Inviting tired-out racialized friends and well-intentioned allies for an evening of humour and compassion with author Ajay Parasram. In conversation with Jivesh Parasram, the two discuss about how race structures our everyday and the frequently asked questions around these lived experiences.
Registration is free, open to all and mandatory for entrance.
Purchase Frequently Asked White Questions by Ajay Parasram and Alex Khasnabish at Massy Books.
In anticipation of the launch for Frequently Asked White Questions at Progress Lab 1422, Romila Barryman interviews Ajay Parasram and Alex Khasnabish. The authors share how their lived experiences inform their work and what it means to create a “safe space” for white folks interested in reflecting on their positionality.
Frequently Asked White Questions is in a way a literary collection of the same work you’ve been doing through you live YouTube session: Safe Space for White Questions (SSFWQ). I have to ask, is there such a thing as a safe space for doing decolonial work?
Ajay Parasram: I think you are right—colonialism is comprehensively violent. How could any serious effort to undo such violence be “safe” in the truest sense of the word? At the risk of being too graphic, I think about someone arriving at a hospital in need of surgery that is risky. There are always things we can do to mitigate risk: clean equipment, focused team, leverage reliable research etc.
Colonialism is like a man-made chronic disease that manifests in different communities in distinct ways. Each needing therapy or treatment in ways best attuned to ideally curing that disease. And if that’s not possible, ensuring that a person lives the best life they can under the circumstances they find themselves in.
White people are also impacted by colonialism and structural white supremacy similarly to how men are impacted by patriarchy. It’s not at all the same as how racialized people navigate colonialism, but being organized into white supremacy from a young age also severely limits one’s ability to lead a free life.
Part of the reason we borrow the idea of “safe space” is to be tongue in cheek about the fact that some of the very people who bemoan the existence of safe spaces are ironically most in need of them.
Alex Khasnabish: I think it’s possible to make these spaces safer and more effective but, no, I don’t think that decolonial work can be made safe. We can have safe spaces within our organizations, groups, gangs, and movements but when we step outside of these spaces and encounter others, that can’t really be made safe. I think the space of coalition-building, for example, can’t be made safe because there’s always some risk in building relations of solidarity that don’t already exist. Similarly, decolonization involves making settlers uncomfortable with the colonial reality. That can’t really be safe, the point is to disrupt. But I could imagine settler-run initiatives in the mold of SSFWQ that could do similar public education and outreach settler-to-settler as a part of a wider decolonizing process.
How do you find the balance in holding compassion that doesn’t succumb to comforting white guilt and fragility?
AP: It’s a challenging balance, and I approach it by keeping three principles in mind simultaneously. The first is in being confident that all people—white people included—are generally motivated by a desire to do good in that world. The second piece to centre history as it occurred as opposed to how settler-nationalism tries to represent the past. The third and final piece is thinking about how to best represent that historical reality in writing in a way that will resonate with people who have been organized into structural white supremacy and settler colonial nationalism in most facets of their lives.
Keeping these three principles in mind allows me to anchor the writing first to the real world history that explains our colonial present The last principle is pedagogical and creative because it’s informed by the fact that racialized scholars have known and explained the truths about structural white supremacy for more than 100 years, but this information has not been broadly accepted within still-colonial societies in particular. So it’s not a question of new “knowledge” it’s a question of trying to reach people in a way that this information resonates with them and matters to their everyday lives.
AK: I’m not sure I’m very balanced! I tend to have a very short fuse for woe-is-me attitudes from those of us furthest from society’s violent cutting edges. At the same time, I recognize that just haranguing people doesn’t change minds or social relations. The reality is there’s lots of reasons for all kinds of people to feel chewed up by the world as it is and white people are absolutely entitled to this too. The problem is that the status quo then pits them against other people who are much more marginalized, oppressed, and exploited even further down the line, rather than giving them a chance to build expansive solidarities. I like to think of my approach as honest and open. I’m here for any conversation that is sincere and comes from a genuine place, even if that means dealing with some pretty self-indulgent and ignorant stuff sometimes. The fact of the matter is that I feel like we don’t have much choice but to do this work. I believe in proactive deradicalization of white people as a necessary step to collective liberation.
I’m so curious about your personal positionalities and how you feel it allows you to do this work.
AK: I identify as an “ambiguously racialized person.” My mom was born in Latvia, my father in Burma. They came to Canada via circuitous routes but they both moved because they had to – my mom was fleeing war and occupation, my father traveling to secure some economic support for family back home. My sister and I were born and raised in Toronto with very little knowledge of our family histories and relations. Because they felt they never did, my parents desperately wanted us to fit in to Canadian society and succeed on its terms. But throughout my life I’ve had encounters with people and social institutions that refuse to see me as white, or as white enough. My last name and the colour of my skin marks me as an outsider, even if almost all of my cultural coordinates come from mainstream settler society. For a long time, especially as a kid, I just wanted to fit in, to pass. As I grew into adulthood, I cared less about passing but also felt dishonest about claiming a more explicitly racialized identity or even claiming my ancestors because by choice and circumstance I’d been estranged from them. Now I feel permanently on the margins in terms of my racialized identity and I’m very comfortable with that. I feel like a provocation to the smug liberal multiculturalism of the Canadian state and I quite enjoy that.
