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Twenty-One Seconds of Silence: On White Privilege, Accountability & Action

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. 
― Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals.

In her groundbreaking 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”  Peggy McIntosh begins, in the spirit of intersectionality, by making an equation with male privilege, and white privilege: “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege”.  

When my grandmother migrated to Canada from Ukraine in the 1930’s, she did not fall into the category of whiteness at the time. Indeed, the War Measures Act, which many folks think was created in the 1970’s, was first deployed in the early 20th century against Ukrainian migrants, then considered “enemy aliens.” As a filmmaker, I have documented their experience of concentration camps in Canada, some later repurposed to imprison Japanese Canadians during WW2.   The long history of my people’s own long history of colonization, genocide and serfdom obscured our ability to see our relative privilege in Canada. My people aspired to whiteness amid a complex matrix of oppression and class and race privilege. 

I owe my first (long overdue) awakening to the Black Women’s Collective and the Native Women’s Centre of Toronto. The International Women’s Day Committee, a (then) white-dominated coalition of feminist groups across the city, had chosen racism as its theme for IWD 1986. It was the height of apartheid in South Africa and protests and boycotts were reverberating around the world.

As Patricia Hayes wrote in Our Lives Black Women’s Newspaper in March 1987:

“With the theme being “No to Racism” it could not have been any other way but for Black women to be involved and give direction for the day. The Black Women’s Collective and the Native Women’s Resource Centre played a major role in pulling together a successful IWD 1986. It was quite obvious during our intimate involvement, that our role of leadership became an irritant to some of our white sisters from the IWD Coalition. It became apparent to us that in order for our white sisters to work with Black women, they had to accept and respect our leadership -time was needed for them to acknowledge and deal with their own racism”. 

As white women, we were told by BIPOC feminists to check our privilege, and let women of colour lead. The BIPOC women said, essentially – white women, talk amongst yourselves. Reversing the leftist trope of minority caucuses, they told white women to caucus. To educate one another, in caucus. And in the larger assembly, to keep our questions, our frustration, and our tears, to ourselves. I learned that there are certain times when silence is the right thing to do. That as white people we have to educate ourselves (see my list of Canadian film resources, below). That part of male privilege, and part of white privilege, is knowing when to speak and when not to speak.

Photos by Marusya Bociurkiw

And then there are times when silence is the wrong choice, the hallmark of privilege.

At a recent press conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau allowed 21 seconds of silence go by before he answered a question posed by Tom Parry of CBC: ”We have Trump calling for military action against protesters. We saw protesters teargassed yesterday to make way for a presidential photo op. I’d like to ask you what you think of that and if you don’t want to comment, what message do you think you’re sending? While the journalist was still speaking, Trudeau, a former drama teacher, turned away from the reporter and looked into the camera, as though preparing for a role. 21 seconds of silence ensued.

Was the silence preplanned, in anticipation of just such a question? (One wag commented that it was one of those things that works better in rehearsal but flops onstage). Or was it an expression of not-knowing, and of having the luxury of time, to continue not-knowing, or to know only some things and not others? 

Trudeau’s silence was a pause heard round the world. The Revered Al Sharpton, speaking before George Floyd’s funeral, said, in an interview with Radio Canada, “It’s a new day, the time has met the moment of change in America and I’m going to express that in my eulogy. And since you’re from Canada, I won’t have a 21-second gap before I say what I have to say.”

Trudeau’s silence was performative, in the Butler-esque theoretical definition of the word. It was a repetition, an oft-expressed expression of willful ignorance. It was white performativity, a speech act that reinforces identity, but also power and authority. Especially, the power of whiteness to signify, as discourse, or Law. It was also performative via the newly appropriated use of the term: a performance of virtue signaling, usually done by white people.

After those cringe-y 21 seconds, Trudeau uttered some vaguely progressive words: “it is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges, that Black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day.” Challenges, discrimination, lived reality: Neoliberal words that would be at home in any EDI (equity/diversity/inclusion) handbook. But, interestingly, it’s the silence, not the words, that everyone remembers. 

Silence is never neutral. Alice Lue   writes in an article entitled Why White Silence on Racism Is Deadly,” “White silence is complicity, it is violence, it is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of racism and oppression – and it is no longer tolerable. This is a time of reckoning for us all. Silence will no longer do. And to those who remain silent, we hear you”

As a professor in an inner city, racially diverse yet increasingly neoliberal university campus, I have found that silence creeping into the classroom. I teach media studies and documentary production, passing on tools of analysis, of critical thinking, of creative resistance. I want students to notice the hierarchies of privilege that surround them, the most powerful being that of race. I often assign McIntosh’s article the first week of class. Once received uncritically, and understood as a message to the white folks in the room, I now see students carefully parse McIntosh’s words. I’ve seen BIPOC students read the article and locate their own class or gender or light-skinned privilege. I’ve wondered if they feel safer doing that than publicly naming white privilege.  I’ve seen white students dismiss the article tout court because McIntosh is a privileged second wave feminist white academic (which was entirely the point of her words). 

