Transcript: Ep. 8 - 'White': The Great YT North | Nov 19, 2019

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a TVO Podcast

Hi, Karina.
Hi, Pippa.
This is Word Bomb,
and each week we talk about
a word undergoing
a moment of change.
And today we're talking about
the word "white."
This was a tough one to get to
because it's hard to
talk about race.
Most people don't have
a lot of practice at it.
And, Karina, we've been friends
for a very long time,
in fact, I thought about this
before recording,
we've known each other
for 10 years.
KARINA: Oh, my God.
Has it actually be 10 years?
We met in 2009.
Yeah, it's been 10 years.
That's so weird!
(Pippa laughing)
What an anniversary.
But I bring this up because
we've had very few
conversations about race.
No, we haven't.
I think we've had like,
a couple long ones,
but not that often.
But we thought this was really
timely and important word
to do on the show.
KARINA: Yeah. The reason is
that white is kind of
a rallying cry right now,
far right groups and
white supremacists
are sort of gaining
political traction
in North America and Europe,
there's a lot of xenophobia
and racism
in the public discourse
right now.
My big goal for today personally
is to talk about
how when we think of
the word white,
it isn't-- has always been
a word of convenience
that's meant different things at
different times,
which we'll get into more
in a bit.
Hmm. I think the best way
to start this off
is probably to talk about
So, I am white,
and in terms of heritage,
pretty much down the middle
Scottish and English.
Mm-hmm. I'm not... white.
Listen to the way I say that.
I'm not white.
The reason I sound so weird
when I say that
is because I'm just like,
I just have like,
light brown skin.
I don't know.
I feel like I'm not--
My mom is from Haiti,
my dad's Italian,
and they both immigrated to
Canada in their 20s,
so I guess I think of myself as
not white
but don't have like,
an affirmative version of that
where like, I am something,
'cause I don't think of
myself as black really.
Okay. So, earlier you mentioned
that white was a word of
Can you explain what you mean
by that?
Yes. Okay. So.
I'm laughing because I have
a lot to talk about right now,
just buckle in.
Okay. So, to explain what I
meant I have to go back
and give a very quick history of
where the notion of race
and therefore whiteness,
There are a lot of points to
but I'm just going to give you
the main players.
We can start with Carl Linnaeus.
He's a Swedish scientist
from the 1700s
and he's the father of
modern taxonomy.
So like, what I'm talking about
here is
separating the natural world
into categories
like animal, vegetable, mineral,
those Latin naming conventions
like genus and species,
so, when you think of
like, the term homo sapiens,
which by the way means
"wise man" in Latin.
So, let's call him Carl for--
let's be familiar.
So, what Carl proposed was
four geographical sub-species
of homo sapiens, okay?
All right.
So, there four of them,
they were based on place of
origin, and later,
skin colour,
but also folded in was like,
behavioural traits that
described each of these four
sub-species that he proposed.
(Pippa laughing)
So, yes, you're right
to sounds apprehensive,
because of course,
you know it's the 1700s,
all of these four groups
have like,
wildly racist Eurocentric
assumptions baked into them.
So, according to him,
Americanis was one of the
sub-species that would be like
Native American,
and he said like,
"They are moody and
Like, it's just stuff like that.
Another sub-species that
he classified
was basically like,
African people,
and he said that they were
relaxed and lazy.
Like, all pretty--
It's hard to talk about
because it's so gross.
So that's Carl.
Next we have to move onto
the late 1700s, early 1800s,
and talk about a guy called
Johann Blumenbach,
and yes, he was a German
and Linnaeus was a huge
influence on him.
And he departed from Linnaeus's
theory though
by dividing the human race into
five separate races:
Caucasian, Mongolian,
American, and Malian.
And he based this not on
geographic origin necessarily,
but by studying things like
skull size,
skull shape, skull appearance.
Right. I remember this stuff.
Yeah. Okay. So, the important
thing to note about Blumenbach,
I love that name,
it's funny and silly sounding.
The important thing to note
about Blumenbach
is that he believed
what's called
the Degenerative Hypothesis of
Racial Origin.
Okay, so, he actually believed--
It's hot in here.
