Book review: Race, Space, and the Law

First published at Feminist Review

Institutional racism: we all know it exists, yet many deny it does. In this book, Sherene Razack, author of Looking White People in the Eye, edits a set of deeply disturbing accounts of racially-motivated public policies and resultant public consciousness in North America. Beginning with the premise “Race is Space,” Race, Space, and the Law unearths half-forgotten history of racial injustice and challenges the romanticisation of European settlement which is so deeply embedded in Canadian and American folklore. In other words, it seeks to unpack and debunk the notion of the peaceful collaboration between settlers and the aboriginal community, and the idea that the Native peoples have “always accepted, and to some degree, were willing to agree that being the possessors of a land need not necessarily be the only source of legitimacy of its use.”

Razack’s book brings together disparate laws and fragments of history—laws on drinking establishments, the ban on “unparliamentarian” language, midwifery, mosque-building, a murder of a sex worker, and inner city slum dwellings—to subvert the “universal” values of justice upheld by the law. There are far too many examples in Race, Space, and the Law that illustrate these modes of subversion and resistance in brilliant, infuriating colour to fit into this review, so I will only be able to share a few.

In “Keeping the Ivory Tower White,” Carol Schick sets the predominantly White University of Saskatchewan as a stage for the maintenance of White privilege by exploring the responses of White students to multicultural education. The course, which focused heavily on Aboriginal culture and history, brought out feelings of discomfort. As members of a respectable and intellectual domain of the university, students founded their discomfort and racial insecurity on rationality to side step racist or non-PC misgivings about the content of the course. Schick argues that by making disclaimers and claiming credentials as a feminist sympathizer, students can project themselves as utterly reasonable people—especially as ones who understand the necessity of civility and self-control as they secure White privilege and entitlement.

Renisa Mawani’s “In Between and Out of Place” describes the situation of biracial individuals who symbolised the destabilisation of colonial power through the blurring the racial boundaries in mid nineteenth-century British Columbia. Racial categories, often a product of British colonialism, were crucial to maintaining the “racial order of things,” that determined who had certain rights to land and citizenship. Biracial men and women were perceived to be troublemakers and untrustworthy, and hence there were strict laws on alcohol purchase and distribution for this group. The logic behind this was motivated by the fear of interracial mixing because it might result in, quite simplistically, more biracial people.

Perhaps the most recent challenge to Whiteness is the growing presence of Islam in the West, particularly after the September 11th attacks. In Engin Isin and Myer Siemiatycki’s essay “Making Space for Mosques,” xenophobia and Islamophobia emerged from behind the cloak of neighbourly respectability when the building of new mosques in Toronto was met with resistance. The level of restrictions placed on the Muslim places of worship, particularly on those built on sites of formerly Christian worship, was unprecedented. Suddenly, the “change” a mosque would bring to the look of the neighbourhood became a prime concern for the surrounding residents that resulted in the physical curtailment of the mosque’s development, including the reduction of the minaret’s height and in some ways, its potent symbolism.
These essays reiterate the fundamental premise that space, particularly a public one, produces identities of privilege and degeneracy. I highly recommend this book to people interested in marginalised history and its place in institutionalised racism today. Perhaps a dose of history will give naysayers of institutional racism some food for thought, too.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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