Racism, accusations of racism and white people.
This trio has stymied many an activist, especially when he or she believes the stakes to be high enough to warrant pulling out this special collision of criticism. When the three collide, accidents are bound to be made.
At the last meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, this collision played out on Twitter. Representatives from the Dawson Students’ Union claimed either the entire CFS, the national executive or about 100 delegates said that Québec’s student movement is racist (the variations on a theme are from DSU representative Morgan Crockett’s Twitter feed). Crockett neglected to be less ambiguous, instead fanning the rumour mill online and repeating the claim rather than identifying the source or providing context, leaving questions about whether or not anyone actually said anything close to this.
Technically unrelated, though perhaps related to this tactic, the motions that her students’ union served were rejected by other students there. Two DSU reps were unsuccessful in their electoral bids for National Executive positions.
She argued that saying that the students’ union general assembly model privileges the involvement of people with privilege was tantamount to declaring an entire province’s student population as racist.
With 300 delegates at a General Meeting, characterizing anything other than a motion being passed as something that “the CFS” supports is a lie. Thanks to the system of motions passing and failing, determining what it is that the CFS supports or opposes is really easy to figure out.
Last May, for example, the CFS lauded the Québec student movement, encouraged civil disobedience against Law 78, organized two casseroles protests to join with local Gatineau students during the five-day meeting and made a donation of $30,000 to defend students who were targeted during the protests.
So, if Crockett is to be believed, all of the work in May was done to support what many of the same people now think is a racist movement?
I can’t do the necessary mental gymnastics to get myself to believe that.
Crockett didn’t explain the source of the comments, so we’re left to either ignore her, challenge her or believe her. Unfortunately, folks at ASSÉ chose to believe her.
In response to Crockett’s Tweets, Jérémie Bédard-Wien from ASSÉ wrote “Racism and perceptions of the Quebec student movement.” It assumes that Crockett’s Twitter ranting characterized some actual position or discussion. He finishes his article with this: “However, to discount general assemblies or, more generally, structural change on that basis is not only mistaken: it is a political smokescreen used to draw attention away from awkward, yet necessary debates about direct democracy. Because the Quebec example is not one of racism.”
I have yet been able to find proof of anyone discounting general assemblies or structural changes within the Canadian student movement as being necessary to build something similar to what transpired in Québec this year. There were no motions calling for the use of or reorientation towards a general assembly model at the meeting.
Crockett is a vocal critic of the other student federations in Québec, and I suspect ASSÉ has identified DSU as a potential member. However, as membership in ASSÉ and CFS would be possible, I see no reason for the approach taken by Bédard-Wien in his article.
The other question is the one that is at the heart of the debate: the role of anti-oppressive structures in decision making versus the open, general assembly model that will undoubtedly reproduce society’s oppression when in action if oppression is unaddressed. Our societies (here, I refer to Canada, the society I have the most experience with, and Québec, my new home) were built to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. Structures that we create are naturally going to reproduce this inequality.
But identifying this as a fact doesn’t say that the people who participate in these structures are all racist. Claiming so could be seen as an annoying distortion, perhaps leveled by someone frustrated with another aspect of a general meeting in which she (or he) was participating.
Gender speaking lists and identity caucuses try to mitigate the influence of oppression reproducing itself. Where CFS has work to do in other areas, it remains a leader in its approach to ensuring that decisions are discussed and motions are amended in spaces where people of various shared identities are able to meet, organize and be heard.
Rather than being dismissive or even defensive when claims of racism or exclusion are leveled against us or organizations in which we are involved, progressive people should step back and take the time to reflect. This is not a criticism of Bédard-Wien.
For him and ASSÉ, my criticism is this: I don’t think his article reflected the solidarity needed between the two organizations. Allegations like this deserve a phone call to the CFS Chairperson and a demand for clarification, not a response to a fabricated or exaggerated story.
But the more than 300 student representatives present at this general meeting have a responsibility too. They must ensure that the characterization of their meeting was how they experienced it.
The stories about the good, the bad, the inspiring and the frustrating add to the collective history of the student movement on this territory. Don’t leave it up to a few people with Twitter accounts to erase your story and alter how you experienced your meeting.
After all, if someone claims you’ve said people are racists and you don’t respond, the vacuum of voices will respond for you.