Opinion: How complicity and ‘whitelash’ tainted 2017

Complicit. That’s the word of the year, according to Dictionary.com, which releases an annual list of words that were most searched or that defined those 12 months.

Certainly, complicity oozed out of our social, political and corporate structures this year, particularly in the context of gender and sexual harassment issues. In the process, it outed mega-sized predators – and MAGA ones, too.

Complicity also looked askance at the good guys, challenging the not-my-fault-not-my-problem approach to abuse.

There was the actor Brad Pitt, who reportedly asked producer Harvey Weinstein to lay off his then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow. His ex-wife Angelina Jolie, too, accused Weinstein of sexual harassment. So Pitt knew about the two women. What did he, as a man with great power, do to stop it from happening to any other woman?

There is the other big-name actor George Clooney, who says he heard stories but dismissed them as rumours to smear women. Did he ask his female co-stars if they felt safe? Or was it more comfortable for him to not know?

You could call that doing of nothing “small c” complicity. Then there is Complicity with a Capital C – deliberating spreading misinformation, like the defenders of the indefensible Republican senate nominee Roy Moore did, claiming journalistically verified sexual allegations against him to be a political ploy. Or the people who endorsed the man, as U.S. President Donald Trump did.

Canada acknowledged complicity this year in the discrimination and abuse faced by certain groups after the prime minister apologized to LGBTQ2 people and to the survivors of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools. Ottawa plans to apologize for turning away Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

But complicity was not acknowledged in the context of racism, specifically anti-Black racism. Instead, complicity gained traction. It manifested as “whitelash,” a term presciently created by CNN commentator Van Jones late last year. In the hours after Americans handed Trump a stunning presidential victory, Jones called the result a “whitelash against a changing country” and “against a Black president.” His sentiments were later backed by data from polls.

A whitelash, or a white backlash, has long dogged racial advancements for Black people, leading, for example, to calls for “law and order” after the civil rights movement.

This year, whitelash took many forms on both sides of the border.

While all manner of far-right Americans rallied for the cause of Confederate flags and statues, symbols of an era that brutalized Black people, Canadians became aware of their own “Proud Boys,” on Canada Day, when five men in black polo shirts disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax. These are men “who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” – as if a call for equality seeks an apology for modernity.

Whitelash often comes cloaked as grievance such as “reverse racism,” a concept akin to a bully crying victim to the whistle-blowing kid he torments. An NPR poll in October found more than half the white people surveyed said they believed discrimination against them exists, although few said they had actually experienced it.

Universities became flashpoints of rancour, where whitelashers saw pushback to ideas, language and communication that devalued minority groups as an infringement on their free speech rights.

White supremacist posters sprang up across universities in Canada. “European Brotherhood. Time to fight,” read posters in Brandon University in south Manitoba. The more benignly labelled “It’s OK to be white” posters pasted on campuses around the country turned out to be the work of white supremacists.

“Did the ‘6 million’ really die?” read a poster at the University of Calgary.

When it turned out that the #MeToo movement that white actress Alyssa Milano began on social media was actually started by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, Milano quickly made amends and gave credit where credit was due.

When Canadian journalists took part in an inappropriate social media “joke” about an actual “appropriation prize,” the outrage was loud enough for at least some of them to apologize.

Dalhousie University withdrew its disciplinary action against student Masuma Khan, who offended some white people with a biting social media message, a move that came after petitions from concerned Canadians about freedom of expression.

Most of all, I feel hope with the news that the provocative and incredibly brave young revolutionaries of the Black Lives Matter movement, pilloried by whitelashers, received a global peace prize.

In November, the Sydney Peace Foundation awarded BLM the prize “for building a powerful movement for racial equality, courageously reigniting a global conversation around state violence and racism.”

Hope. And respect.

Perhaps one of them can be the word of the year for 2018.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity.

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