Sask. professor receives threats over upcoming talk on 'whiteness' at Ontario university

An assistant professor of education at the University of Regina is facing intense backlash to a talk he is giving Monday titled ‘It’s Okay to be (Against) White(ness).’

'It's Okay to be (Against) White(ness)' title criticized

Monday's event, It’s Okay to be (Against) White(ness), has gained international attention and a significant amount of criticism. (Facebook/Trent Central Student Association)

An assistant professor of education at the University of Regina is facing widespread backlash to a talk he is giving Monday titled It's Okay to be (Against) White(ness).

Hosted by Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., the event's title is a response to the "It's OK to be white" posters that circulated around various Canadian campuses last November. Some posters were placed 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.
There's never been a time when it's not OK to be white.- Mike Cappello, University of Regina professor

"In racist society, statements like that from a dominant group can only be violent," Mike Cappello said. "To then stick it on the door of an Indigenous person, that kicks it up a notch. That suggests that it isn't just about holding up white values...but that it's against something. 

"It's never been true here. There's never been a time when it's not OK to be white."

Stories and op-eds on the event have been published in The Toronto Sun, The Calgary Herald, Narcity and The Washington Times.

Cappello said the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) has received positive feedback from students on the upcoming event, but he's mostly seen a "violent reaction" to its title. He said he has received dozens of hateful emails and abusive and threatening phone calls. One caller even told him, "I know where you live."
Pictured, Mike Cappello speaks to students on the TRC Recommendations. (University of Regina Faculty of Education)

"The person on the phone, and a number of people who have emailed, are just sort of refusing to take up the conversation, insisting that this is anti-white or against white people and not about the ways in which ideas about colour circulate in the society that we're a part of," Cappello said. "That refusal to have that conversation is a problem."

'Whiteness' as an academic term

According to the event's Facebook page, "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."

"This event is not discussing problems with white people, it is discussing whiteness as an idea," said Lindsay Yates, the TCSA ethical standards commissioner via email. "Whiteness is a set of privileges that those of us who present as white have access to.

The intention of the event is to get students thinking about privilege and how it contributes to racial injustice.  - Lindsay Yates, the TCSA ethical standards commissioner

"Whiteness upholds systems of power like capitalism and patriarchy and as we continue accessing and not acknowledging the privilege of being white, we help to uphold these oppressive systems."

Yates said she organized the event because racial injustice and privilege isn't discussed enough on campus.

"With a student population that is predominantly white-presenting, it felt important to start conversations on campus about what the privilege of being white looks like," she said, in her emails with CBC News. "The intention of the event is to get students thinking about privilege and how it contributes to racial injustice.  

"We're encouraging students to recognize and challenge privilege in their everyday lives."

Gad Saad, a Concordia University professor known for speaking out against what he calls social justice culture, said that whiteness as an academic term is "nonsense."

"Are there white people who are racist? Yes. Does the term whiteness, and white supremacy, get overused today? Yes," Saad said. "Obviously I don't think that they believe that all white people are evil, but they have overreached."

Overwhelming negativity

Yates admitted she was overwhelmed by the number of negative responses by the public, many of which she calls "racist and offensive."

"It's not against white people at all," said Cappello. "Had I titled the event 'It's OK to be against white supremacy' I don't think anybody would have batted an eyelash, or I hope that nobody would have."

Some comments on social media have pointed the finger in the TCSA's direction.

"You are inciting hatred against an identifiable group (Caucasians). Resign from your posts and stop embarrassing the university with your blatant hate speech and racism," wrote Tyson Sangster on Facebook.

Dozens more echo his sentiment. Others have questioned the title, which has inarguably provoked a reaction, far outside of the campus and its arts department.

Judge people on their individual merits and faults and let's stop with this identity politics nonsense.- Gad Saad, Concordia University professor

"TCSA should've chosen a title that was aimed more at the general public, since it's an event for the general public, and not an event hosted by the Gender Studies Department (for example)," wrote Melissa Van Bussel.

Saad said he believes much of the backlash springs from the title, which he called "obnoxious" and "poorly worded."

"You might imagine that a lot of people who happen to be white, who are perfectly kind and loving and non-bigoted, might not like to see something like, 'Anti-whiteness is OK' as a poster," Saad said. "There are ways in which we can combat injustice and bigotry without now making it progressive to target one particular group.

"Judge people on their individual merits and faults and let's stop with this identity politics nonsense."

Yates said security will be present at the event on Monday night.

With files from CBC Radio's Nichole Huck