Why you can’t be ‘racist’ towards a white person

Open Letters

Trigger Warning: this post deals with identity politics and might raise some hackles if you have strong feelings about race, privilege and power. I invite you to read with an open mind. These views represent what I have come to understand, as a person who studied Equity and Diversity in university and has spent the last decade, plus, trying to be a better, more informed ally to those who experience marginalization.

A friend asked recently: What’s a topic you’d love to deep dive into with a group of people that you rarely have time / energy to “go there” with?

I answered: why you can’t be ‘racist’ towards white people. In recent weeks, I had tried explaining this to a 15 year old boy and got very little traction.

My big question for this young, white boy was ‘what do you gain by being ‘right’ about this? Do you benefit somehow by maintaining that people can, in fact, be racist towards you? This claim of ‘reverse racism’ seems to soothe our ideas about equality – people can be ‘mean to us’ too, after all. But is this effort to establish that white people can be treated as badly as others have been treated by white people missing the point? Arguably, no person or group will ever be able to top white people’s treatment of … any minority.

A friend of a friend very sweetly and sincerely asked for my thoughts on this issue. She wrote, “Hi, we don’t know each other and have the lovely E as a mutual friend but I’m curious – why can’t someone be ‘racist’ toward a white person? I’d have thought that racism doesn’t know ‘colour’. Is racism racist? I think intolerance of one race against another race would qualify as racism, regardless. But maybe I misunderstood!”

Here is my best effort to succinctly unpack the question and offer some answers:

 A simple definition of racism is about someone treating another person poorly (or worse) because of bias/prejudice based on one’s race.

But racISM is about power and power is systemic. There has never been a time when white people were disenfranchised or without systemic power (even if they are the only white person in the room). Peggy McIntosh wrote a very effective essay and list of questions you can ask yourself, which can help to put this into perspective: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. 

So, while someone can be prejudiced or treat someone in a way that discriminates against a white person based on their racial bias, there will never be/has never been a time when those attitudes were also supported by systems of power that allowed another group to use those avenues to oppress white people based on that aspect of their identity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t disenfranchised white people, or people of colour who have power, etc. But generally, the ability to wield power in conjunction with bias and prejudice about race leads to Racism (capital R).

So, while I might sense or know for sure that someone has treated me with prejudice or inequality based on my ‘whiteness’ I don’t stand to lose my housing, be shot by police, be prevented from moving freely and safely, be taken off a voter list (as is currently happening in Georgia), be denied job opportunities, be followed by security in a store, have speculations about me being a _____________ (insert racial stereotype). To equate whatever prejudice I might experience with the centuries-long murder, enslavement, oppression and pervasive inequality experienced by other races would trivialize the real, lived experiences of minorities (largely perpetrated by colonizing white nations and the legacy of these institutions).

Long answer, but hopefully makes sense. It’s hard sometimes to square this with the definition of racism as just ‘treating some X, based on race’ but equating the treatment of any minority with a white person’s limited experience with racial bias obscures a lot of the history and pervasive, lasting impacts of colonization and racialized violence.

When we cling to the simple definition of racism, one we might use to explain this idea to … elementary students, we overlook the nuances of this issue which isn’t black and white. Even if, on the surface it is about colour, it’s also about… power, access to power and legacies of inequality … of power.  I’m hoping that by looking at those grey areas we can stop holding onto our privilege (to claim we are also experiencing racism), while simultaneously not acknowledging that we have privilege. This doesn’t suggest that we can’t be made to feel bad, be treated badly, or be lumped into a category with every other potato-hued person… which can feel pretty shitty. But that feeling is not comparable to the suffering experienced and real fear visited on people who are not white, now and through history.

Thanks for this question! I’m always still learning and really appreciate exploring this topic, as well as input from others who know more than I do/ can offer insight.  Please feel free to offer you ideas, questions, insights, etc., nicely and politely. I am, after all, Canadian and while really being a fan of diversity, I’m also a huge fan of civility. Thank you!

