ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish
By Beatrice Murch (Flickr) [<a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>.

“Let’s Talk About It”: Empathy in Times of Racist Entrenchment

Written by
April 13, 2018
“Let’s Talk About It”: Empathy in Times of Racist Entrenchment
By Beatrice Murch (Flickr) [<a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>.

[content warning: This article discusses historically violent rhetoric and the desire for violence particularly against people of colour and LGBTQIA2S+ people.]

Nearly a month after the “It’s Okay to be (Against) White(ness)” event on campus, students are still feeling the aftershock of racist actions in the Trent community. Faith Goldy, a known white nationalist, infiltrated the event hosted by the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) and disrupted a conversation that many considered extremely important and necessary. Her actions have since garnered sympathy with some in the community.

Goldy has since attempted to give her own talk entitled “Ethnocide: Multiculturalism and European Canadian Identity” at Wilfred Laurier University’s campus in Waterloo, Ontario. Her event, scheduled for the week after Trent’s event, was shut down by WLU students.

The subtitle of the TCSA event – “Racial Injustice in a Time of Racist Intrenchment” – inspired considerably less conversation than the title that preceded it, but it must also be considered when examining what happened on March 12, and how to move forward.

Below are three interviews conducted after the event: one from the keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Cappello; and two from notable attendees.

Dr. Michael Cappello

Dr. Michael Cappello is an assistant professor and the Chair for Educational Core studies at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a white settler man living on Treaty 4 land whose work focuses on teaching/learning against colonialism and teaching/learning into reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Dr. Cappello was invited to give a brief and basic presentation on how white privilege and systemic racism works to dehumanize people of colour, particularly black and Indigenous people, in Western contexts. As previously reported, the conversation was meant to be focused on how these forces manifest themselves and what their intended effects are, rather than arguing that they exist at all.

“On one level, we’re past this conversation. I will not waste my time arguing about the presence of systemic racism in this society. We need to move past that conversation,” Dr. Cappello says. “I go over this with my students: there are things that we can have opinions about, but the presence of systemic racism in our society is not one of them. If we don’t recognize that that systemic racism bleeds into everything, if we can’t start there, whatever we propose as far as solutions are going to be problematic.”

He explains that though the event was challenging, he gathered strength from the supportive and encouraging people in the event space.

“I think in lots of ways my approach to teaching is very personal. This isn’t content that is very light. I’m very present in that moment. Teaching is emotional work, and I gave a lot of myself [that] night,” he reflects.

Dr. Cappello lectured for one hour, with an approximately 40-minute question period immediately following. The question period was especially challenging, as Dr. Cappello was subject to unscreened questions in front of a live audience and a livestream.

“I would say that the majority of the questions that I received were from people who didn’t really want to hear what was being said,” he says. “I didn’t skip many questions. There were two or three that I didn’t feel I could read aloud. But I addressed the things put before me as best I could.”

He notes that he and other people within the event were exceptionally generous to those who came to agitate, such as Goldy. He personally invited people and made himself available to having honest conversations directly following the event. A few students took him up on the offer briefly before he did a T.V. interview in the event space.

It was the frustration with being recorded without consent that truly acerbated people to the point that students asked Goldy to leave the premises.

“I will say it’s a little scary to have your voice and your presence in the hands of people that have demonstrated that they want to do you harm – at the very least: lose your job, know where you live, that kind of thing,” Dr. Cappello agrees, alluding to the onslaught of emails that he received ahead of the event.

“It wasn’t like as soon as she opened her mouth she was shown the door. She was given time to speak inappropriately. She was given space to record people. She was given lots of time and space. And, in fact, the offer of more! “Turn off the camera; we’ll have a conversation,”” he says. “She didn’t want any of that.”

Dr. Cappello believes that there is little that he could have said that would have changed his detractors’ minds due to personal investments in not being perceived as incorrect or immoral.

““If what Mike is saying about racism is true, and I’m a racist, that means I’m morally wrong. And I can’t be morally wrong, so what Mike is saying must not be true,”” he asserts, explaining the logic. “That’s not a rational conversation.”

