Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A new racism in our kids' schools

Update May 2017: Teaching "white privilege" is now a standard part of the high school curriculum in Ontario, and it's been in the media recently (see Margaret Wente piece about it in the Globe & Mail here), so I thought I might re-post this piece I originally published in the Jewish Tribune back in 2012. 
Please also join the very active discussion on my Quick Brown Fox Facebook page here (though you'll have to scroll down to find it). ~Brian

On May 5, (2012) 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 who calls himself 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

Still, you might wonder if teaching anti-racism actually does reduce racism. Not according to a study conducted in the Netherlands. Apparently anti-racism education actually increases animosity to other cultures. And it's easy to see why: You tell one group they're victims and another group they're victimizers, no one's happy. See a report on the study here

A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Jewish Tribune and on Harry's Place in Britain. 


  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.

    1. I just have a few lunchtime minutes to chat so I hope I can say something coherent. I also don't believe in shaming white school children and asking them to confess sins of privilege. Brian when you say "I'd like to see us all get past thinking of colour as being part of our identities." how can I not answer 'That's easy for you to say.' If you were to spend some serious time re-imagining your life growing up as a black boy, say in Detroit, (or Wisconsin) can you truthfully see a path through life that resembles the life you have? Really? But then, to quote you again, "Life’s too short to worry about other people’s luck." I guess that is sort of what you are being asked to do.

    2. Kevin, I don`t actually know much about Chicago or Madison, but if I imagine growing up as a black boy in Toronto, I can absolutely imagine having the life I have. I expect my kids' friends - black, white, Asian - are going to grow up to have lives similar to the lives of my kids.

      Are there kids in Toronto who are badly off? Yes, absolutely and a disproportionate number are black. Are they going to have a harder time? Sure. But maybe not so much their kids - and that's not an unrealistic hope.

      Is racism going to get in the way.... Yes, maybe. And that sort of thing enrages me. But how can anyone suppose that labeling whites in general as privileged and oppressors does anything to relieve racism...

      And, Kevin, do you *not* want to get past the whole colour thing? I mean isn`t that the point of anti-racism...

  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.

  5. I think it's a violation against the rights of parents to teach their children what is moral and appropriate. It's not just this example of teaching racism to a group of the most vulnerable and impressionable minds; it is every other idea that they are taught they may or may not by acceptable to the parents' moral code. It is for this reason that homeschooling has has seen a rise in popularity and parents have dedicated themselves to the full time job of educating themselves and their children. My oldest daughter is finishing her first year of medical school and my son is completing his engineering degree, just in case you're wondering what all that one on one time and character building is worth. :)

    1. Only problem with these comment sections on Blogspot is that they don`t have a thumb`s up feature. So, here`s a verbal thumb`s up.

  6. thanks for posting this - i now know to UNFOLLOW your site.

    1. I know, it`s very hard to hear things you disagree with.

    2. Anonymous postings aren't allowed on this blog.

  7. Racism must come deeply embedded in our survival DNA (If there is such a thing.) If you didn't look like the tribe, you were the one who couldn't come in by the fire. We've traveled a bit further in our "thinking" process, so that a lot of people are able to be inclusive and tolerant. Unfortunately, not enough of us have put down our clubs, and from your post the educated are among that group.

  8. Brian,

    I think you miss the point of discussing privilege, and what institutionalized racism actually entails.

    Generally the dialogue on white privilege isn't about assigning blame or guilt, but about recognizing that the existing system is a descendant of colonial systems designed to oppress and confer superiority on those who set up the system in the first place.

    It is not to say that all white people (of which I am one), bear the responsibility for colonialism, but that they benefit from it in ways which they don't acknowledge. Of course white people can be poor. But they are not poor because they are white. Minorities cannot say the same. That is white privilege.

    I don't have to worry about my name being too "ethnic" for job interviews, or that my hair or religious garb will raise the hackles of people who hold my career or other ambitions in their hands. That is white privilege.

    I don't need to feel guilty for having this privilege, but as a human being who does desire equality I need to recognize it and aim to reduce the discrepancy between what I have and what others deserve.

    The fact that I don't have to worry about the colour of my skin affecting my life is white privilege, and to think that in Toronto we have reached a state where racial equality exists is naive. The fact that minorities are over-represented in poverty and the justice system and under represented in positions of power (business and government) indicates that institutionalized racism (note not racist actions by individuals, but by the system as a whole) is still strongly at play in Canadian society.

    Now I can agree that how these concepts are taught to students needs to be delicately done, it needs to be respectful, and it needs to ensure that the discussion doesn't focus on issues of guilt and blame, because they don't further the cause of equality; they only create the natural defensive response that people acquire when they sense that they are under attack.

    Discussions of white privilege are not an attack on white people, but an important conversation that needs to continue to create an equal society with equal opportunity for all. The fact that we white people, as the majority in this country, could decide to stop this uncomfortable discussion altogether is a sign of white privilege. I hope that you will understand the need to continue the conversation instead of trying to silence it through a reactionary, defensive response. You are not being attacked.

    1. Unknown,

      First, just so you know, Anonymous postings aren't allowed on this blog.

      Second, yes, of course the aim is to reduce prejudice.

      Third, I think you miss the point. Read the blog posting. Discussions of "privilege" do tend to be racist.

      Fourth, research in the field indicates teaching this stuff increases intolerance towards others. It works against the aim.

      Fifth, you write: white people, as the majority in this country, could decide to stop this uncomfortable discussion altogether is a sign of white privilege." Twaddle. White people, as a group, decide nothing. This sort of argument that "white people do this" or "black people do that" or "Jews do something else" is the problem.

      Stop contributing to the problem.

  9. So last week, I came home to find my In Box full of emails from colleagues at Ryerson. Seems a student was told she couldn’t do her social work placement at a Jewish agency. It was “against the values” of the Ryerson School of Social Work. Why? Well, they’re Jews, you know, and might support Israel. Here’s the relevant “Core Value” from the Ryerson School of Social Work:
    "We stand with communities and populations that experience oppression and marginalization, including poverty, exploitation and domination, and seek to work with all those committed to the advancement of anti-oppression/anti-racism, anti-Black racism, anti-colonialism/decolonization, Aboriginal reconciliation, feminism, anti-capitalism, queer and trans liberation struggles, issues in disability and Madness, among other social justice struggles."
    Apparently Jews don’t experience “marginalization,” except of course at Ryerson’s School of Social Work and other schools that have adopted similar ideologies that decide that some groups are oppressed and others are oppressors, Jews being oppressors (along with white people and men in particular).
    Apart from the obvious bigotry of the School of Social Work, I am appalled that a publically funded school has any political agenda. That’s not what we give it millions of dollars in funding for.
    Not to mention that public schools should – obviously! – remain neutral places where students can feel at home regardless of their political beliefs. What about people who support capitalism - which would be the vast majority of Canadian citizens? They have no place at Ryerson’s School of Social Work.
    In this case, the student ratted out the School of Social Work to the university president and Social Work promptly backed off, but the student did not get her placement. She’d been given a pretty clear signal about how her professors felt:
    And here’s another article: https://www.algemeiner.com/…/canadian-student-reveals-she-…/
    Ironically, this story was breaking just as the debate was raging on Quick Brown Fox and here on my Facebook page about the subject of White Privilege. So, here's another case in point: the Ryerson School of Social Work is a big booster of the whole “white privilege,” “anti-oppression” stinking pile of….


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