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The Maclean’s “Controversy,” Part Two - White Privilege

February 1st, 2011     by Anoushka Ratnarajah     Comments

[The Maclean’s article was first discussed on Shameless here.]

So, the title “Too Asian” has been officially replaced by “The Enrollment Controversy” on the controversial article on the Maclean’s website. [Ed. note: the URL still says “Too Asian”! Good try, Maclean’s!]

Apparently labeling something “controversial” means you don’t have to take responsibility for your actions. Now that I know this, I’m never apologizing for hurting anyone ever again! “Oh, what’s that? I just elbowed you in the face? Well I’m NOT SORRY, because my body’s just being controversial today. You’re probably overreacting anyways.”

Not once do the words “apology,” “I’m sorry,” or “horrible mistake” make an appearance in the response from Maclean’s. And Findlay and Koller (Koehler? It’s been printed with both spellings), the writers of the piece, have been totally silent. Except for this little gem from Findlay. Words fail me. It’s like the first article, only the sexist edition.

But we shall leave that for now. Instead, we return to the very non-apologetic nature of Maclean’s’ response to the outrage that met their article, because it has been very interestingly mirrored by a response from a commenter to my own first article here on Shameless.

Both the commenter and Maclean’s have jumped to the signature privileged response to being called out on racism: “But I was just saying things! I didn’t mean them! You’re overreacting!” This defense is very popular, because, as a privileged person, it not only allows you to avoid guilt and responsibility, but also affords you the opportunity to play the victim, turning the tables on an opponent who is often termed “too emotionally close to the issue to be able to properly analyze it.” Plus, you know: those people of colour, they just want see racism everywhere!

Maclean’s predicates their defense upon the idea that only the title, not the content of the article, was “controversial,” implying that people of colour simply read the title and looked no further before flying into a blind rage, which in itself is insulting. And their defense of “Too Asian?” as a title? Why, it was simply a quote! Just a little quote, taken from those EVIL AMERICANS (cue scary music):

“As our story relates, the phrase “Too Asian?” is a direct quote from the title of a panel discussion at the 2006 meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling where experts examined the growing tendency among U.S. university admission officers to view Asian applicants as a homogenous group. The evidence suggests some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S. have abandoned merit as the basis for admission for more racially significant–and racist–criteria… …One final note about the headline. Although the phrase “Too Asian?” was a question and, again, a quotation from an authoritative source, it upset many people. We expected that it would be provocative, but we did not intend to cause offence.”

In just a few paragraphs, Maclean’s manages to deflect blame onto America (because apparently racism only exists over there), as well as the people who were violated by the article, who were so quick to jump to false conclusions that we failed to read the rest of the article! Or were too stupid to understand it.

We are not stupid. We did not jump to conclusions. You’re just wrong, Maclean’s.

But these words we said, they were not ours, just a quote from an “authoritative source.” No offense was intended.

OH! You didn’t mean it! Well, in that case, all is forgiven. Forget that apology for your actions which had palpable, concrete effects. No, those thoughts you have that no one else has access to, those are what count!

Here’s the thing: when you hurt someone, that fact of whether or not you intended to hurt that person does not take away their pain. That apology needs to be said, because people can’t feel your intent. They can only feel the effects of your actions, not your thoughts.

The gut instinct of the privileged to deny culpability and deflect blame onto the marginalized when it comes to discussions of race seems to be driven by a paralyzing fear to admit personal or political culpability in a culture of racism, because the work following such an admission is both difficult and never-ending (and rightly so). Faced with this task, white folks who claim to be anti-racist will often turn into privilege-deniers, and thus derail the conversation.

Ironically, it is people of colour who speak up about racism who are most often accused of derailing the conversation, of being too confrontational, too hard on whiteness. Whiteness just wants to have a voice in the conversation! Whiteness just wants to be heard! As our commenter asks, “tell me, how do you comment on social activity differences between races, or any difference really, without being racist?”

NEWS FLASH: whiteness has no problem being heard. It’s coming through loud and clear, and has been for centuries. Its voice is the dominant one in media, education, government. Whiteness takes up space and voice without difficulty in every aspect of our society, and this is so normalized, so invisible, that when it is suddenly pointed out that whiteness needs to take a step back, or is not welcome, whiteness has a panic-induced aneurysm. The fact is, if you have white privilege, you can’t talk about race in the same way as a person of colour. You just can’t. You have no access to experiences of systemic racism; you will never be denied housing, a job, education, basic humanity - because of the colour of your skin.

As a white ally, your job is to listen, to support, to speak out against the racism you witness and to understand that you are WHITE. Just being anti-racist does not negate your privilege or take away your responsibility to acknowledge it. And simply due to your whiteness, you will be taken more seriously and given more time, respect and admiration for engaging in dialogue about race than a person of colour. You will be given a cookie, when all you’ve really done is behaved with basic human decency.

White privilege does not want to hear this. White privilege does not want to hear about the possibility that maybe it should listen, instead of speak. White privilege does not want to consider that it is not the authority on the subject. White privilege does not want people of colour to take the lead.

And please note, Shameless commenter, that the urge to “comment on social activity differences between the races,” as you call it, if you are not a person of colour, is most often motivated by your notice of that difference as something abnormal from your experience. If you are white, the normalization of your experience is not limited to you; it is reproduced on a systemic socio-cultural scale. So when the writers of “Too Asian?” delved into this conversation, they did so from positions of privilege which deemed the supposed “Asian” (homogenize much?) experience of post-secondary life as abnormal, unlike the experiences of white students.

And frankly, white people, why do you feel the need to be a part of this conversation? I’m not saying white people necessarily need to be excluded from anti-racist work- I actually think allies are an important part of any social justice movement. But as an ally, you really do need to ask yourself this question: why am I here? Because if it’s about a resume, self-validation, power, attention, appearances - if you are anything but humble, you need to reevaluate yourself. If you really want to be an ally, your work cannot be about you. Most people will automatically nod enthusiastically when asked if they are anti-racist, but being an ally is not about nodding- PROVE IT. Do the work. And if you screw up, that’s okay, we all do. Just admit it, work through it. Then we can respect you. Then we can work with you.

Meanwhile, we’ll be waiting on that apology.

Tags: media savvy, race and racism

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