At a profoundly resonant online panel Resistance and Resurgence: Confronting Anti-Black racism in Canada, in Canada, organized by Feminists Deliver, (which you can watch via the previous link),  Dr June Francis of Simon Fraser University said: ”If you go to the university as a Black student, there is violence done to you…It comes in the form of not hearing anything about our history. Our history did not start with slavery. So the great traditions of our history are not taught. What is taught is the privileging of white ideas.” This is deeply systemic. At my university, Ryerson, at the top levels of administration – the Vice presidents and Deans – representation of people of colour is at around 10%. There are only 2 Black people at this level of administration. We do have a racialized president and a 50% racialized Board of Governors, but in 2019, the last time for which statistics are available, there was a 31% gap between racialized faculty and students. In other words, the number of BIPOC students is a majority 57%. BIPOC faculty: 26%. 

Thirty-two years after McIntosh wrote her article, all of her 50 items of privilege still ring true, especially, in this historical moment, these:

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

COVID 19 has disproportionately impacted BIPOC folks in Canada, community data shows. Toronto neighbourhoods with high numbers of Black residents show higher COVID rates. The majority of PWC’s, (personal care workers) one of the most-affected sectors, are women of colour, many of them refugees.

At the June 5 Pathway 2 Paris Earth Day Festival, Arundhati Roy said, “ The pandemic is a portal between two worlds. The question is, how are we going to walk through it? Are we dying or are we being born?…If we wish to be born then our rage must turn insurrectionary. Revolutionary. Charity won’t cut it…Charity douses anger with pity. Charity reduces the receiver and bestows upon the giver a power and self righteousness that they really ought not to have. Charity keeps the structure in place”

Individual acts, like naming privilege and making donations, have their place. But Canada’s systemic, relentless settler colonial racism also requires collective effort, and action. The question posed to Trudeau, by only touching on American anti-Black racism, implicitly assumed that there’s nothing to see here, folks. This favourable comparison of Canada with the U.S., is a trope that has existed since the earliest days of the Confederation. Our sense of ourselves as morally superior to the US and indeed to most of the world is the very definition of imperialism. It also plays a role in the erasure of Black and Indigenous history in Canada. “We have to never forget that Black people were enslaved in New France (now Quebec), they were enslaved in Upper Canada (now Ontario),” says Rinaldo Walcott in a Toronto Star article. “A lot of the commodities produced in the Caribbean were shipped to the east coast of Canada, but also that the east coast of Canada was a place where slave ships were also built.”

Canada rebranded itself with its 1867 birth. According to playwright and academic Afua Cooper, who spoke in the same article, “What they did was reinvented Canada as a white man’s country and Blacks were legally banned from entering Canada.” 

As white students, white faculty, white Canadians, let’s note our privilege, yes. But let’s note also what our privilege can allow us to do. Let us connect privilege with action.

  • To speak up at a a board meeting, a union meeting, any meeting, about the need for more people of colour in leadership positions: as administrators, as professors, as chairs, and board members. To centre BIPOC people in hiring and appointments. To consult with them, and pay them for their time. To stand aside, when necessary, so that that can happen.
  • To be an active ally: showing up at rallies organized by the Black Liberation Collective; by Black Lives Matter, by No Pride in Policing.
  • To amplify, indeed centre, the work of BIPOC thinkers and makers in course syllabi and in research. To examine our citational practices and, if they are primarily white and male, to radically change the way we read, write, and teach.
  • To speak out against the move to police universities.
  • To radically restructure our organizations: our artist-run centres, our community theatres, our organizations, our boards, our collectives. To see who’s not at the table and ask why. To consult with BIPOC communities, and follow their lead.

At our recent panel on policing, surveillance and control, part of our MayDays pandemic discussion series, University of Toronto professor, activist and author Beverly Bain said, “White people need to care beyond their own bubbles”. To think about care beyond charity. To think of care as active solidarity. 

We do not have time for silence. Because Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Because D’andre Campbell. Because Black people, 8% of Toronto’s population, account for 37% of people shot by police. Because we need to defund the police – at over 1 billion dollars by far the largest budget item of Toronto City Council – and place those funds in the hands of communities, and of people trained in crisis intervention and community care.

