1. A note

I threw up before I wrote this. It’s true I’ve had the flu for two weeks, I’ve been travelling, my body is run down. I’m sure that had something to do with it.

But really, it was because I read through the comments on Tim’s article from yesterday. It’s not that they were particularly bad. They definitely didn’t have the word “cunt” in them, which is a regular way that people communicate their feelings with me. They were all “civil,” whatever that means.

No, not whatever that means. What I was going to write there was “as white people define it,” because that’s what is really the case. White people decide that it’s “civil” to dismiss the degrading, humiliating, painful, traumatic experiences of racism that People of Colour go through as “whining,” but it’s beyond the bounds of appropriate discourse to say “fuck.” Actually, it’s beyond the bounds of appropriate discourse as defined by white people to say “white,” which is why I thought about editing it out.

It wasn’t that the comments were bad or out of bounds. I threw up because I knew I was going to write about Masuma Khan and Kati George-Jim, and I read comments and thought, if I’m lucky, people will receive that as just more SJW whining. Just people lobbing the word racist around, because we need to grow up. And that’s the stuff we’re grateful for, these are the good ones, those kinds of comments, because inevitably, the second I write about racism I’ll be in for more dehumanizing caricatures. Here she goes again.

I was talking to a couple of journalists about something else entirely, and they told me that they were shaken by the comments they received on stories they wrote about me. The comments you can see, they told me, which are bad enough, are only the ones that make it through the system. It doesn’t allow through the ones with slurs or profanity. There are hundreds more of those.

So I know there are people out there who are enraged by me. People who very literally want to see harm come to me. And yet, I’m going to sit down anyway and write more things that people will want to hurt me for, or that they will need to paint me as a savage or not human or a monkey or just some ugly thing for.

People always dismiss us by mockingly saying we want “safe spaces.” I go into prisons and sit beside people who have been convicted of murder. I’ve been in the visiting room in the prison when someone jumped someone else and blood spattered everywhere and a chair came flying by my head, and I sat down and continued the visit. I don’t hesitate to walk into spaces where someone’s called me because their loved one is having a breakdown and smashing things, but they can’t call the police. Emergency personnel won’t go in there, but I will. I’ve extracted women from abusive relationships, and come and packed with her while she prays the man won’t come back. I’m probably half his size, but I’ve got her back. I’ve stood on stages where people in the audience have come to escort me off, and I’ve gone back. I get put on threat lists and I go to the next protest and still stand up.

So I’m not sure how I’m some weak baby, but apparently the minute you talk about race, it means you’re just some “cupcake” who needs to be coddled. This coming, of course, from people who are scared to walk on the same side of the street as Black people and who think that people talking about race is the worst thing possible that could ever happen to them and who will talk years later about that terrible time they got called racist. Better defend that other racist white man from that ever happening to him, it’s so bad. The whole world is their safe space, but it’s us who can’t handle anything, apparently.

None of that, that I just listed about myself, by the way, is special for Black women. We all do that stuff. The same white men who talk about us being babies would die if they had to deal with one day of the hostility and crises and insults and indignities we face regularly, but that doesn’t make the rest of us heroes or anything.

So don’t take me saying I threw up before writing this as weakness. You get up and get on with it. That’s what my mother says to everything. Just get on with it. I’m only writing about it because it’s so easy for people who don’t deal with it to dismiss this stuff. People who have no idea what it’s like to have to speak about these things and take the threats and the retaliation and the disciplinary processes and the public shaming and the loss of employment and friends, and the constant stress, want to sit back and act like it’s some childish game, something they’re too mature and  cool and reasonable to ever get involved with.

Or that it’s just some objective exercise. I came across a thread talking about me, and all these white men were “objectively” dissecting how I look to see how close to a monkey I really am. That’s some Hottentot Venus type stuff to encounter, but it’s not real to people who don’t experience it. I’m sure they thought they were being very balanced and reasonable, sitting there speculating on a woman’s body and looks.

And if you don’t experience it, it’s easy to praise yourself for being so rational about everything, while those people are just always yelling or complaining about something. Or to imagine we do it for fun, or publicity, or for likes. Not that some column I have to wake up early in a hotel room to write which isn’t my actual job and that I don’t have to do can be so stressful that I throw up, but that I refuse to stop anyway, exactly because people dismiss us so easily.

