Radars I: learning to read and to be read

Identifying colonial behaviours, responses and dispositions

How can we respect the pace and readiness of people’s learning while being accountable to those negatively affected by this learning and its pace?  With/Out modernity deck of cards

  • The radars described in this text were created to pre-empt common behaviours, narratives and/or dispositions that are usually perceived as normal and harmless, but that can be very damaging to relationship building between groups that have been unevenly exposed to historical/systemic violence, dispossession, and exploitation.
  • The radars invite us to develop self-reflexivity and to approach difficult conversations from a position of humility without humiliation or guilt. Engaging in this work requires us to realize that our inherited arrogance, demand for validation and need for comfort and self-satisfaction are blockages in the path of personal and collective maturity and sobriety. It is this path that can unlock healthier and wiser possibilities for being-in-relation in order to face the unprecedented challenges of our times together.
  • The radars are not meant to use critique to establish a new standard of wokeness or moral authority – neither are they meant to contribute to “cancel culture”. They were instead created to help us to dissolve fragilities, to unlearn harmful patterns and to enable more generative and ethical responses, especially in situations where we feel the discomfort of having our self-images challenged. (Because this is a different approach than many people engaged in social change and critique are used to, we invite you to read this paragraph more than once so that it has a chance to really sink in.)
  • As you read this text, please note that when we use “we,” we are referring to people who are in a relatively privileged situation in society, enjoying the protections of systems that cause harm in other contexts. We describe this as those engaged in “low-intensity struggles.” This text would have been written differently if the intended audience were those who are more directly affected by systemic violence, i.e. those who are engaged in “high-intensity struggles”.
  1. The harmony radar: Discern how desires for (superficial) harmony, consensus, and unity can end up suppressing or flattening conflicts, paradoxes, and complexities, and becoming alibis for escaping responsibilities related to accountability for the systemic, historical and ongoing violences that enable the comforts, opportunities and security that we enjoy;

E.g. Emphasizing the ways that we are all facing a time of unprecedented challenges without acknowledging the ways that those challenges are experienced differently, particularly in ways that reflect uneven vulnerability and complicity// Demanding that Indigenous, Black or other racialized people use words or tone that you feel comfortable with so that the condition of harmony and unity is not disrupted.

  1. The “goodness” radar: Sense when what is unfolding in individual or collective processes is oriented by what feels good, looks good, and enables us to ‘move on’ (i.e. oriented by what we want), rather than being oriented by what is actually needed so that we can show up in order to face responsibility (with humility) for collective-well being;

E.g.: Dismissing conversations about individual and collective complicity in violence because it might make people feel bad, challenge their positive self-image (particularly within a system that treats them as customers) and/or block collective “progress” (as defined by those who have had the power to do impose definitions).

  1. The entitlement-to-affirmation radar: Realize when the ego demands an “audience” to validate its self-image and self-importance. This can also be a collective tendency to offer excessive praise in order to make everyone feel “amazing”. Consider how others might see you/your group, especially communities who are more affected by systemic violence, and how the actions that you consider normal can be both ridiculous, indulgent and harmful; learn to laugh at your own absurdity but also to face responsibility for the harms that are done through our ‘normal.’

E.g.: Using collective time as a space to seek affirmation for one’s work, to process personal things, and to affirm one’s fantasies, instead of using it as a space for shared learning in ways that would be useful to others.

  1. The band-aid radar: Interrupt the search for simplistic (and often harmful) solutions, the refusal to address complicity in harm, the desire to make or be a key part of the solution, and the naïve/colonial hope for the reformability of existing systems and thus for the continuity of those systems (along with certainty and futurity); and ask how these patterns of response enable social and ecological violences to persist.

E.g.: Seeking a predefined, feel-good checklist for transformation, and refusing to commit to the difficult, uncomfortable, non-linear, long-term process of individual and collective change that will likely require giving up one’s perceived securities and entitlements.