He literally believed that
Adam and Eve were white skinned
and literally from
the Caucasus Mountains.
So all of humankind originated
from there,
and therefor only white skinned
and their direct descendants
were made in God's imagine
and all subsequent races like
the Mongolian race,
the Ethiopian race, and so on,
were derivatives and
due to changes in climate and
habitat and diet
as the human race spread out
from Adam and Eve
in the Caucasus region.
So basically the crux of it is
that he believed that
you could take any human from
anywhere in the world
and with the right,
quote unquote,
the right habitat and
and temperature and diet,
they would like slowly,
over generations,
revert back to a white person.
Um, now this sounds
super racists, yes?
But the funning thing is that
Blumenbach was actually
one of the least racist of
his contemporaries.
He actually campaigned to
abolish slavery
and he criticized scientists of
the day that said
African's were intellectually
inferior for instance.
He said, "No, that's wrong."
By his logic, since we all came
from one place and one race,
any human from anywhere in
the world could,
under the right circumstances,
share a sort of moral unity with
another human
from another part of the world.
So basically we're all white
deep down.
(Pippa groaning)
And we can get back there.
(Laughing) I like that this is
like, progressive
in terms of
what we're talking about.
I know, I know.
So, like, it's still deeply
messed up
but I guess he wasn't on an
entirely evil track
for that time period.
Unfortunately a lot of people
took his theories
and ran with them in a very
evil, racist direction,
and used them for the basis of
racial classification,
racial science,
Phrenology, which is like,
the idea that the shape of your
skull can predict
whether you're
a criminal or not.
Eugenics, racist legal
basically all sorts of
to label certain humans inferior
for political and social gain.
What's wild is that even though
all of this,
like, all of these theories
about race
are totally debunked.
Like, to be clear,
there's no such thing as
a human sub-species,
humans are 99.9% identical
in their genetic makeup,
like, this is proven.
But despite that, it's
completely acceptable today
to describe someone as
a Caucasian, right?
To just mean white skinned,
which we should really stop
doing for the obvious reason
that the quote unquote
"Caucasian race",
like all other races,
is fictional and like,
completely unscientific.
It's wrong on so many levels.
There's no such thing as
a white race,
whiteness is not and never has
been fixed,
it's only been used as
a signifier
just like a tool, a prop,
to build up certain groups of
and disenfranchise others.
And that's my spiel.
That's a good lesson.
Thank you.
So I wanted to
learn more about this
so I talked to Adam Coombs,
he's a PhD candidate at the
University of British Colombia
and he's studying
electoral politics
in the '20s
and '30s in Canada.
Electoral politics
being relevant to
this conversation how?
It's sounds off topic
but it's not
because his research underscores
how democracy
was so tuned into
the discussion of race,
and it was then and it still is
now in many ways.
And the main thing we talked
about was how in Canada
in the '20s and '30s,
white people were not the same
kind of people
that we think of today
as white people.
Here's Adam...
So I think that today,
much of what you hear people,
particularly on the--
call it the alt-white,
or white supremacy I think is
the more accurate term,
their connotation when they use
the term "white"
is almost exactly the same as
how many people,
particularly Anglo-Canadians,
would've used the term British
in the 1920s and '30s.
And this is what I think is
particularly interesting
is this idea that there seems
to be presented this idea
amongst many on the far right
of this united quote unquote
"white race",
that includes everybody from,
you know,
from Russia or--
from Russia through to Spain
thought to Sweden
through to Greece and Italy,
that it's somehow this
European white race.
And what's interesting is that
that idea that all of these
dispirit peoples
would somehow be one race
would have been
totally foreign to
political observers in
the 1920s and '30s.
Okay, this is interesting.
So who was a white person in
the 1920s in Canada
as opposed to today?
KARINA: Okay, so that would
be basically just
a light-skinned person
from Britain.
Yeah. So if you were Italian,
French, Spanish, Russian,
Jewish, Irish,
those were all considered
different races
with their own flaws and
So for instance,
you take the division between
the French and English
in Canada,
that was written about by
political scientists
of the day as the question
of race in Canada
because the French were
a different race
from the English,
like, that was the idea.
