Respectful Dialogue Is the Best Tool for Eliminating Racial Inequities

The great pioneers of racial justice succeeded, not by seeking to build walls, but by reaching across racial barriers.

In 1993 a racist white South African, bent on undoing an emerging consensus for ending apartheid, assassinated Chris Hani, an African National Congress leader. Then South African President De Klerk asked Nelson Mandela to address a nation on the brink of chaos. Mandela, who had been imprisoned for more than three decades, rose to the occasion:

“Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shockwaves throughout the country and the world. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who from any quarter wish to destroy what Chris gave his life for — the freedom of all of us.”

This was an act of extraordinary grace. And it worked. Some of today’s advocates for needed change may want to reflect on whether Mandela’s example represents a better way.

  1. Consider this story from last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, reporting on a leg of the arctic voyage that is supposed to encourage reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

    One was PEI-born two-time Olympic gold medalist Heather Moyse. She said: “I have been very, very lucky to represent Canada — and that means representing you — in two Olympic Games… I just want you to know you can come from a very small place and do very big things.”

    Several people found Moyse’s statement to be evidence of white privilege, which led Ms. Moyse to say she was being accused of racism.

    The government had shipped up a gift of hockey sticks. One of the participants commented: “Yeah, but what’s the intention? Like the colonialists giving them blankets, which gave them smallpox?”

    By the next afternoon on the ship, Moyse had reportedly been in tears; several other Southerners had taken an unofficial vow of listening silence.

  2. On October 19th a performer at the Halifax Pop Explosion asked people who were white near the front of the stage to give up their places in favour of people of colour. Some were reluctant to comply; one of them, who was an event volunteer, refused to do so. She was eventually removed from her place.

    The organizers apologized, to the singer, saying: “We are sorry that one of our volunteers interrupted your art, your show, and your audience by being aggressive and racist.”

    The performer’s action can perhaps be excused as a political choice. The one-sided apology by the organizers is hard to understand.

  3. At Dalhousie, student union vice-president Masuma Khan issued a profanity-laced posting that targeted white people. “White fragility can kiss my ass” is not the most vulgar example.

    The university initially concluded that her post should be referred to the Senate as a possible violation of the student code of conduct which says, in part, “No student shall engage in unwelcome or persistent conduct that the student knows, or ought to reasonably know, would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed.”

    It then became argued that the policy unreasonably limited freedom of speech, so the charge was dropped.

    In other words, the policy is being changed to accommodate the behavior as opposed to the other way around. Perhaps that is appropriate, but one might reasonably wonder whether the outcome would have been the same had the words been the same but the skin colours reversed.

What these stories have in common is the implication that anyone who is white owns personal responsibility for disadvantages experienced today by Indigenous and African-Canadian citizens.

In these narratives all whites today are to be viewed as the same, be they descendants of early settlers, recent economic immigrants, or refugees.

It is useful to talk honestly about persisting inequities, and how to make for a better future. It is neither accurate nor helpful to start a discussion with an accusation of guilt for the past by today’s white participants. None of them is likely to have been the source of historic grievances such as residential schools or the flattening of Africville. Many of them actively support progressive initiatives.

Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail made a powerful case for change. Addressed to a group of white clergy, it contained no vulgarities or words of personal condemnation. Rather it sought, in exquisitely polite terms, to identify common values around which justice could be achieved. It was a turning point in the struggle to eliminate segregation.

King and Mandela asked people of all races to unite behind worthy values—freedom, justice, respect.

Neither South Africa, nor Alabama, nor Canada is a perfect model today. But they are better than they were.

King called for a nation where people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He was arguing then for justice for African-Americans.

The same sentiment should inform both sides participating in today’s dialogues about improving the future for Indigenous and African-Canadian citizens. Doesn’t that represent the best prospect for positive change?


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