Explore Latitude

Open Letters

My talented, creative, beautiful wife was featured in Explore Latitude, talking about her journey with medicinal cannabis.

Copyright: Explorelatitude.com (check them out online or on Instagram)

I really appreciate how they are breaking the silence and stigma around cannabis use and shedding light on the wide variety of people who will benefit from Canada’s legalization on Oct. 17.

Way to go, Disney? Progress: yay or nay?

Open Letters

The debates continue. Disney has announced a queer character (he will be effeminate and campy) in their upcoming film Jungle Cruise.

This has caused controversy and not just because Disney is expected to be a sexless, sanitized and heterocentric monolith that repackages stories for young folks, and the young at heart, in ways that make us all feel good about things like gender roles (damsels in distress), colonialism (Pocahontas) and racial stereotypes (Lion King‘s hyenas, not to mention Scar’s effeminate villainy). This new Disney film’s gay character will be played by a straight actor.

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British comedian Jack Whitehall – Screenshot from Comedy Central

Much to the chagrin of the blogosphere… people are upset, while others are upset that people are upset. Are we taking it too far? “They are ACTING” or “this is getting ridiculous,” people say. The comment section of a Refinery29 article about the casting choice is chock full of dissent, both for and against the casting.

These debates are going on amongst liberal people who agree that there should be gay characters and people of colour represented, but some seem miffed that these same communities have opinions about the manner in which their community is represented – and the oblique messages sent through these casting decisions.

While I agree that acting is acting (you can play a murderer without being one, thank goodness), people are missing the key issue:

Many talented queer actors and POC are overlooked, shut out and/or marginalized in mainstream roles, then when a perfect opportunity to be cast, believably, in a role arises, it’s given to someone who already has access to the roles these marginal actors may be barred from. Having a person of colour play a role written specifically for that identity is one side of the coin; we should have Asian actors staring in Crazy Rich Asians… this is progress. I cannot wait to see this wild, salacious book come to life on the big screen.

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The cast of Crazy Rich Asians at the premiere on August 7, 2018. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

And there is something to be said for actors who make the call to sidestep a project because they feel that the issues of representation are problematic; famously Amandla Stenberg stepped away from Black Panther because (according to her) she didn’t want to take up space that provides needed opportunity for darker skinned black actors and would jeopardize the authenticity of representing African identity, for and by African and African American actors and citizens.

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Getty Images

Amandla talked about shadeism and why she didn’t feel comfortable occupying space that doesn’t belong to her. It was refreshing. Seeing her speak on this subject at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto last year was such a breath of fresh air.

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(Shauna Mazenes/Her Campus Ryerson).

However, many queer and trans performers don’t have access to ‘straight’ roles (the bulk of the roles available) but are then also excluded when their own identity is up for grabs. It’s a double loss for them. And while representation and visibility are important, it’s difficult to be told that your community is being represented… just not by people within it.

Yes, straight actors can play queer, and Hollywood can do what it pleases, but the same opportunity is not given – in as broad a way – to those who identify within a minority and being told to ‘be happy with what we get’ is not the same as listening to voices from within that community.

This is a case of the people having spoken… and continuing to speak. It is a much-needed dialogue where those with the most prevalent voices might need to sit down and let those within their own communities do a little more of the talking, at least until it’s clear that the stories we are telling must reflect more than just a narrow view of what it’s like to take up space in this world.

 

Festive Customer Complaints

Indulge, Open Letters

I love getting into the spirit of giving, whether it’s giving back to the community, taping a Mariah Carey inspired “All I Want For Christmas …. is youuuuuuuuu” carpool karaoke video (for students to giggle at their teachers playing at late night stunts, or planning and wrapping the beautiful surprises that I hope will light up the faces of my friends and family.

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Anthropologie Lamb Ornament

Unfortunately, in our well-connected, cyber world, the ease is sometimes accompanied by glitches. Case in point: one of my go-to stores, Anthropologie, is usually a place I hit up in person, but the selection of baubles online is far better. Due to some site problems, I ended up finding out part of my order would ship separately, which sucks as a Canadian, with border agents charging a tax per package, flat rate. So, I wrote to Anthro:

Hopefully, in the holiday spirit, I get a solution, or at least they consider this problem for others in the future.