So the point that Adam made
to me is basically
that the term "white" is and
has always been in flux
and he's studying just like,
a snapshot of where it was
in the '20s and '30s,
but the reason that it's in flux
so much over our history
is that it's really only used
to invoke
some reason behind exclusion.
So like, exclusion from
voting rights
or exclusion from a say
in society.
Here's Adam.
It is often used in terms white
Canadians versus
Indigenous Canadians,
white Canadians versus African
or Caribbean Canadians,
white Canadians versus
And so you see this,
particularly with
Indigenous Canadians,
is that this idea of
white Canada all of the sudden
becomes and is used to be this
massive encompassing term
that is, broadly speaking,
used as a change for
settler Canadians
and is used to justify
disempowerment and so forth.
But whereas then that term gets
all of the sudden
made much more restrictive
when you start talking about
voting rights,
all of a sudden, white Canada
isn't actually
the same white Canada
we're talking about
when we're talking about
dispossessing Indigenous land.
So when it's convenient,
they're white
and they can be agents of
state power,
but then when it comes to,
you know,
granting equal political
to say, Doukhobor's farmers,
it's a totally different story.
So it's the fact that this term
is constantly shifting
to align with generally
the interest of
those who are in power.
It's really interesting
to hear these like,
gradients of white,
and how they're basically just
like a means to an end, right?
Mm-hmm, yeah.
Just to complicate this
a little bit,
I want to bring up an article
that David Bernstein wrote
The Washington Post
that was
"Sorry, but the Irish were
always 'white'
(and so were Italians,
Jews and so on)."
And in that he kind of lists
these objective tests
to counter the theory that
certain groups
that are now considered white
weren't always considered white.
So for example, we're members of
that group
allowed to go to
white's only schools
in the South.
Were they ever segregated
in schools by law
anywhere in the United States?
When laws banned many
interracial marriages
in many states,
if a white Anglo-Saxon wanted to
marry a member of the group,
would that have been
against the law?
And in all those cases,
Italians, Jews, the Irish,
would in that case
be considered white.
He's just sort of pushing back
against that logic
that we hear a lot where
people say like,
"When my family immigrated
from Ireland,
like we went through--"
blah blah blah.
Yeah, this is definitely not to
downplay slavery,
segregation, everything along
those lines.
Just to sort of point out
the fact that it's
a malleable term.
So, this brings be to a few
terms that we have to talk about
when we talk about the world
So first, let's talk about
the big one.
White privilege.
So, white privilege is a term
for all the advantages
possessed by a white person on
the basis of their race.
So the term white privilege gain
through the work of
Peggy McIntosh.
In 1988 she wrote an essay
"White Privilege and
Male Privilege:
A Personal Account of Coming to
See Correspondences
Through Work in Women's
In this piece she wrote about
ways that she's been taught
to see racism as something that
kind of puts
others at a disadvantage
but never sought as
the flipside,
how she as a white woman got
the advantages.
So in the essay she describes
these privileges as
"an invisible knapsack,"
which is kind of a famous
have you heard of that before?
Yeah, yeah.
Yeah. And so this knapsack she
carries as a white woman
has passports and allowances and
blank cheques.
So in the essay she names
46 examples of these privileges,
and they range from "I can turn
on the television
or open the front page of
the paper
and see people of my race widely
and positively represented."
"I did not have to educate our
children to be aware of
systemic racism for their own
daily physical protection."
"I am never asked to speak for
all the people of
my racial group."
"I can be reasonably sure that
if asked to talk to
the person in charge,
I'll be facing a person
of my race."
Oh yeah! That's a big one.
McIntosh says the pressure to
avoid thinking about
white privilege is great
because it forces her give up
the myth of meritocracy.
Right, yeah.
Like, people will say,
"Oh, I worked hard
to get where I am."
"I pull myself up by
my bootstraps."
Like, that kind of thinking.
Like, "How dare you invalidate
how hard I've worked
to get where I am."
And those thing can obviously be
true but if you're white,
your race equipped you with
these privileges
and your race wasn't the reason
that your life was hard.
One of the things I want to
bring up is that
Peggy McIntosh is
an American activist
and the conversation about race
can often be
very U.S. centric.
