McGill debate highlights issues of racism and the responsibility of journalists

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Guillermo Martinez de Velasco has news for you: you are probably implicated in racism, even if you think you are not. The Cultural Studies major at Concordia University in Montreal said as much in an article he published last month for The Daily, a student newspaper at McGill, where he is taking a course this semester.

The article itself was not groundbreaking, as critical race theorists have been making the same claim for some time. The veritable firestorm of reactions it touched off, however, confirm the sad truth that to this day we are more afraid of being accused of racism than of its destructive effects or our complicity in it. 

Articles in student newspapers do not typically receive attention from established writers. So it was surprising when Bruce Bawer of the Ottawa Citizen took the time to use his relatively elevated platform to shout down Velasco and his supporters. Bawer's piece was billed as a response to Velasco's, though Bawer did not engage any of his claims. Instead, he dismissed everything Velasco said and used his article as a pretext for a rant about the humanities. According to Bawer's piece, "Young people are force-fed an ideological orthodoxy and taught to parrot its jargon ... [and] the apotheosis of this grotesquely reductive approach to the world is a cluster of 'disciplines' with the word 'studies' in them -- from Women's Studies and Black Studies to things like Fat Studies (no kidding) and Martinez's own Cultural Studies."

Bawer's poor understanding of the disciplines he chooses to criticize becomes problematic when it is endorsed by an institution as prominent as the Ottawa Citizen. Further, it is worth noting the power differential between an established author and a student journalist, as well as the relative prominence of the platforms they have access to. In spite of this, Bawer's piece was unfortunately not as problematic as the response Velasco received from the McGill community itself. Although there were more than 100 replies in the comments section on The Daily's website, few of them engaged productively or respectfully with Velasco's piece.

Another McGill student, disappointed but not surprised at the reaction that Velasco's piece received, decided to write a response to some of the claims that were made in the comments. Christiana Collison's follow up piece was entitled 'All racism happens because of whiteness.' Her article deconstructed many of the points commenters on Velasco's piece made that detracted from the original discourse around anti-racist praxis and white supremacy. The reaction to Collison's follow-up was, incredibly, even greater resistance. Her article generated more than 150 comments, the vast majority of which were hostile, disrespectful or outright racist. 

The two articles and the hostility and racism they generated in the comments section culminated in Collison's name and photo circulating on Stormfront.org. Stormfront is one of the largest and most well known white supremacist forums online. I cannot underscore enough how wrong it is that this has happened to a fellow student journalist and how disturbing it is to myself as a student journalist of colour.

This incident raises many questions I would like to see answered. What happens when adults are not held accountable? What happens when those privileged enough to have established journalistic careers take it upon themselves to silence the voices of students engaging in activist journalism? Where is the McGill administration in Collison's case? How did Collison's name and photograph get leaked to the forum? What actions are being taken to prevent this from happening again?

My solidarity with Collison and sympathy for her situation are not enough. Not when student journalists are literally in fear for their lives. We need to consider the risks that activists take, especially activists of colour who may inspire ill-will from dangerous people.

Antiracist activists of colour often enter into situations that are personally risky in order to do the work that we should all be doing in fighting racism. The least we can do is to make sure that they are safe in doing so. When Collison's article went viral and began to circulate on white supremacist forums, she began a conversation with her community and her supporters. 

"I am locked in my room for safety. You know, just until the heat blows over. I feel like Malcolm X when the CIA tapped his phone lines and he kept getting threatening calls of plots for assassination. All militant and shit. But I promise, I'm staying safe and out of harms way right now 'cause I won't lie I'm a little scared," Collison posted to her Facebook account. 

A couple of student journalists write about anti-racism through the most effective medium available to them: the school paper. As a result, they are silenced through a poorly moderated comments section, and one of their names -- and an image of that student journalist -- becomes available to white supremacists through the Internet. There is something very wrong with this picture and it doesn't take a lot to see that. 

Threats and insults are not enough. Collison stood in solidarity with Velasco just as I stand in solidarity with her.

So long as racism exists, activists and people of colour will agitate against it, through whatever means are available to us. 

 

Muna Mire recently completed an internship with rabble's podcast network and is a student in her final year at the University of Toronto where she is currently completing an Honours B.A. in English, Political Science and Sociology.

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