Ottawa Citizen by Rakhi Ruparelia 10 March 2014

Have you ever thought about what it means to be white?

A psychology professor from Columbia University conducted a study in which he asked white and racialized people on the street in San Francisco this very question. Responses from the white participants ranged from bewilderment (they’d never thought about it) and denial of racial awareness (they claimed not to notice other people’s colour), to outrage, hostility and vicious racist rants. Some distanced themselves from whiteness by focusing on their ethnicity (“I’m not white, I’m Italian.”) Many angry respondents vehemently denied any racial privilege and blamed racialized people for not improving their own circumstances.

To be clear, the psychologist was not asking his interviewees whether they were racist — only what it means to be white. But merely being asked to think about one’s own whiteness is often perceived as an accusation of racism. Is there any worse social horror than being called a racist?

Like many of the participants in the study, some University of Ottawa students became enraged by the prospect of this question. In a society where colour-blindness is idealized and embraced as evidence of racial harmony and enlightenment, any recognition of race and racism is deemed suspect. Therefore, it was disappointing — though not surprising — that an anti-racism workshop asking white participants to think about their whiteness generated so much controversy.

In an attempt to create a safe space for racialized students to speak about their experiences of racism, the student organizers of the “In My Skin” event scheduled a session in which racialized students could meet privately while their white peers discussed their own role in the battle against racism. This format, which is common in anti-racism training and strategizing, met with so much backlash that the Face­book page for the event was taken down, and the student council member who initiated the workshop was threatened with impeachment.

The discomfort that some students experienced in being asked to reflect on white privilege has led to allegations that the event promoted racism by enforcing “segregation.” One columnist went so far as to liken the workshop activity to segregation in the Deep South.

But the backlash to this event has nothing to do with a fear that we are reverting back to a 1950s “separate but equal” kind of racism (historical context is sorely and conspicuously missing in this debate). Rather,we are dishearteningly reluctant to talk about whiteness and its invisibility. Liberal-minded people are often open to discussing racism or other forms of oppression as long as we are not implicated. In other words, we can talk about how others are disadvantaged (if they insist), but not about how we benefit, even if the two are flip sides of the same coin.

The organizers have also been accused of “reverse racism,” presumably because the one session designated for racialized students excludes white participants. The “reverse racism” allegation, as comic Aamer Rahman so brilliantly unpacks on YouTube, is an ignorance-fuelled myth. (In a clear but pointed three-minute bit, Rahman jokes that only a time machine, permitting the reversal of centuries of colonialism, slavery and cultural practices that made white people, rather than black and brown people, hate the colour of their eyes, hair and skin, would create the opportunity for so-called “reverse racism.”)

But the charge is an often-used strategy to reframe (and divert) discussions on racism and to disconnect the issue from the advantages of white privilege. White privilege gives the people who benefit from it a sense of entitlement to occupy space, including in discussions of racism. Reserving space for racialized students directly challenges this sense of entitlement. Would we be having the same heated debate about a women-only space on campus?

Many of the students who have criticized the event have claimed a commitment to eradicating racism. Assuming this commitment is sincere, we first need to acknowledge how racism — consciously or subconsciously — has informed many of the negative responses. Judging a space for racialized students to be evidence of “segregation” and “reverse racism” is an excellent way to stop a potentially fruitful conversation from taking place. It ensures that racism flourishes rather than dissipates. How can we tackle the issue if people aren’t even willing to allow initiatives like this one to take place?

Let’s talk.

Rakhi Ruparelia is a law professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in issues of racism.