White & guilty: ‘Whiteness’ workshop helps expose your inner racist
April 6, 2010
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 …’