It’s Still Okay to Be (Against) White(ness)

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Dr. Michael Cappello giving his presentation, "It's Okay to Be (Against) White(ness)" in the Student Centre event space on March 12, 2018. Photo by Nick Taylor.

On March 12, the Student Centre’s event space was overflowing with people, from the Trent community and beyond. TCSA event organizers had to turn people away because the space was at capacity, culminating in people lining up to watch from outside, despite not being able to hear anything. Police officers were also in attendance to assist in securing the venue.

What was causing such a stir? A very basic lecture about racial injustice and white privilege entitled “It’s Okay To Be (Against) White(ness)” given by Dr. Michael Cappello and organized by Ethical Standards Commissioner Lindsay Yates and the TCSA.

Dr. Michael Cappello is an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Educational Core Studies department at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, focusing “on teaching/learning against colonialism and teaching/learning into reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks.”

This event garnered a great degree of media attention as articles were written about it in the Washington Times, the Toronto Sun, CBC.ca and other widely publicized media outlets. However, a lot of this media attention (much of which was disseminated by right-wing individuals and organizations) portrayed the event negatively, focussing on racist concerns about the event’s “racist” title, rather than focussing on the topic of event at hand.

There had been much talk ahead of the Dr. Cappello’s presentation, and the actual event itself lived up to the commotion that preceded it. While much of the lecture was fairly basic and not exactly radical, Dr. Cappello presented the information in a way that exuded insight, passion and raw emotion. Cappello is a powerful orator and his message seemed to resonate with the majority of attendants.

Promotional image for “It’s OK to be (Against) White(ness): Racial Injustice in a Time of Racial Entrenchment,” a talk by Dr. Michael Cappello presented by the TCSA on March 12, 2018.

The event began with an introduction from Lindsay Yates during which she acknowledged the land the event took place on — Nogojiwanong, the traditional territory of Curve Lake First Nation and the Anishinaabe community. She went on to outline the process for question period, explaining that questions will be held until the end of the presentation when people who have written out their questions on queue cards and handed them to TCSA representatives will have the opportunity to have questions answered by Cappello.

He began the presentation by addressing the elephant in the room — what Cappello referred to as the “fanfare” surrounding the event. He commented on the manner in which the title of the talk has been sensationalized by right leaning media outlets and individuals — some of which to claim to be centrist. He explained that fanfare is underpinned by a lack of understanding regarding the title’s language, specifically the word “whiteness,” and how this lack of understanding only highlights the need for further discussion and education.

Cappello went on to emphasize the significance of the land in which this conversation was taking place: “I need to start by reminding you of where I am from, which is Treaty 4 Territory, the land of the Cree and Saulteaux and Nakota and Lakota and Dakota Peoples as well as the homelands of the Métis Nation. It’s in my attempts to be faithful to my relations where I’m from that I need to underline the territory we’re on… to recognize that no matter what we talk about tonight that the specific history of settler-colonialism and genocide will always be here. There is blood on the land.”

He completed his pre-amble by discussing how his role in anti-oppressive education is intertwined with his identity as a settler: “I am learning to bear the weight of these injustices that I benefit from and to listen to the voices of marginalized people and to work in solidarity.”

Cappello then went on to provide more context for the title of the event that created a chaotic and often unintelligible debate over whether it was racist. He explained that it was modelled after the “It’s Okay to be White” posters that circulated numerous Canadian university campuses last year — one of which was posted to the door of the Office of Indigenization at the University of Regina. Cappello deconstructed the narrative that this violent message strewn across university campuses by white supremacists presupposes as one that is grounded in the belief that there is currently systemic racism against white people and that to be anti-racist is synonymous with being anti-white.

He went on to explain how it was meant to provoke a response from anti-racist individuals that seems to refute a “harmless” message. Individuals who uphold the importance of the phrase “It’s Okay to be White” strive to antagonize those who refute its message, pointing to them as “reverse racists,” when in reality, such arguments point to the obvious — there is no systemic racism against white people; there is no need to assert that it is okay to be white when it has always been okay to be white. Cappello spoke to this false equivalency: “In the context of long histories of violent oppression, what can dominantly positioned people demanding space be except violence?… That poster on that door in that hallway in the university of Regina is an act of violence.”

The belief that the poster’s message is harmless presupposes that all racial identities are valued equally in our society, and in doing so, completely ignores centuries of institutionalized, structural racism that continues today.

