Monday, May 21, 2012

A new racism in our kids' schools

On May 5, an American, Tim Wise, was a keynote speaker at the Toronto District School Board’s  (TDSB’s) Futures Conference on Equity and Inclusive Education.

Wise is a card-carrying member of the American far left who doesn’t believe Israel has any right to exist. Moreover, he frequently writes for the far left magazine Counterpunch. 

This magazine also publishes articles by the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir, by Gilad Atzmon who suggests that “maybe Hitler was right,” and by James Petras who believes that the “Zionist power configuration” controls America.

Strange company for a man who calls himself an anti-racist. But in truth, Wise’s mission is to emphasize racial divisions, not bridge them, and on May 5, he lectured Canadian teachers about the evils of “white privilege.”

In his essays, Wise explains white privilege thus: “The concept is rooted in the common-sense observation that there can be no down without an up.” Or if blacks are underprivileged, whites must be “overprivileged.”

To illustrate, Wise gives a laundry list of supposed white privileges, including “not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.”

Note that these privileges are defined negatively. Obviously, stereotyping is wrong. But how does not being stereotyped amount to a privilege? Or if blacks are deprived of dignity, are we to understand that whites must have too much of it, as if there’s just so much human dignity to go around?

Of course some people do come from a privileged background. I’d say that President Obama’s kids have a leg up on most people – and good for them! Life’s too short to worry about other people’s luck.

But the notion of white privilege is disconnected from any actual privilege. The claim is that ordinary, fair-minded and hardworking Canadians have more than they deserve – but only if they’re white.

A poor white kid with a single mom on welfare may not have breakfast, but theoretically he has a whole knapsack of privileges: male privilege, hetero privilege, ablest privilege – you name it.

Theorists of privilege fall into such absurdities because they discard individuals and see only groups; thus if some whites have been racists, all whites – you, me and our grand kids – are accountable for it.

So, for example, in “Of National Lies and Racial America,” Wise writes: “For most white folks, indignation just doesn’t wear well.”

Why? Because whites are morally compromised by the “genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans.” Obviously, no whites living today committed these crimes but other white people did and so, by the raced-based logic of privilege, whites today bear the responsibility.

Unfortunately, inviting Wise isn’t a one off for the Toronto District School Board. Much worse, the Board incorporates the notion of privilege into the curriculum with learning resources such as the “GLSEN Jump Start Guide: Examining Power, Privilege and Oppression.”

The literature on white privilege notes that students resist the concept. Sociologists Dan Pence and Arthur Fields write: “White students often react to in-class discussions about white privilege with a continuum of behaviors ranging from outright hostility to a ‘wall of silence.’"

Pence and Fields never consider that the students may correctly perceive themselves to be under racist attack.

The GLSEN guide recommended by the Toronto Board instructs teachers to solicit confessions from students about “the times that they have been oppressive or have used their privilege over someone else.”

Doubtless, our kids find it hard to come up with suitable sins. To help them, the guide gives an example: planning “a trip together without recognizing that one member of the group cannot afford to participate.”

That may not sound like oppression to me and you, but it’s all grist for teaching our kids that they’re part of a system of oppression that has produced every crime from slavery to genocide. The GLSEN guide observes that students may feel guilty. What a surprise!

Things may get worse. Professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and the departments of education at York and Ryerson universities are busily lecturing student teachers on the ideology of white privilege.

This hit the news back in 2010 when the media noticed that OISE had granted a student a master’s degree for a thesis denouncing Jews as privileged and racist and Holocaust education as a Zionist plot. (Read the Toronto Star's report on the scandal here, Werner Cohn's essay here, and his follow-ups here.)

It should come as no surprise that theorists who divides people into oppressed and oppressor groups, into good races and bad should put Jews in the bad column, particularly as the further to the left one goes, the more common it is to find people examining race through the lens of oppression and privilege.

As a parent of two kids in a Toronto public school, I'm glad to say that Toronto School Board truly does support equality for all our students, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation – and usually gets things right (though certainly not always). But because it does  support equality, the Board must expel the notion of white privilege.

P.S. If Tim Wise has ever given two minutes thought to Canada, it’s not evident from his writings, but no one should doubt his talents as a speaker. At the TDSB’s Futures Conference, he reportedly compared being a person of colour to a disability, castigated Canadians for pervasive racism, and received a standing ovation. 

