home Editorial An Open Letter to Activists

An Open Letter to Activists

Please, Pick Your Battles

 

I can’t say I had particularly high hopes for 2017. It pretty much started with the US electing a creature who built an empire on narcissism, lies, and shady business practices, yet somehow, it looks like it’s just going to get worse. It also feels like the political left and right have been having incredibly violent sex on a self-destruct button, and the only reasonable people left in the room have little choice but to watch in disgusted awe. I imagine one shouting “get off” (referring to the hypothetical doom machine), only for the two copulating ideologies to screech “I want to, but they’re a terrible lay.” Then the reasonable people start drinking Totally Awesome Sweet Alabama Liquid Snake—the official shooter of the end times—and crying. Oh, and I had to leave a hockey game due to illness for the first time in my life, because watching the world go to hell as people argue pointlessly over trivialities seems to be giving me ulcers (ok, the beer and putting sriracha on everything I eat can’t help). In other words, now I’m furious.

 

This means I’ll have to save the vitriol I intended to level at Trump, the GOP, and their remaining fanatical followers for another article. I’m not just likely to cross the line: at this point, I’d probably snort it. Instead, I’m going to commit a major modern faux pas, and hold my own side of the political spectrum to task. I know, we don’t see that very often, but it’s time to stop ignoring issues in one’s own camp to say “yeah, but look what that guy’s doing.” No one is immune to criticism.

 

Before I begin, I should reiterate that I am hugely supportive of progressive activism. I’m in law school largely because a number of my friends were illegally detained during the G20 fiasco in 2010. I was at a social gathering a couple of weeks after the event, when a family friend expressed the belief that the detentions were justified because the police were protecting the city from rioters. This was a common sentiment in the aftermath of that strange and awful weekend, and I explained as eloquently (and calmly, if you can believe that) as possible that most of the people they detained were completely uninvolved in any sort of violence. Furthermore, the arrests happened the day after the rioting in question, and seemed to be a misguided attempt to compensate for failing to protect the city the previous day. It was little more than a gross violation of civil liberties and people were celebrating it. That’s when another family friend (and ex-Bay Street lawyer) bluntly told me to go to law school. Of all people, he would know, and here I am. But if it weren’t for the government-sponsored abuse of activists in 2010, I would probably be mixing drinks. I’m very pro-activist.

 

However, I’ve recently seen some stuff that’s at best self-righteous whining and at worst pissing in the well from which you drink. For example, following the enormous women’s marches that happened this past January, some groups began accusing their agenda of being too favourable to white women. I had at least one friend complain that the Toronto women’s march was an example of white people having to take over everything. I’ll admit, we pretty much run things, and we can often be insensitive to the needs and tribulations of minorities (usually without noticing, because that’s how white privilege works). That said, a simple look at ethnic demographics in Canada provides a much more obvious reason for the prominence of white women at the rally: white women represent a vast majority of the women in this country, and by a wide margin, the largest minority of women in Toronto. In a women’s march that brought in people from across a predominantly white country, yes, there will be a lot of white people. Unless they were widely discouraged from attending (which would have been absurd), they were going to be the most visible group.

 

But the issue goes well beyond the ethnic demographics of today. Canada is a very diverse country, and this is something we simultaneously take great pride in as we take it for granted. As little as fifty years ago, this was not the case. In 1971, Toronto was almost ninety-six percent white. I remember joking to my dad that the “most Toronto thing ever” was playing pick-up hockey and then struggling to choose which of the five roti shops to visit on the way home. He replied that there probably weren’t five roti shops in Toronto in the 1970s, and he was probably right. I remember my grade school teacher pointing out that people in this city rejected him in the 1960s because he was Hungarian. He was white, but he wasn’t white enough. Toronto became the diverse city that we know very rapidly. I don’t know anyone in my when-white-met-bred family who thinks this is anything other than a good thing, and if they do, they’re certainly smart enough to keep that sentiment private. Multicultural Toronto is awesome.

 

However, our history is definitely something to consider if you look at a women’s march and think “too many white people.” Another thing we take for granted in Canada is the work of feminists in the early and mid-twentieth century. A woman’s right to vote is only a century old. Birth control was illegal before Trudeau (the first). Some schools wouldn’t let girls wear pants into the 1970s. Not surprisingly, a lot of these same women marched this past January, and many of them brought their daughters, to keep up the fight for incredibly basic rights that were disturbingly hard-earned. Incidentally, since many of these women were born in a Toronto that was whiter than a Kid Rock concert, this means that our most experienced feminist activists (who actually remember what it was like to not have basic rights) are going to be a dominant presence in a women’s march. Thirty years from now, this will almost assuredly be different, and that’s a good thing. But for now, if you want a speaker who remembers what it was like to find a back-alley abortionist in Toronto, I’ll bet that at least nine out of ten of them were white. Bringing up race was a ridiculous red herring that just made the people who brought it up look silly, and things are silly enough as is.

 

And as an aside (and something resembling full disclosure), my grandmother was an early feminist activist. If you name a progressive cause that was prominent between the 1950s and 1960s, there’s a good chance she was a volunteer. This wasn’t standing on a podium and telling Trump to go screw a garbage disposal (which I approve of, though she’d find it needlessly vulgar). This was licking envelopes, making coffee, and answering the phone. She kept volunteering for some causes well into her eighties. It wasn’t about who was doing what; it was that someone was doing something. If women like Grandma had said “I don’t feel included enough, so I quit,” countless women would have been left destitute by corrupt funeral directors who exploited widows in a time when equal pay was nigh-unfathomable. Modern activists are standing on the shoulders of giants (or in this instance, a ninety-two year old woman who’s maybe four foot eleven). Save the race card for the racist cop, not the now-old ladies who are the reason why you don’t have to break the law to get an abortion because your boss raped you.

 

My broader point: pick your damned battles, and don’t turn away allies who have lengthy experience successfully fighting The Man. I like that we’re not letting issues like race and trans rights disappear, but save it for your actual opponent. Those white women who were allegedly not being inclusive enough are a big part of the reason Canada is such a desirable place for all women. That took a lot of work, and frankly, calling out a women’s march for being too white didn’t make anyone look like a champion for equality or diversity; it made them look like ingrates who tried to trivialize the work of countless people. Worse still, it validates the very people they’re supposed to oppose, by showing divisions within our own ranks, and a carelessness in picking one’s priorities. Right now, the last thing we should be doing is validating a movement that wants to set the world back fifty years.

 

Grandma spent over fifty years voluntarily making this country a better place for all women. Not only does she not expect gratitude, she was grateful that I remembered. No one will expect you to live up to that standard, but try not to minimize so many lifetimes of work by derailing the issue. Especially not when the people you’re accusing of not being inclusive don’t even expect a “thank you.”

 

They did it for everybody, non-whites included.