An Interview with Dr. Mythili Rajiva, Co-Editor of Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives On A Canadian Murder

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

Mythili Rajiva is associate professor of Sociology at Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia). Her research focuses on girlhood, the Canadian South Asian diaspora, and racialized identities. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Canadian Review of Sociology, Girlhood Studies and Feminist Media Studies. She is the co-editor of Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder.

BCP: Why a book on Reena Virk?

MR: The idea of working on the case had been in my head from about 2004 onwards, maybe because of a shift in my own identity from being a graduate student just starting a ph.d. in 1997 to where I was in 2004, finishing my thesis. I think it was Salman Rushdie who once said that the journey creates us; writing a thesis on South Asian Canadian girls’ experiences of racism in adolescence made me realize how much I cared about social justice issues.

The case had always haunted me, but up to this point, it had been at a visceral level. When I started analyzing it through the scholarship on racism and identity that I’d read for my thesis, I realized the case mattered to me deeply, both at a personal as well as a political level. But when I started doing research, I found very little academic work.

What little there was, was excellent, and informed much of my thinking around the topic; but the scholars who were offering a more complex and critical reading of the case seemed to be writing into a void, as if no one was listening. It seemed even stranger to me that such a highly publicized case would not be taken up at the very least by criminologists or other researchers in a more sustained fashion. But it wasn’t. Before we published this collection, the only book available on Virk’s murder was Rebecca Godfrey’s True Crime novel, which, as a couple of authors in our collection point out (see Atluri; also see Byers), offered a problematic re-telling of the story.

So I was reading this great scholarship, and wondering why there wasn’t more, and then I met Sheila and we talked about doing some kind of project together. I decided that we needed to encourage more critical scholarship on this case, a next generation so to speak, and even more crucially, we needed it not to disappear from public view, as most academic work does, in a single article in a journal or book. I initially considered a special issue in a journal, but this didn’t seem to offer enough scope, especially since I felt that anything written on the case would have to locate itself in relation to the earlier material. I wanted to bring both the existing and new material together; I think like any solidarity movement, there’s strength in numbers. People are more likely to pay attention to a bunch of people yelling about something than one person, right? So that’s where I got the idea for the book, and then all I had to do was talk Sheila into it, which wasn’t that hard!

BCP: What was the process in putting this book together?

MR: Once we decided we were going to do a book, and that it was going to be an anthology that included the existing material, we got in touch with the scholars and asked if they’d be willing to have their work included as reprints. I have to say that they were incredibly gracious and very supportive of the project from the beginning. Then we sent out a call for papers on the internet, on both social activist and scholarly websites. We got a lot of responses, and some great abstracts, and for awhile we were worried that the project was getting too big.

However, like with any project, life happens; not everyone who originally signed on was able to complete but we were really pleased with the final chapters. Our job as editors was to shape the process and guide the work along, but our contributors really made the substantial contributions.

BCP: How long had you been thinking about ReenaVirk before the book came about?

MR: As I’ve already mentioned, the case had been in my head since it first happened, kind of like those terrible stories you hear and no matter how much you try to excise them from your mind, they linger. It was also a personal thing. My thesis subject was on South Asian girls and racism, and I was a South Asian Canadian girl who had experienced racism in childhood and adolescence, in the form of racial epithets or having “friends” make racist comments or jokes around me.

Obviously, though painful in their own way, I’m not saying that my experiences are comparable to Virk’s, but I think it’s important to point out that they’re on a continuum of racism that people of colour have experienced and continue to experience in our supposedly tolerant and multicultural country. The book is about making links between the ordinary everyday experiences of racism and the more serious acts of violence against people of colour. So I was personally invested in the case, from the beginning.

BCP: Who, or what, are your influences and reasons for doing this kind of work?

MR: That’s tough because there have been so many. But I could name a few scholars that have given me a theoretical lens through which to interpret my own struggles with belonging, as a racialized minority girl growing up in a primarily white society.

