On Facebook, saying ‘men are scum’ can get you kicked off the platform for 30 days (affectionately known as ‘facebook jail’). This, because you are furious at the global treatment of women at the hands of men; this, even in the #metoo uprising where it seemed almost every woman on my timeline was sharing a story of violence or abuse at the hands of a man.
Facebook, in their attempts to engender ‘equality’ with no context, decided that this was hate speech and shut it down, even when it came from the mouths of comics, or poets. Women lost a powerful way of expressing their disdain, their distress, their despair. Women have, all too often, had the power of naming taken from us, and I saw this as yet another silencing, another snipping of our reclamation of language. Sure, we are still oppressed on a planet-wide scale―but at least we’d been able to talk about it, for a breath anyway. Facebook decided we could talk about ourselves but not who was causing this pain.
Racism is prejudice plus power. Without power, the prejudice has no teeth. Sexism is the same. Men saying ‘women are whores’ is sexism because men have personal and institutional power in our society (inarguably a patriarchy) that they use, in multiple avenues such as media, politics, the workplace, and the home. Women saying ‘men are scum’ could be considered a prejudice, but it isn’t sexism because sexism is prejudice plus power, and this is no matriarchy.
A white person saying, “You people […] can pay a couple bucks for a poppy” is racism because ‘you people’ is what’s considered a dogwhistle, a word or phrase that may be argued to be innocuous but in fact makes all racists nod in agreement while the rest of us are debating semantics. It groups all non-white people into the category of the dehumanized ‘other’ and demands a certain behaviour from them in order to receive respect. It says ‘I know who the others are and I want them to answer for something’, and when someone with power in our society (for better or worse) like Don Cherry says it, it creates a reckoning. Suddenly people are checking to make sure ‘those people’ (non-whites, whether confirmed immigrants or not) are behaving in the way this white man has dictated. Are we actually comfortable with people who never fought a war checking to see if those fleeing war are being properly ‘respectful’ in a way that someone else who’s never fought a war has dictated?
No one called me out on not wearing a poppy―no one ever has. Don Cherry and other racists suffer from, among other things, one of the sins of the scientific method: confirmation bias. He came up with a conclusion and looked around, internally counting whenever he saw a person of colour without a poppy, using this to build his case. Did he take a tally of all the white people versus people of colour not wearing the poppy, to make sure his assumption was accurate? Did he ask even one person, non-confrontationally, why they chose not to wear a poppy? Or did he have a racist opinion (something along the lines of ‘brown people should be grateful to be in MY country and should assimilate so I continue to feel as comfortable and unchallenged in my power as I always have’) which he declared with such authority on a trust platform that people took it as fact? Did he ever consider he is a settler on land not conceded?
As I watched in dismay as this debate devolved, I realized that many people do not understand the power component of racism or sexism or any other ‘isms’. It isn’t just about someone using an identifying category of your identity to hurt your feelings and shame you (see: OKAY boomer). The power component is a necessary factor in oppression. No one can oppress others without the power to do so. People can be unkind, rude, even cruel―but that’s not oppression. Taking a position of power, like Don Cherry had, to open a meaningful discussion on this subject would have been interesting, albeit somewhat questionable due to his history as an instigator. Posing a question to the public like, ‘do you wear a poppy? Why or why not?’ would have been a welcome upgrade to his accusatory rant. And maybe it would have saved me from seeing white men in my community flood all the comment sections with the rallying cry of reverse racism.
Our society is set up in an extraordinarily flawed way―multiple intersecting hierarchies. So a white man could easily have a shitty life―but it’s not shitty because he’s white, or a man. It’s probably shitty because he’s experiencing poverty (‘class’ is very much an axis of oppression). When a straight, white, rich man on a major network with a massive following starts dictating how Canadians should react to newcomers, who experience multiple intersections of oppression, I admit I get nervous. It seemed to give a lot of people permission to point fingers, to draw lines, to light torches.
Another straight, white, rich man, Mark Zuckerberg, dictated that women couldn’t express our feelings in the aftermath of #metoo because it was, apparently, just as sexist for women to call men scum as it was for men to assault women (of which he has been accused, so no conflict of interest there…). Women rebelled, as we do―we found other ways. But too many of us are still silenced, and the women disproportionately affected, as always, are the women who are also of colour, from global majority countries, disabled, poor, mentally ill, it goes on. As a white woman, I very much consider it my responsibility to uplift the voices of those oppressed in ways I’m not. In fact, I consider that an honour, and I try really hard to learn how to do it most effectively, most justly.
I guess my holiday wish (and yes, there will be a column on How the Social Justice Snowflakes Stole Christmas) would be that those who have power on any axis, whether whiteness, straightness, income, or other, would use that power to bring people closer together, to foster understanding and empathy, not division and disrespect. Checking for poppies feels like checking for papers. We are on a very slippery slope here, and we decide whether we help others find their footing, or kick their legs out from underneath them and watch them fall.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.