Smell the Samosas, Bob!
The recent manufactured controversy over the Writing Thru Race conference confirms that the only thing worse than witnessing a power in ascent is witnessing it in decline. For those of you who may have missed the ‘controversy,' Globe and Mail columnist Robert Fulford wrote a column (George Orwell, Call Your Office, March 30) which accused the Writers' Union of Canada of ‘reinventing apartheid' by hosting a conference for First Nations writers and writers of colour. In particular, Fulford and his allies found the explanation of the conference organizers for including only First Nations and writers of colour in the discussion (the evening literary events being open to all) to be Orwellian. Fulford's condemnation brought to the fore the usual parade of charges, that the conference was engaging in reverse racism, censorship, exclusion and a misuse of public funds. The conference funders were publicly defensive and privately supportive instead of the other way around.
In response to the convulsions of Fulford et al at being excluded, the chair of the union's Racial Minority Writer's Committee, Roy Miki, mounted an eloquented response rooted in both, history and an explanation of power relationships (Why we're holding the Vancouver conference, April 7). While I do not share Mr. Miki's opinion that the Writers' Union should be commended for its enlightened approach to ‘race,' I wholeheartedly agree that First Nations writers and writers of colour should be applauded for taking on the task of constructing social and cultural justice. Constructing any form of justice requires a normative foundation and while everyone agrees that racism is bad how we fight against racism has yet to be agreed upon. Not surprisingly, Fulford and company embrace a strategy which endorses the rectifying mechanisms of the status quo or to put it in Fulford's words ‘a colour-blind society'; a society based solely on merit and human rights legislation. What the conference organizers point out is that ‘a colour-blind society' is not a society which champions power sharing but rather a society which favours the status quo and does not see the injustices inflicted upon those of colour. Which vision(s) of our society will govern and are there other competing visions which have yet to be voiced? This conference represents one of many signs in our culture that ‘other' visions of our society are coming to the centre from the periphery.
I have little doubt that the glib and male writers who weighed in with Fulford are well aware of the arguments in support of such a conference. It is almost impossible to avoid these discussions even in the pages of Canada's National Newspaper. Why then the creation of a polarized debate about the ‘new multiculturalism' and its divisive nature? I believe that the critics of the conference while ‘educated' about the issues simply lack the commitment to the very type of social and cultural justice referred to by Miki. Such a commitment requires a generosity of spirit, an assuredness of purpose and a willingness to share which has been sadly lacking. With such a lack of cultural leadership in the establishment is it any surprise that Writing Thru Race seeks answers from within its own communities?
As for Mr. Fulford, all I can suggest is don't just smell the coffee.