  1. The appropriation radar: Discern how knowledges and practices from other peoples and cultures is engaged in selective, romanticized, and/or appropriative ways, generally focusing on what makes ‘sense’ and what makes us feel good, and discarding what we don’t want to face, which is usually the part that we need to work on most.

E.g.: Engaging with Indigenous cultural production (e.g. movies, literature, films, dance) in ways that are divorced from Indigenous peoples’ political struggles for collective resilience against colonial violence (in which one is likely complicit).

  1. The fragility radar: Attend to the ways that people’s sensitivities are activated as a means to deflect responsibility. In particular, notice how the refusal of unconditional validation and affirmation generates reactions of aggression against those who exercise this refusal. Note the ways that the lack of stamina for difficult conversations (especially about complicity) tends to lead people to defend themselves and emphasize their good intentions, refocusing collective time and attention back to themselves with stories that prove their innocence.

E.g. Hijacking a conversation about collective strategies for addressing the reproduction of systemic colonial violence in order to voice one’s own feelings of guilt and shame.

  1. The egocentrism radar: Denaturalize the demand for a type of attention that places us at the center while exempting us from responsibility. For instance, this might manifest as people offering (or imposing) care in order to bring attention to themselves and absolve their guilt, without actually paying attention to the real needs of the context or consequences of this demand, such as the imposition on peoples’ bodies and spaces.

E.g. Emphasizing what one can contribute to the process of transformation, rather than assessing the particulars of a given context and discerning what is needed in different layers from different people and communities.

  1. The ‘saying it is doing it’ radar: Interrupt the fantasy that stating our commitment do something means that we are already acting differently, without actually doing the difficult work of unlearning and disinvesting from one’s harmful habits and desires.

For instance: Loudly critiquing one’s institution’s complicity in colonization without realizing how you are also complicit in the reproduction of colonial violence, and using one’s critique as a means to assert one’s own innocence and seek influence.

  1. The stock exchange radar: Recognize the desire to increase one’s personal value through transactions in moral and intellectual economies that are based on demands for self-satisfaction, validation, relief, virtue, transgression, autonomy, authority and choice.

For instance: Framing oneself as an “ally” to Indigenous communities in ways that seek to determine how one is seen by others (especially as innocent and benevolent), and to re-centre oneself in the process of transformation.

  1. The paternalism radar: Sense when one’s relationships with marginalized communities are being instrumentalized to enhance one’s sense of self-importance – also known as a “(white) savior complex”. This may manifest in people who want to “help” in order to make their own virtue visible without being responsive to priorities of the communities, and engaging them on their own terms;

For instance: Arriving at a local Indigenous community seeking their collaboration with a predefined research project that centres the agenda of the researcher, rather than asking the community what kind of collaboration would be useful (if any).

  1. The contextual relevance radar: Determine when certain strategies, frameworks, or knowledges might be useful (or not), and thereby interrupt the desire for fixed, singular solutions, or knowledge authorities that can tell us what and when to act.

For instance: Recognizing when emphasizing community heterogeneity and nuance are important for moving a conversation, and recognizing when they are likely to be instrumentalized to deflect an audience’s responsibility for structural harm.

  1. The layering radar: Discern between your political and existential accountabilities, recognizing that in one layer of reality we are all interconnected and entangled with each other, and at many other layers, we are accountable to the many structural violences and separations that are required for us to continue to be who we are and to have the options, opportunities, comforts, choices, and securities that we have.

For instance: Reference to indigeneity is mobilized in different layers with different meanings, but mostly in highly problematic ways if mobilized by people who have not directly experienced the violences of settler-colonialism.  For example, the common expression “we are all indigenous to a place” trivializes the struggles of Indigenous peoples who are constantly subject to the colonial violence and the statement further contributes to this violence. Layering requires a consideration of the layers of violence and privilege that are present in a specific context and a visibilization of these layers in one’s narrative.