I’m not writing this either to make you sorry for me, or to dictate what people can and can’t comment. If I controlled people’s comments I’d do nothing else. I actually started initiating conversations with people who made racist comments this week, just talking to them, trying to help them see me as a person, nothing hostile. It takes up days, though. So my general attitude is let it fly. We let 95 per cent of things fly, by the way, and then because we talk about some small amount, that means we “always harp on about race.” I’m not saying people should feel bad either. Or that people are bad people, which is what everyone always thinks you’re saying when you try to talk about race.

What I’m trying to show you is that even for me, even with 10 years of taking it, even with people who have my back, even in front of an audience that’s “not that bad,” it can still make you throw up with anxiety to know you’re going to go out there again and say things that make people so angry they want to hurt you. I just want you to understand the reality of that.

And I guess I’m writing it for Masuma and Kati too. I could have just wiped my mouth, brushed my teeth, walked back to my computer and jumped in, and no one would ever know. But younger women of colour deserve to see from us how we deal with it, how it’s hard for us too, how they’re not wrong for shaking, and they’re not wrong for fighting.

Anyway, my mouth is minty fresh now. My mother is in my ear, saying, get on with it! And that’s what we do, we get on with it, with writing, with fighting injustice, with speaking, with pushing for equality while people sit there telling us how stupid and mistaken and hysterical and childish and hateful we are, and then their children and grandchildren talk about how things are so much better now and why are those people protesting, it’s not like it was 50 years ago, as if they won the things we worked for, as if it were they who got on with making it that way.

2. White Fragility

On Wednesday, Indigenous student Kati George-Jim read a letter in front of the board of governors at Dalhousie, responding to the previous meeting where she was yelled at by the chair. George-Jim addressed systemic racism at Dalhousie, an issue highlighted by Constance Backhouse in the 2015 “Report of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry.”

Backhouse wrote in that report that:

We heard of many incidents of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in Dentistry and throughout the campus. This was not an isolated incident or a case of some “bad apples.” And in any case, it is an illusion to think that ridding the University of bad apples would cleanse it of inequity. Being defensive when challenged on sexism, heterosexism, and racism is also unhelpful. We must recognize that we all live a sexist, racist, and heterosexist culture to lay the groundwork for change. The status quo is unacceptable.

Backhouse went on in the report to describe the conditions at Dalhousie:

It became clear to us in our interviews that race (encompassing ethnicity, indigeneity, nationality and religion) is an important contextual element in understanding what happened. Many people told us that racism is a “ticking bomb” at Dalhousie. We heard about numerous incidents of overt racism: “No N—-rs Allowed” and “#whitepower” on walls of washrooms and study rooms in the Killam Library; anti-Muslim messages on campus prayer spaces; angry white students disrupting an African Students’ Association event featuring El Jones, Poet Laureate of Halifax.

Black faculty and staff told us of racial harassment and discrimination in employment. Recent immigrants described feeling marginalized. Indigenous people said their communities were virtually absent on campus. What we heard suggests an entrenched culture of white privilege. The prevailing ideology is “racelessness.” Race is supposed to be irrelevant, which ignores the reality of the impact of racism.

Image from macleans.ca

Backhouse’s comments are important, because the university accepted its findings and committed to its recommendations. So when Kati George-Jim speaks about entrenched racism at the university, and on the board, she is addressing a reality the university has already supposedly acknowledged and is supposed to be working towards eliminating. Whether or not institutionalized racism exists at Dalhousie should not be a matter of debate by university officials.

Lawrence Stordy, the board chair, said he was “sorry she felt disrespected and wanted to make sure she knew we wanted to hear her voice…I truly regret the unintended impact that my comments had on Ms. George-Jim.”

However, he also added this:

While Stordy called George-Jim’s speech “powerful,” noting that it touched on a number of things including missing Indigenous women, he took issue with the suggestion that he discriminated against her.

“No one on the board or in management is a racist obviously and we have promoted diversity tirelessly as a board strategic objective,” Stordy said.

No one on the board or in management is a racist obviously. But why is that obvious? Board member Kevin Hewitt acknowledged institutionalized racism at the university:

The dentistry incident forced us to examine ourselves like in any crisis, and so the question of institutionalized racism was a part of those conversations that followed,” Hewitt said. “We have to work to become aware of implicit or unconscious bias that is a product of the society in which we exist.”

So systemic racism exists at the university. Yet somehow it exists without anyone in power being racist, obviously. How, then, is systemic racism sustained?

Image from news.ca

The point of recognizing systemic racism is to move beyond the idea that racism is just a few “bad apples,” as Backhouse phrased it. As sociologist Joe Feagin defined it, “systemic…means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts…the economy, politics, education, religion, the family — reflect the fundamental reality of systemic racism.” However, recognizing that racism is present in major structures does not mean “white racist ideologies and attitudes” aren’t also present within individuals.

Stordy’s comments posit a situation where racism exists everywhere, but nowhere. The university is institutionally racist, but nobody responsible for its governance could possibly be racist themselves. Systemic racism becomes a way not of understanding how the racial attitudes of the dominant group are embedded into the structures of society, including into the way that individual white people consciously and subconsciously exercise power and privilege, but rather of locating racism away from any individual responsibility or accountability. Racism exists, but nobody is racist.

The thing that ought to be obvious about systemic racism is that it exists because people in power act in ways to perpetuate it. Stordy’s comments reflect the common fiction that only “bad people” are racist, and by extension, that educated, well-meaning, good white people could not possibly ever be racist. If it were the case, however, that, say, a legal education ensured that people couldn’t be racist, then how does racism persist in the justice system? Educated lawyers and judges perpetuate that inequality in courtrooms — civil and criminal — throughout this country daily.

Educated dentists not only engaged in sexual harassment and rape “jokes,” they drew racist and offensive graffiti for years and everyone around, including faculty, thought that was normal and acceptable. Again, if education or status ensure that people can’t be racist, then how do these things happen?

Maybe the board members take the same diversity training as the police, and are therefore just as sure that they couldn’t possibly be racist.

It would in fact be highly unlikely, and I would dare to say, nigh impossible, that nobody in any board or management position at Dalhousie is racist. If Dalhousie has in fact managed to pioneer some kind of bias testing or diversity training for the upper levels of management and governance that is totally foolproof and ensures that nobody has any lingering bias, stereotype, unexamined privilege, racial lenses of behaviour, subconscious attitudes towards race, absorbed assumptions from media, etc., etc., can they please share these magical tools with police forces immediately? Can you market whatever it is you did to eliminate racism completely in this group to the rest of society?

At the same time as we are learning that obviously nobody running Dalhousie is racist, Masuma Khan is being subjected to a Senate disciplinary process. Obviously, male dentistry students who talked about “hate fucking” their female colleagues and made “jokes” about chloroforming patients and raping them never appeared before Senate. In fact, that was a great learning experience for all.

Masuma Khan. Photo: Meghan Tansey Whitton / Facebook

While “hate fucking” your classmates is merely an appropriate use of free speech, not celebrating Canada Day is harmful to students who love Canada. Like Trump’s ongoing war against Black NFL players and other athletes who are protesting the national anthem, the complaints that Khan has a duty to “install pride in our country” use claims of patriotism to justify repression of political speech by non-white people.

Trump uses disrespect of veterans and the flag as a justification for attacking and repressing Black political speech. Black athletes are bad, unpatriotic Americans and are therefore placed outside “real” citizenship and can be attacked, fired, or jailed. Similarly, the context of Masuma’s comments is significant — it is not merely a side note that her comments addressed Canada’s history of colonialism and genocide against Indigenous people, and that she refused celebrations of Canada 150. The complaints of white students take place in reaction to this refusal of patriotism.

As Robin DiAngelo, who coined the concept of “white fragility” observes:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

  • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
  • People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes);
  • People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
  • People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
  • A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity);
  • Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
  • Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
  • An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
  • Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

It is, obviously, ironic that the response to Khan addressing white fragility in the outraged responses to a brown Muslim woman refusing to celebrate Canada Day is for some white students to immediately file a complaint, which is the definition of white fragility. Khan is therefore being disciplined for accurately identifying and speaking about a recognized academic phenomenon.

