Racist Reasonable Accommodation: Questions for a Revolutionary Quebec Left

In regards to the latest comments from my comrade Nicolas, regarding the racist “reasonable accommodation debate”…

There are two very important questions here. We have to deal with both of them, but in order to not get tripped up i think we need to separate them first.

The first question i see is “How do we relate to right-wing, sexist elements in the oppressed communities?”

The second is “How do those of us in the Quebecois or anglo communities maintain our base, when this same base is becoming increasingly hostile to immigrants?”

As to the first question, i think dealing with questions on a case by case basis, with a strong anti-patriarchal politic, is sufficient. Looking to solutions which come from and empower women – both in the dominant societies and in the oppressed communities – instead of using a cookie cutter model of what anti-sexism should look like.

What makes the Herouxville resolution so repugnant to me is the way in which the murder of women in Muslim theocracies is used to whiteout the murder of women here in Quebec – after all, this is the land of rapist cop Benoit Guay, land of the Polytechnique, and of the 777 women and children who have been murdered since… not one of whom would have been helped one bit by the men of Herouxville…

Framing the question as one of women’s subordination and super-exploitation lays the basis for a much more constructive and radical struggle, and one which is fundamentally more prone to anti-capitalism, than focusing on the ethnic identity of the different petitioners or religious content of their requests.

For instance, there is no religious, political or ethical connection between the “frosted windows” example at the Y in Mile End and the “non-kosher spaghetti” example at the Jewish General… other than the fact that both cases pitted some Jews against some non-Jews. But according to the terms of “reasonable accommodation” they are both not only connected, but are two examples of the same thing. So we end up in a crazy situation where depriving religious Jews of a cafeteria where they can eat (because once pig is allowed in, the whole area becomes non-kosher) is the same as supporting women’s freedom to exercise in a gym with clear windows!

Whether one feels that the imaginary “Jewish side” was right or wrong in either case, i find it difficult to see a non-racist basis for framing the two incidents as dealing with the same issues.

As to the question of male driving instructors, female driving instructors, etc. I really think that in such cases what has to be looked at is the consequences of each possible arrangement. I would oppose any position which would see men empowered to marginalize or exclude women, and that includes male driving students excluding women instructors. That said, rather than looking at this as a “clash of civilizations” where “we” must not cede an inch to “them,” i think the ideal would be to look for a solution in which everyone could be catered to as best as possible providing nobody is put at a disadvantage.

Worth noting: the complaints about immigrants asking too much in all these cases are not being made by women in the oppressed communities, but by people (generally men) in the oppressor societies.

But these questions are “case by case” – i see no evidence in Quebec at the moment that they are part of a concerted strategy from any particular group within the immigrant communities, including the right-wing religious element. Indeed, two of the most visible communities within this brouhaha – the already-established Jewish communities, and the more recent Muslim communities – are bitterly hostile to each other. So rather than some unified “immigrant agenda”, what we have are requests made by individuals or community forums within these marginalized communities.

The problem is that there is this overarching “reasonable accommodation” narrative in the white imagination, so that when members of the dominant societies encounter immigrants or people of colour making these requests they automatically associate it with all this other crap. Leading to a situation where if there is a letter from a Marie-Pierre Tremblay in the newspaper saying she would rather be seen by a female healthcare professional, or that she would prefer that her daughter attend a girls’ only school, one reacts very differently than if the letter-writers name looks Arabic or “foreign.”

On to the second question, regarding our base of support.

The following should be read over and digested:

This argument is having an echo, a huge echo and not only among the right wing masses. It does have an echo in the progressive camp. It does disarm us to a certain extent… Finaly, they are using our silence on this issue (and our anti-war activism wich is made in solidarity with middle-east communities) as a way to attack the left wich is more and more refered to as islamo-gauchiste…

i think what Nicolas writes here is certainly true. This “debate” is not something only happening “out there” – these are questions that have been discussed by all sorts of people for quite some time, and anxiety over how immigrant communities will transform Quebec exists throughout the political spectrum.

The question is not simply how to respond to this wave of white anxiety, but also who we are. Do we see our struggle as one for communism, or anarchism… or do we see our antecedents in the struggle for modernization and bourgeois democracy? Are we accountable to the working class as a whole, or to the white working class in particular? and for white organizers i realize this is not clearcut, and i offer no easy answers…

There is nothing wrong with trying to “cut the grass” out from under our opponents’ feet. If we can undercut their support, if we can reframe issues so that they are isolated and people are won over to a liberatory perspective, then that is something worth doing. As white radicals, we must always be open to this possibility, for when the opportunity presents itself, this is where our interventions can be most effective.

But we must not let the temptation to do so blur our vision or blunt our politics. As radicals within dominant societies, even if our work is done overwhelmingly amongst the most oppressed sections of the population, we should remember that there is always a place for us at the enemy’s table. We benefit from a kind of open invitation to join in, to constitute the “left wing” of our nations’ pro-capitalist politics. And to do so appears to us, as often as not, as a “realistic” or “pragmatic” or “clever” way to undercut the right-wing, when in fact we are “undercutting” them by extending their influence into the progressive camp.

We saw this in France in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Socialist and Communist parties tried to undercut the Front National by adopting bits of its anti-immigrant agenda (“le lepenisation des esprits”)… far from saving the electoral left, this delivered more and more support to the far right, as their ideas were legitimized. All the while remaining true to the PS and PCF’s base in the middle classes and least oppressed sections of the working class, and cementing their divorce from the immigrant proletariat of the banlieues

The fact that the current wave of nativism has such a strong echo outside of the ranks of the traditional right-wing, “even” in the progressive camp, makes it all the more necessary for us to stake out a pole of radical and uncompromising opposition. This does not mean allying with right-wing elements within the immigrant communities (they are our enemies too), but it does mean grounding our politics in a class and gender analysis of how patriarchy and capitalism operate in our societies, and understanding what classes are represented in this “debate”.

As Quebecois and anglo-canadian societies are predominantly middle class, resting on shrinking traditional proletarian sections and a growing immigrant and racialized proletariat, maintaining our politics may require us to reappraise our base, to defend unpopular positions, to suffer the thinning of our ranks. We can’t expect to have a mass working class movement in a society where the working class is atomized, disorganized and infected with middle class ideologies… but we can’t solve this problem – indeed, we exacerbate it! – by jumping on the latest racist bandwagon.

We will not be alone if we articulate and maintain a militant anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist position. There are white people who don’t like where this “debate” is going. There are white people who feel uneasy about the strength of right-wing religious currents around the world, but who feel even more uncomfortable with the people of Herouxville. Even Quebec Solidaire seems to have staked out a liberal anti-racist and anti-sexist position on all this, insisting that the question should be deracialized and demanding that a woman from a “cultural community” be selected to head the government’s commission on the question; not revolutionary, but then again neither is QS…

By staking out a radical position far to the left of the likes of Françoise David, we will create the possibility for alliances with insurgent sections of the immigrant working class, sections whose opposition to right-wing patriarchal ideas is likely to be deeper and stronger than what we ourselves can manage on our own right now.

To articulate and maintain such a position requires confronting the current wave of nativism head-on, not diluting our opposition with demands for immigrant communities to adapt to the cultural norms of the majority. Not diluting our politics with support for practices that disempower or marginalize women, queers or the poor, but always taking our lead from the oppressed themselves, not from petit bourgeois politicians and journalists.


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