White fragility, racism, and the recent threats against Indigenous opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline

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      Today, the Ricochet website has a disturbing story about a bomb threat issued against Wet'suwet'en people and Tyendinaga Mohawks who've been in the news recently.

      "You and your punk friends, the Mohawk warriors, need to call off the blockades," an email states. "If you don't, you will find a bomb in your mailbox and your parents will be in danger."

      Ricochet reported that the email address has been linked to a suspended Twitter account, according to the Anti-Racist Canada collective.

      It came a day after Al Jazeera English tweeted video of Indigenous people in Canada reading aloud racist posts that have been disseminated over social media.

      These messages came as a result of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline—and the solidarity protests that sprung up this month in response to RCMP raids on traditional unceded Wet'suwet'en territory.

      Why now?

      Craig Proulx, a UBC-educated associate professor of anthropology at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, researches Internet racism by non-Indigenous people toward Indigenous peoples.

      In a 2018 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, he wrote about the roots of a white backlash against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

      He noted that some of the white people's frustrations are linked to perceptions of "how generous 'we' have been to 'them' and how 'they' are ungrateful for 'our' largesse".

      Victim-blaming is also prevalent, according to Proulx, as is anger over affirmative action. And he declared in his paper that the backlash is really underpinned by "white fragility".

      For those who are unaware of this term, it refers to the discomfort and defensiveness that develops in whites when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice—and particularly how it benefits whites.

      That discomfort and defensiveness often shuts down productive conversations about the nature of institutional discrimination. 

      Robin DiAngelo's landmark 2018 book explored a phenomenon rarely discussed among whites.

      Citing U.S. sociologist Robin DiAngelo, Proulx pointed out how white fragility insulates whites from race-based stress, which leaves them less able to cope with it.

      "When the stress becomes intolerable, it 'triggers a range of defensive moves' including outward displays of 'anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation' functioning to 'reinstate white racial equilibrium'," Proulx wrote.

      "For example," he continued, "when Indigenous peoples challenge private property discourse or ask to share in the wealth generated from Indigenous land or waters, white complaints about race-based fisheries on Canada's West Coast and accusations of race-based law emerge on webpages and blogs."

      This white fragility is triggering another backlash this month, which is manifesting itself in some truly awful posts on social media. (For more on that, see the article below by CBC's Angela Sterritt.)

      Whenever this happens, white politicians can have a tendency to underplay the roots of racism, in part because they don't always understand the sociological or neurobiological roots.

      That was illustrated in the 2017 election campaign when B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark simply said "people do dumb things" after swastika-festooned signs showed up in North Vancouver—Lonsdale.

      In a column at the time, Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh declared that this wasn't good enough.

      "Ironically, our leadership keeps talking about the racist history of the province but lacks courage to face it and challenge it in the present," he wrote. "Recognition of historic wrongs is not enough if we cannot ensure that history won’t repeat itself."

      In light of this, it's time for senior political leaders—including fossil-fuel-industry defenders like Alberta premier Jason Kenney—to call out the racist dogs who are spreading their hate over social-media channels.

      As Singh so wisely wrote in 2017: "A pattern speaks for itself and all we need is strong leadership to deal with this menace."