“As I’ve paid attention, especially to the standpoint of people who are marginalized according to their racialization, it becomes harder and harder to conclude anything except, “This is real. This resonates in all kinds of ways for people who are marginalized because of the colour of their skin in our society,”” Dr. Cappello continues. “And I can ignore that – I can pretend that as if that sort of privileged, fragile, sense of me being good and that’s good enough; and I don’t have bad intentions or whatever – but that requires increasingly more work, to ignore those voices.”

As an educator, Dr. Cappello suggests engaging with the vast bodies of literature on the topics of race and colonialism, from W.E.B. Du Bois in the 20th century to B.M.J. Brayboy today.

“People that have a standpoint other than a white standpoint have seen these issues in schools from the beginning of schools. Learning to pay attention to those voices is actually really, really crucial. It’s really important.”

R.J. Pate

R.J. Pate is a black queer photo-activist based in Hull, Ottawa. They came to Trent on March 12 to offer their support after hearing about the event through social media and their connections to the Trent community.

Pate says that the content of Dr. Cappello’s lecture was not particularly new information to them as they are a person of colour, but also acknowledges that they were not the target audience.

“The information was hella important and the audience was very captivated by what he had to say – very captivated and very interested. It was conversation that folks aren’t able to have at the table everyday, where I was having those conversations everyday in my family just because that [is] my life,” they explain.

“It was hard to be in a room with hostile people, and knowing exactly who those hostile people were,” they continue. “You could just tell who was there to learn, and who was there to fight back – who was there with already preconceived notions.”

Pate describes that, besides Goldy, others in attendance were recording the event and transcribing it in real-time for the full near-two hours. Furthermore, there were spectators watching through the event space’s glass walls and gaining audio access through Goldy’s stream.

“I’m sitting there, on the livestream, reading these comments of hate from all of her Twitter followers on Periscope. And on top of that, looking at these people [outside the building] who obviously feel the exact same way about me: who are telling us these horrible, horrible things of what we should do to ourselves, how we should live, how they should get rid of us, etcetera,” Pate says.

Learning that Goldy has a history with the alt-right and has validated neo-Nazi doctrines did not surprise Pate when considering their experience at the event, though they did not know of this until afterwards. However, this does not change their choice to confront Goldy about her livestream.

“She’s here being like, “Well I’m not reading the comments on my stuff,”” they say in disbelief. “What do you mean, you’re not reading the comments? You have 4000 viewers and 80 000 Twitter followers. What do you mean, you’re not reading the comments on your stuff? Of course you are. You were waving at me in the corner. You knew exactly who I was, because I was writing comments in your box, being like, ‘This is not okay. Stop this.’”

When Goldy chose to interrupt Dr. Cappello’s question period with misguided statistics to suggest proportional racial representation in government, Pate was quick to respond.

“76% of the country’s population is white, though,” she said, speaking out of turn in the context of the event.

“76% of people [at this event] don’t want you here,” they retorted shortly after, garnering stifled laughter.

The decision to act came naturally to Pate when they considered the positionality of others.

“I’m 6’3, I’m light-skinned, I’m well-educated – all these things, where I’m able to speak up and I will most likely be safe in those situations, unlike a lot of folks who can’t speak up, don’t have the ability to, etcetera,” Pate explains.

“It’s hard to sit in a room with people who will look me dead in the eye and know that they feel the exact same way as me, and they can’t say anything,” they continue. “Because they’re there, and they’re vulnerable, and they go to this school. They gotta be on campus everyday, and they gotta get to school, and they gotta take the bus and gotta work their jobs.”

Pate hopes that this experience changes how the TCSA handles question periods for controversial events in the future. They believe that questions should have been moderated for Dr. Cappello’s ease and well-being.

“You had this poor man, who had just gone through an hour lecture, who had just put his heart and soul into this… is now made to read these horrible-ass questions and is having to give his reaction in front of this whole crowd of people,” they posit. “Why would you put someone through that?”

Empathy is at the forefront of Pate’s work, as they understand how it is harmful to lack empathy. As someone who is biracial, queer, and trans, they know how it feels to be considered an outsider, or to be Othered, in a variety of spaces.

“As soon as you have empathy for me – you don’t want my livelihood; you’re not coming for my life – I’m able to work with you,” they state.

“I really do think people should be able to take away the fact that they need to be more empathetic for people they don’t understand, because at the end of the day, you’re going to find that relatability somewhere, and you just need to put that work in yourself.”

