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Frontiers: Essays & Writings on Racism & Culture // Review

By Nourbese Philip, Marlene | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Frontiers: Essays & Writings on Racism & Culture // Review

Nourbese Philip, Marlene, Resources for Feminist Research

Perhaps I should begin too by acknowledging here that the position from which I write this review is also hazardous in that the politics of reviewing texts by "marginal" writers dictates a sisterly, celebratory reception. The response I offer deliberately tries to avoid a "politically correct," patronizing position in response to a Black women's text and instead attempts to engage more critically with the argument presented in the text.

The essays in this collection are disappointing because Philip's "positioning" is so fixed that there is an inevitability about the political line she takes. The gist of many of the essays is that the various arts funding organizations and institutions in Canada do not "respect" (Philip's term) black art and therefore black artists are not equally represented. Multiculturalism is described as being nothing more than a public gesture towards taking racism seriously. Fine; I agree. What I find much more problematic is the way this particular indictment is flattened out into a white/black dichotomy where white people are constructed as homogenously privileged supremacists and Black people occupy the moral high ground automatically by virtue of their historical oppression. Surely, this reduces the complexity of the workings of racism and invokes a notion of collective essences which is theoretically, and empirically, untenable. Philip uses emotive language throughout, the "scourge" of racism for example, and talks of "reparation" being due, all of which cater perfectly to the current market for texts which indulge white liberal guilt. Ultimately, casting all whites and all Blacks in the role "left over" from the days of empire as colonizers and colonized respectively, without acknowledging the complex interpenetration of roles in the contemporary political/economic context, leads to a dead end, freezing all the protagonists fatalistically into their "inherited" roles. This then leads to a moral morass of accusation and guilt which doesn't translate readily into productive dialogue or action.

The accusational or oppositional position which this dichotomy generates sets a rather limited agenda for the range of positions which Philip takes in these essays. In the introductory essay, questioning the desirability of Blacks forgetting colonialism and becoming "... unambivalently British or Canadian ..." (who is ever unambivalently of any national identity?), Philip writes:

Not to remember those things; to forget that what we now appear to share--education, religion, dress, legal institutions--are really tombstones erected on the graves of African custom, culture and languages, is simply to collude in our own erasure, our own obliteration.

It seems to me, certainly in the African Caribbean cultural context, that "social amnesia" has not and will not erase the memory of the horrors of slavery. What would be interesting to explore now would be the way "Africa" is represented in contemporary Black cultural forms: often in a generalized, romantic way and set invariably in a "traditional" timescape (which is how it tends to be invoked in these essays), but sometimes, and more interestingly as in Toni Morrison's or Erna Brodber's work, for example, in a creative reworking of this "rememory" (to use Morrison's evocative phrase).

But instead of exploring Black writing, Philip allows racist ideology to position her over and over again as oppositional and this oppositional stance then suggests that her target audience is a white liberal one, unfamiliar with the cultural terrain and receptive to some heavy-duty breast beating. Philip is in a catch-22 situation--an oppositional position is what is expected of her, as a "black woman writer," but it also sets limits on the parameters of her argument and leads to some confusion. For example, Philip states (p. 23), "We have been too long othered," but earlier she appears to be arguing for maintaining otherness or difference from (white) Canadian culture, and then later she states that white feminism is "a non-issue" for her.

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