On Monday March 12, the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) will be hosting Dr. Michael Cappello, who will be giving a presentation called “It’s OK to be (Against) White(ness): Racial Injustice in a Time of Racial Entrenchment.”
Dr. Cappello is an assistant professor and the Chair for Educational Core studies at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan. The Facebook event description states that he is an anti-oppressive educator “focused on teaching/learning against colonialism and teaching/learning into reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”
Though Dr. Cappello works in post-secondary education currently, earlier in his career he worked as a high school teacher and a school chaplain. When asked what influenced his pursuit of education and anti-oppression education, he cites his long-time interest in education’s role in social change.
“I worked for two years as a high school teacher in the town of Punnichy, Saskatchewan,” he recalls. “98% of our students came from three reserves nearby. Much of what led me in these [educational] directions came as a result of loving and serving those students.”
“Whiteness” refers to the positive construct that occurs in the negative space of racializing people of colour in cultures and societies dominated by white-skinned people. Put more clearly, by defining what (for example) “blackness” or “Indigenous-ness” are, white-skinned people define whiteness in the absence of that quality: “not black” or “not Indigenous.” Since racialization imposes negative characteristics on people of colour and their cultures, whiteness is considered positively by default. In line with this, scholars working in legal studies, history, and critical race theory have pointed out that white-skinned people are “assumed not to “have race”” as Dr. David R. Roediger (currently of University of Kansas) writes.
As a result, the defining characteristics of whiteness are more hidden, and must be inferred against the racialization of other ethnicities and skin colours. Through this rendering of whiteness, academics have been able to identify, analyze, and interrogate whiteness where it exists. As the above disciplines are investigating, whiteness can be found in sociocultural systems and institutions.
“I don’t want us to feel guilt over [whiteness]; rather it will be a call to take some responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in,” Dr. Cappello says of the talk. “What ideas will sustain us for the long generations of labour ahead of us to begin to right historic and ongoing injustices and live into something more equitable? It is ultimately a sense of hope that I am striving for – a vision that takes seriously our context and imagines something a little different than the cultural genocide of my ancestors.”
TCSA Commissioner of Ethical Standards and fourth-year student Lindsay Yates organized the upcoming event.
“I found out about Dr. Cappello when I approached [Vice President of Campaigns and Equity] Shanese [Steele] about wanting to do an event about white privilege,” Yates says. “She had heard him speak before, and said he was thought-provoking and did a very engaging and great presentation.”
“Being someone who has access to whiteness, I wanted the event to be something that I could advocate for but also learn a lot from,” she states.
Yates noted that the TCSA was unable to elect an Anti-Racism Commissioner for the 2017-2018 year, which solidified her choice to tackle the topic of racial injustice. She believes that the event and its topic are timely, regardless of which side of the U.S.-Canada border you consider.
“Looking to the news in the past couple of weeks even, we see whiteness at work with the unjust verdicts of the murder trials for both Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. We see whiteness at work in the media attention on the activism in Parkland, Florida and the neglect of the activism surrounding the police violence against people of colour,” she explains. “Whiteness is very present, and it is something that all of us with white skin must come to recognize in our lives.”
It is increasingly evident, however, that not all people feel this way. The event’s Facebook page, listed under the talk’s name, has been a site of controversy since it was posted. The name of Dr. Cappello’s talk has been accused of being “racist,” “discriminatory,” and “inciting violence” against white people, according to emails that Yates has received since the event was announced.
“Some students think this event is an effort to segregate or divide students and suggest hate towards white people,” she says, with slight disbelief. “This event is all about reconciliation and inclusion; and is meant to create a space for learning about how we can better identify whiteness at work and challenge the way it can harm different groups.”
As a result, Yates and the TCSA resolved to put out a statement in the Facebook event page.
“Hello Trent students,
After receiving some questions regarding the title of this event, we have a short statement that should clarify the intentions of this event for anyone concerned.
This event’s title is based on the “It’s ok to be white” posters that circulated around various Canadian campuses in November of 2017 that sent racist and offensive messages to racialized student groups. These posters were placed strategically, outside the faculty of Native Studies at the U of A, and on the door of the Office of Indigenization at the U of R. These posters had a divisive and offensive message and were revealed to be tied to white nationalist agendas.
This talk, “It’s Okay to be (Against) White(ness)” by Dr. Cappello is challenging the idea of “whiteness.” Whiteness is an academic term for the ideologies that describe the practices, beliefs, habits and attitudes that enable the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin-colour. Whiteness, as an idea, is not about white people as much as the ways that white racialization is socially constructed as dominant, both historically and in the present moment. Understanding the construction of dominance is necessary in order to begin to dismantle those racialized hierarchies that continue to flourish within the systems of our society. Focusing on Whiteness allows us to move away from the narrow, individual framing of racism as personal ignorance, and begin to focus on the systemic ways that these ideas are made normal.
This normalization of Whiteness makes it difficult for students racialized as white to even notice these ideologies; ‘being normal’ and centering the positions of the dominant group as normal requires making these processes invisible. At this event, we are challenging students to begin to notice, understand and resist the powerful ways that Whiteness works.
