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‘Reverse racism’ is backward thinking

John Bell

October 28, 2017

Masuma Khan is the sort of person I’d like to meet. At 22 she is already a well-known activist and outspoken anti-racist. She is a student at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and serves as Vice President Academic and External in her student union. She hasn’t let two spinal surgeries slow her down.

And mostly she refuses to put up with racism. And for that she is threatened with discipline by her university.

The student union voted not to officially participate in any Canada 150 celebrations. Their motion states, in part: “We recognize that Canada Day and the Canada 150 celebrations are an act of ongoing colonialism that glorifies continued theft from, and disenfranchisement of, the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (Canada).”


Some students were upset and sent objections. Anyone who has read online comment sections can guess that some of it was explicitly violent, sexist and racist. One of the SU’s vice presidents, Alex Hughes pointed out that most was being directed at Khan: “We think it's really alarming that one of our women of colour executives is the person receiving this personalized backlash.”

Justifiably angry, Khan responded through personal social media, complaining about “privileged white people” refusing to celebrate “400 years of genocide”, and using “#whitefragilitycankissmyass” and “#yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis”.

Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives, didn’t agree; one member, Michael Smith, spouted his outrage in the National Post. He also made an official complaint against Khan, saying her posts constituted “harassment,” essentially arguing that she was being racist against white people.

Rather than toss out the complaint, Dalhousie gave it credibility. Khan was threatened with discipline that could have resulted in sensitivity training and writing a public apology. She refused to comply.

In an interview with Halifax’s The Coast, she refused to back down from her anger: “A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘You should be more like Martin Luther King.’ I’m more of a Malcolm X type of gal. He was my role model—an activist who was Muslim, finding his way through the civil rights movement, who had no tolerance for any kind of injustice and really ridiculed the system. This is the kind of person I want to be.”

The complaint comes at a time when white nationalism and far-right ideology claims that whites are under attack whenever oppressed groups assert their struggles. Black Lives Matters is instantly met by a defensive “All lives matter”, anything but confront the reality the racism translates into the extra-judicial execution of young black people by police.

A 2014 US poll found that 52 per cent of white Americans believed they faced discrimination equal to that faced by blacks and other minority groups. The absurdity should be obvious, but what is behind all the imagined suffering?

Racism is not just being mean to another group. It is a power relationship, and any objective measure—wealth, education, employment, etc—reveals that power and wealth are overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of whites. Racism is a systemic manifestation of oppression, created in particular historical circumstances. European empires looking to rapidly expand exploitation of colonial resources required lots of cheap labour.

Enter the slave trade. But to justify slavery, Africans had to be presented as inferior beings. Priests and academics produced “proof” that humanity was ranked according to colour and place of origin, with blacks at the bottom and whites conveniently at the top. The history of great civilizations and cultures of Asia, India and Africa were erased; they, like the indigenous peoples of the “New World” were primitive and savage, fit only for exploitation and where necessary slaughter.

Today, study after study proves racism is alive and well. Charged with the same crimes, whites receive lighter sentencing than people of colour. Whites are more likely to be hired than blacks with equal qualification. Black youth are more often carded than white counterparts. Although I have problems with the term, taken together these things add up to what is called “white privilege.”

‘Reverse racism’

How does imagined “reverse racism” become engrained? Here’s a timely example: The Telegraph newspaper recently ran a big photo of a black woman with the headline “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”. Next day the Telegraph ran a correction: “An Oct 25 article incorrectly stated that under proposals by academic staff in response from an open letter from students on ‘decolonizing’ its English Faculty, Cambridge University will be forced to replace white authors with black writers. The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so.”

Telegraph readers will remember the prominent picture and hysterical headline, not the little correction tucked in on page 2. The myth of “reverse racism” is stoked.

To avoid charges of racist bias, people of colour are sometimes promoted to visible positions, such as academics, news readers or actors. Affirmative action policies are intended to begin—I emphasize, only begin—to address the long history of systematic segregation and exclusion. As Anthony Morgan, a lawyer specializing in civil and human rights, put it: “When you’re so deeply invested in your privilege, and in this case white privilege, racial equality feels like oppression.”

For whites to believe in “reverse racism” they first have to believe that racism toward people of colour has ended, that the playing field has somehow been leveled. That is not true. Despite some gains, every objective measure shows racism remains stubbornly ingrained.

So, cheers for Masuma Khan for calling Dalhousie on their bullshit. Her very public and Malcolm X-like stand won a wave of support and the University has announced it will not discipline her.

And cheers for her refusing to let the issue drop. As she told the CBC: “It doesn't stop these messages from pouring in. It doesn't stop the conversations that we're having. It doesn't stop the fact that systemic racism happens on our campus, and it doesn't stop that the university still isn't dealing with that.”

It is time to scrap backward thinking like “reverse racism,” it is time to face up to systemic racism, and it is past time to pay attention to fearless people like Masuma Khan, who reminds us that the issue should never have been about her, but about the colonialist racism faced by indigenous peoples.

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