Yes. This is exactly why I was
so glad to talk to Adam Coombs
because he's studying Canadian
history specifically
and it was really cool to hear
from that
Canadian specific focus.
I feel like culturally,
Canada gets lumped into
the U.S. a lot,
but the issue of race is one
that feels
really unique to each country.
And so like, we're taught as
kids here for instance
that in the U.S. you have
the history of slavery
and the Civil War and
the melting pot,
and in Canada you have
and the cultural mosaic but
that's really not
the whole picture at all.
Definitely not.
Adam and I spoke a bit about
this actually.
Here he is.
ADAM: I think that
Jagmeet Singh's response to
the heckler that he met in
Atwater Market in Montreal
represents that in sort of
the most concise manner
when the man says to him,
you know,
"You should remove your turban
then you'd look like
a Canadian."
And he says, "A Canadian looks
like all sorts."
And that's-- like,
that is--
in many ways that brief
interactions really sums up
those two different directions
in that one says there is
normative definition
of what constitutes being
you know, or old stock Canadian,
and that is, broadly speaking,
even if they don't use the term,
really is white.
To get a bit more of that
Canadian focus
I spoke to
Dr. Denise O'Neil Green
who herself is American but
moved to Canada
when she was hired at
Ryerson University
where she serves as the first
Vice President of Equity
and Community Inclusion,
which is quite a title.
Here she is.
I came from the mid-west,
Chi Town,
born and raised in Chicago
proper, the city,
have lived in Nebraska,
and Illinois of course,
but primarily a mid-western
girl, that's why I thought,
"Ontario? Why not? It's just
right across the border."
"Just across the street,"
so to speak.
But, very different world.
So before I came to Canada,
I was told racism does not exist
in Canada and it thought,
"Who knew that?"
But the question is,
why did my job exist
to begin with?
So Denise's work is in
race and diversity,
but I wanted to speak to her
specifically because
she brought the White Privilege
Conference to Toronto in 2018.
I was a student
at Ryerson at the time
but I didn't actually get
the chance to attend it.
But this conference has been
going on in the U.S. since 2000,
but this was the very first one
on Canada.
Here's Denise.
And we thought, "Yes, we're
going to do this."
"This is the right time for
to have the white privilege
And because of the narrative
around Canada being
a very inclusive country,
a multicultural country,
a country that is a mosaic,
you can come from anywhere in
the world
and this place is home for you,
I think that's excellent.
And it's home for me as well.
the experience of being
a racialized person
in Canada isn't lost on me,
or many other people who are
and recognise that
white privilege,
white fragility,
white supremacy,
operates as a system within
the country of Canada
in the same way it does
in the U.S.
and around the world.
So, for me, bringing that
conversation to Canada,
and specifically within Toronto,
I thought would be an important
thing to do.
So, did she tell you like,
what made her feel this was
the right time
to have the conversation
in Canada?
Yeah, she mentioned
a few examples.
Like, at the time, Prime
Minister Justin Trudeau
was being criticized for having
a very white cabinet.
The conversation around carding
in Toronto,
which is when a police officer
will pull over,
usually a person of colour,
and ask to see their ID.
I am white and I've never had
this happen to me in my life.
I know activist Desmond Cole
is a huge advocate on
this subject.
And he landed in Vancouver,
and I think had been there for
24 hours
before he was carded in
Stanley Park.
Oh, wow.
So it's not just a problem in
Toronto, that's for sure.
She also mentioned our beauty
standards are very whitewashed,
and even her own experiences of
being followed in stores.
One thing I really liked is that
when they Canadian-ised
this conference they added
a subtitle.
So it was
the White Privilege Conference:
Are Canadian's Too Polite?
Like, as in are we too polite to
talk about race?
I think that's the idea.
I really like that,
it sort of twist this idea that
Canada has about
being better than.
And it also sort of implies that
doing anti-racism work
isn't being nice, right?
It's more systemic.
Like you mentioned earlier
how the idea of race
being like, white or not white
is sort of a constructed binary,
But I want to talk about another
binary that's really unhelpful
which is that a lot of
white people,
including white people who think
of themselves as progressive,
have this idea racist equals bad
or evil person,
not racist equals like,
good, polite, nice person.