Question:

What stores have the best customer service that keeps you coming back?

What local shops and artists, or causes, are you supporting?

What stores have policies around this time of year that make you reluctant to shop there?

For the rest of December I’ll be posting festive gift lists, wish lists, holiday fashion and featuring hand-made and one-of-a-king artisans whose products are worth the investment.

Hi there, I’ve been a longtime fan of Anthro. Instead of a wedding registry, we made an Anthropologie wishlist. Needless to say, I’m a fan. I was hoping to spread some cheer by shopping for friends this year at Anthropologie online, and filled my cart. Your shipping to Canada is often fraught with problems, like unpredictable taxes and duties, and shipping costs. I figured I’d bite the bullet and go ahead. This time, however, an item that the site said it was available wasn’t. As a result, part of my order is to ship separately. The problem: Canadian customs bills us $10.00 for EVERY order they process. So, Anthropolgie having an out-of-date stock list is going to cost me $10… twice. The remaining necklace that I want is $38.00 and will end up costing me 25% of the cost of the item just to have it ship on its own. This is such an unfair burden to pass on to the customer since there was no notice from you that the item wasn’t available when I placed my order. What can you do to fix this?

Happy holidays to those who celebrate ambiguously, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Hannukkah and wishing you a very Stylish, Merry and Bright season ahead!

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Anthropologie Penguin Ornaments

Yours Truly,  The Style Sa Vie

The Power of a Good Venting Ally

Open Letters

Sometimes when you have a shit day, and you just need to get it all out, it’s helpful to know just whom to call. For me… often it’s my wife. For certain, delicate circumstances … it’s my Dad. Prone to hyperbole in the best way, my wonderful father is always on my side (except when we’ve locked horns) and doesn’t hold back offering opinions that make you feel totally ‘not crazy’ when other people’s behaviour has got you down.

Case in point: today was made infinitely more complicated and exhausting by a colleague who flat out refused a simple favour, because he felt he shouldn’t have to help anyone out, right on the heels of having emailed our entire staff to ask that we all do him a ‘small favour’ – phrased as an instruction, not a request. He literally challenged the requirement to give professional courtesy. Then he protested all day about how this sets a precedent (yup, sure does… a precedent of us making each other’s lives easier if it LITERALLY has no measurable impact on us) that we would all then just… be flexible. Obviously, as a professional courtesy, I’m not going to describe in detail any of his ridiculous, ironically icky behaviour.

My dad though… perfect response. After letting me tell him all about it, he simply says: “He should be staked out in the hot sun.”

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Team player words to live by.

 

No Filter on Hate: An Open Letter to the New Neighbours

Open Letters

We just got new neighbours and sometimes the internet is the perfect place to share/vent. The very “friendly” family is also latently homophobic. The one son knows we are gay. He was surprised at first. He told us he is ‘fine with it’ but let me know that his parents aren’t. Today’s update: they think you are “rotten”. Awesome. Kid, that’s one to keep to yourself. #nofilter

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Welcome to the neighbourhood.

I want to ask them: why did you move to Canada if you were not interested in the values of acceptance and diversity; but there’s the rub, the same freedom that entices, attracts and welcomes a family from Iraq, to move into the sleepy suburbs of the GTA (that’s the Six, for you out of towners) is the same value that allows you to harbour those views. Because it is a freedom to believe what you do. But I have lived here my entire life. My family is not indigenous, and this land never belonged to us; recognizing the gift and privilege of living here, I have always been aware of how lucky I am. As a 5th generation Canadian, I am lucky beyond measure, and spend my days as a teacher, teaching English, Dance, Drama, yes… but mostly, teaching new generations of students to be aware of the value and beauty of their differences; teaching students of diverse religions to know me as a human being; to see the dignity in one another; to know that whatever oppression we have each faced, we should see that pain as something we want to remove for others – not perpetuate.

