Racial ‘Privilege’ Campaigns at 2 Canadian Schools Spark Controversy

March 9, 2018 Updated: March 9, 2018

A campaign to raise awareness about racial “privilege” at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) has drawn such a barrage of online derision that posters put up around campus have been removed.

A similar campaign at a school district in British Columbia has sparked criticism from parents, who also want the posters taken down.

The posters at UOIT showed a list of privileges such as “Christian,” “Male,” “White,” “Heterosexual” “Cisgender,” and “Native English Speaker” with tick boxes next to them. The posters define privilege as “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”

The posters encouraged students to attend a RISE (Respecting Individuals and Supporting Equity) workshop to learn more about fostering “an equitable campus community.”

The reaction on UOIT’s social media was swift, with some calling the campaign racist or divisive.

“This is actually hate speech by definition. It defines certain groups of people and blames them for the ills of society,” one critic said, adding that the campaign “only serves to further divide people. It is targeted and goes specifically against the actual ideas behind equality and inclusiveness.”

Another commenter said: “If the above are all features of privilege that need to be “checked” for a “safer” and more “equitable” campus, and attendees of the RISE workshops will learn bystander intervention to promote “safety” and “equity” – and since, last I checked, UOIT doesn’t have any white supremacists etc. running around, just what sorts of crimes/aggressions will trainees be responding to?? Being white? Speaking English? Sharing your Christian faith?”

“These posters are offensive and discriminatory towards anybody who feels in any way a part of these social, racial, sexual or physical groups mentioned,” Blake Doan wrote.

John MacMillan, UOIT’s director of communications, told Durhamregion.com that there was no official directive to remove the posters and he couldn’t comment on what happened to them. He said the campaign aims to improve “equity, diversity and inclusion” on campus and are part of ongoing initiatives at universities across Canada.

“Because something is a difficult conversation doesn’t mean that we should avoid it,” MacMillan said. “In some ways, the fact that people are discussing this speaks to what universities are all about, that we encourage this kind of discussion around these kinds of issues.”

The UOIT Office of Student Life is planning to hold a “discussion event”  to gather feedback on the posters, Durhamregion.com reported.

Meanwhile, School District 74 in B.C., which covers several communities in the Interior, put up posters aiming to address racism and white privilege with phrases such as “Got Privilege?” and “If you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.”

Some of the posters feature school administration staff noting their own experience with privilege or racism.

One poster shows an image of superintendent Teresa Downs next to a quote reading, “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

In another, district principal of Aboriginal education Tammy Mountain appears beside a quote saying, “I have felt racism. Have you?”

But the campaign is raising concern among parents.

“I’d say 95 percent of the people are in favour of having the posters taken down, and that’s from all races,” Kansas Field Allen told CBC News.

Field Allen said when she heard about the posters, she was shocked. She posted photos of the posters that her son had taken on social media to seek the opinion of other parents.

Downs said the campaign is based on a City of Saskatoon anti-racism billboard campaign.

“We were quite inspired and interested in the work they had done,” she told CBC.

“We were also very aware of some information we had from [students] in our school district around some of the racism and prejudice and bias that they were facing, both in their schools and also in the community.”

Field Allen noted that parents weren’t notified about the campaign and it wasn’t made public before the posters went up.

“They could have handled it in a lot better way than they did,” she said.

Although there are no plans to take the campaign to social media, Downs said, the district is offering to talk with parents about it.

“We do understand that this is a discussion about race and privilege, and it can make some people uncomfortable.”


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