Patti Bacchus: School antiracism-campaign backlash proves how badly it’s needed

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      The ugly backlash to a B.C. school district’s provocative antiracism campaign is proving how much we need programs like this and why we need to stand behind courageous educators who deliver them.

      The posters on display in the hallways of B.C.’s Gold Trail school district, which includes the communities of Ashcroft, Clinton, Lytton, Lillooet, and Cache Creek, carry similar messages as those featured in a previous Saskatoon billboard campaign intended to stimulate necessary discussion about racism. And judging by the response, the campaign has done exactly that.

      The posters feature photos of senior school-district staff members with statements like, “If you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.” And: “I cannot be blind to the invisible system of privilege I am part of.”

      Drawing the hottest social-media reaction is one with a photo of Gold Trail superintendent of schools Teresa Downs beside the words: “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.” That one seemed to trigger a lot of fragile white folks who don’t believe being white gives them any advantages in life and don’t take kindly to suggestions it does.

      Parent’s Facebook post set off a social-media firestorm

      While the posters have apparently been up for a couple of months, it was a parent’s Facebook post last week that set off a social-media firestorm and drew international media coverage of the campaign, along with vicious, personal attacks on Downs and calls for her resignation and jailing of the entire school board. It was ugly stuff. 

      Reading the social-media comments on stories about racism is often akin to looking down the hole in an outhouse. It’s a dark and fetid experience, featuring an abundance of human waste, some so vile and infectious that it poses a serious threat to our collective public health. Some of the comments I read about this educational antiracism campaign are no exception.

      I dove in anyway, knowing I’d regret it, because I wanted to understand how people could truly believe that acknowledging what seems so obvious to me could in any way be considered racist or divisive when it’s actually the opposite. Ugh. There is no shower hot enough or soap strong enough to cleanse away the ignorant, racist stench I encountered in those comments.

      What struck me most, in a province in which every education minister that I can recall has been white, where almost all public-school superintendents are white, where every elected premier has been white (Ujjal Dosanjh took over the post after Glen Clark’s 1999 resignation, but lost the 2001 election), in a country where every prime minister has been white—I hope you get my point—is that there are still a lot of people who think white privilege isn’t a thing.

      The arguments go something like this: I’ve worked hard for everything! No one gave me anything! I’m white and I’m still poor! Asian kids get the best marks and get good-paying jobs! Native people don’t even pay taxes and get a bunch of free stuff—that’s privilege! It’s racist to say white people have advantages! Look at this crappy basement suite I live in—you call this privilege? Why are you making white kids feel bad? Schools should teach that everyone’s equal! Saying white people have privilege is racist! And those are the nicer points.

      Alas, as the posters in the schools point out, white privilege is real and we all need to acknowledge its effects. That starts with those of us who have it learning to understand it and consider ways we can eradicate the racist attitudes that underpin and perpetuate it. It’s not about tearing white folks down; it’s about levelling the uneven playing field of life so that everyone has fair opportunities for success.

      The attacks on Downs and calls for her to quit her job and offer it up to a person of colour demonstrate just how fearful many—predominately white— people are about acknowledging societal inequities and the advantages some enjoy that others do not. This is why educational campaigns are so necessary and valuable.

      Education is the antidote to fear and ignorance

      People fear what they don’t understand and people hate what they fear, and there’s a ton of hate in this backlash. The antidote to fear and hate is education, and that’s what this campaign is about. It’s brilliant, and the attention it is getting proves that it’s doing exactly what is needed by stimulating discussion and debate.

      Downs and her district team should know they’ve struck exactly the right nerve now that they’ve set off the likes of Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor and author who has gained international notoriety for his provocative battles against all things he considers politically correct, like feminism, transgender pronouns, environmentalism, and what he calls a “deeply propagandistic” Disney movie (Frozen).

      Described as the “stupid man’s smart person”, free-speech champion Peterson tweeted this gem last weekend in response to a tweet about the Gold Trail white-privilege posters. “Parents: these words (particularly together) mean indoctrination: 'diversity, inclusivity, white privilege, gender' and, above all, and absolutely unforgivably & 'equity.' Never, ever let teachers talk to your kids about equity.”

      If Peterson and his followers are agin what you’re teaching in schools, you’re doing something right.

      Parents are a real problem

      It’s easy to mock Peterson and his growing alt-right fan base of angry white men, but Downs has to deal with parents and community members who have taken to social media demanding the posters be removed and various heads be placed on stakes. I don’t envy her in that, and I hope her school board and the Ministry of Education are giving her lots of support.

      Taking on controversial subjects is important, and stimulating informed and thoughtful debate is precisely what our public schools should be doing. Learning about racism and the effects of colonization are keys to understanding our nation’s history and forging a better path forward. This kind of nasty backlash can intimidate all but the most courageous and determined educators and we need to stand behind them to ensure these important conversations continue in our schools.

      We live in dangerous times when populist white-male politicians and guys like Peterson are tapping into and exploiting some of the basest reactions to small steps toward more equitable societies. Education is the best way to inoculate ourselves and our kids from the fear-based messages that spread so virulently through cyberspace, infecting countless impressionable and vulnerable people along the way. 

      Downs and the Gold Trail school-district team are the kind of educational leaders we need in every school district. They’re teaching that privilege comes with responsibility. Those of us with privilege need to recognize our place in a grossly inequitable system if we’re sincere about wanting to change it. To do otherwise is to be complicit in perpetuating and reinforcing historical wrongs and failing to take responsibility for working toward a more just society.

      Congratulations to the Gold Trail team on a smart, effective, and obviously much-needed campaign. Here’s hoping the opposing parents and commenters learn from it, along with the students.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.