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Whiteness is More than Alt-Right

November 28, 2016

Guest post by Barb Thomas

In the week following the U.S. election, the community of East York in Toronto was plastered with posters entitled Hey White Person. The poster, embedded with a graphic of the Statue of Liberty’s face, appeals to victimized white people, down-trodden by “multiculturalism,” “diversity” and “immigration,” to join the Alt-Right.

Overall reaction to this poster by the media and concerned citizens interviewed on radio was shock, disgust and surprise. “I was absolutely floored,” reported a white resident of East York upon discovering the poster. And the brazenness of the poster’s shout-out to white people does shock.

Our shock communicates loudly and clearly that we are NOT those kinds of white people. But this week I am haunted by these questions: how does my distancing myself from “these kinds of white people” prop up everyday racism and my white privilege? And why am I leaving it to the Alt-Right to frame the discussion of whiteness?

In the lives of my racialized and Indigenous friends and family I am learning to see how white bias shapes their everyday experiences in stores, applying for a bank loan, getting a job or promotion, going through the US border, getting stopped by police for traffic violations, even getting health assessments. And yet sometimes it is only when whiteness appears in this ugly extreme of the Alt-Right that we white people speak our outrage at racism. Alt-Right white supremacy violate our notions of ourselves as (white) Canadians who value diversity and multiculturalism And since many of us white people are uncomfortable naming our own whiteness and the benefits it has afforded us, we are not able to examine everyday white supremacy in Canada and racism that everywhere underpins it.

I can clearly say that it’s wrong that Grassy Narrows First Nations people have to keep trekking to Queen’s Park to get their contaminated water cleaned up. I get much more uneasy talking about myself as a settler on land cleared of Indigenous people so I could be here. I feel angry and scared that police carding practices could target my mixed race grandson. Yet, as a white person, I reap the benefit of the doubt when a police officer stops me for speeding, chats and gives me a reduced ticket. I have not lain awake at night worrying that my white children will be mis-assessed at school, or taken from me by the Children’s Aid because of the colour of my skin. If I go to jail for something I have done it won’t be because of my skin colour, clothing or because my appearance signals that I am a terrorist. I will not get racist slogans hurled at me in the streetcar. I walk in (an increasing wrinkled) white skin that affords me protections and a huge benefit of the doubt. It’s restful to be white because my whiteness allows me not to think about race. There are multiple health benefits to that.

It’s not that we don’t have the facts about systemic racism. We know from well-documented reports that black, brown and indigenous people are disproportionately carded by police, more likely to get jail sentences, and more likely to languish in jail longer. We know there are boiled water advisories in many northern First Nations Communities, and we know little is being done about it. We know that unemployment, underemployment and poverty disproportionately stalk racialized and Indigenous people.

But this relentless, daily racism is like a movie we watch. Somehow we only feel implicated when crazy white people shout their hatred. I personally would love to project the whole damn thing onto the Americans, whispering that we hope their poison doesn’t spread here.

This is the humming backdrop to the increased permission some white Americans and Canadians feel, not just to ignore everyday racism, but now to roll down their car windows and shout hate messages, or to physically attack our neighbours on the streetcar. With good reason, racialized and Indigenous are expressing fear and extreme anxiety about their safety in the wake of these elections. With good reason decent white people are voicing their disapproval when the hatred gets impossible to ignore.

But I’m now asking myself, what about Kellie Leitch, a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada who has been calling for testing of new immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” Would I, as an immigrant, have passed her test? Would any of us besides First Nations be here if Indigenous people had used such a screen?

A September 2016 Angus Reid poll says that 68% of Canadians agree with Ms Leitch. That’s two out of three people at work, in my grocery store, on the street. What conversations am I having with those folks? Am I calling the CBC when my workplace keeps hiring white people over qualified racialized candidates? Do I keep breathing and stay in conversation with a family member who claims that someone is “playing the race card” because they identified an action as racist? Can I challenge someone who argues that this city’s history of absorbing so many newcomers is proof that there’s no racism? What’s my reaction when someone dismisses Black Lives Matter with “All Lives Matter including White lives?”

I’m hoping we can step up our everyday awareness of how racism and whiteness (yes, white supremacy) is shaping who gets the benefit of the doubt, who is believed and seen as credible, who is promoted as a leader, who gets the resources to do what, whose expertise is valued. Let’s help each other to name whiteness at work, and to speak up in all the places we have any influence. We’re all going to need each other in the days ahead.

The UARR Board extends its gratitude to Barb Thomas for allowing us to publish this article. Barb is an educator, writer, facilitator, organization developer, committed to promoting equity and democratic process in organizations. She has co-authored numerous publications based on her labour education and anti-racism work. 

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