Shanese Steele

Shanese Steele is the TCSA Vice President of Campaigns and Equity for the 2017-2018 academic year. She is a black and Indigenous woman.

Steele first interacted with Dr. Cappello at an Indigenous symposium that she attended in Regina last year.

“He had come to talk about supporting Indigenous peoples in conversations around colonialism and racism, and I remember giving him such a hard time during that. And his answers and responses to my criticisms as a person of colour, as an Indigenous woman, were so spot-on and appropriate,” she recalls. “He wasn’t defensive about my criticisms, like most people are when we’re having conversations around this.”

It was for these reasons that Steele suggested Dr. Cappello to TCSA Ethical Standards Commissioner for 2017-2018, Lindsay Yates, when Yates approached her with the idea of an event on white privilege.

Steele had very little to do with the organization of the event but found herself targeted online by students and strangers alike regardless. She notes particularly that a writer for the National Post tweeted out a screenshot of a Facebook post she had written about white identity, leading to hostile messages and emails.

“I was getting DMs on Facebook; people were looking for my Twitter account, that I don’t even use, which is super funny. Criticizing me, sending me all these emails about how they’re going to send the Sons of Odin after me,” she says. “[They were] saying I’m going to die in hell with Nazis. It was just ridiculous, the amount of emails I was getting around something that I really had nothing to do with.”

Steele also points out that though someone from the Toronto Sun reached out for an interview, she did not have a chance to respond before the Sun published a quotation from one of her Facebook posts without her permission.

Before the event had even taken place, Steele, Yates, and Dr. Cappello were subject to email and social media bombardment from across the country, as well as Europe and the United States.

“It’s so interesting because even after we all reiterated, “This isn’t an anti-white event,” and even after Dr. Cappello reiterated, “This isn’t an anti-white event,” they STILL called it an “anti-white” event,” Steele says, connecting the reaction to an increasing number of movements that suggest that the white ethnostate is in crisis and should be defended from perceived affronts.

Despite deep and valid concerns for her safety, Steele attended the March 12 event in the Student Center Event Space. She praises Dr. Cappello for merging the historical aspects of whiteness and colonization with contemporary iterations of racism, such as the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine.

“For me, it was great to see a person who’s a part of the dominant society contradicting the dehumanization of my community. I was snapping [my fingers in praise] the whole time. I couldn’t stop. Because people of colour say this every single day. We make statuses about it, we write books about it, and articles and songs and movies; and we talk about it every single day. And it’s like no one is listening,” she explains thoughtfully. “I just felt like, “Okay, someone’s heard us. Someone’s heard us, and now they’re taking the time to use their privilege to reiterate it to people who won’t listen to us but will probably listen to them.” So, for me, that was powerful in itself.”

She does, however, wish that Faith Goldy and her company had been removed from the event, explaining that she had said hateful things to students while also being disruptive.

“I had a friend who was sitting beside me who was watching the news feed of her video [broadcast via Periscope on Twitter], and people were like, “Kill them all;” “give them anthrax,”” Steele stated. “It was literally this very threatening way [of being present at the event], and the fact that she was trying to sit there and pretend like she didn’t have a connection to those kinds of people.”

Despite being asked multiple times to end her livestream or leave the building, Goldy continued to harass students and Dr. Cappello when he was available. Steele notes that this was frustrating, but resulted in solidarity in the Trent community.

“A person visiting from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Ontario office, she had started to chant and remind the students, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t matter on this campus.” And that for me was beautiful: to see students of colour – not just black students, but students of colour – celebrating their existence on the Trent campus, and also non-people of colour participating in that and supporting that,” she explains. “I think that showed the real Trent community.”

What Steele hopes everyone can take away from this experience is empathy for others, even though everyone’s struggle is different.

“I think my thing is, just try to open your eyes and your heart and your ears and your mind to what people of colour are saying. Read their words, watch their movies, listen to pain that they feel; and try to empathize with that. Try to put yourself in their shoes,” she says earnestly.

“Whether you’re a person of colour or whether you’re white; or you’re able-bodied or disabled; whether you’re cis or you’re trans; whether you’re queer or you’re straight: trying to make this a more equitable place, just think about that. And try to remove yourself. Just try to think about other people.”

ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish
ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish

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