Frantz Fanon’s moving work on the pychic violence of racism; Homi Bhabha’s writing on the “unhomeliness” of the immigrant experience and the trauma of the ordinary: when who we choose to love, where we are allowed to sit, what streets we are allowed to walk down etc. become points of political contestation; Chandra Mohanty’s beautiful call to arms, “to make feminist analysis dangerous to empire”, which I sincerely hope is part of what we’ve done in this book; and queer feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s work, especially her post 9/11 writing, where she asks what role grief plays in the service of the national imaginary; why we grieve for some lives but not others, and how we might conceive of a politics of grief that does not justify violence, and retaliation but instead recognizes the mutual vulnerability that constitutes us all as human beings, that we are all capable of being injured and committing injury. According to Butler, “the struggle against violence accepts that violence is one’s own possibility.”

An ethical stance in the world is, therefore, about recognizing one’s own rage and then seeking to limit the injury you might cause through this rage.

BCP: The book is raw at some points, challenging, honest, and stimulating. What are you as co-editor trying to convey to your readers with these 9 selected essays?

MR: So many things but I guess, overall, I want readers to re-think the discourse of violent girls on the playground perpetuated by the media and certain “experts”. Instead, I would like them to think about how Reena’s life and death are a troubling reminder of the racism that pervades Canadian culture, as painful as that may be to acknowledge.

When “we”, which is to say, members of the dominant group (white, Christian middle class, Anglo Canadians), view certain groups as “immigrants” regardless of how long the community has been in Canada; when we see brown or black skin as the opposite of “Canadian”; when we construct certain communities as having barbaric cultural practices without looking at our own social problems, we create an “us” and “them”, with the former being constructed as superior. It’s a seamless transition then to treating those we think don’t really belong as second class citizens. And this sense of superiority is false anyway.

The Canada that we think we know through our mythologies (“the true north, strong and free”, the peacekeeper, the multicultural democracy), is a nation founded on the brutal exploitation and marginalization of indigenous peoples, built through the labour of many migrant groups, not just French, English or European, but people of colour, some of whom paid the high price of alienation, explicit state racism and even violence and death. This history has to be acknowledged so we can have a radical revisioning of what makes someone a “real” Canadian.

BCP: How long were you working on your essay “The Killing Season: Interrogating Adolescence in the Murder of Reena Virk”? Can you briefly give the crux of it?

MR: I wrote and presented a draft of the paper in the fall of 2005 at a conference on child rights, so the final chapter was a long time in the making and went through several iterations before it was published in the book. The main argument is that the Canadian media’s ubiquitous descriptions of growing girl violence and the refusal to ask whether social relations such as race, gender, class or sexuality played a part in the murder, were influenced by a discourse on adolescence pervasive in North America.

So, when incidents like the Virk murder take place, we have a moral panic where people talk about girls becoming more violent and adolescents in general being out of control with boredom, hormones and a lack of moral subjectivity. This really pathologizes teenagers, as if they are the only ones capable of bullying, aggression and murder.

Last time I checked, adult society was winning that competition, but this reality gets erased systematically in news coverage. The teenagers involved in the case were treated as if they symbolized the degeneration of youth in general. But who raises youth? Who schools them? Who offers particular media frames and images up to youth that tell them who belongs for what reasons? Who implicitly encourages the social and peer hierarchies that develop so strongly in adolescence? Adult society does, and then it wants to blame young people as solely responsible for violent behaviour.

For example, children and adolescents don’t learn racism in a vacuum. Sure, children identify differences among themselves at a very young age, but at what point do they realize which differences are important and which are not? They learn it from parents, teachers, larger culture and peers. They pick up very quickly that adult society values certain people and not others, and then they create their own social hierarchies that are partially informed by larger social relations. But this can’t be acknowledged at a societal level, because then we would have to say we are actually not doing a great job of raising children who see others as equals, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality or ability. In the Virk case, this played out in the media’s refusal to acknowledge racism as even a possible motive. The handful of times that racism was raised in either tv or newspaper articles, it was immediately dismissed, as if it was impossible that these white kids could be racist. They could be vicious, murderous and without remorse, but not racist, because of course, then that might mean that the larger adult society that they were learning their values from, was racist too.

BCP: While reading the book I had to put it down several times because of them descriptions of the murder and the horrific way the media represented the case. Was writing and putting the book together a painful experience?

MR: Yes it was a very painful experience. I didn’t realize how hard it would be when I started.

