Social Inertia and Why Masuma Khan Did Nothing Wrong

“… I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed by the white moderate I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”

These were the words of Martin Luther King Jr., speaking from Birmingham jail in 1963. He addressed the existence of an important obstacle to social progress: the moderates of the cultural majority that wish to slow change to a comfortable pace; it is to impose order at the cost of justice. Whenever one attempts to defy or challenge unjust convention, one is met with the powerful inertia of the institutions and actors whose interests are served by maintaining the status quo – or who simply fear change.

The Dalhousie student leader Masuma Khan encountered the white moderate this year, in her attempt to do her part in promoting racial justice. As a Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) executive, Khan introduced a motion committing to boycott Canada Day celebrations on campus. The motion passed, but the Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives (NSYPC) complained about the motion on Facebook. Khan responded in a very inflammatory manner, for which Dalhousie unconstitutionally attempted to discipline her, based on a formal complaint filed by a fellow student, Michael Smith. Recently, Dal. decided not to go through with the disciplinary process, instead opting for a campus dialogue on freedom of expression.

There are many complex and nebulous issues involving everything from race to freedom of expression which need to be examined. I do not arrive at clear answers that will satisfy most of you, but what is clear is this: the worst Masuma Khan has done is caused damaged feelings in her remarks; though, the necessary march towards a more equitable society that directly confronts deep-seated racial issues is a small price to pay. As I attempt to show, the NSYPC, Smith, and Dalhousie have essentially served as the white moderates Khan has had to fight. You may disagree with much of what I write, but I encourage you to voice that disagreement. Honest discourse among people of different political backgrounds is the only way to ensure only the best ideas come to fruition, furthering our march towards the Ideal Society – whatever that may be.

To begin, it is important to delineate the position that the DSU has endorsed, namely Canada being a country born of colonialism, should not be celebrated every year as that would be an affirmation of the colonialism it was founded on, which involved (and still involves to a certain extent) the theft of land, disenfranchisement and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. Dalhousie and Acadia University are in unceded Mi’kmaq territory. We have a long way to go, so Canada’s birthday is not a time to celebrate.

But perhaps Canada Day does not celebrate Canada, per se, with all its dark history and current problems of accommodating indigenous minorities, from whose ancestors Europeans stole. Perhaps Canada Day celebrates the good parts of Canada, like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Thus, Canada Day is not a celebration of racism and oppression. But one cannot celebrate something by selective memory and consideration only of the positive properties something possesses. That is absurd. It’s like the Americans with southern heritage who celebrate the Confederacy. “But it’s not about racism; it’s about celebrating my heritage!” But your heritage involves racism – slavery, in fact — and you cannot escape that. So instead of celebrating, you should learn from the mistakes and evil of your ancestors and be a better person. This is painful and uncomfortable, but the world is a dark place; humans have done terrible things, and we should not forget that if we are to avoid these things in the future. If Canada Day is to be a celebration of only the good parts, make that explicit, and don’t call it “Canada Day”. Call it “What Canada Does Right Day”.

The political and philosophical issues of Canada Day aside, many people are still upset when Canada Day is boycotted. Canada Day celebrates part of their identity, the nation they’re citizens of, or at least the nation they’ve chosen to work or study in.  Therefore, boycotting it feels to them like a condemnation of themselves. In a way, it actually is. Canada cannot do anything wrong without Canadians allowing it. We have the ultimate authority over our elected representatives, who make the decisions and have the power to ameliorate the situation minorities are presented with. We are thus collectively responsible for what our government does. The government does not have power over every aspect of everyone’s lives in our country, but for everything else, our society has some impact, which is mediated by our personal decisions. Canadians are responsible for all the good and bad, the freedom and oppression. Thus, it does indeed make sense for Canadians to be upset when people criticize our nation, but the proper response is not to simply whine about the criticism.

