White stu­dents union re­jects tol­er­ance

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Emma Tei­tel

“Don’t read the com­ments” is a di­rec­tive as vi­tal to a per­son’s health (es­pe­cially if that per­son hap­pens to be a colum­nist) as “wear sun­screen” and “don’t go to bed an­gry.”

Noth­ing good comes, we are told, from read­ing the com­ments sec­tions be­neath news sto­ries online — where mil­lions of rhetor­i­cal wars are waged but sel­dom won by peo­ple who don’t know each other from Adam, yet de­spise one another with the pas­sion of a thou­sand rag­ing suns.

Some writ­ers — the Guardian’s res­i­dent scold, Jes­sica Valenti, for ex­am­ple — are in favour of do­ing away with com­ments sec­tions al­to­gether, be­cause, Valenti says, they serve as bas­tions of “sex­ism, racism, and ho­mo­pho­bia.” The prob­lem with get­ting rid of them, though, is that com­ments sec­tions are also bas­tions of that in­con­ve­nient thing we call re­al­ity. Crude as they may be, they of­ten jar us from the com­fort of our pre­con­cep­tions, let­ting us know that the ob­vi­ously “cor­rect” stance isn’t as widely held as we pre­vi­ously thought.

Take this week’s story about the white stu­dents union (WSU), a con­tro­ver­sial group whose posters be­gan pop­ping up re­cently at Toronto univer­si­ties, among them Ry­er­son, York and U of T. The group’s posters por­tray two strong-jawed Cau­casian men in ex­pen­sivelook­ing win­ter parkas, stand­ing stern and proud in the sun — the CN tower pierc­ing the blue sky be­hind them. Be­low the men, writ­ten in (what else?) white cap­i­tal letters, is the group’s name: “White Stu­dents Union!”

The ex­cla­ma­tion mark kind of says it all. The WSU has the un­mis­tak­able feel of a satir­i­cal sketch (the posters look more like ads for Canada Goose ap­parel than white su­prem­a­cist literature), rep­re­sent­ing as it does a group of ma­jor­ity stu­dents who are ap­par­ently so threat­ened by their non-white mi­nor­ity com­pa­tri­ots they feel the need to or­ga­nize.

Or the need, in their own words, on their web­site, stu­dentsofwest­ern­civ­i­liza­tion.com, “to ad­vance the in­ter­ests of Western peo­ples,” and “pro­mote and celebrate western civ­i­liza­tion.”

No men­tion is made of cut­ting the crusts off cu­cum­ber sand­wiches, watch­ing re­runs of Frasier, and danc­ing badly, but it’s still early days for these palest of fringe rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The schools where the posters ap­pear, for in­stance, say the group is not sanc­tioned and was de­nied per­mis­sion to ad­ver­tise.

Which is all well and good for a laugh, but for one dis­qui­et­ing re­al­ity. When this story made the news, I ig­nored Valenti’s no-com­ment-read­ing di­rec­tive and dove into the lengthy threads be­low the WSU sto­ries — as well as some of the tweets on the topic. And what I found in the com­ments sec­tions were not pre­dom­i­nantly the voices of neo-Nazi base­ment dwellers or in­censed lib­eral arts stu­dents, but voices of os­ten­si­bly reg­u­lar Cana­di­ans who see them­selves as fairminded and plu­ral­is­tic, but who just can’t fig­ure out what the big deal is about a Cau­casian-only club on cam­pus. The pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude is summed up by one plain-spo­ken com­menter un­der a Blog TO story: “There is noth­ing wrong with this, so un­less you con­demn black groups or Is­lamic groups, hell even LGBT groups, this should be treated equally.” (Ry­er­son, like many Cana­dian univer­si­ties, has groups ded­i­cated to mem­bers of other races, such as United Black Stu­dents Ry­er­son).

But there is some­thing wrong with this. Mi­nor­ity clubs on cam­pus — mi­nor­ity clubs any­where re­ally — were borne out of ne­ces­sity, in re­tal­i­a­tion to prej­u­dice.

The white stu­dents union, on the other hand, was born in re­tal­i­a­tion to tol­er­ance. The direst prob­lem fac­ing a black stu­dents union or a Jewish stu­dents union is racism and anti-Semitism. The direst prob­lem fac­ing the white stu­dents union is, pre­sum­ably, that they can’t get through a sin­gle lib­eral arts tu­to­rial with­out be­ing told to “check their priv­i­lege.”

As an­noy­ing as this in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar re­quest may be, it is not dis­crim­i­na­tory, nor will it fol­low the WSU-ites out­side the plush walls of academia, where most peo­ple are too busy to mem­o­rize the lex­i­con of cam­pus po­lit­i­cal correctness, and where any racial slurs that are hurled will al­most as­suredly not be aimed at white guys.

I tried to con­tact the white stu­dents union on their Face­book page, to get their side of the story, but to no avail. This sug­gests that de­spite their multi-cam­pus brand­ing and call to cham­pion western su­pe­ri­or­ity, the WS Union­ists would rather stay home to stew in their dis­af­fec­tion than face what they per­ceive to be the lib­eral mob out­side.

And though this may be con­ve­nient for those of us who would like to be spared their ver­sion of Portnoy’s Com­plaint, it’s also a dis­ap­point­ment. Un­com­fort­able truths may be best col­lected in the shad­ows of the com­ments sec­tion, but false analo­gies are best con­tested in the public light.

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