I was reading and watching all the media, and encountering the brutality that characterized the case. I think being forced to live day in and day out with a recognition of the horror that people are capable of inflicting on one another left some scars. On the other hand, I think that my reaction also speaks to my own first world, middle class privilege. My life is, and has always been, far removed from contexts of brutal and violent domination; I know that a significant portion of the world, including people in Canada, are not so lucky. Violence is simply a daily part of their lives.

So the case threatened my comfort zone, and that is a good and necessary thing for people with any kind of privilege to experience. I felt a similar wrenching at the end of the project.

Alongside a pride in the work and relief at its completion were worries about whether I had ever had the right to embark on this project, and whether it was fundamentally exploitative – stealing Reena’s voice, as it were. I spent a lot of time thinking about this as we wrapped up the introduction to the manuscript as well as a lot of time interrogating my own privilege in relation to Reena. I think none of that is particularly surprising; it’s a form of survivor guilt for those of us whose identities are not simply fashioned through the myth of the western liberal subject. Women, racial, sexual or other minorities, those people who belong to marginalized groups, are always seen and see themselves as something more than individual selves. Their “I” is always linked to a “We”.

In my case, being second generation and South Asian, and experiencing racism growing up, was what made me feel a connection to Reena Virk, a sense that this could’ve been me. But part of my discomfort stemmed from the fact that alongside my marginalization, I had certain forms of privilege that Reena didn’t have access to and, so, in another sense, maybe it couldn’t have been me. I think it’s both my marginality and privilege that pushed me to do this book in the first place, and it’s where I think real social change has to take place. It’s not enough to focus on the forms of marginality we encounter as individuals or groups. As black feminist scholar bell hooks points out, we also have to acknowledge and surrender our own privilege and participation in forms of domination, if we want to change the world.

BCP: What was most disturbing to me was the fact that Reena was not only erased in books and media, as was race, and Reena was not being mourned. The focus, and sadness, was that white girls were on a social decline as opposed to a young Brown woman being killed by such girls and a boy.  What disturbs you most about this case?

MR: I think you’ve summarized exactly what I find most disturbing. Whenever I saw or read media reports on the case, I would feel so angry. While Virk’s image appeared repeatedly, and her tragic story was re-told, it was always through a politics of pity; she was presented through a framing that implicitly constructed her as an Other; as not belonging to Canadian peer culture because she didn’t look like a “normal” girl. She was killed because she failed to fit in. For myself, and I think many other subjects who live their marginality through their embodiment ( racialized, transgendered, poor or differently abled bodies, to name a few), it was pretty easy to read the code behind this hegemonic storyline: she wasn’t thin, white, middle class, heteronormative, she wasn’t the ideal Canadian girl. But the media simultaneously used these images and storylines and yet refused to ask if there might be a problem with the ideal itself; that maybe a lot of Canadian girls didn’t “measure up” to this standard. That maybe the standard was racist, homophobic, elitist and ableist. They never asked if there was a problem with the ideal, just as they never explored whether a group of mainly white girls viciously beating up a Brown girl might raise some serious doubts about our success in fostering racial equality among children and adolescents, let alone in adult society.

BCP: Do you teach this case at your University? If so, what do you make sure your students get from your work? And how do you get them to understand the brevity and complexity of the case? How do white female students respond?

MR: I have taught the case a little bit recently as the manuscript was wrapping up. In some ways, I think I was too close to it, and living with it for a good four years made it kind of an obsession. I needed to have spaces where I could teach and think about other forms of oppression otherwise my concerns with social justice would’ve shrunk to this particular case. Some of the class discussions that did take place were difficult; like most Canadians, the students were horrified and felt very sad that this could’ve happened, but they wanted to keep it at the level that the people involved must’ve been monsters, rather than the murder being an inevitable, if extreme, consequence of both the history and contemporary reality of racism in Canada. The focus was often on whether or not the girls involved in the beating or its witnessing had ever said anything racist, because if not, clearly racism was not an issue.

The fact that Virk was an outcast, at least in part because she was brown, was something many students didn’t want to see. For some white female students, they pointed out that even among white girls, there is a lot of “mean girl” behaviour if a person doesn’t fit in in terms of looks, weight or clothes.

The Virk case for them was another example of this, rather than anything to do with racial belonging. One way I tried to get them to complicate this was to ask if there is an ideal girl image to which Canadian girls aspire. There was often a general consensus that there was, and then I would ask them to describe this girl as she appeared in their minds. After the descriptions, I would ask them whether the fact that this ideal girl was always white, often blonde, thin, middle class and heterosexual, told us anything about how difficult it might be to fit in if you couldn’t meet some or all of those standards.