I should also mention that while I grew up “middle class” in terms of my family’s social and cultural coordinates, we struggled financially for a very long time. My mom worked herself to the bone to keep the family afloat and she was also the heart and soul of the household. My father was a wreck, one of circumstance and his own bad choices. When I was young, my mom would talk to me about the world, our family, herself, and so much else. This taught me that conversation can be powerful. It also taught me a lot about care work, discipline, capitalism, patriarchy, and what matters at the end of the day. The work needs to be done, someone has to do it, why shouldn’t it be us?
AP: My ancestors were driven off their lands by British political economic policies that demanded that farmers grow textiles and engage in trade (which was essentially a colonial wealth transfer from India to England) instead of being self-sufficient as we were for thousands of years. This early disaster of colonial and liberal capitalism caused ecological and political-economic fallout such that my hungry ancestors ended up in 19 different colonies across the empire as indentured servants between 1838 – 1917. My lineage ended up in Kairi, misnamed “Trinidad” by the infamous lost Spaniard in 1498, and it was home to Kalinago and Taino peoples, as much of the region was. Indentureship ensured that the arrival of my ancestors put them directly into conflict with recently freed African labourers who were withholding their labour for better working conditions from the plantation owners. We weren’t allowed to leave the plantations without a pass and the colonial government worked hard to prevent opportunities for horizontal solidarities between Africans and South Asians. Africans and South Asians were put into an economic and social structure designed to benefit the economic and social domination of white capitalists by struggling against one another for table scraps.
When I was three years old my folks enrolled me in public school in Trinidad because I was as tall as a 5-year-old, which was apparently the main criteria! I looked around at all the kids in matching uniforms standing up for the national anthem, and ran terrified straight out of classroom, school, and all the way home. I didn’t understand nationalism at the time, but in my 3-year-old body, I knew immediately that it was terrifying. Shortly thereafter, I moved with my family to unceded Algonquin territories and I’ve lived most of my adult life between unceded Coast Salish and Mi’kmaq territories. As a young immigrant finding my way in settler-colonial Canada, I was organized into patriotism, and it took me until my 20s to claw my way out of it with the generous helps of Indigenous-led social movements. These kinds of experiences demand a life dedicated to anti-colonialism as a matter of intergenerational obligation that is tailored the physical places in which I reside. When I feel tired, I remember the bullshit my ancestors endured so that I could do this work.
What’s the most difficult question you’ve had to answer?
Alex: I think questions about family life and intimate relationships are often the most interesting and challenging. People have so much invested in these relationships and contexts, there’s so much at stake, it’s important to be especially careful about them.
AP: Probably questions geared around cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation. I’m alienated from my language and culture, and even though my main gig is teaching other people about South Asia broadly defined, I am always doubting how my own efforts to engage Indian culture and language, practice yoga, and even to write credibly about the region is compromised by my positionality as a unilingual person living where I do.
How has this process made you aware of your own privileges? Anything that surprised you?
AP: Simply have the time and ability to do this as work is revealing of the privileges we both hold as university professors who get to decide what we research and writing about, especially as we see our colleagues in the US, India, and elsewhere being harassed, fired, and even jailed for doing the same. The actual book writing itself made me thoughtful of the privileges that come from being trained in social sciences and the humanities paired with life experience engaged in social movements. A lot of people who went to school for other specific things – business, medicine, engineering and what have you – didn’t have the basic training in critical thinking that society takes for granted when making jokes about BAs. But the last decade in particular has shown us how these basic skills of media literacy, critical reading and reasoning skills, and logical argumentation is extremely important.
AK: I don’t think I’ve learned anything specifically new in the process of doing SSFWQ, I see it as an extension and refinement of a lot of the social movement research and public education work I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years. I’m constantly surprised and gratified that these experiments in public engagement work, however modestly and imperfectly. I’m always honoured to be a part of them when they are conducted in the spirit of collective liberation. I think people are very anxious, lonely, and lost right now, having these kinds of conversations connects us to each other and the world.
How do you imagine your book living in the world? The resource on a friend’s shelf that gets worn out from being lent out? In a coworker’s drawer for those awkward moments they don’t want to involve HR?
AK: I hope it gets passed around, used in book clubs, assigned in classrooms, and denounced by far right media!
AP: I hope it gets worn out from being read and engaged with! There’s lots to agree and disagree with and its purpose is to be a welcoming entry point for people. So my real dream is people who may not have thought about race or whiteness in a serious way will read it, and then essentially engage in a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to anti-racism. We certainly wrote the book with that in mind. Would love to see younger readers of all backgrounds engaging with it because I hope it can give them a good head start!
Alex, you won’t be there for the event but from you many years working with Ajay, how would you describe what folks can expect?
AK: A fun, funny, profound, and highly engaging evening of radical, real talk in the spirit of collective liberation!