  1. The moral posturing radar: Become attuned to when narratives deviate from real priorities and needs in order to focus on the description of the efforts, virtues and transgressions of the speaker towards a particular humanitarian/ altruistic/ revolutionary cause as a form of displaying one’s accumulated moral capital, superiority and/or claim to power or authority.

For instance: When people feel they are losing audience or space in a conversation, they may use moral posturing to assert their merit or seniority and reclaim their perceived entitlement to take collective space. This includes listing humanitarian initiatives that one has contributed or is committed to, listing marginalized friends that one has, or calculating the personal costs one has had for “helping” other people.

  1. The pay-back radar: Following the moral posturing radar, identify how one calculates “returns on investments” and perceived debts when engaging with social change, in particular with efforts related to “helping” marginalized communities.

For instance: Someone who has committed to a specific cause expecting people from the beneficiary community to “pay back” what has been “invested in” them by giving the person who “helped” them what this person perceives as a just “reward” (e.g. eternal gratitude, visibility as a benefactor, tacit agreement “not to bite the hand that has fed you”).

  1. The sausagization radar: Notice when people are interpreting words/messages according to their convenience, selectively mixing things for easier consumption in ways that trivialize and instrumentalize the work they are engaging with. This is often evident when people hear new words/concepts and start using them as if they describe what they are already doing it.

For instance: When people hear Indigenous narratives or concepts and quickly associate selective and convenient aspects of these narratives or concepts with their own experiences, consuming what they hear without realizing that they actually cannot understand what is being conveyed (as doing so would require a very different kind of engagement).

As we indicated in the introduction, the “radars” described here are meant to support those of us (in low-intensity struggle) in learning to read, to be read and to reduce harm in our engagements with social justice. This set of radars visibilize and invite readers to interrupt common normalized behaviours that, from the perspective of those in high-intensity struggle, denote harmful unconscious desires that can block the weaving of relationships of trust, accountability, consent, reciprocity and respect (Whyte, 2019). These include desires for consumption (of knowledge, critique, relationships, identities and/or experiences), for validation of one’s self-image, for authority, autonomy, innocence, virtue, control, superiority, etc.

Therefore, the radars are not about shaming people but rather about identifying – and potentially interrupting – the harmful affective and intellectual economies/patterns that are designed to keep us on the same thinking/feeling neurobiological loop.

There are many different reasons why these patterns and circularities are not engaged with very often, and why it would be important to discuss and develop the radars, including:

  1. the fact that these behaviours, responses and dispositions are normalized, perceived as benevolent and socially rewarded, therefore they are very difficult to interrupt;
  2. when someone identifies them as a problem, this person is often perceived to be the problem for pointing it out;
  3. both the behavior and their effects are very difficult to articulate in generative ways once they are already present in a space (i.e. after the fact);
  4. if the patterns are made visible as problematic patterns, the fragilities of people in low-intensity struggle are re-centered (which takes a lot of space/time); and
  5. there is enormous emotional labor involved for those who have made the patterns visible. The practice of developing radars can at times work to pre-empt colonial behaviors, but also as a means to reflect back on the occurrence of these behaviours and interrupt and minimize the harm done when we are unable to stop them.

As a pedagogical exercise, we invite you to read the radars again, but this time imagining a room full of people engaged in high-intensity struggle who are witnessing the problematic behaviors that the radars are describing. Try to connect with the embodied responses of this group (such as heavy breathing; racing heartbeat; glazed eyes set in memories of recurrent events with similar patterns; turned stomachs; calculations of whether it is worthwhile to say anything in this context or not; coping mechanisms that may be necessary to keep relationships going). People who are located between high- and low-intensity struggles (e.g. people who were born into high-intensity struggle and moved to low-intensity struggle through social mobility) are invited to read the radars again paying attention to how their experience of privilege might lead them to reproduce some of the harmful patterns identified here.

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