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Lindsay Yates, TCSA Ethical Standards Commissioner (firstname.lastname@example.org)” (February 26, 2018)
While some have insisted that name of the event is merely the issue, the TCSA statement explains its origins and intended effects. Dr. Cappello claims he “would have named this event exactly this in Regina and not given it a second’s thought.”
However, this has not satisfied those same concerned individuals, who have taken to the comment section of the post to further insist that the talk is “inflammatory” and “inciting hatred.” While some of the commenters are past and present students, others have disappeared as they are reported as fake Facebook accounts created for trolling purposes. The comments for the post have since been disabled.
On a now-deleted post, a now-deleted Facebook account suggests that others in the comments section to “fax some anthrax” to Dr. Cappello’s University of Regina office. Though it is impossible to fax a biochemical agent that has a history of use as biological weaponry, it is deeply concerning that such a violent joke be made within the community.
Despite Steele’s minimal involvement with the event, she claims that she has been targeted for harassment through email and on Twitter by white supremacists, according to public Facebook posts. She is a visible minority as a black and Indigenous woman. She was unavailable for direct comment during the writing of this piece.
Trent University is no stranger to online attacks from political trolls. For instance, former Rebel Media employee Lauren Southern infiltrated the general Trent University Facebook group and harassed its members alongside others in 2015. A fake account also called for Arthur newspaper to be defunded in the same Facebook group in 2017.
The controversy around the event has also been covered by the Postmedia group, as well as news outlets that slant towards far right-wing and alt-right politics.
“The kind of uninformed pushback and the refusal to engage with the wide body of literature/research I expect from my first-year students, but certainly not from thoughtful, engaged people who have put in the work,” says Dr. Cappello in response to the controversy. “That systemic racism exists is not debatable. The desire for that not to be true, or the selfishness required to dismiss this reality because of perceived personal attacks is really problematic.”
On this same Facebook post, Dr. May Chazan of Trent’s Gender and Women’s Studies faculty denounced the accusatory comments as “extremely offensive, racist, and ignorant” and exemplary of “white fragility.” White fragility is a term coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo (currently of Westfield State University) which refers to white people’s defensive emotional and verbal reactions triggered under the stress of acknowledging racism in its multiple forms.
Dr. Chazan noticed when students associated with the TCSA (such as Yates, Steele, and former Indigenous Students Commissioner and former Vice President of Campaigns and Equity Brendan Campbell) were made to respond to additional comments. She explains that she wanted to “recognize and center the important work that the TCSA is doing” by attempting to educate other students when she entered the conversation on the Facebook post.
“I wanted to acknowledge their work – give them a shout out for the efforts they were making. I also know this takes an emotional toll, especially when it is so often students of colour and Indigenous students who are left to have these conversations,” Dr. Chazan says. “As a white prof who teaches courses with critical race theory as part of our curriculum, I wanted to offer to do some of this educational work with them.”
In her Facebook comment, she extended an invitation to those with genuine interest in the topic to join her for coffee and discussion, which students have taken up.
“I have had a few students reach out to me, on both “sides” of this division, and I have had some great discussions,” she notes. “I think these are important conversations for university students to have.”
A biology student and comrade speaking for Revolutionary Student Movement (RSM) at Trent, who chose not to disclose their identity, also believes it is an essential topic. They and other RSM comrades hope to attend. They heard about the event through Facebook.
“Not only is it “okay” or “alright” to be against whiteness, it is necessary. This is not identical to being against white people. Instead it is a political position against what are fundamentally white supremacist politics,” the student says.
They also note that whiteness is tied up with Canadian nationalism and the country’s history of colonization, so the nation as it is largely understood must be confronted and challenged as well.
Despite the controversy, the event will go on at the Student Centre’s event space from 4 P.M. to 6 P.M. on March 12. Yates has stated that the event will remain in the event space for security reasons, though there is a high level of interest. At the time of writing, nearly 400 Facebook users have been invited or RSVP’d to the event.
Both Yates and Dr. Cappello are looking forward to the event. Dr. Chazan hopes to attend part of it though she teaches during that time.
“I hope that attendees will leave the event with a greater understanding of the privilege they may hold,” says Yates. “I hope that as a whole, the audience feels equipped to recognize whiteness and how it works in society, and [will] be able to help challenge and resist it in their everyday lives.”
“This will be a mature and complicated conversation. I hope attendees come prepared for those complexities. I think it is okay to be against the structuring forces that dehumanize marginalized people in our country,” says Dr. Cappello.
“This event has brought the question of racism, both implicit and explicit, to the table,” says the RSM comrade and biology student. “Even if [RSM] may disagree with the speaker on what to do about it, our hope is this event will force people to choose a side: either for or against white supremacy. There is no middle ground.”
Correction (March 6 2018): Against the print edition, the RSM comrade and biology student was characterized as interested in working “toward reconciliation.” This inadequately describes their position against the nation as concept and has since been retracted. Apologies.
Correction (March 16 2018): Against the print edition, Shanese Steele is Indigenous as well as black. Apologies.