Cappello shared some sentiments from proponents of these pro-white beliefs that have littered his inbox admits the blowback surrounding the event’s title — much of which were far too profane to include in this article. Many of these disdainful emails were fixated on Cappello’s “racism” against white people, something he addressed quite powerfully by saying: “If you didn’t lose your mind cursing and swearing at the supporters of Gerald Stanley and if you didn’t find your feet out at some protest for Colten Boushie; if you weren’t out on the streets talking about Dafonte Miller; if this is what it takes for you to get upset about racism, the problem isn’t your concern with racism.”

Dr. Michael Cappello giving his presentation, “It’s Okay to Be (Against) White(ness)” in the Student Centre event space on March 12, 2018. Photo by Nick Taylor.

Cappello went on to discuss why conversations about race are so difficult. He locates this difficulty not in the content of the conversation, but in the emotions that encompass it. Cappello does not aspire to prove that systemic racism against people of colour exists. Our society ought to know this to be true. Rather, he directs the conversation to why people in dominant positions are often ambivalent towards its existence and the barriers that prevent constructive conversations and subsequent actions from being realized.

Cappello then went on to delineate “racial stamina,” something people in positions of dominance lack, as they do not have to think or talk about racial injustice because they do not experience it in their everyday lives. As a result, such individuals avoid conversations about race and when these conversations do take place, people like Michael Cappello are villainized as “racist.” These negative responses are also described by the term “white fragility” — a term white supremacists will try to tell you is “racist.”

Cappello advocated for the need for white people to develop the racial stamina necessary to engage in conversations about racism because racism is not going to go anywhere if we don’t talk about it. We must participate in discourse and understand racism in order to dismantle it.

Dr. Cappello went on to share Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s definition of whiteness: “the academic term used to capture the all-encompassing dimensions of white privilege, dominance and assumed superiority in society.” Cappello added his own nuance to this definition, stating that whiteness is the “ideological underpinnings of white supremacy — the ideas, philosophies, practices that enable white dominance.”

He went on the delineate the ways in which whiteness is supported, positing that it is perpetuated by hiding it and normalizing/standardizing it, and the systems that produce and reproduce racism. He explained how harmful the normalization of whiteness can be insofar as it is constructed against “the Other.” When we conceptualize whiteness as the norm, it is invisible, and this invisibility is part of what protects it from being dismantled. Cappello also spoke to the need to accounting for racism through cultivating an awareness of the systems that uphold racist ideologies rather than pointing to specific individuals who are racist.

“Racism is the air we breathe. It surrounds us. It’s in the games you play as a kid; it’s the books that are available to you as a kid and a young adult and an adult; it’s the movies; it’s two drinks in at the bar with your friend; it’s racist uncles and grandparents; it’s a newspaper; it’s what the media can say and can’t say. It’s literally everywhere. It’s a system and we haven’t done a good job of dismantling it.”

Next, Cappello explained some basic terms and the historical context in which they have arisen. He noted that race is a social construct embedded in Western science, imperial conquest, and the development of modern nation states. Biological race is a fallacy that only indicates how far away from the equator our ancestors were born, while racism is real and tangible in both historical and modern systems and structures.

Cappello defined racism as encompassing both prejudice and power. He explained that in our Canadian context, racism is inherently intertwined with white dominance. Cappello then went on the explain an idea that a lot of people struggle with — the notion that reverse racism does not exist. Nowhere in Canadian history is there any account of historical, structural, institutionalized racism against white people. Racism is reserved for when prejudices are connected to “historic, legal, curricular, disciplinary power.” Prejudice against white people is not equivalent to racism against people of colour.

Finally, Dr. Cappello concluded the lecture with thoughts on how to work towards racial justice. First, he made a clear distinction between guilt and responsibility: “Guilt is what you feel for something you’ve done. Responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are… it is our responsibility to undo the generations of work that have created the unequal outcomes that surround us.”

Second, he emphasized the significance of centralizing the voices of people of colour, sharing that everything he has learned about racial injustice has come from black and brown people, mostly women.

Dr. Michael Cappello giving his presentation, “It’s Okay to Be (Against) White(ness)” in the Student Centre event space on March 12, 2018. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

Thirdly, he stressed the need for dominantly positioned people to realize the size of the wound so that racial injustice cannot be underestimated or dismissed. Dominantly positioned people must lament colonial, racist legacies and recognize that generations of injustice cannot be ameliorated without generations of difficult work striving to dismantle these legacies.

