THAT IS THE REAL THREAT
"We can recognize overt racism, and we should all condemn it, buy ur bigger problem is the subtle, unexamined sort."
Toronto journalist Desmond Cole joins the Star's roster of columnist
When posters advertising a “White Students Union!” (yes, they included an exclamation point) appeared on three Toronto university campuses this week, the condemnations from school officials and student groups were swift. Ryerson spokesperson Michael Forbes called the posters “offensive,” while York University’s student union described them as “violent and racist.”
Outrage at these ridiculous ads, which were produced by a hapless group calling itself Students For Western Civilization, is appropriate but also insufficient. Racism in Canada has evolved and endures, usually without any mention of whiteness, let alone stylized images of white men staring regally into the distance. For those of us who believe in social equity, the real challenge is in spotting the subtle, mundane expressions of white supremacy and dominance that are all around us.
SFWC is like the racist uncle at family dinners whose naked bigotry causes indigestion and uncomfortable attempts to change the subject. A letter on the group’s website complains that professors at York University indoctrinate students with a “neo-Marxist” hatred of white people. What’s worse, the letter states, Canadian immigration and cultural policy is “rapidly reducing white people to minorities and thereby greatly diminishing their democratic influence.”
The SFWC website also features an interview with University of New Brunswick professor Ricardo Duchesne, who claims that “there is a real bias in university against white students, against white history.” Duchesne is the founder of the Council of European Canadians, whose mission statement proclaims that “Canada should remain majority, not exclusively, European in its ethnic composition and cultural character.”
For the moment, these messages of blatant white supremacy, and resentment for racialized people and movements, are thankfully unwelcome in mainstream Canadian conversation.
That could change, of course, which is why it is important to challenge and oppose Duchesne, SFWC and their sympathizers. But we must also recognize them as merely the leading edge of a racist undercurrent in Canada, a mainstream fear that insists white people are under attack, but skilfully avoids examining what whiteness is or where it originated.
Race is a social construct, a false classification of humanity with no basis in science. However, thanks to our human history of European colonialism, slavery and appropriation, whiteness has been established in Canada as an unscrutinized norm, a blank standard against which all other races are measured.
In Canada, white people are rarely named as a definitive group of people with a common identity or culture, a collective existence or set of values. Instead, whiteness stands invisible behind the camera and the microphone, examining the actions of others and demanding an explanation without acknowledging its role in framing nearly all mainstream conversions.
This is why, for example, a Canadian national newspaper can publish the headline, “We can’t keep tiptoeing around black-on-black violence,” as if the public is consumed with some other form of intraracial violence, or would even validate that, say, white-on-white violence exists or is a problem. It is why I, as a well-known black Canadian, am routinely asked my opinion about the actions of alleged black criminals, when it is the opinions of our white-dominated media that truly guide that narrative.
Most political observers and even casual news watchers remember city councillor and former mayor Rob Ford’s statement that “Oriental people work like dogs.” That kind of shameless racism gnaws at our Canadian sensibilities. But few people remember that Ford, whose heritage is hardly indigenous to North America, also said that East Asian people are “slowly taking over.”
Ford didn’t have to say what “Orientals” were taking over or, more importantly, from whom they were taking over. Similarly, when Conservative politician Larry Miller recently said that Muslim women in Canada who cover their faces should “stay the hell where you came from,” he did so without irony despite the fact that his own ancestry is not indigenous to Canada.
We can all recognize overt racism, and we should all condemn it, but our bigger problem is the subtle, unexamined sort.
While we may reject uncomfortable notions of white student groups and organizations that promote European “cultural character,” most of us are more accepting of the equally racist notion of a dominant “Western civilization” they employ as a substitute for talking openly about whiteness.
Our unacknowledged assumptions, and our language about human diversity, are better indicators of racism and discrimination than the impolite outbursts we seem so prone to recognizing.
The clumsy expressions of hatred on local university campuses this week are like weeds — we can tear out the unsightly offshoots that pop up, but ultimately we have to address the problem at its root.
A white students union was promoted this week.