I think this type of exercise was helpful, because some students did begin to see what I was trying to get at.

BCP: To me, Reena Virk was first a face without a name and later a name without face. That might be the case for many people. Why is there no picture of Reena Virk in the book?

MR: The media continually flashed one particular picture of Virk over and over again. We thought about using this picture maybe as a cover, but almost immediately felt that it would sensationalize the book. Many people are familiar with that picture, but we didn’t want to “sell” the book in this manner. We also did not want to use the picture because it seemed to us that Reena’s appearance was the focus of media attention and the implicit reason given for why this happened (she was awkward, a misfit etc.), yet this was not accompanied by any explanation of what she didn’t fit into. We wanted to move away from this line of thinking to focus on the systemic issues in the case.

BCP: Does the Virk family know about the book? Do the killers? Media and authors critiqued in the book?

MR: I don’t know whether or not the family knows. We thought about contacting them initially, but we also felt that as an act of scholarship, we needed it to be honest in ways that might not have pleased Reena’s family. I also don’t know whether or not Warren or Kelly knows about it. The mainstream media has, for the most part, ignored the book, which is not unusual for an academic book. Of course, given that it’s a searing critique of their hegemonic “take” on the case, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s why they’re not interested. But it’s hard to say.

Watch a roundtable discussion on the Reean Virk case with Rajiva’s co-editor Sheila Batachary, book contributor Tara Atluri, and community member Mandeep Kaur Mucina.

  • jvansteppes

     

    I can’t wait to read this book. I was around Virk’s age when
    she was killed and I remember all the media distortions Mythili talks about.
    Those girls were bad seeds and what did it mean about teenagers? My parents
    called Reena’s murder an American-style lynching and eventually compared it to
    James Byrd Jr.’s murder. Yet these kinds of racially motivated murders are
    absolutely Canadian and we are deceiving ourselves to pretend otherwise. I can’t believe the only published work until now was a true crime story. Virk as a person and the story of the context of her death deserve to be treated as more than a titillating tale of moral decay among teenagers.

  • http://afevereddictation.blogspot.com/ Julie Fischer

    Thank you for this interview. I’m sometimes guilty of painting Canada as some bastion of kindness and peace and progressiveness. I don’t doubt that there are many Canadians who are kind and peaceful and progressive, but stories like Reena’s are a prudent reality check that, as Mythili explains, the very country to which they call home emerged from and operates in systemic violence.

  • http://afevereddictation.blogspot.com/ Julie Fischer

    Thank you for this interview. I’m sometimes guilty of painting Canada as some bastion of kindness and peace and progressiveness. I don’t doubt that there are many Canadians who are kind and peaceful and progressive, but stories like Reena’s are a prudent reality check that, as Mythili explains, the very country to which they call home emerged from and operates in systemic violence.

  • Anonymous

    As an American who lived north of the border, and also lived in a border state where I frequently spent time there, I can say that the Canadians are guilty of the same thing as the Europeans when it comes to race and racism.
    For some reason, so many Western cultures chose to view their relationship with race through the prism of slavery,  and they write themselves a “hall pass” if they can say that they abolished slavery before the Americans, or if they never had it in their own country.  I’m not exactly sure how keeping people of color as slaves or as forced labor in your colonies counts as having no history of slavery, esp. when the slave trade in the Western hemisphere was begun  by the biggest deniers (e.g. Spain, France, and England).At any rate, discussions about race quickly devolve into denials that racism even exists there. And how can you get anywhere, or acknowledge hate crimes, discrimination, or anything else, if the problem doesn’t “exist” in your country.  Funnily enough though, I had a black Canadian friend who came to recognize the racism she experienced at home only AFTER living in the U.S. for many years.  I haven’t spent time in the Western provinces but definitely experience “full-frontal” Quebecois culture where NO ONE is Quebecois unless they are “pur-laine.”  In my mind, I always felt it was the most racist and xenophobic part of Canada but would be curious to know what life in the Western provinces is like.   I’ve always found Ontario to be much more tolerable and pleasant but you are still dealing with a place where outside major metro areas, things are very white.