By Chaka V. Grier
In 1962, the classic Black girl group The Crystals’ released the controversial hit "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)". Decades later in 2014, Lana Del Rey released a re-imagined version called "Ultraviolence". Both profoundly resonated with me. It’s got me thinking about another concept that’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore. I call it altruistic violence.
As a woman of colour, constantly fighting against silence and exploitation, even trivial or backhanded tokens of attention and affection can feel like you are finally being seen.
Over the past eight years in music media, I have experienced more than my share of erasure and silencing—even online stalking and sexual harassment at shows I attend to do my job as a journalist and help shine a brighter light on artists that are often ignored or underserved.
But nothing has irked me more than a style of tweet from writers and editors that started circulating over the last five years or so. “Looking for BIPOC and women writers,” they say. “Get in touch!”
Time and time again, well-meaning white allies have thoughtfully replied with my name on these tweets—I never do so myself—yet what I have never shared with them until recently is that not one of these editors behind the request has followed up with me to ask if I’d be open to lending my voice to their outlet. One editor kept me on her tweet spin cycle—continually tweeting at me while outright ignoring my emails—until I finally asked her to remove me from any communications and blocked her account.
I’ve experienced outright silence by outlets who posted requests for Black and BIPOC writers during the 2020 George Floyd protests. In one instance, I opted to confront the outlet on their Instagram page under their cute pink Black Lives Matter post. They were quick to DM me with apologies and excuses about “missing my email”. I spoke to numerous other BIPOC writers who had also responded to the post, and their emails had also mysteriously gone missing.
Altruistic at first sight, these call-outs set up a dynamic where BIPOC writers must publicly vie for attention from white editors (and sometimes even BIPOC editors) who should be doing the work by reaching out to, or at least responding to, us themselves. These “we’re all in it together” posts simply re-centre whiteness in its position of power and decision-making without any fear of accountability. If legendary models can be discovered in a random cafe, editors—no matter the colour or gender or political perspective—should be able to cultivate a diverse roster of creators that actually reflect our country.
It’s become terrifying to pitch a piece about BIPOC identities to a white editor here in Canada that you have not previously worked with or do not trust with that level of vulnerability.
My term for this type of benevolent-seeming gesture is altruistic violence. It’s also the name of a multidisciplinary project I’m working on as part of my Master’s degree. I define it as a gesture disguised as generosity with no genuine intention or actions behind the words.
Altruistic violence is a lot of things. It’s the calls for panels and interviews many BIPOC artists get only after a Black or brown person has been murdered—publicly—by police. It’s the assignments that only give BIPOC writers opportunities to talk about things deemed Black or brown, but not the full spectrum of artists outside of our “race”. It’s the gaslighting and impatience many BIPOC artists experience after being asked to join a project only to be told they’re being “too sensitive”. It’s the tokenism that decides what is the appropriate kind of Blackness, Indigeneity, multi-racial or trans identity to champion in media outlets. It’s the innocent “can’t we all just get along?” joke that effectively silences BIPOC people by making us feel “over-dramatic”. It’s the paltry pay that barely leaves you enough to live and create.
It even comes out in pop culture. A stunning and blatant example of this is the recent Super Bowl commercial for M&Ms starring the loveable snob Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek. In it, a series of people apologize for things like a gender reveal party that stars a forest fire, mansplaining, even revealing too much in a confessional booth. A Millennial-aged white woman also apologizes to her baby boomer white neighbour for calling her Karen—turns out Karen is actually the woman’s name. It’s a simple example of erasure—whiteness asking forgiveness from whiteness, not those that white supremacy actually harms and kills. It makes the “Karen” phenomenon—a characterization of micro- and macro-agressions manifested in white supremacy—seem like a simple 2020 misunderstanding.
In late March, I participated in a pre-recorded panel at Toronto’s Music Gallery curated by saxophonist, curator, and manager Olivia Shortt and hosted by actor, director, and activist Kim Senklip Harvey. There, BIPOC creators Nikki Shaffeeullah, Frances Koncan, and I discussed the lack of safety we sometimes experience in artistic spaces in Canada. This was our opportunity to finally speak out—uninhibited. That talk, Setting The Scene: The Curation of Safe Spaces and Accountability, is now streaming below.
During a pandemic that has seen BIPOC communities hit hard—financially, socially and spiritually—we are now reaching toward each other for healing and support. So following that talk, I was inspired to reach out to fellow BIPOC artists, activists and media workers Tarun Nayar, Kimmortal, and Kyla Pascal to continue the conversation. (Both Tarun Nayar and Kimmortal are based in Vancouver.) Below, they each share their own personal experiences with altruistic violence.