KARINA: Right, which on its face
seems to follow,
it's bad to be racist,
it's good to be not racist,
but, like...
The negative association that we
have with the world
"racists" is so strong
that we have this really narrow
idea of how racism works
and think that is has to be
A, intentional,
and B, malicious.
And with this binary, if someone
points out that a white person's
actions are not perfectly
racially sensitive,
they feel like they're being
labelled therefor a bad person.
So with this conference,
Denise and her team
were trying to sort of
drive home the point that
racism is not just individual
but a system designed to uphold
white supremacy.
And so whenever racism is
brought up,
people get immediately
And here's another term,
that defensiveness is commonly
referred to as white fragility.
This term was coined in 2011
by Dr. Robin DiAngelo,
a critical race educator
who actually spoke at
the Toronto White Privilege
Dr. DiAngelo says that white
people in North American society
are insulated from
talking about race,
which lowers their tolerance,
or stamina, for racial stress.
Kind of, as we talked about at
the beginning of the episode.
It's like a muscle
that you're working out.
Yeah. I mean,
I think about how growing up,
race was totally unspoken.
Mm-hmm. I went to the same very
white Catholic school
from junior kindergarten all
the way to eight grade,
and there were maybe 60 of us,
so pretty small class.
And I think there was
one black girl
and a couple Asian kids
and me,
and we never talked about race
ever, ever.
Actually, we barely talked about
it in my own family
which I think can be a really
common experience
for children of immigrants
because either you're
super immersed
in your parent's culture,
or they completely immerse you
in the one
that's new to them.
And for me, I grew up like,
canoeing and ice skating and
having white friends,
and like, turkey at
and all of that,
and going to this very white
Catholic school.
And I actually remember
finding drawings
that I made of myself
from kindergarten and
I drew myself with white skin,
like pink-- pinkey-white skin.
So yeah, I like only ever
started talking about
things like race with friends
when I went to
a public high school
where actually, being white was
in the minority
for that high school.
That's interesting.
And Robin DiAngelo says that
because we're insulated from
talking about race,
any racial stress feels
overwhelming to white people
and we immediately begin to make
ourselves more comfortable
using all sorts of
defense mechanisms.
So the classic example of
white fragility is
white tears,
when typically a white woman
burst into tears at the prospect
of being found to be
racially insensitive,
and then all the energy
goes to comforting
or reassuring her rather than
dealing with the actual issue.
Robin DiAngelo is
a workshop leader
and other examples of
white fragility
that she sees in her work
that she notes are
leaving the room,
becoming hostile,
claiming reverse racism,
playing the devil's advocate,
tone policing,
which is like saying,
"You're coming off as really
angry right now."
Or, "You're acting really
Or claiming things like they're
colour blind,
or, "I have black friends."
Oh yeah, that's a good one.
Or, "I don't care if you're
black, white,
green, or polka dotted."
She even sites an example from
her work
when a woman received feedback
that something she said
was problematic and she left
the room and said
she was having a heart attack.
Oh, dude.
And these are all really
powerful ways
that white people use to derail
a conversation about race.
People were even uncomfortable
about them calling this
the White Privilege Conference.
Here's Denise.
The word privilege
was not the problem.
Once you put white in front
of privilege,
then there were
so many challenges
to bringing the conference
and maintaining its name.
Recognising that we have
a multiplicity of conferences
in this city that focuses on
diversity, inclusion,
privilege, anti-racism,
none of them would get
the same kind of attention
that we received by calling it
White Privilege.
And it did ruffle feathers,
but if we didn't center
white privilege,
clearly no one would have
paid attention
to the conference at all.
Okay, so this is juicy.
What kind of feather ruffling
are we talking about?
Well, there were a few op-eds
and a very small demonstration
outside of the conference.
The Ryerson Eyeopener
that about 25 people attended,
but they did report seeing
Soldiers of Odin jackets,
which is a white supremacist
that was originally founded
in Finland.
Signs that said things like,
"The term 'white privilege'
is racist."
And a Confederate flag
as well as reporters for
Rebel Media,
a far right Canadian
media website,
and Faith Goldy,
a political commentator who's
been described
as alt-right as well.
One of the speakers at
the rally said,
"We are seeing the beginning of
the normalisation
of the demonization of
the white race.