On June 30, that is what the NSYPC did with a Facebook post, saying that Khan’s Canada Day motion was “disappointing.” We need to improve our nation, and universities especially should be providing critique, not “… instilling pride in our country” and avoid “attacking Canada”, as this political organization has suggested. That is preposterous and antithetical to the academic freedom and diversity of opinion that I am sure they would advocate for where conservative issues at stake, which explains some of the frustration in Masuma Khan’s response on Facebook.

Though her post has since been deleted and I was unable to reach her for comment, she did write “At this point, fuck you all […] white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren’t sacred, this land is.” She concluded with the following poignant hashtags: “#unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass and #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis” The profanity seems excessive, but not when you have the full context of the situation. Khan had reason to be extremely upset. She faced such strong opposition to anti-oppressive gesture. Though, as a white person myself, I can see why white students like Michael Smith, who submitted a formal complaint against Khan, could interpret these statements as racist and offensive. They are indeed prima facie racist. If one replaced “white” with “black”, it would be easy to see how black students would be offended. Of course, the statements would then be totally incoherent. White tears refer to frivolous complaints, whereas black tears refer to legitimate grievances. White fragility is a sociological phenomenon, but black fragility is not. White fragility is the condition of being excessively sensitive to racial tension, owing to a privileged status as a cultural majority, insulated from issues of race. White fragility is something minorities often have to confront whenever they discuss racial justice issues that implicate whites. To Khan, the NSYPC’s response to her Canada Day motion was an instance of white fragility.

In a supreme bit of irony, Michael Smith wrote an op-ed for the National Post, published on July 10th, decrying Khan’s Facebook post and her Canada Day motion. Not only did he feel the need to ensure she was disciplined for her public views on race relations, but he also needed to complain about it in a newspaper. If this is not an instance of white fragility, I don’t know what is. Does he at least bring up good points in his piece? Is he charitable to her point of view? Not really.

To him, Canada is a great country. “Canada is a welcoming country. We are blessed to be one of the most tolerant and multicultural nations in the world, where all individuals are free to pursue their dreams, regardless of their backgrounds.” Thus, “Canada Day is not oppressive, and those who celebrate it are not oppressors—Canada Day celebrates Canadians’ freedom from oppression.”

This is a view I have addressed above. Pointing to her position as a student representative, he argues “… she has a responsibility to represent and respect all students, even those who hold views that differ from her own.” This seems reasonable, until you realize it means she cannot hold any public position on any issue, nor introduce any motion, for fear of not representing or respecting the view of some particular student, like Smith. This is a terribly high standard that no one could possibly meet without becoming totally ineffectual.

Smith does not address white fragility, instead fixating on the notion of unlearning the narrative of Canada 150, presumably because it’s easier to attack. To him, this is concept of unlearning is “Orwellian”. Universities are for learning, not unlearning! In point of fact, unlearning is often an important part of learning. Growing up, we are constantly taught falsehoods that university professors need to help us overwrite, whether it be historical narratives or how human memory functions or even the metaphysics of free will. Smith does not seem to understand this, but he brings up another, actually interesting point in his piece. The DSU censored certain opposing views of their Canada Day motion on their Facebook page, referring to “racist and triggering” comments. This is unfortunate and perhaps wrong, but it is difficult to seriously consider Smith’s complaint, given the fact that he subjected Khan to possible disciplinary action for her own speech, and there are many dissenting views still openly expressed on the DSU’s page, such as: “DSU, your [sic] reaching cringe levels of SJWness” and “Dalhousie Student Union You ‘people’ are a fucking joke.” Smith also criticizes Khan for allegedly “laughing” and “smirking” at a dissenting councilmember during the meeting in which the Canada Day motion was introduced. This is proof that Khan is human, but not exactly an indictable offence that cannot be dismissed off-hand.