If Masuma were a white man talking about how she wanted to “fuck women in the ass” this would be defended as free speech, or complaints would be written off by the public as “super sensitive judgemental people whining they’re offended about everything” and “universities becoming a safe space for injured feelings.” But suddenly, the use of the word “fuck” is the most shocking thing ever, and those commenting affect great horror at the use of such profanity. Oh wait, no, according to most of the people tweeting at Dalhousie President Richard Florizone, if it’s drunken white frat boys chanting “fuck the police” that’s just boys having a good time and partying hard.

I wonder what the intersection is between those who think that the “Grabher” license plate is the most important civil rights issue of our time, and those who think Khan deserves to be sanctioned and impeached for saying “kiss my ass.” Where are those free speech lawyers who jump to defend white men now? Why is it another brown woman who is the only person defending Khan?

Image from cbc.ca

When racist graffiti and offensive graffiti was exposed in “The Cavity,” it was painted over. Nobody was investigated or disciplined outside the “restorative process.”

Students in class who talk openly in discussions about how all Black and Indigenous people are only in university because of affirmative action are allowed to do so — that’s academic debate.

The white student who would respond to a Black student’s Facebook posts about racism with videos of Black people being shot and Fox News videos denouncing the Black victims of shootings was merely exercising his right to free discussion and since it took place on Facebook, it wasn’t the university’s business.

I had friends in law school when a professor was talking in class about the laws against pit bulls in Toronto and added, too bad they can’t make a law about Jamaicans. Students were advised not to complain because “they mark your exams.”

The response by the university to the “How Would You React” campaign created by Ntombi Nkiwane was that it was wonderful that students felt comfortable enough to share their experiences of being racially abused. Again, there were no investigations or disciplining or complaints encouraged to the perpetrators.

And all of this and so much more, so much daily, is just what we are to expect, and not to complain about because it’s just debate, just free speech, just jokes, just not knowing better, you can’t police people, you need to stop whining.

I’m going to guess that the university isn’t interested in investigating or doing anything about the racial attacks Masuma Khan received when she posted about Canada Day. People who told her to go back to where she came from, that in her country she would be raped and hung, that Indigenous people should stop drinking and start fixing their reserves, and so on and so on — none of that is a problem. But when the Woman of Colour responds to those days of attacks, refuses to back down in the face of this hostility, and says “white fragility can kiss my ass,” then she’s the one, the only one, who needs to be disciplined and silenced.

But nobody, obviously, who runs the place is racist.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. El, thank you as always. As a privileged white male I am always glad to hear your perspective on issues and gain a deeper understanding from your columns. I admire your wisdom as well as the courage and strength it must take to keep writing and speaking as you do. Your supporters may be quieter than your enemies, but we are here.

  2. Excellent work. Thank you for this. You (and Ms. Khan and Ms. George-Jim) have my full support. The world needs to hear more from kick-ass women like you. <3

  3. Thank you El. Thank you Masuma. I don’t know if we’re getting there, but voices like yours need to be heard.

  4. Re: Masuma Khan
    What kind of wack-a-doodle university disciplines students for speaking their minds in public? It’s perverse.

    To: El Jones
    Re: Frank et al
    Don’l let the bastards grind you down.

  5. Please, keep writing. We all need to read writing of this caliber, and it’s important that complex and articulate writers like you continue to make a whole pile of people feel uncomfortable, and others as if they have have a champion.

  6. Ms Khan should be allowed to use her right to freedom of speech. The phrase ‘ hoist by her own petard’ comes to mind. I just wish we had the same legal definition of free speech as enjoyed by our students and neighbours to the south.

  7. Wow. Powerful. So thoughtful and well written. You are a true treasure in society, doing incredibly important things. I applaud your activism and refusal to back down! Personally, I believe that the term “institutional racism” is part of the problem. It allows people to say “its institutional, doesn’t include me”. Especially for senior management. They can wash their hands and blame “bad apples” when, in fact, as you have pointed out so eloquently said, it’s endemic in society. Rock on El!