Carol Tator, Frances Henry and Winston Mattis. Challenging Racism in the Arts: Case Studies of Controversy and Conflict. University of Toronto Press, 1998, 292 pp. 16.95 paper.

In this work three of the co-authors of The Colour of Democracy develop further their cogent thesis that racist discourse produces fundamental tensions in democratic liberal societies. Their analysis of six Canadian cultural situations and events between 1985 and 1995 shows how representations of various immigrant and ethnic populations as undesirable others conflict with freedom of expression, tolerance, individualism, and truth. By affirming “racial and cultural difference as the core of social, cultural and political life in Canada (p.33)” the authors explicitly encourage political action to counter those inequities.

The cases include a museum exhibition, “Into the Heart of Africa” at the Royal Ontario Museum, shows like “Miss Saigon” and “Showboat”, and efforts to establish a Black popular music station. Recurring themes are stereotyping, hidden forms of racist discourse, cultural appropriation, hegemonic control over minorities’ freedom of expression, the dominance of a White European gaze, the exclusion of linguistic minorities from access to services and decision-making in mainstream cultural organizations, and the silencing and marginalizing of minority dissent. These case studies reveal a racism that is neither overt nor bigoted. It is embedded in the process of making and using meanings to combat the resistance efforts of minorities by denying them the right to talk, write and otherwise express their experiences of marginalization and exclusion.

Culture and multiculturalism are shown to be contested terrains. The authors find that an elite has defined ethno-cultural minorities who do not share its values as being beyond the boundaries of the common culture. Hence minority demands for cultural inclusion. Rejecting symbolic multiculturalism, these authors advocate a critical perspective which, rather than reducing minority communities to special interest groups, sees them as active and full participants who are at the core of a shared history and able to form alliances and affiliations based on mutual needs and shared objectives. Their analysis challenges a politics of diversity which ignores the system of power and privilege in the dominant culture. In place of a national identity built around anglophone or francophone culture, they call for inclusive processes and spaces in which the collective consciousness of Canada can be reshaped.

It is a useful exercise and it points to salient social inequalities and contradictions surrounding racism, multiculturalism and liberalism. Our understanding of Canadian society is enhanced by the astute use of the case study method of illustrating these issues. However, given the growing interest in intersectionality among researchers of racism, the absence of comments on how racism intersects with class and gender relations is surprising. Despite an early statement about cultural production and distribution requiring economic resources, the point is not followed up. What, for example, are the class locations of the cultural elite which is seen to be the source of the problem? And to what extent is the White Eurocentric gaze a gendered one? The authors mention several interventions by women’s groups in the situations they analyse but fail to address gender in their overall theoretical framework. In other words, their social structural analysis is incomplete. The result is a restricted view which can inhibit the formation of coalitional politics among communities, groups, organizations, institutions, subcultures and networks of people of colour who cultivate critical sensibilities and personal accountability. Without these kinds of alliance and citizens’ participation in what Cornel West calls “credible projects in which people see that their efforts can make a difference”, the kind of critical multiculturalism advocated in this book cannot thrive.

Rennie Warburton
University of Victoria

January 1999
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