Dr. Michael Cappello closed with a question, a challenge of sorts, from his former colleague, Dr. Shauneen Pete, directed towards dominantly positioned people: “What measure of your privilege are you willing to give up so that someone else can experience equality?” before affirming that “Another world is possible. I would invite you in join me in living into it.”

After the presentation, TCSA President Brandon Remmelgas instructed the crowd to refrain from filming or taking photos of the audience members. A tense and difficult question period ensued. Cappello was handed the stack of questions that had been collected throughout the presentation and tasked with filtering out any inappropriate questions. However, many of the questions Cappello answered were implicitly racist, often exhibiting a complete refusal to even attempt to understand the contents of Cappello’s lecture.

One such question referred to a comment Cappello made about the permissibility of punching Nazis: “In saying ‘always punch a Nazi,’ you are condoning political violence. In doing so are you not legitimizing political violence against yourself? How do you define ‘Nazi’?” Cappello defended his original statement by saying that “Making room for every single idea is often violent, especially for marginalized students,” going on to promote the vigorous eradication of harmful ideas.

Another question argued that communicating political ideas verbally is not violent. The next question described affirmative action strategies as discriminatory towards white people. Another challenged the notion of the “It’s Okay to be White” posters being violent. Another inquired as to whether Dr. Cappello worries that his work oppresses white people and contributes to a rise in white racial consciousness. This ignorant line of questioning continued. This seems to suggest that these types of questions were written by individuals who did not attend “It’s Okay to Be (Against) White(ness)” in hopes to learn or even process any information being presented to them. One might imagine that the authors of these questions attended to argue with the content. It seems as though the types of people who needed to be in attendance were in the event space, despite not actually being open to the conversation.

Questions continued, and Cappello continued to answer this difficult line of questioning unperturbed by the blatant ignorance displayed by many of them. Some tension arose when several eventgoers requested that another eventgoer refrain from livestreaming the event to her 4000+ followers tuning in. The eventgoer declined to stop her livestream, mindfully failing to adhere to the rules of the room. When Michael Cappello answered a question that read: “In a society that places such emphasis on victimhood, the opinions of white people are becoming less valued. Is it not more likely that the poster saying “It’s Okay to be White” are in response to people wanting their opinions respected regardless of colour rather than the outlandish claim that they are geared towards violence?” Cappello noted that this question sounded a lot like a victim narrative and pointed to political representation of white people as a means of refuting the absurd idea that white people’s opinions are being devalued.

Faith Goldy, the white woman livestreaming the talk, interrupted Cappello by shouting “Canada is 76% white though. Doesn’t it make sense that that is reflected by the people in power?” Another eventgoer rebutted, questioning the legitimacy of that statistic on the grounds that many people of colour go undocumented. Faith Goldy continued to display belligerence and was kindly asked to leave the event space. She refused. Members of the audience began calling her out for her white supremacy.

The event ended and tensions reached a head as the conversation between Goldy and the audience members escalated. Faith Goldy continued to antagonize audience members with white supremacist rhetoric and seemed to target people of colour specifically. Other members of the audience began filming the argument, disrespecting the rules laid out by the TCSA, and triggering a physical altercation.

It was not until things became physically violent that security got involved, which later led many to question why students and community members were subjected to Faith Goldy’s filming and publicizing of individuals in attendance.

Security only dissolved the physical altercation that was taking place; they did not escort Goldy from the building. She eventually left on her own accord, but not before she marched up to Cappello and demanded that he answer her questions while being filmed on her livestream, to which he calmly requested that she turn the camera off before engaging in conversation with her. She refused and proceeded to livestream the crowd’s frustration with her on her way out of the building.

Goldy continued livestreaming even after she left the Student Center, commenting on the events that had just transpired and declaring herself the victim of reverse racism. She ended her livestreamed rampage by declaring “The war is inevitable,” followed by “God bless everyone.”

It is important to note that while Faith Goldy’s actions sought to spoil the event, it was still overwhelmingly successful insofar as the number of attendants and the magnitude of its message. Dr. Cappello posited a very powerful presentation and the TCSA’s work in bringing him to our campus is commendable.