White Privilege Exists: Do Something Good With It
On 7 September 2017, a video emerged of a woman heckling NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh at an event in Brampton. Heckling is putting it mildly, since she spent about two minutes shouting at Mr. Singh from a distance of about four inches. When staffers and crowd members tried to calm her or otherwise dissuade her, she threatened to have them criminally charged if they laid a finger on her. You know, because her behaviour wasn’t appalling enough without throwing some glaring hypocrisy in the mix. In any case, Mr. Singh handled the confrontation marvellously, rebuking the woman with class, confidence, and in his own words, “love and courage”. The woman passive-aggressively clapped for a few seconds and left of her own accord, having made a complete and utter fool of herself, and Mr. Singh globally famous for his next-to-perfect response.
Perhaps the thing I enjoy most about how this unfolded is watching the Canadian right-wing media flailing to reframe the scene as something other than what it was; a hateful racist being utterly schooled. The woman, Jennifer Bush, has also come to her own defence, though her attempt amounted to ticking off boxes in the racist’s checklist, like “I’m not a racist,” and “I have [insert minority group here] friends,” and “won’t somebody please think of the children?” Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey (I guess “Anthony Impotent Rage” didn’t have the same ring to it) tried to argue that the media wasn’t covering the whole story, which is that she was calling him on his opposition to the niqab ban in Quebec, and that we should all be focusing on how his beliefs will be at odds with Quebec-style populism. If that was what she was doing, she probably could have said or screamed as much at any time during the confrontation. Saying that Mr. Singh might have trouble in Quebec isn’t telling the whole story; it’s just trying to diminish a crowning moment of awesome with something laughably irrelevant. The Rebel wrote an article, but I prefer not to read the verbal equivalent of vomited bile, as I tend to respond in kind, and my poor laptop takes enough abuse. The lengths they go to defend the indefensible can be downright hysterical.
That said, there’s a reason I said Mr. Singh’s response was next-to-perfect. Also, there’s a reason that I said the right’s response can be hysterical.
A fellow Osgoode student made a solid observation about how if a South Asian or Middle Eastern man tried to menace a white woman in such a fashion, he would not have faced such a gentle response. In other words, Jennifer Bush took advantage of her white privilege by indulging in her freak-out, and Mr. Singh could have pointed out that particular double-standard. I agree, in that at the very least it would have made a good addendum to the incident. It’s possible he did bring it up after the woman walked off into infamy, but if he did, the media was so focused on his immediate response that it fell by the wayside, which would be more evidence of privilege. In all fairness, Mr. Singh is a former cage fighter, so in his case, it would be hard to imagine him being menaced by anyone, let alone the umpteenth hateful bigot he’s been dealing with all his life. But yes, definitely a double-standard, definitely white privilege.
As for the humour to be found in the right-wing media’s response, I realized (after spending a few minutes laughing and shaking my head at the Sun article) that being able to find the response funny is also symbolic of white privilege. Race issues don’t personally affect me, so I have the privilege to look at them from the outside, and find pathetic, racist apologetics amusing instead of frightening. I also have the privilege to not give a damn about race issues in general, but that’s the sort of apathy that permits atrocity. In fact, that means white, straight, cisgendered males like me have a duty to call out white racists; people like that don’t listen to people who aren’t like them. In the words of Patrick Stewart, “people won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.” He’s generalizing, but he’s mostly right, in that there are a lot of people who won’t listen to you unless you’re a white male or serving as a mouthpiece for white males. Just because you don’t like the rules doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.
To some extent, this does mean that those who benefit from white privilege should be more willing to engage with fringe racist, misogynist, and/or xenophobic persons or groups, albeit only briefly. This is admittedly a distasteful prospect, especially regarding ideologies like Nazism, which at its core is an incitement to violence against anyone who isn’t a certain kind of white, and even talking about it in public can be a criminal offence under Section 319 of the Criminal Code. That said, as a teacher of mine (who personally survived a Nazi invasion of his country) liked to say, “give a man enough rope, and he’ll hang himself.” We saw that adage prove true after the Charlottesville riots. Nazis did their Nazi thing, and the GOP establishment desperately attempted damage control when Trump refused to offer consistent and unequivocal condemnation of their actions. Also, the Canadian alt-right media basically imploded, because it’s spearheaded by Ezra Levant, whose ethnic identity would make supporting Nazism promotion of his own murder. It seems like the GOP and alt-right media might bounce back from this debacle, but it was nice to watch the swine squeal as they looked their monster in the face. The Charlottesville Nazis were their supporters, and up until that moment, they’d been returning the favour. Even if it doesn’t trigger an existential crisis among the political right, sometimes it’s good to let these people talk. How else are they going to get charged with wilful promotion of hatred?
As for how people like me can use our white straight cisgendered male privilege for good, rebuking fascists is certainly one way to do it. It’s hard to imagine enduring a five-minute conversation with a Nazi as any sort of privilege, but you do what you can to stand for what’s right. For the most part, we’re the only ones these people truly want in their corner, aside from a few Quisling mouthpieces. If we tell them that they don’t represent us and never will, it might hit home. We can remind them that their failure to compete in a diversifying world is not the fault of the people of colour, women, and LGBTQI persons who are born at a disadvantage and still managed to hack it. At the core of white supremacy and nationalism is cowardice and insecurity; a realization that they aren’t strong or smart or tough enough to compete with anyone other than other white straight cisgendered men. As white, straight cisgendered men (who aren’t fascists), we have an obligation to say “we did fine in this diverse world, so your failure is a personal problem,” when confronted with the words and deeds of such people.
And for Mr. Singh to stare down pure hatred and rebuke it with love and courage, I can express nothing but admiration for his response. I wouldn’t have been able to do the same, as a man of any colour in his shoes. The incident with the heckler was analogous to the core nature of bigotry: a screeching, wretched thing trying to blame its failures on people who are too good to even hate it.