Manitoba·Opinion

The storm over Winnipeg's Whiteout and why words matter

Don't abolish the Winnipeg Jets Whiteout parties, says linguistics professor Nicole Rosen — but consider other names that mean exactly the same thing, but have less potential for unwanted undertones.

Don't kill the party, 'but is it going to hurt anything to call it a Blizzard?' asks linguist and Jets fan

White-clad Winnipeg Jets fans celebrate at the start of the team's game against the St. Louis Blues on April 10. Some suggest it's time to wash out the 'Whiteout' name and find another term for the celebrations. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Winnipeg has seen a number of news stories that are pitting freedom of expression against cultural sensitivity. 

First, there's the recent court case that argued revoking a licence plate reading ASIMIL8 was a violation of the owner's freedom of expression. 

Then, when it was pointed out that the name of the "Whiteout" can be triggering for people of colour, Winnipeg Jets fans responded overwhelmingly angrily that the oversensitivity is going overboard, and that people are afraid to say anything.

This is a common theme these days — "everyone should just relax, people are so sensitive, no one can say anything without offending someone."

So, on the Whiteout. 

I am part of a good, traditional Jets hockey-loving family, and we loved the Whiteout parties to celebrate the Jets' playoff games that we attended last year. 

I loved it for what I saw as its inclusiveness and its diversity: sitting in the family zone downtown with Winnipeggers of all backgrounds and ages, loads of us who couldn't afford or didn't get tickets to go watch inside the arena, but all united, sitting on the ground and cheering in unison. 

The Whiteout street party before Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues on Friday, April 12. Nicole Rosen doesn't want anyone to abolish the parties, but suggests the names 'Blizzard' or 'Snowstorm' are alternatives to 'Whiteout' that mean the same thing, but have less potential for racist undertones. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

I defended the Whiteouts when my left-wing Facebook friends complained about them (mostly, in my mind, because they didn't like sports and would like to see city resources being put elsewhere — a fair point).

But then one of them specifically said that the Whiteouts made him felt unsafe, and that he was glad he no longer worked downtown.

That point resonated with me. What was fun and inclusive from my experience was unsafe and unwelcoming to his.

Later, when I read the Black Space Winnipeg call for mindfulness, I saw the picture of the three white men dressed in white wearing tall, pointed white wizard caps — and I couldn't help but be reminded of the Ku Klux Klan, whether that was the intention or not.

And Winnipeg sports fans aren't the only ones having these kinds of conversations.

Can we really not step back and say that while we love cheering our Jets at Whiteout parties, maybe this is not actually as inclusive a party as we were thinking it was?

In early April, McGill University announced it is changing the name of its men's varsity sports team, the Redmen, acknowledging that the term is widely seen as an offensive one for Indigenous peoples.

As expected, there are reactions on either side: those who see it as positive (first) step toward healing and reconciliation, and those who object that years of tradition are being overturned.

What's the big deal about a team name, anyway?

'Nobody likes change'

Linguist George Lakoff argues that geniality and consensus in discourse tend to flourish in homogeneous societies, or where one homogeneous group controls public discourse.

Although until recently we have seen a fairly homogenous group controlling public discourse (news flash: older white men), today, we have much more sharing of language control thanks to — among other things — social media.

Many groups achieving this discourse power today have never had it before, and able to use their voices publicly for the first time. 

Note that critiques of "political correctness" started in the 1980s, around the same time this democratisation of public voices was coming about. These critiques of political correctness represent a dismay in this change, and an attempt (probably unconscious) to keep the diversity of voices in check. 

Nobody likes change.

This is relevant, because we should notice that the call to reconsider the name "Whiteout" or "ASIMIL8" on a licence plate is coming from groups that have not traditionally had discourse power. Not coincidentally, they are being critiqued for speaking up and trying to find a place in an increasingly diverse public discourse.

Much of this discussion is framed around "freedom of speech." No harm was meant, so no harm should be taken. Proponents of free speech want to be able to speak without censorship, without needing to consider others. It's too much, they say. 

But why wouldn't we want to consider others? 

When some of our neighbours are telling us that our choice of words are causing hurt [we] can tell them that they are being oversensitive, or we can try to make them feel included.

Why do we think that everyone sees things the way we do? Can we really not step back and say that while we love cheering our Jets at Whiteout parties, maybe this is not actually as inclusive a party as we were thinking it was, and maybe we could be mindful of that? 

Can we really not see that thousands of largely white heterosexual male sports fans drinking alcohol could come across as intimidating? 

This is not a call to abolish Whiteout parties, but is it going to hurt anything to call it a Blizzard or a Snowstorm? These two other words mean exactly the same thing, but have less potential for racist undertones. 

Could we agree not to summon racist catch phrases like "make Winnipeg white again"?

McGill University made the choice to change the Redmen name to not use language that's hurtful to our Indigenous neighbours. 

We also have a choice to make when some of our neighbours are telling us that our choice of words are causing hurt. 

We can tell them that they are being oversensitive, or we can try to make them feel included. I know which I choose.


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Nicole Rosen is a sociolinguistics professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Manitoba, and the Canada Research Chair in Language Interactions. She researches languages and dialects of the Canadian Prairies.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.