In case you’ve been hiding under a rock in the last few weeks, there was a significant racist incident at Osgoode at the beginning of February. Someone scratched out the eyes of posters depicting famous black Canadians. One of Obiter’s writers already covered the incident at length, so I’m going to say little more about that particular incident beyond merely stating my disdain for the act and whoever perpetrated it. Eat a bag of phallic objects, chase it with a Tide Pod challenge, and a bucket of bleach for good measure. Okay, that’s a little harsh. Two out of three would suffice.
However, the incident did get me thinking, which is unusual because I don’t tend to think so much as I react to external stimuli. I wondered why anyone would bother doing something that could at best be viewed as a pointless act of vandalism and not an expression of impotent, bigoted rage against people who wanted to celebrate their contributions to Canadian history. I try my damnedest not to attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity, but the sheer extent of the stupidity in question was nothing short of baffling. What was that person trying to accomplish with an act that could only unify staff and students against whatever message he or she hoped to convey? It makes one think it was some kind of “false flag” act, before I remembered that yes, people can be that myopic, stupid, and malicious. Stupidity only explains part of it. Some prick just wanted to destroy something inspirational. Didn’t go so well, thankfully.
Still, it made me wonder about the prevalence of racist views in our society, and whether they’re becoming more common, or if racist people have merely reached a point where they don’t feel a need to rationalize their bigotry. The rise of Donald Trump exposed a disturbing reality in the levels of hatred for “the other” that people were willing to tolerate in the POTUS, but even he tries to rationalize his more questionable views (he fails, because of course he does, but he does try). To be honest, I don’t think he hates people based on skin colour as much as he hates people who aren’t likely to buy what he’s selling, and if that involves accepting the support of white power groups, so be it. Whatever the case, he’s emboldened bigots by showing that they have friends in high places and that they only need minimal effort to rationalize their views. Pander to the lowest common denominator, and you very well may succeed.
And I couldn’t help notice that, as a straight, cisgender white male, I am to some extent a member of that lowest common denominator. On top of that, I come from a family that’s a combination of working and middle class, so even on the economic level, I’m the sort of person that bigoted demagogues appeal to. I was raised to find such bigotry embarrassing at best, but I have enough in common with the enraged masses of not-nearly-as-disenfranchised-as-they-think white people that it shouldn’t be too hard to get into their heads, right? Just forget all the lessons my parents (and years of liberal education) have taught me, and plumb those depths. Get up in that furious white brain. Yeah.
You don’t really need to go very far to figure out what inspires the resentment. Aside from simple ignorance birthing hostility, people are losing their privilege, and understandably, people don’t readily surrender what they value. White people used to run the whole game, rigged it as we pleased, and could ignore the problems of others simply on a “not my pig, not my farm” basis. And it’s not like we don’t still run things, by and large. But now, we don’t have to compete solely against each other. We must compete against religious minorities, racial minorities, the LGBT community, and (horror of horrors) women. It’s not as easy as it once was to make it in the world, and it’s easier to blame someone else for your troubles than it is to admit that maybe you’re just not as capable as you thought you were.
It doesn’t help that, very often, part of being privileged is not knowing just how privileged a person is. A common refrain among the white working class is that they’ve never been party to the more substantial and obvious privilege of old money families. A white construction worker living paycheque to paycheque isn’t going to view himself as privileged to be in his position. Sure, he’s never been pulled over and illegally searched by a police officer for driving through “too nice” a neighbourhood, and he’s never been told a still-open position with a prospective employer “has just been filled”, but beyond the privilege of not having to endure prejudice, he’s just not going to see himself as particularly lucky. Furthermore, compared to the vast majority of the white male student body at Osgoode, he isn’t that privileged, and when he hears people like us talking down to or about him, how happy is he really going to be? Hell, I felt like a patronizing jackass just writing this paragraph.
This is not to excuse the hostile sentiments that have become painfully apparent very recently. Bigotry is inexcusable, and it’s certainly hard to stomach coming from people who are mistaking a loss of unearned privilege with actually being victimized. It’s especially harder to swallow when you consider that this particular reaction to non-victimization is hostility to people who have consistently suffered immeasurably worse. Still, as ludicrous (or at least exaggerated) as the sense of victimization may seem, the sentiment is very real, and something to be dismissed at our peril. The obvious reaction is to dismiss it outright, but you don’t solve a problem by merely ignoring it, especially when that problem just played a major role in electing a narcissistic con-man as head of the world’s most powerful state. Pissed off white people with a persecution complex are a very powerful force in North America, and certainly not one to be disregarded.
That does beg difficult questions regarding how to respond to a political movement that’s still highly influential and highly reactionary. It can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, but one must be cautious in responding to a group whose defining trait seems to be a propensity for massively misguided overreactions. We’ll probably need to endure some awkward conversations about our own camp, particularly how we often do a pretty poor job of picking our own leaders (cough, Hillary Clinton, cough). While we insist that others be careful about the words they use, by throwing the Nazi label on anyone to the right of Bush II, we were easy to ignore when we tried to warn people that actual Nazis were influencing the US election. Bluntly, are we making it too easy for right-wing extremists to attract disillusioned and disregarded white people? We are not immune to error, and there’s always a risk of losing rather than being beaten.
In any case, we have to handle the issue of rising racism and white resentment carefully. We’re going through some very frightening developments in western politics, and if we can’t be bothered to honestly ask what motivated these developments, we risk making mistakes in our own reactions. We must be brave enough to face problems for what they really are, and accept responsibility for our role in movements that do not arise in a vacuum. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing, but doing something foolishly self-righteous is no better. In two words: be careful!
Oh, and sorry for letting the title of that unpaid articling article go to print. Privilege strikes again, it seems.