Manitoba·Point of View

Why is being called 'racist' more offensive than racism itself? White fragility silences voices, says advocate

University of Manitoba law graduate and podcast host Elsa Kaka challenges the historical trend of denouncing the word "racist" — and silencing those who use it.

'White feelings don't matter more than Black and Indigenous lives,' says human rights advocate

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was booted from the House of Commons Wednesday after calling a Bloc MP a racist. The denial of systemic racism 'led to the first racialized leader of the NDP being expelled for daring to challenge the status quo,' says Elsa Kaka. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The worst thing you can call a white person is "racist."

This past week, I've opened up Instagram to see white people excited to embark on their new-found quest of becoming actively anti-racist; working it into their Instagram bio, encouraging other white people to openly embrace criticisms from people of colour, to listen, to do better.  

These, however, are the same people who during law school winced and whined at being called out on appropriating Indigenous cultures, who argued that our criminal law classes were no place for discussions about race, who asked why the Black women in class couldn't be more amicable, instead of forcing people to have difficult conversations about race.

Imagine my dismay when I realized that law school was not full of people who wanted to use the law to dismantle systems that oppressed the marginalized. Instead, people would silence the voices of those who brought up difficult issues, because their white fragility could not handle it.

But white fragility is nothing new. 

On Nov. 1, 1995, the word "racist" was codified by the Speaker of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly as "unparliamentary language."

NDP MLA Oscar Lathlin, seen here in a 2004 file photo, refused to withdraw statements he made in the legislature in 1995 when he called government policies 'racist.' (Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

This was done in response to Oscar Lathlin, member for The Pas, stating that the system that had dehumanized him and had erased his Cree mother tongue was racist. 

Gary Filmon, then premier of Manitoba, responded by characterizing his use of the word "racist" as "discriminatory, inflammatory and irresponsible."

Twenty-five years later, little has changed. 

'Insurmountable evidence' of systemic racism

On Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was ordered to leave the House of Commons after calling Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien "racist" for opposing a New Democrat motion meant to address systemic racism within the RCMP. 

Somehow, the recent deaths of Black and Indigenous people at the hands of police and the fact that more than one-third of people shot by the RCMP in the past decade were Indigenous aren't enough to convince the Bloc Quebecois that systemic racism exists. 

Instead, our government is invested in the performance of a racism-free Canada, thereby supporting those who deny the existence of systemic racism, despite the insurmountable evidence to the contrary. 

Systemic racism refers to exclusionary policies and practices that are entrenched in our institutions. Therefore, it is not necessary that every single person in the RCMP is racist, for there to be systemic racism in the RCMP. 

It does not go unnoticed that the House of Commons' commitment to a script that diminishes the presence of racism in Canada led to the first racialized leader of the NDP being expelled for daring to challenge the status quo.

'I don't care about whether you have hate in your heart or how much you sympathize with my plight,' says Kaka. 'What I do care about is if you turn a blind eye to the systems that hurt me.' (Submitted by Elsa Kaka)

But why is "racist" such a dirty word? 

The way that many people react to it would make one think that being called a "racist" is worse than actually being subjected to racism. 

Gary Filmon's characterization of the word as "discriminatory" is not only ridiculous, but insidious in the way that it juxtaposes racist actions against anti-racist speech, thereby removing any blame or accountability from the people who perpetuate systemic racism. Instead, it asks those fighting for liberation to dilute their message. 

The same thing can be said of the decision to expel Jagmeet Singh from the House of Commons. 

If the Bloc Quebecois could shift their outrage of one of their members being called a "racist" toward actually addressing racism, then perhaps we could start taking actions to address the racism that millions of Canadians face. 

But Jagmeet Singh's "unparliamentary language" was too much of an insult. 

Change relies on action, not sympathy

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet came to Alain Therrien's defence, stating that Therrien is not racist and the "he loves everyone," as if the love in his heart will eliminate racism. 

I have always found that people overestimate how much I care about their approval of me and my approval of them. 

I don't care about whether you have hate in your heart or how much you sympathize with my plight. I don't care if you like me. 

What I do care about is if you turn a blind eye to the systems that hurt me. 

I care about dismantling a system that maims and murders Black and Indigenous people — a system that renders us powerless.- Elsa Kaka

I care about the actions you take against systemic racism. 

Being a non-racist person may soothe the ego of some, but it does little to advance us toward an anti-racist society.

I care about dismantling a system that maims and murders Black and Indigenous people — a system that renders us powerless. 

Creating meaningful change means centring the voices of Black and Indigenous people who have already been doing the work.

It means redirecting funds to services that address inequality, and it means voting for people who want to eradicate systemic racism, rather than uphold it. 

None of this is possible if our government does not recognize that white feelings don't matter more than Black and Indigenous lives.

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

Elsa Kaka is a law graduate of the University of Manitoba and co-host of The Ordinary Black Girl Podcast. She is an R&B artist and advocate for her community living on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg.

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