Yeah, I mean, it's not--
like Denise was saying,
it's not surprising to hear
that there was pushback.
it's kind of what we said
whiteness is usually invisible,
and so when it's called to
people get reactive and
But like Denise said, it's
important that the conference
actually has the word
"white" in it.
Here she is.
This is not to say that we
brought this conference
to shame and blame,
but we brought the conference
to make what has been very
invisible, visible.
To make visible that whiteness
is a race.
We use the term
"visible minority",
well, what's the
opposite of that?
The invisible majority?
I don't know,
and that simply speaks to how
whiteness is invisible
and operates in such power and
that oftentimes people aren't
even aware of it.
To me, it's similar to being
a fish in water:
you don't realise you're in
water, the fish doesn't,
until it's taken out of water.
When it comes to
white privilege,
you have many white individuals
who are very much unaware of
their privilege
because they belong.
We're swimming in the sea of
white privilege,
white fragility,
white supremacy,
and the system is set up
in a way
to reinforce itself.
Okay, so we've discussed
whiteness as a construct
and we've talked about
white privilege
and white fragility,
and the importance of naming
but what defines whiteness?
Like, what is whiteness?
Oh, so you want me to
speak for my race now?
Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Just to cap it off,
give us a quick,
tight summary.
I don't-- yeah.
I do feel like we're at a moment
right now
where we are actually
talking about this.
In an op-ed for
The New York Times,
Nell Irvin Painter wrote,
"Whiteness is on a toggle switch
between bland nothingness
and racist hatred."
Which-- I like the expression
"bland nothingness."
Because it-- I don't know.
It makes me think of the white
people have no culture meme.
Have you seen this?
Yeah, I've seen it.
So, if you haven't heard of it,
it's like a stereotypical
white image,
like a whole white family
wearing matching Snuggies,
or a picture of like,
and the caption is,
"I hate it when people say
white people have no culture,
like, um, try again, sweetie."
And honestly,
as a white person,
when I think about what
defines whiteness?
It immediately makes me think of
internet jokes like that one
or Stuff White People Like.
Do you remember this?
Yeah. I--
There was like a time where it
was kind of a coffee table book
that people had.
I remember it being in
Urban Outfitters, you know?
Maybe I'll read you a couple.
Yeah, yeah. Take me back.
Read me a few.
PIPPA: "This is the full list
of stuff white people like:
Peacoats, Frisbee sports,
The Onion,
picking their own fruit,
the TED Conference,
ugly sweater parties,
shorts, scarves,
That's you!
Damn it!
It's pretty diverse but
all pretty bland.
I mean, that's like an older
example of internet jokes
about whiteness,
but I think it's great that
we're actually
naming whiteness now.
Like, how now you'll see on
people will talk about whiteness
and they'll abbreviate it to be
"WT," so, white,
or "WIPIPO."
Have you even seen this?
Yeah, yeah.
So, naming whiteness is
important because
it sort of defines white by what
it is, not by what it isn't.
Mm-hmm. Yeah.
It's sort of eroding this idea
that white is neutral.
When we talk about whiteness,
a lot of the time it's in
contrast to blackness, right?
But in the Canadian context
we can't ignore
that white also is sort of
a synonym for settler
sometimes, or non-Indigenous.
Here's Denise.
And as long as we have within
our own backyard
the First Nations,
Metis and Inuit,
I don't think anyone
in Canada can claim
they're better than the States
because my learning
and understanding
when it comes to Indigenous
peoples here
is that their treatment has been
very similar,
not the same, but very similar
to how African-Americans have
been treated in the U.S.
With that said,
we like to do a land
to close out our show which is
recorded on
the traditional territories
of the Wendat,
Haudenosaunee, Metis,
and Mississaugas of
the Credit First Nation.
Word Bomb is produced by me,
Pippa Johnstone.
And me, Karina Palmitesta.
We'd like to thank Adam Coombs
and Dr. Denise O'Neil Green
for their interviews.
You can follow the show
on Instagram and at
And finally, thank you to
everyone at TVO
who makes our show possible.
Thanks for listening.

Watch: Ep. 8 - 'White': The Great YT North