Responses To The Plea For Respectful Dialogue

The article of November 4th reflected on the best way for activists to advance the cause of racial equality. It elicited quite a bit of correspondence.

Joy argued that I should have acknowledged that I come from a privileged background. We had a respectful exchange of views. Although it wouldn’t change the article’s argument, Joy is right.

Brian was decidedly unenthusiastic, calling the article’s line of thinking “outdated, over-privileged, and backwards.”

Drew wondered if I had listened to any people of colour as part of my research. I had, though certainly not enough to have a deep understanding of their collective life experience. The column did not pretend to speak for them. As with any columnist’s opinion piece it can only claim to speak for the author.

Most of the feedback was positive, including one that started by saying that the reader rarely agrees with what I write. He said that, although having very little English lineage he has “recently felt like as a “privileged” white male that I’m holding the weight of the whole British empire’s history on my shoulders.”

He had considered making a Facebook post to argue against “reverse racism” but “didn’t post that rant for fear of backlash against me as a white male.”

James, on the same point, was excessive: “I wish more people like yourself would… speak out. The situation of minorities berating and putting down all white people as Racists and Supremacists has to be reined in. Nobody will speak out any more for fear of being attacked…”

Most common were readers who felt more bewildered than offended. They just do not perceive themselves as racist but have no sense of how to address the topic.

It can be daunting, as further efforts have shown.

In connection with the Masuma Khan case, a group of 20 Dalhousie Law Professors had written a letter arguing in favour of her right to free speech: “Encouraging speech which challenges us as a community to reflect upon our roles in colonialism, oppression of marginalized communities, and systematic racism is critical to the mandate of this (or any other) University.”

Two of the professors were contacted seeking a discussion, on or off the record according to their preference. One did not respond; the other wrote to say that she was busy and that she was “content to let the letter just speak for itself.” Actually, it doesn’t help understanding at all.

A rant by UBC professor Ayesha S. Chaudhry demanded that Dalhousie offer Khan an apology and compensation. Her description of the events misdescribed how Dal had handled the situation. “Instead of protecting her rights to free speech, Dal decided to behave according to a long tradition of white supremacy, silencing and sanctioning the brown, Muslim woman, while insisting on the rights of a fragile white man.”

She also did not reply to a request to help better understand her position.

Some non-aboriginals perceive that being an aboriginal is an advantage. In 2014, the Globe and Mail reported that “When the Canadian government established a new (landless) First Nation in Newfoundland it expected to get about 10,000 applications for membership. It got more than 100,000… The financial implications were significant, considering the health and education benefits due to status Indians in Canada.”

Perhaps the numbers were also influenced by a false belief that being aboriginal would result in lower income taxes. Much to the disappointment of many applicants, the government, in concert with band leadership, moved to tighten the membership criteria. The group was whittled down to less than a fifth that size, which still makes it one of the largest bands in Canada.

None of this is to argue that there are not real issues to be addressed. Too many aboriginal communities have dreadful housing and tainted water supplies. Both they and black Canadians are substantially over-represented in low income occupations, prisons, and street checks by police.

Street checks have been a particular source of concern in Halifax, where African Nova Scotians have been more than three times as likely as whites to be checked. That can sometimes be justified by an area experiencing a higher crime rate, but it is by no means clear that neighbourhood crime rates are the only factor in play.

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has, with support from the Board of Police Commissioners and the community, hired Scot Wortley, an independent expert. His mandate is to look at the police street check data, listen to the community and make recommendations. Three community meetings were held earlier in November and analysis of the street check data continues.

Earning the trust of communities is not easy, with some feeling that similar previous efforts have not been effective. Nevertheless this process has the best chance of reducing instances of race-based policing, in a way that is perceived and acknowledged by affected communities.

Real progress will require dozens more initiatives like this one working on a variety of issues at a community level, across Canada. That will certainly be more productive than wholesale condemnations that neither educate nor motivate people to change.


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