Discourse on racism needs review

We should be talking about eliminating differences, not heightening them

“All races are equal.”

No controversy in saying that, right? Well, maybe not.

One of the first times I encountered the concept of “white privilege” was a couple of summers ago, when I heard about someone claiming that it was impossible for a person of colour to be racist towards white people. I was taken aback at the comment at first, and the novelty of thinking about racism as something that occurs on an institutional level rather on a personal one. Since then, I’ve realized that these concepts were a lot more pervasive than I thought.

Take the board structure UTSU proposed for its annual general meeting last year as a good example. They proposed scrapping all of the positions for its current college directors in place of directors who represented various minorities: women, LGBTQ members, students with disabilities, and “racialized” students, among others. It was a controversial proposal, not least because of the way it excluded white people from its board.

Last year, too, I remember people raised questions about current UTSU president Ben Coleman’s seat on the advisory committee U of T established to address sexual violence. Why? Because being a white male, he was not the target of sexual violence, so people felt that his position on the committee was inappropriate.

Now, I’m no expert on “white privilege”, but I do not believe that simply being a white male should disqualify you from having an informed opinion on certain topics, even if they concern other, less privileged groups. It’s like saying that I can only understand the plight of people belonging to my own race or gender. I don’t think that we should assume someone wouldn’t have anything valuable to say simply because he is a white male.

And of course, there were the recent comments on UTMSU’s Facebook page about “reverse racism”, where students debated whether or not such a thing exists. I know from conversations with my colleagues that the concept still doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. Is “white” not a race like any other? (Notice how Caucasians are now referred to as “non-racialized”.) And what happens in contexts where whites are not the majority?

This is a difficult conversation to have, yet it is one certainly worth having, especially if a university is meant to promote the free flow of ideas.

Personally, I do not believe that because white folks may not have to face the same effects of racism as people of colour do, that white students should be excluded from being in positions on UTSU’s board simply because the system allegedly already works in their favour. It’s just like what people say about racism: it occurs on an institutional level rather than a personal one, so I don’t think individual white folks should be punished for the flaws in the wider system. And I also don’t believe it should mean that the opinion of white males should automatically be invalidated when asked to speak on a subject concerning minorities, be they sexual assault victims or anyone else.

If we agree, like many do, that race is in fact a social construct, then I think the current discourse on privilege, racism, and “reverse racism” only seeks to heighten these superficial differences that (at least I thought) we were all trying to eliminate.

I’m not trying to deny that racial inequalities exist. But the conversation around these inequalities is problematic and I can’t easily see this discourse leading to an understanding of each other on a personal level rather than on a racial level.

Whatever the technicalities of the current language on racism, I don’t think it’s doing a good job to successfully end it.