You can read a report on his talk here. Also, it was Richard K over at Eye on a Crazy Planet who broke the story about Tim Wise speaking at the TDSB's Future's Conference. Be sure to read his original piece here.

A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Jewish Tribune and on Harry's Place in Britain. To read more of my opinion pieces, visit my other blog here.


  1. Unfortunate that such a speaker had this group of lifelong learners for an audience to express his distorted logic.

  2. I've never thought of being white as part of my identity, no more than I think of myself as being a brown-hair.

    Indeed, that's one of the things I object to about Wise and people like him - that he insists on colour as being an identity.

    Suppose he were saying that whites are a good race, rather than a bad one? What would that make him but an old-fashioned racist?

    The whole way of thinking is bad. I'd like to see us all get past thinking of colour as being part of our identities.

  3. The sense of color is a grouping, like men and women. We know from neuroscience that men's brains and women's brains are different. That's it. No more to be said for us being the same.
    Men are men, by virtue of the firing of neurons in their brains and women are women by the same token.
    We are not the same and must get used to that idea, especially those of us, like me, who grew up in a time when gender differences were considered nothing more than old-fashioned ideas that might be discarded by
    thinking differently. I embraced that concept only to discover it is inaccurate.
    I say we are different, some groups different from each other and identifying that difference is fine. It is helpful as long as our essential human dignity and
    respect are the guiding points of our behavior to each other.

  4. I remember, back in the days when the NDP influenced the curriculum, there were expectations that promoted 'inclusiveness' and basically reinforced the Golden Rule, for the most part. We teachers encouraged students to see connections between subjects, situations and people. I loved that whole concept although many people found it hard and probably didn't do it as well as was dictated by our guides.
    Then we went through the rigid division of the disciplines again, as soon as Harris could wield his influence. All content that was previously aimed at getting kids to work together, see commonalities and learn from one another were replaced by a system that taught for the benefit of high scores on tests. The whole division of subjects, division of students based on streams, replaced co-operative learning and connections between subjects.
    Liberal McGuinty has been carrying on the same assault on the classroom that we had under the PCs; the emphasis on privilege vs, oppression really represents the same old divisions of people into categories, the same practice that caused the various forms of oppression in the first place. I really wish he were more left wing than he is, quite frankly.

    [Remember those childhood puzzles that required a person to spot the differences between two pictures?
    During the Rae years, we learned that the puzzles could just as easily ask for people to note the similarities. I had never once in my life thought of that and it opened my eyes to the ways in which teaching can inadvertently teach discrimination as a better thing than commonality.]

    I agree that they have made a terrible mistake to heap cultural guilt onto a single racial group, and even to specifically target race or colour as a 'thing'. It is only a thing in this day and age because we ourselves make it so.

    I spent over a year at Queen's University doing an independent educational history project on social control in the experiences of women, immigrants and freed slaves. What I found was that schools cannot do what society itself is not willing to do.

    I also learned the pattern that scapegoating takes. At times of economic stress points, the 'differences' between people get overblown and people tend to get scapegoated. Right now, the prevailing winds blame those elite, wealthy, primarily white people who have amassed wealth through corruption, greed and overcharging the average person for credit.

    Those who have gotten rich off other people's misfortune are really overpriviledged, but only a handful of people (caucasians or not) have gotten any richer in the past ten years. Most have gotten poorer and certainly do not qualify as 'over-privileged".

    Every time a group is stereotyped as 'bad', other groups tend to get elevated in social stature. I remember when as a child I once asked my Grandpa, a man who spoke German and was German, whether or not he was a Nazi. With tears in his eyes, he explained that his family changed their name during WWI to avoid being labelled as enemies of the state, (Benzinger to Bensing) and during WWII he fought against Hitler, not for him. It was a really awkward horrible moment for me, as I had hurt my own grandpa with my assumption of sameness based on ethnic and language group. I was ignorant, not racist. Also, I was five.

    This is relevant because education, at its best, should seek to eliminate ignorance rather than perpetuating and increasing it. Yes, white men were once the only ones who counted, but is that the present generation's fault? The best way to teach current students is to first consider them all equal to one another. This is not burying our heads in the sand--it is burying the old labels and stereotypes once and for all and beginning anew.

    I think it is high time.