Finally, in a shocking display of either intellectual laziness or dishonesty by a graduate student of history at Dalhousie, Smith uses his interpretation of what the Native Council of Nova Scotia (NCNS) stands for as a shield. He points to their call for unity and working together to eliminate disadvantage. He says “DSU’s divisive actions and rhetoric are diametrically opposed to such reconciliatory efforts.” In other words, natives need to fight for their rights without offending white people, otherwise we can’t work together. But that’s ludicrous and an unjust, impossible ideal. On the NCNS website, there are plenty of claims that Smith, I’m sure, would find “divisive.” On their page “Our Plight,” the NCNS says “The attempt to ‘put the Indian in his place’ forced relocation and dispossession from traditional ancestral homelands, and the attempt to ‘wean the Indian from his lands and resources’ remain the guiding theme of Indian Policy in Canada to this very day.”

“These Government actions, schemes with singular purpose, carry forward and still remain the cornerstone of Canadian Indian Policy and Indian Administrative Measures codified in Canadian legislation as the Indian Act. This policy of a by-gone era remains the greatest source of human rights violations, shame, calamity and ongoing concern both within and outside of Canada. This policy is now drawing international notice, and forms a basis for United Nations fact finding missions to Canada and countless Court challenges by Aboriginal peoples.”

Smith surely would have been upset about these statements, had he bothered to do more research as to the NCNS’s full position on native affairs. But I do not think he actually cares to, given his view that “Canada is a welcoming country. We are blessed to be one of the most tolerant and multicultural nations in the world, where all individuals are free to pursue their dreams, regardless of their backgrounds.” If Khan did anything wrong at all, it was to incur the wrath of individuals like Smith.

But of course, while Smith had the ability to get an op-ep published, his formal complaint would have meant nothing, were it not for Dalhousie. According to Khan, it addressed the complaint by offering an informal resolution process, asking her to write a reflexive essay and undergo counselling, implying her position was obviously untenable and worthy of mental health treatment.

This is obviously absurd, unhelpful, counterproductive, as it treats Khan like a child, not an adult-aged political actor. She obviously refused to comply, leading to a formal process. Fortunately, this ultimately incurred the ire of Dalhousie senators and law professors, unhappy with the de facto suppression of free speech. The lawyer Nasha Nijhawan also chose to represent Khan pro bono in challenging the disciplinary action. On October 25th, the university finally decided to back down, opting for a campus dialogue on freedom of expression instead, thus far excluding Khan. In the end, Dalhousie and Smith failed to silence her, only amplifying her voice. And it is safe to say the NSYPC has had little impact. Perhaps sometimes the inertia of the status quo unintentionally serves as the impetus for activism.

Nevertheless, there is a sociopolitical force faced by activists who wish to bring about some change, a force propounded by people and institutions who are either conservative in some fashion and believe any change must not offend them or who have simply subscribed to the doctrine of gradualism. This doctrine asserts that the status quo is generally great; people who disagree are largely aberrations or idealistic children. Things aren’t perfect right now, but we cannot change too quickly. Allowing people to endure injustice is somehow better than the risk of some chaos. Presumably, conservatives like Smith and the NSYPC do believe in improving the lot of natives, but they apparently believe it has to be done without offending their sensibilities.

As an activist politician, Khan is inconvenient to the gradualists and de facto conservatives. Reflexively, they attempted to silence her in their own ways. This backfired and started a national discussion of the issues, which I have humbly attempted to partake in. Writing from the traditional land of the Mi’kmaq Nation, I say this: Masuma Khan did nothing wrong, aside from causing discomfort. But discomfort is not inherently bad. In fact, it is often good. Very little social progress is ever made while people are perfectly comfortable. Had Khan not made her comment, we would not be having this discussion, and important issues would have gone largely ignored. Despite the three forces of the status quo I have discussed, Khan persists.

To her, I say white fragility can kiss my ass too.

Michael Smith’s op-ed:

The Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives Facebook post:

Dalhousie Student Union “Unlearn 150” Facebook Post: