“Examining Whiteness” — UBC hosts panel discussion

“The word ‘white’ was coined by the English settlers that arrived here and that’s who they call ‘the white man,’” said Larry Grant, elder-in-residence at UBC’s First Nations House of Learning. “But what is ‘white’?”

Three professors held a panel discussion on Monday evening at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre to try and answer that question.

Entitled “Examining Whiteness: What's at stake for Canada?,” the panel was organized by the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office in response to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the consequent rise of racist rhetoric and the belief many Canadians hold that “it can’t happen here.”

The professors on the panel were Dr. Linc Kesler, Dr. Handel Wright and Dr. Malinda Smith.

Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, opened the discussion by bringing into question “Canada’s imagined difference from the United States.” Canada’s national identity is linked with its self-differentiation from the United States, especially on the basis of “mythology of racelessness” here, she said.

“Canada built itself around whiteness, differentiating itself through whiteness and creating outsiders to the state, no matter their claims of birthright or entitlement,” she said. She quoted Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who had said that it was undesirable for non-white to come to Canada and create a “mongrel race.”

“There is no separation of Canada from the history of the United States. We, like the United States, have a history of advancing notions of not just white supremacy, but of an Aryan Canada,” she said.

Wright, a UBC professor and the director of the Centre for Culture, Identity and Education, then spoke to the re-emergence of white nationalism as a result of Trump’s election and how Canada is implicated in its compliance.

“To deal with Canada’s image text (the perception of Canada’s multiculturalism and tolerance) requires a kind of selective amnesia — something that Canadians are very good at employing,” he said. 

“It requires that we forget the slavery in Quebec, the Komagata Maru, the history of Canada’s immigration policy, the prohibition of the Asian race. It is also to recognize a hierarchy within whiteness.”

He noted that while these examples were from the past, the same things are happening now. Current institutions such as UBC are built upon privilege and whiteness, and even with efforts to increase diversity, the effect is “diversifying whiteness.”

In closing, he talked about how white people can be good allies and should be wary of “white fragility,” which he defined as “the personal discomfort that white people feel about the tying of whiteness to racism and privilege [that can be manifested in] ignorance, denial, guilt, et cetera.”

Kesler, an associate professor of First Nations and Indigenous studies at UBC, spoke about the “visibility and invisibility” in Canada’s history.

“The history of the Musqueam people on this land goes back thousands and thousands of years. Yet as Canada advanced as a country — and as, for that matter, this university was built in this place — the history of the Musqueam people became harder and harder to see,” he said.

He referenced a recent statement made by Senator Lynn Beyak, who said that residential schools were “well-intentioned.”

He acknowledged that there were some accounts of positive experiences with residential schools,“[but] the vast majority of what the committee heard documented a very different kind of history, and that is a history that’s important to understand, important not to be lost and important not to be bridged over with narratives of good intent.”

The panel then answered audience questions, ranging from how to have constructive discussions about whiteness in the face of denial, to what should be done about UBC’s “White Student Union” and the Free Speech Club.

Perhaps the most important message of the panel is to start dialogue about whiteness and privilege.

“We have to talk about the ways in which people have a self-construct and a national self-identity as anti-racist, but don’t do anything about it,” said Smith. “They don’t do any anti-racist work, but they see themselves as anti-racist.

“This is partly what we’re trying to do — we’re bringing whiteness into question, making it a question that requires some examination. And yes, there is disagreement about that examination, but we must bring it into question.”

You can watch an archived stream of the full discussion here.