(Executive director of 5X Fest, Delhi 2 Dublin)
What I experience most often is the expression of concern or allyship from white colleagues—gestures that seem to open the door for real change—followed by a total unwillingness to move aside or occupy less space to make room for those who have been historically excluded.
For real change to happen, those who are holding most of the power will have to give a little bit up. This almost never happens. And this turns these seemingly well-intentioned conversations into acts of violence—a kind of woozy anaesthetic that lulls us into thinking things are changing when they’re not.
I mostly work with BIPOC folks, and that is medicine. When I work in white spaces, I watch my energy carefully, I set strong boundaries and I try to create impact without being attached to the results of my efforts.
In my experience, the most effective way at creating change is to change leadership. For example, I would assert that hiring a queer woman of colour as the head of one of the large media companies would fundamentally change the organization in ways that no amount of equity, diversity and inclusion training or policy changes could.
(Rapper and multidisciplinary artist)
I have been told by a white cis male producer to change my lyric from “Filipinos” to “my people” in a song that had to do specifically with my community. In retrospect, I realize he wanted my music to be relatable to all people—to white people—to have a sense of “universality”.
This happened at the beginning of my career when I was new to the whole recording process. There are a lot of internal battles me and other BIPOC musicians face in the intimate setting of the recording booth where it’s just you and the producers/engineers, the majority of whom are cis men. Many non-binary, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists don’t end up recording their music because they don’t have access to studios—as in, they don’t feel safe or comfortable to be in these spaces and imagine their art.
As BIPOC creators, we are subconsciously told that success in the industry means watering down our unique lived experience and catering to white audiences. At times it feels like the industry is adjacent to upholding these systems of white supremacy and capitalism, and many BIPOC artists don’t want anything to do with it.
Local musician Kealoha brilliantly said, “I want to hear more musicians talk about the origin of the music they’re playing and their relationship to it…in order to invite more opportunity for Black and brown makers to benefit from their ancestors’ songs.”
There needs to be more paid peer mentorship opportunities among queer, trans, BIPOC musicians/activists where we share skills, grow connections and help each other reach and define our definitions of success. I also think music institutions should give full scholarships to non-binary, femme, women and BIPOC aspiring audio engineers as well as hire instructors that reflect us. This would create a music ecosystem we feel truly excited about being a part of.
(Indigenous solidarity, sustainability, community health, and food justice)
I’m pretty racially ambiguous [as a Métis, Black woman born and raised in Amiskwaciwâskahikan], which I think impacts the way that I am approached when asked to participate in events or panels, or sent requests. I’m more approached for my Blackness than I am for my Indigeneity [but] I claim them both fully and it has always been part of my identity, holding both of these spaces in my lived experience.
A lot of times Black Natives get questioned for their identity because they don’t look like whatever is the stereotypical idea of what an Indigenous person looks like. In the summer, when George Floyd’s [murder occurred], me and my brother [Keenan Pascal, creator of Token Naturals] were getting so many requests or offers of support because white people just did not know how to feel.
I’m really interested in BIPOC people farming and BIPOC people in the entire spectrum of the food industry [and] I was getting so many random [requests] from people wanting me to speak at things or trying to connect around farming that would just never have been done previously. My brother saw, literally, investments in his company and people wanting to talk about his company so much more in those moments after the George Floyd [murder]. I really hope this kind of energy will be maintained in five years when I’d actually like to [begin farming] versus right now when their white guilt is driving them to feel really uncomfortable with their privilege and not knowing what to do with it.
It’s so fucked up that you need these moments of Black trauma and tragedy to happen for people to want to support in any way. It’s not actually true engagement or dismantling of white supremacy, it’s more of a salve for people to soothe their discomfort with racism, white supremacy and colonization.
White-led media coverage of hate crimes and BIPOC lives often leave BIPOC communities feeling even more silenced, infuriated, and too tired to do anything else but survive and fight the next injustice, while white communities have the safety to thrive and create. This is why showing up for each other is so crucial, personally, and professionally. Showing up does not require us to agree politically. Showing up in the greatest and most honest sense acknowledges the complex ways that race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and gender, religion, and geographical locations, as well as our own personal histories has shaped our experiences of oppression.
Do not tell us how our stories must look. Our stories belong to us and it is time we tell them on our own terms.
Chaka V. Grier is a writer in Toronto. She encourages those looking for a safe space to share their experiences to reach out to her. And find allies everywhere, across the spectrum—that is where true change lies.