The rest of Audre Lorde’s famous quote, also the title of one of her books, is less well known. It is an exceedingly generous call to intersectional solidarity and collaboration. “But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” 

In order to be worthy of such a world, let us also examine, and conquer, the silences. Trudeau’s silence is also our white silence. Or, as a placard at one march declared, “It is time to be vocally anti-racist.” 


Sign this petition to defund Toronto Police 

“Keep poor and primarily racialized communities safe from police violence. Defund the Toronto Police Services and invest in proven, safe and just alternatives like increased mental health services, housing initiatives, harm reduction services, education, social workers, and other vital community-led health and safety initiatives”. 

Write a letter to your city councilor demanding that the police budget be cut or abolished. Different stakeholders are asking for cuts of 10-25%. Policing expert Desmond Cole recommends abolition, not defunding.   Here is a template

Join SURJ Toronto (Showing Up for Racial Justice), “an international network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with accountability. SURJ Toronto is committed to undermining white support for white supremacist systems and institutions. 

Anti-Black-Racism Media Resources

Here are some excellent film resources to watch, and share with students. Get your library to purchase them, and/or acquire them yourself. Asterisked films are available for free.

*The Little Black School House 
Dir. Sylvia Hamilton, 2007
This one-hour documentary unearths the little known story of the women, men, and children who studied and taught at Canada’s racially segregated Black schools. 

*Speak It! From The Heart of Black Nova Scotia 
Dir. Sylvia Hamilton 1992
This documentary focuses on a group of Black Nova Scotian students in a predominantly white high school, St. Patrick’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who face daily reminders of racism.

*Black Mother, Black Daughter 
Dir. Sylvia Hamilton & Claire Prieto 1989

This film explores the lives and experiences of Black women in Nova Scotia, their contributions to the home, the church and the community and the strengths they pass on to their daughters.

*Ninth Floor 
Dir. Mina Shum 2015
This visually stunning documentary examines the anti-racism protests and riot that took place at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec, in 1969.

*Speakers for the Dead 
Dir. David Sutherland & Jennifer Holness 2000
This documentary reveals some of the hidden history of Black people in Canada. In the 1930s in rural Ontario, a farmer buried the tombstones of a Black cemetery to make way for a potato patch. In the 1980s, descendants of the original settlers, Black and White, came together to restore the cemetery, but there were hidden truths no one wanted to discuss. 

*Journey to Justice 
Dir. Roger McTair 2000
Focusing on the 1930s to the 1950s, this film documents the struggle of 6 people who refused to accept inequality. Featured here, among others, are Viola Desmond, a woman who insisted on keeping her seat at the Roseland movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 rather than moving to the section normally reserved for the city’s Black population, and Fred Christie, who took his case to the Supreme Court after being denied service at a Montreal tavern in 1936. 

*Sisters in the Struggle  
Dir. Dionne Brand, Ginny Stikeman 1991
This now-classic documentary features Black women active in politics as well as community, labour and feminist organizing. They share their insights and personal testimonies on the double legacy of racism and sexism, linking their personal struggles with the ongoing battle to end systemic discrimination and violence against women and people of colour.

Our Dance of Revolution: The History of Toronto’s Black Queer Community  
Dir. Phillip Pike, 2019
Our Dance of Revolution tells the story of how Black queer folks in Toronto faced every adversity, from invisibility to police brutality, and rose up to become a vibrant, triple-snap-fierce community. Capturing first-person accounts across a span of four decades, this feature-length documentary is more than a previously untold oral history, more than a reclamation of unsung people and events.

*50 Years of Black Activism 
Directors: Sarah Michelle Brown, Sonia Godding-Togobo, Laurie Townsend, Ngardy Conteh George and Ella Cooper. 
Five documentaries by five women directors that have highlighted the legacies of Gwen and Lenny Johnston of the Third World Bookstore, Rosie Douglas, Charles Roach, Dudley Laws and Marlene Green. This film was first featured at the inaugural Akua Benjamin Public Lecture and is part of the “The Fifty Years of Black Activism Project”

*Circa 1948 
Dir. Stan Douglas 2014
Circa 1948 is an augmented reality app for the iPhone and iPad that allows users to take a virtual tour of two important sites from Vancouver’s history: Hogan’s Alley and the Old Hotel Vancouver, both since destroyed. Internationally renowned artist, Stan Douglas, has created 3D models of these locations which have been meticulously researched and are historically accurate, scripted spaces that can be physically navigated by the user. 

*Farewell Regent
Dir. Christene Brown 2020 
Available on Kanopy via your library card (get your university library to purchase it as well)
In a documentary that charts the complex canvas of Regent Park, Christene Browne puts a human face on the unique tensions and fellowships of the country’s most infamous social housing project. 

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