A primer on how to talk racially without using the word “race”: Canadian “Metis-as-mixed” tropes

OTTAWA, Tuesday, March 27, 2012 – Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples

Senator Sibbeston:  The Metis are a Canadian phenomenon.  Metis are really the result of White people who initially came into the country joining up with the First Nations and creating Metis.  I think it is a great outcome.  You get the best of two races, kind of like a super‑breed.

The Chair:  I think that is a little bit over the top.

*****

In a recent evidence hearing from the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Senator Sibbeston of the Northwest Territories explained his understanding of Metis identity as a result of White people “joining up with the First Nations” to create a “super-breed”. Though we do not know its tone, the chair replied “I think that is a bit over the top”. As someone who has been writing on the racialization of Metis identity for more than a decade, the immediate question that sprang to mind for me upon reading this was, which part?

The senator’s eventual use of the term race is what most people would justifiably look to as evidence of his of his comment’s “racial” tone. For me, however, his final statement adds nothing to the “raciality” of his explanation and his comments are no more or less racial with its addition: it is instead his conflation of Metis identity with “mixedness” that we can look to for this evidence.

The Chair’s reply that the senator’s comments were “over the top” was likely in reaction to his explicit use of the term “race”, rather his pairing of Metis identity with “mixedness”, as this pairing is hardly abnormal. Indeed, there is probably no more taken-for-granted fact about Metis identity in Canada than that we are “mixed”. Mixed ancestry, post contact origins, even the fact that many of us seem to look more like whites than “Indians”: all of these are taken as deeply revealing signs of what differentiates us from other Indigenous peoples who are, presumably, not of mixed ancestry, not of post-contact origins, and not “white-looking”. I argue additionally that all of these are examples and effects of “race talk”.

This is, however, something quintessentially Canadian about this exchange. Whether or not they know it, Canadians are experts at talking “racially” without using the term. The widespread discomfort with using the term itself is perhaps because it seems too American, and too many Canadians pride themselves on not sharing this vocabulary with the U.S.. Many Canadians seem to think that “thinking racially” must involve use of the actual word.

However, Canadian society has built an entire artifice of words and phrases (and gaps and silences, too) that does the work of “race” without ever explicitly naming it. Most of the now-massive scholarship on race suggests that it has two major dimensions: 1) a socially constructed symbolic dimension; 2) and a material effects dimension. To say that something is symbolic is just a fancy way of saying that it helps us make meaning in our everyday lives, helps us make sense of our social worlds. “Blacks are better athletes”; “Asians are good at math”; “Indians can’t hold their liquor”: in each of these, presumed attachment to a narrowly imagined physical or cultural group (such as “blacks”, “Asians” or “Indians”) is used to make sense of individual behavior. Crucially, such “racialized” groups are not simply different, they are lesser than.

“Race” also has a material dimension in that categorizing individuals and groups racially can powerfully impact their life chances and opportunities (think about the division of wealth in Canada between those categorized as “Indians” and those became “white” and who were able to share in the bounty opened up by the signing of historical treaties). “Race” has the effect of privileging, just as it marginalizes.

Part of the power of “race” in contemporary Canadian society, however, stems from the fact that often, we don’t see it at all. Instead, it has become a kind of “common sense” that often sinks below the level of conscious thoughts and ideas. It often “goes without saying” and is all the more powerful for its ability to do so. It becomes, as many scholars have termed it, “hidden in plain sight”, making it difficult to spot and alleviate.

Thus, we can easily see why, until his final words, Senator Sibbeston’s comments might not immediately be seen as an example of “race talk”. Nonetheless, they are profoundly “racial” insofar as he reduces the deep complexity of Metis identity to biological intermixing. They are “racial” because, as they must, his comments presuppose the “purity” of “Whites” and “First Nations” and in doing so, place the legitimacy of Metis Aboriginality “beneath” those of First Nations and Inuit. As part of this trope, Metis become “a people in between”, “walking between two worlds”, or any number of additional expressions that denigrate our Aboriginality.

Senator Sibbeston might have, following others in the evidentiary hearing, positioned Metis identity in terms of national logics such as collective identification with particular people, places, events, symbols and territories, or peoplehood logics that look for evidence of our formal relationships with other peoples. His failure to do so, even if well intentioned, beggars discussions not only of Metis identity but of all Indigenous identities. And, in quintessentially Canadian style, he did so without ever invoking the term race. That is, he eventually used it, but he didn’t have to; his argument was already so thoroughly saturated with racial logics that his eventual use of the term actually masked the extent to which this was already the case.

Canadians, it seems, are experts at using racial logics without using the term. Largely, though not solely, because they don’t know they are doing it. Racial logics operate most powerfully when they structure particular ways of thinking about the world – whether or not we ever invoke the actual world itself. “Metis-as-mixed” tropes are thus racial tropes because they structure our understandings of Metis identity according to racial logics and anyone who uses them, well intended or not, is reproducing Canada’s colonialism and the symbolic and physical violence that sit at its core.

About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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