday night’s shooting on the Danforth, how the city freaked out that this could happen in nice white yuppie-class Riverdale — although many of the news videos show Torontonians of all ethno-backgrounds who were enjoying Greektown that night like they do every night. But I can’t shake this nagging feeling that this unexpected horror show was all the more horrible because It. Couldn’t. Happen. Here.
Jane-Finch maybe. Malvern. Regent Park before it was cut down and condo-ized. These are places where we, if not exactly expect gun violence, virtually normalize it despite how poverty and other sociological factors play a significant role.
Why is that?
I’m guilty of this too. After all, I have lived here — except for a brief 20 month bungee jump to Montreal during the Charlottetown referendum “constitutional crisis” after which I would ONLY consider buying a house steps from where this gunman cut down so many people enjoying the evening is so many restaurants in which I have sat.
And yet I know I’m not racist. I know it. I know it. I know it. Right?
Dr. DiAngelo’s excellent video podcast “Deconstructing White Privilege” outlines eloquently ongoing segregation and how White “psycho-social development was inculcated in the water of white supremacy.”
My initial comment about what appeared at first to be a restrained response doesn’t take into account other incidents.
Sociologist Dr. Jasmin Zine responded eloquently to an Islamophobic radio commentary in Toronto:
“Yesterday I heard the most despicable conversation on Libby Znaimer’s show “Fight Back” on Zoomer radio (tuned in randomly not by choice) where her guest lawyer Ari Goldkind was casting aspersions on the Hussain family accusing them of using “spin doctors” to craft a disingenuous message about their son and this tragedy. He went on to quote baseless claims that Faisal Hussain had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan and therefore had jihadist leanings (police and RCMP has reported that no evidence has emerged to back this claim despite Daesh/ISIS claiming responsibility as they falsely did with the Las Vegas shooting). Goldkind had the audacity to try and mask his Islamophobia through advocating against using mental health issues to explain acts of mass violence which he argued must stem from radical ideologies (though he has no authority to or credentials to speak about mental health or radicalization just an inflated sense of entitlement). I agree that we cannot pathologize or stigmatize people suffering with serious mental health problems but at the same time we need to be aware of how this argument is being used here as an alibi to promote an Islamophobic agenda. He went on to say that we need to move beyond the PC politics of the day and ask questions about the shooter’s background (i.e. religion, race, ethnicity) and develop policies to curb immigration from nations at odds with Canadian values (which he cited as Tim Hortons,hockey and 2.2 children in nuclear families). I wonder how he would justify this bogus argument looking at shootings by white Canadian gunmen? Znaimer was agreeing with his arguments especially with respect to looking deeper into Hussain’s “background” to explain his behaviour and to curb immigration based on this grotesque xenophobia. It’s shocking how these ideas are being uncritically purveyed through mainstream media with bogus “experts” spouting fake news who are exploiting the pain of others for their own gain and notoriety. Libby Znaimer’s views are not that much of a surprise to me though. She used to be a client in a Yorkville hair salon where I worked back in the 80s. Once I overheard my boss sharing with her my idea to do a “cut-a-thon” fundraiser to aid the Ethiopian famine to which she replied “with all these fundraisers aren’t those people eating steak by now?!” I swear I almost threw my scissors across the room at her!! It is this lack of humanity that is harder to fathom than the senseless violence we are witnessing and it’s more insidious because of the legitimacy and the support it receives. This article brings a much needed call for compassion and empathy for Hussain’s family to help us understand and mourn the shared tragedy and suffering it has wrought.
And Nora Loreto writes about “How the writings of right-leaning pundits drove fear and hate after the Faisal Hussain tragedy” by internationally targeting and demonizing a man who offered support to the horrified and grieving family of the mentally ill Danforth shooter.
Coda: “Polite as Fuck”
At Portland’s NE Alberta Street on 17th Avenue Malcolm X makes an appearance:And across the street the Community Cycling Center celebrates.On July 22, 2018, any pedestrian wandering further along the monthly Last Thursdays Alberta Art Walk on NE Alberta Street would have run into Deadmatter Press and an improvised antidote to Polite Supremacy.
You can shop Deadmatter Press here including this fabulous lady’s tote bag.
“Polite supremacy” emerged in visual anthropologist Dr. Craig Campbell’s graduate course “Archive and Ephemera” in relation to the education programs of the Daughters of the Confederacy at The University of Texas at Austin. I use it with permission.
“Whiteness scans as ...” Katy Waldman. “A sociologist examines the ‘White Fragility’ that prevents White Americans from confronting racism.” The New Yorker (July 23, 2018)
This essay is a work in progress: corrections, revisions, or comments are welcome. No trolls please.
A surreptitious selfie –