It isn’t easy talking about white privilege. Ask Lindsay Yates.
“It’s Okay to be [Against] White [Ness]” is a presentation on racial injustice scheduled for March 12 at Trent University in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario.
Organized by Yates, who is the ethical standards commissioner for the university’s student association (TCSA), the event has raised the ire of people across the country who are calling it racist, segregationist, a hate crime and a violation of human rights.
“The controversy was incredibly upsetting to deal with at first. It was really overwhelming and frankly a bit scary,” said Yates, who presents as white, in an email conversation with JOURNEY Magazine. She is a fourth-year Trent student majoring in gender studies and media studies.
She — and Black students — have received negative emails and facebook messages, (https://www.facebook.com/events/541656599551470/permalink/543103002740163/) ranging from condescending to mean, aggressive and racist, she said.
“Something that has been really upsetting is the different ways that people speak to me about this event and the ways they address it with people of colour who are associated with the event.”
“I think many of the negative responders realize that calling me – someone who has access to whiteness – racist, doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Yates continued. “Unfortunately, that means that their messages to people of colour are a lot more aggressive and discriminatory, while mine are just mean and condescending. That, among so many other aspects of this response, illustrates why this conversation is so necessary.”
“Ultimately, angry individuals clearly do not understand how racism exists today socially and systemically, and that is hugely problematic.”
The event’s speaker is Dr. Michael Cappello, a University of Regina professor and a white settler living and working on Treaty 4 territory, in Regina, Saskatchewan. His work over the last four years has focused on teaching/learning against colonialism and teaching/learning into reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
He will be talking about white privilege and the ways it upholds systems of power in society. He will be breaking down whiteness and discussing it as privileges awarded to individuals who present as white and discuss how having access to whiteness aids certain groups over others.
Cappello was responsible for naming the event, said Yates. The title is based on the events of November, 2017 when flyers were posted around various Canadian campuses that stated “It’s OK to be White.” These events were revealed to be connected to white nationalist groups, and the flyers were posted strategically on campuses targeting departments for critical race studies, she said.
“Honestly, when Dr. Cappello sent me the title of the event I thought it was awesome. I still do. I think it’s super provocative but also makes you think. I think it gets attention which is what I wanted, I suppose. I just didn’t expect the level of negative attention it would get.”
The immediate angry responses mostly came from members of the Trent University Conservatives who are made up of many social conservative students, said Yates. Those responses came via email quite quickly but dissipated once the event got more attention. Now, many responses seem to be from individuals in the greater Peterborough area, in Ontario and across Canada, she said.
“The recent verdicts on the murders of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie illustrate really well why there is an overwhelming need for whiteness to be addressed and resisted.”
“The event has picked up attention from some far right publications like “Postmedia” and the “Toronto Sun” as well as the attention of major white nationalist groups,” said Yates.
“If I was to speak to these people directly, I would just tell them that I mostly feel disappointed. I feel disappointed that people who are able to pretend they care about love and acceptance clearly don’t, and disappointed that they can’t open their minds to this conversation. It’s upsetting to know that individuals who care so much about freedom of speech are so keen to have this event shut down. It’s upsetting that individuals who probably never speak out against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are so quick to take that terminology to fuel their fight against this event.”
“It’s too bad that these individuals couldn’t take the time to read the event description, our public statement, other student’s comments, or even google to find out a bit more about white privilege before deciding it was an attack on their identity. Ultimately, angry individuals clearly do not understand how racism exists today socially and systemically, and that is hugely problematic.”
Yates wants people to understand that white privilege is not necessarily the fault of those who possess white privileges, but those privileges are their responsibility. They help uphold systems of power that oppress groups of people in society, especially racialized groups, and white privilege makes navigating society much easier for those it benefits, and keeps in place social hierarchies that exist, she explained.
“White privilege is privileges granted to individuals with white skin in society,” she said. “I think this conversation is incredibly necessary, given ongoing news about systemic racism being present in police forces, justice systems and institutions. The recent verdicts on the murders of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie illustrate really well why there is an overwhelming need for whiteness to be addressed and resisted.”
Yates said she’s not sure if there will be any issues at the event if people arrive to argue. A number of community members and other university students have volunteered to help talk to angry students outside of the presentation, if needed. Security will be present.
“I’ve been able to channel discomfort and fear into anger, though, and now I feel mostly just motivated to host an awesome event.”
It will take place in the Student Centre Events Space at Trent University from 4 to 6 p.m., March 12.
By Melodie McCullough