Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some thoughts on the concept of racialization

Last week sometime I was listening to CBC radio, something I have done so many times, it has become pseudo-ritualistic. You know, the voices, the theme music, the topics all blur into one, it's almost soothing. Almost, except I find much of what I hear offensive in some way. I had a friend, who listens to the CEEB religiously, once tell me that the only show she didn't find hurt her regularly in some fundamental way was the weekly gardening show. Somehow they managed to never denigrate indigenous people on this one show, no small feat in a settler country built on such trespasses. And the CEEB, despite its liberal leanings, is there to express such nationalist visions.

There I was, middle of the day listening to the CEEB and the talk turns to the so-called Chinese dairy products scandal. You know, some chemical has been found in dairy products, both wet and dry, and there has been a mass recall in China, one that has affected a few products here in Canada. I'll remind people that this comes on the heels of the listeriosis debacle here in Canada, where none other than Maple Leaf Foods, probably the national meat brand, poisoned hundreds of people with contaminated cold meat cuts, leading to the death of nearly 20 people across the country.

Anyways, here I am listening to this show, and the type of crap people were saying was infuriating. Interviewer: "So, are you going to buy Chinese products?" Respondent(s): "Never, I don't trust Chinese products, I never have, I will not go to Chinatown."

Ok, so yeah, the whole dairy product thing is sketchy. I agree. Luckily I don't eat dairy or meat products, partly because of these types of situations. But the way the respondents were racializing all things Chinese was stunning. It was like they were talking about aliens who eat their kids and love their rodents. God, it made me sick to my stomach.

Never in all of the endless discussions about the listeriosis outbreak did anyone ever invoke the moral or ethical will of the people behind the outbreak. Nor has there been any discussion of their race and/or ethnic make-up, even though many of those responsible for the outbreak have appeared regularly in the media to assuage the public. Can you imagine what would've been said if Maple Leaf Foods was run by any number of hyphenated-Canadians. Instead, I have to listen to some bullshit news report basically tarnishing the 'Chinese' with unsafe food handling practices, lower health standards, questionable moral way-points and worst of all and yet not surprising, an unhealthy disregard for human life, especially children, since many of those affected by the contamination have been children.

And this folks is how racialization works. Sure, we could talk about this in relation to racism, and it surely is an example of how the power of the racial order is upheld, but it also serves as a good example of how the process of racialization works. A whole series of values, beliefs, attitudes, and meanings are clearly being associated here with a group of people, one that is seen as racially outside the white norm. That's how it becomes possible to talk about never going to Chinatown, because the people in question are seen as untrustworthy and dirty. Of course, the meanings associated with being Chinese change and shift, they aren't static, but it is quite amazing how what was being said about the Chinese in Canada on the CEEB last week was so similar to what was being said in the early 20th century, most notably by the White Canada terrorists. Why do racial, and one could add gender and sexuality, codes have such staying power? They clearly get expressed differently, nobody interviewed on the CEEB was walking through Chinatown with a sign demanding the immediate deportation of all Chinese people in Canada and the cessation of all immigration from China, but the ideas about what it means to be Chinese, especially at times of crisis like the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003 and this more minor one around dairy products, are there, stubbornly clinging to life.

There was no reason to talk about so-called Chinese values and/or Chinatowns in this newscast. Just like there was no reason to talk about the dozens of grocery store chains that carry contaminated Maple Leaf meat products or who is, in the racial sense, behind that outbreak. But it happened and it happens all the time. That's racialization at work. Some, like the white executives and their representatives, are not racialized, race is not part of the story at Maple Leaf Foods, while others, in this case some apparently shady group of Chinese food producers are very clearly racialized. The dairy product outbreak occurs because of race, strange logic yes, but no coincidence.