Sandy, Jim and Karen work at a downtown community centre where they help low-income residents apply for rental housing. Sandy has a bad feeling about Jim: She notices that when black clients come in, he tends to drift to the back of the office. Sandy suspects racism (she and Jim are both white). On the other hand, she also notices that Jim seems to get along well with Karen, who is black. As the weeks go by, Sandy becomes more uncomfortable with the situation. But she feels uncertain about how to handle it. Test question: What should Sandy do?
If you answered that Sandy’s first move should be to talk to Karen, and ask how Jim’s behaviour made her feel, you are apparently a better anti-racist than me.
That, for what it’s worth, was the preferred solution offered by my instructor at “Thinking About Whiteness and Doing Anti-Racism,” a four-part evening workshop for community activists, presented earlier this year at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.
My own answer, announced in class, was that Sandy should approach Jim discreetly, explaining to him how others in the office might perceive his actions. Or perhaps the manager of the community centre could give a generic presentation about the need to treat clients in a colour-blind manner, on a no-names basis.
The problem with my approach, the instructor indicated, lay in the fact that I was primarily concerned with the feelings of my fellow Caucasian, Jim. I wasn’t treating Karen like a “full human being” who might have thoughts and worries at variance with the superficially friendly workplace attitude.
Moreover, I was guilty of “democratic racism”–by which we apply ostensibly race-neutral principles such as “due process,” constantly demanding clear “evidence” of wrongdoing, rather than confronting prima facie instances of racism head-on. “It seems we’re always looking for more proof,” said the instructor, an energetic left-wing activist who’s been teaching this course for several years. “When it comes to racism, you have to trust your gut.”
I felt the urge to pipe up at this. Racism is either a serious charge or it’s not. And if it is, as everyone in this room clearly believed, then it cannot be flung around casually without giving the accused a chance to explain his actions. But I said nothing, and nodded my head along with everyone else. I’d come to this class not to impose my democratic racism on people, but to observe.
Most of the other 13 students were earnest, grad-student types in their 20s–too young to remember the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political correctness first took root on college campuses. The jargon I heard at the bookstore took me back to that age–albeit with a few odd variations. “Allyship” has replaced “solidarity” in the anti-racist lexicon, for instance, when speaking about inter-racial activist partnerships. I also heard one student say she rejected the term “gender-neutral” as sexist, and instead preferred “gender-fluid.” One did not “have” a gender or sexual orientation; the operative word is “perform”–as in, “Sally performs her queerness in a very femme way.”
The instructor’s Cold War-era Marxist jargon added to the retro intellectual vibe. Like just about everyone in the class, she took it for granted that racism is an outgrowth of capitalism, and that fighting one necessarily means fighting the other. At one point, she asked us to critique a case study about “Cecilia,” a community activist who spread a message of tolerance and mutual respect in her neighbourhood. Cecilia’s approach was incomplete, the instructor informed us, because she neglected to sound the message that “classism is a form of oppression.” The real problem faced by visible minorities in our capitalist society isn’t a lack of understanding, “it’s the fundamentally inequitable nature of wage labour.”
The central theme of the course was that this twinned combination of capitalism and racism has produced a cult of “white privilege,” which permeates every aspect of our lives. “Canada is a white supremacist country, so I assume that I’m racist,” one of the students said matter-of-factly during our first session. “It’s not about not being racist. Because I know I am. It’s about becoming less racist.” At this, another student told the class: “I hate when people tell me they’re colour-blind. That is the most overt kind of racism. When people say ‘I don’t see your race,’ I know that’s wrong. To ignore race is to be more racist than to acknowledge race. I call it neo-racism.”
All of the students were white (to my eyes, anyway). And most were involved in what might broadly be termed the anti-racism industry–an overlapping hodgepodge of community-outreach activists, equity officers, women’s studies instructors and the like. Most said they’d come so they could integrate anti-racism into their work. Yet a good deal of the course consisted of them unburdening themselves of their own racist guilt. The instructor set the tone, describing an episode in which she’d lectured a colleague of colour about his job. “When I realized what I was doing, I approached him afterward and apologized,” she told the class. “I said to him. ‘I’m so sorry! I’m unloading so much whiteness on you right now.'”
Another woman described her torment when a friend asked her to give a presentation about media arts to a group of black students–an exercise that would have made a spectacle of her white privilege. “Should I say yes? Or is it my responsibility to say no?” she said. “But then [my friend] may say, ‘I want you to do it–because you have a particular approach. . . .’
“But wait! Could it be that the reason I have that ‘particular approach’ is that I’ve been raised to think that I could have that particular approach, that I have the ability, that I am able to access education in a particular way? All these things are in my head, in my heart, not really knowing how to respond. On the other hand, I also recognize that the person asking me has the agency to decide that I’m the right person . . . so I say yes! . . . But then I’m still thinking ‘I don’t know if I did the right thing.’ I still struggle with this all the time. . . .”
An especially telling moment came when someone raised the subject of Third World nannies who immigrate to Canada under government-sponsored caregiver programs. The instructor told the class that the practice was inherently “super-exploitative.” She also pointed us to an article included in the week’s reading, “Black Women and Work,” in which Canadian author Dionne Brand argues that cynical employers use appeals such as “You know that you’re part of the family” to emotionally blackmail nannies, housekeepers and elder-care workers into the continuation of abusive work relationships.
One of the students–I’ll use the name “Chris” (having promised not to identify any attendee by name)–interjected, apologetically. Chris couldn’t help but confess that her own family had employed just such a nanny, who truly did seem “part of the family.” For several minutes, Chris gave details, describing all the touching, intimate ways in which the nanny’s family had become intermingled with Chris’s own.
This speech from the heart caused a ripple of discomfort. One woman suggested that the nanny has adopted a “coping mechanism” to deal with her subordinate situation. This led to a discussion about how we must recognize the nanny’s “agency”–a popular buzzword signifying that minority members must not be seen as passive victims. The instructor listened attentively–but didn’t offer much more except that the example demonstrated the “contradictary-ness” of anti-racism studies. We moved on while Chris sat there, looking somewhat confused, and attracting my sympathy.
In fact, I felt sympathy for just about everyone in that class. In private conversation, they all seemed like good-hearted, intelligent people. But like communist die-hards confessing their counter-revolutionary thought-crimes at a Soviet workers’ council, or devout Catholics on their knees in the confessional, they also seemed utterly consumed by their sin, regarding their pallor as a sort of moral leprosy. I came to see them as Lady Macbeths in reverse–cursing skin with nary a “damn’d spot.” Even basic communication with friends and fellow activists, I observed, was a plodding agony of self-censorship, in which every syllable was scrutinized for subconscious racist connotations as it was leaving their mouths.
While politically correct campus activists often come across as smug and single-minded, I realized, their intellectual life might more accurately be described as bipolar–combining an ecstatic self-conception as high priestesses who pronounce upon the racist sins of our society, alongside extravagant self-mortification in regard to their own fallen state.
As I watched, I tried to detach myself from this spectacle, and imagine what this unintentionally comic scene–a group of students sitting around, self-consciously egging each other on to be ashamed of their skin colour–would look like to, say, civil rights protesters from a half-century ago. If the instructor and her students ever allowed themselves to laugh, they might have found it funny.