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We must speak out against racism

"We cannot sit passively by and let the seeds of intolerance that have been sown to flourish. " - Ameil J. Joseph, McMaster School of Social Work

Aug 16, 2017

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have shown us all the mobilized, organized and bellicose realities of white supremacy.

I saw photos of Deandre Harris beaten with poles by a group of white supremacists while he was bracing himself, surrounded, on his hands and knees. I was told there were some skirmishes.

I watched a vehicle plow into a crowd of people, killing one woman and injuring almost 20 others. I read online that there were some scuffles.

I saw white supremacists chant Nazi slogans – “blood and soil” and “one people, one nation, end immigration” – as they marched through the University of Virginia campus.

I thought for a brief moment, “Where are the police?” then worried about who they might help because we’ve witnessed so many examples of police-sanctioned murder of black people.

I read the Mayor of Charlottesville’s powerful and thoughtful statement, and then wondered why the violence continued.

I heard again comments about freedom of speech as I watched white supremacists wield sticks, clubs and guns.

I watched a CNN commentator tell a black woman to “just shut up” while he defended the white supremacist riot on Charlottesville.

People were pressured to name what was happening and many chose not to say the words: white supremacy, Nazism, racism, hate and bigotry. Others pointed to these things, but refused to connect the sown seeds of sanctioned hate that have stoked the fire of bigotry.

I have been asked to respond to hate with love. What does that mean? Should I bake a cake for a white supremacist?

What is so often very frustrating is that, for a very long time now, many observers have been focusing on freedom of speech rather than hatred and bigotry; on the loss of white privilege and not the violence of racism; on entertaining “alt-right” white supremacist arguments, forums, rallies and debates out of fear that one will be targeted as a suppressor of free speech. I have been told that to speak out against these positions might create a chilling effect on academic freedom, that when someone defends the alt-right they should not be dismissed as a bigot – they are just worried about “their jobs.”

Those of us who are very concerned, and have been for a long time, are not confused by the double play of meanings. We have seen and experienced the insulting, overt aggression that is openly condemned while the foundational bases for hate-positions are openly permitted.

When we see and name things for what they are, we can do something more. We can choose to listen to those who have been on the receiving end of this hatred for generations and act on their recommendations for change.

As Ryan Scrivens and Barbara Perry have published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, recommendations for challenging right-wing extremism include: “responding to and countering hate speech,” “supporting and empowering victims” by “including effected groups in relevant conversations,” and “pushing public agencies to act.” The Southern Poverty Law Centre also posted a resource for countering white nationalism on campus.

These are difficult times but they are not new. Many are tired and targeted. But, continuing to support one another must also mean never passively letting anything slide. We must be able to name overt acts of white supremacy that many publicly sanction, while not simultaneously sanctioning policies and practices that make those positions acceptable on a daily basis.

This hatred and bigotry is hurtful and violent, and to face it is to also name how we have been enabling these threats to us all.

Ameil Joseph is an assistant professor in the school of social work at McMaster University.

Original article published in University Affairs Magazine