I spend my entire career, going on ten years now, looking into young faces, teaching them to be proud of who they are. I am a 35-year-old, white, able-bodied, English speaking, educated, queer woman. Most of my classes are students who are born outside of Canada, the majority learned another language before English. Never has a student of mine made me feel that I was less deserving of dignity, respect and kindness; of all those kids who I have gotten to know and love over the course of 90 days together in a semester, none who have looked at my face, heard my stories, shared theirs…made me feel that even though our experiences widely vary they couldn’t see me as a human being.

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These are just some of the notes and letters my class made me this June. I tear up just thinking about what an impact it has on me to have a job with this kind of opportunity and reward.

Why come from a place ravaged by decades of war, to a continent rife with intolerance towards immigrants, with new pointed policies that marginalize, only to find a friendly, warm set of neighbours and bring hate with you – hate in your heart for an outstretched hand?

I often think about it this way: I don’t find YOUR wife attractive. I don’t want to imagine the intimacies of 99% of the happy couples I see on a day to day basis (or unhappy, but that’s beside the point); but me not wanting to picture the physicality of your relationship, or not understanding how you get through a day with the people you choose to surround yourself with, or even finding a disconnect in the way you believe that God manifests in your life… doesn’t mean that I should deny you that right, or behave in a way that makes you feel unsafe.

If you don’t understand my ‘attraction to women’ or my ‘lifestyle’… that’s fine. You don’t need to. If I asked you imagine, how does YOUR wife find it in her heart to have sex with a man? You don’t have to understand her attraction. If you find it repellent… not a problem… you don’t have to sleep with yourself. It isn’t your right to condone or condemn the love between other people. Just your own.

It’s a reminder of the privilege some have and some don’t: can you be sure your neighbours will be kind and respectful? I often enjoy the bubble of feeling like so much progress has happened that I’m immune to the bullshit.

This is your home. But it is also my home.

And I won’t let your intolerance and ignorance make me change. I don’t want to view strangers as statistics for religious intolerance, small-mindedness, fear-mongering or stereotypes. You are one person, a few people, who unfortunately don’t have enough love in your hearts to be warm and open to the diversity of people who make up your community. I will not change for you.

 I posted about this on Social Media: because sometimes just hearing the echo of your own community helps put things in perspective. I just need to bask in this before venturing out to my car, for the daily dose of pleasant, but fake waves from the man sitting in a lawn chair in front of his garage. How does someone wave you off for your day, while imagining you burning for eternity. There is something fucked up in that.
Reactions?
* That’s awful. People should be thrilled to live next to your awesomeness.
* Come live next door to us!
* This makes me profoundly sad. Not for you guys. You guys are perfect. And glorious. But for those people and those kids who have just missed out on two of the most glorious people on the planet.
I wanna insert some positive bullshit about how you might change his life with your positive modelling but fml ain’t nobody got time for that and frankly it is not your job to change people’s archaic views. So sorry girl.
* Ugh. I’m so sick of this bullshit. Sorry you have to deal with this at your own house.
* Fuck those people. Sorry not feeling so charitable about the ignorant today .
* ^What she said^ 

* How infuriating. I’m so sorry.
* Address of your neighbours please…. and I’ll bring the carton of ❤️❤️
* You two are more than fabulous
* We don’t think you are rotten. We love your compassion and love of English and dance. We are thankful for your dedication to your students, field hockey players, and the under privileged in all walks of life. And thank you for being true to you and your spouce. Xo
* Ugh! I’m so sorry you have to deal with all that BS. Sending much love your way!
*Have a big PRIDE party … and invite them.
*Seriously… F off anyone who thinks they even have the right to think they get to choose if they are fine with it or not.
* That’s incredible that he could feel so familiar to speak such filth and judgement. Imagine what it would be to have his parents to set such a rotten example. He’s going to have a difficult time adjusting. I wonder if he would say anything if it were my husband or I.
*Do not be so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance !!!

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A long social-media inspired conversation about raising genderless kids, queer identity and… being human

Open Letters