The Power Struggle of Space and Race

An interview with Cheryl Teelucksingh, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Ryerson University

by Julie Rempel

Cheryl TeelucksinghQ: How do we address and challenge systemic racism in Canada when a great deal of the population believes racism no longer exists?

A: Canada’s unique history of immigration and the ideology of multiculturalism have led to a relationship between race, ethnicity and immigrant status which are key to understanding the hidden and latent nature of racial oppression in Canada.

One of the biggest critiques in my work has been around multiculturalism policy and how it has been a mechanism for hiding systemic racism. Multiculturalism policy make us feel like we’re making progress in addressing racism and it allows us to distinguish ourselves from our American counterparts who tend to be more assimilationist in their approach to social integration. However, multiculturalism policy in Canada is still a barrier to addressing forms of systemic racism, including environmental racism.

Multiculturalism is both the mainstream and the official government sanctioned approach to acculturation adopted in Canada. Most Canadians hold multiculturalism as an ideal that they share in varying degrees. Racial harmony, for example, is assumed to be an integral component of multiculturalism and makes it easy for Canadians to further contend that racism doesn’t exist in Canada. This uncritical acceptance of multiculturalism further ignores the way in which multiculturalism, as both a public value and a federal government policy actually operates. In practice, multiculturalism in both contexts is a shifting ideal that, at its best, is a substitute for anti-racism and, at its worst, reinforces the economic, political, and cultural interests of dominant groups with power in Canadian society. There are key players influencing decision makers that are reinforcing their own political and economic objectives. We need to point out how racism is hidden and to argue for an anti-racism framework which suggests that these existing power structures need to change.

Q: Within your research how have you effectively used language to address racism and environmental inequities?

A: There is a great deal of value in working with interdisciplinary teams because it allows the use of different frameworks to talk about issues. For example using the concept of health promotion is an area that communities understand and can produce tangible results. It can be used as a way to bridge communities and to provide  different avenues of intervention.  Working in interdisciplinary teams has provided an opportunity to think about how different areas overlap and are interrelated. Identifying these connections aids in recognizing the web of potential stakeholders including those related to policy and how they can be framed as human rights, health, or city planning discussions.

Another important aspect is that my research doesn’t focus on blaming people for their lack of racial knowledge. I recognize people’s awareness of how  they are positioned is really quite different. Through some of my courses and work that I do in the class room, I try to talk about privilege. Historically, because of the way notions of race have been positioned to disadvantage racial minorities. We have historically based social constructions and stereotypes about racial minorities. We need to start thinking from our own standpoint of personal privilege as an avenue to bringing about change,  often times change requires someone to give up space for those who are more disadvantaged. Everybody is capable of contributing to racial and environmental change, it’s not simply an issue for communities of color that are susceptible to environmental risk. Through my research, speaking from where people are socially located is a valuable starting point.  Then recognizing that everyone has something to contribute can often bring down people’s guard in discussing racism and moving towards more inclusive environments.

Q: In your work how do you differentiate environmental racialization and environmental racism?

A: I was first drawn to racialization as a way to look at the complex texture of oppressions in Canada. To look at how people are impacted not just by their racial and immigration identity but also their status, class, income and gender. Increasingly as well, other characteristics that society deems undesirable. I advocate in favour of the clear distinction between the broader problem of environmental racialization and the narrower problem of environmental racism. Environmental racialization describes environmental injustices that include the attribution of racial meanings resulting from both agents’ subjective and objective intent. Environmental racialization recognizes that agents’ intentional actions can result in unpurposeful racist outcomes, even if these outcomes are systemic. As originally conceived in American literature, environmental racism refers to the link between the exploitation of racialized people and the exploitation of the environment. Particularly important from the context of explaining how racialization has operated historically in Canada, racialized people are not a fixed group, because racialization is not simply reducible to race. For instance, the notion of environmental racialization incorporates multiple interrelated oppressions, particularly those of race, class and recent immigrant status. From a political economic perspective, treating oppressions as competing factors ignores the fact that both the social order and the capitalist system are dependent on the exploitation of all subordinate social relations and the environment. Powerful stakeholders are able to accumulate profit by oppressing labour and the environment. Those relegated to subordinate economic positions include those who are marginalized due to their race, gender and class. There is a need however,  to consider the broader context of capitalism which is responsible for creating all environmental injustices. What I am suggesting is that environmental racism research and activism do not need to limit themselves to framing racism as necessarily essentialist, isolated and independent in order to support political objectives when there are other, and perhaps better, ways of framing racism.

Q: What is the nature of racialized spaces within the context of Environmental Justice?

Oppressions are often embedded in space. So space becomes a way to naturalize and normalize particular forms of oppression. Space for me is just another tool in my work and I use it to talk about how it is that certain processes, either environmental injustices or racialized inequalities, become hidden and normalized. As a methodology, it is important to be sensitive to all of the ways in which space operates as a function of objective, subjective, and lived experiences. There are many different lenses to view space. Space can be viewed in its physical properties, how media outsiders perceive the space and how different communities view one another. An aspect that is often ignored, but I try to highlight in my community based research, is people’s lived experiences and their strategies for resistance. A lot of times it is very easy through quantitative analysis to state where the disadvantages people are and the major issues they are experiencing. When in fact, if you can find what it is that people are doing in spite of those barriers and disadvantages it can lead to more meaningful solutions. These communities can then recognize what is happening in other similar neighborhoods and identify what they share in common and develop networks across neighborhoods. For example if community gardens are successful on some level, what are the tools to involve other stakeholders in assisting with that. Increasingly, the more I do this work, the less I am interested in identifying and naming the problem, but instead recognizing that the solutions to environmental injustices and environmental racisms are situated within the context of the space. Environment is everywhere, and people’s lives are linked. So are their concerns are for living in communities that are socially inclusive and free from racism. These are the same principles that will give way to spaces where healthy environments can be built.

Q: In some of the recent projects you have undertook, what is your  critique of the recent energy policy, Ontario’s Green Energy Act (GEA) using an environmental justice approach?

A: Environmental justice offers a framework to critique energy policy to identify what can be done to remedy as well as prevent environmental injustices. Energy concerns as well as the steps taken to alleviate them, both raise environmental injustices in terms of both energy consumption and energy production. At the household level, energy impacts housing, transportation and subsistence, and these impacts are felt differentially by different segments of society. There is also a procedural justice dimension to energy, as poor communities and racialized communities have been largely excluded from the arenas where energy policy decisions are made. A political economy critique of capitalist accumulation and power relations is a defining feature of environmental justice research and practice.

At present, neo-liberal policy initiatives in Ontario have moved to an emphasis on collaborations that seek to bring together public, private, environmental non-governmental organizations, and community interests. These multi-stakeholder plans do not include the financial supports and accessibility that allow for marginalized stakeholders to benefit equally. New government policies appear to address procedural inequalities by including complicated mechanism for participation. However, an environmental justice framework points to ongoing social and environmental inequalities connected to policy outcomes.

My preliminary analysis of components of the GEA and community power suggests that prioritizing economic growth in the GEA will result in social and environmental inequities as businesses, developers, and investors, who have the benefit of access to upfront startup capital, time, expertise, and the knowledge to navigate the bureaucracy, are privileged. There is a growing number of environmental non-governmental organizations who are advocating for and assisting community power groups and First Nations communities with gaining access to funding and the professional assistance needed to qualify for  feed-in-tariff (FIT) contracts, a program that will act as a mechanism to ensure the equal participation of the community energy sector and to provide for a reasonable rate of return on investments, will in part help to address some of the apparent inequalities.