The media’s glorification of Jagmeet Singh’s reaction to an angry heckler says a lot about how we discuss race and racism in Canada.
Two weeks ago, a viral video catapulted NDP leader hopeful Jagmeet Singh into the international spotlight for his handling of a racially charged confrontation at a meet-and-greet in Brampton, Ontario. The heckler, now identified as Jennifer Bush, is a member of the right-wing group Rise Canada, whose mission is to defend “Canadian values, which often conflict with the Islamic way of thinking.” In the video, Bush suggests Singh (who is Sikh) supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia Law (which he does not). Bush later said in a video statement that she knew Singh was Sikh.
It seems, according to Canadian and international media around the incident, there is only one proper way to combat a racist. Much of the media coverage of the incident has taken the form of exalted praise for Singh’s handling of Bush, his use of palatable language and his oft-recited words of love and courage. However, the glorification of his response is problematic for several reasons.
First, the mainstream media response suggests that the onus is on people of colour to perform the emotional labour of deftly handling racists. The praise for the way Singh “handled racism” reinforces a notion that people of colour are expected to “deal” with racism in an amiable way that white people deem acceptable: to fight hate with love, thereby requiring a response that is inherently pacifist. A response like this negates the pain, anger and hurt that is inherent in racial attacks, and it negates the overwhelming hopelessness and defeat of that moment. People of colour are expected to “transcend their race.” They are expected to adhere to notions of propriety that are predetermined by the white majority who have never had to deal with racism as an accepted feature of being non-white in Canada. There is an arrogance in this way of thinking: to suppose that white people have the experience, education and understanding of the nuance of racism, so much so that they can critique the behaviour of people of colour who live it every day.
Meanwhile, the coverage doesn’t deal with the origins and practice of racism, or with the tension between the ideals of multiculturalism and the historical reality of Confederation —born out of white exceptionalism — or with white supremacy. Few, if any, of the commentaries and analyses offered by some of Canada’s most esteemed pundits raised the prospect of the radicalization of white Canadians or the institutional racism that infuses every inch of Canada’s well-manicured administrative systems. Almost none mentioned how xenophobic, Eurocentric and plain ignorant it is to assume that a Canadian man wearing a turban is attempting to implement Sharia law. That blindness runs through the All Lives Matter “movement,” which denies that members of marginalized groups are treated adversely because of their race, and if they are treated differently, they somehow deserve it.
This demeanor. . . reinforces that, time and again, people of colour are responsible for ensuring that white people are not made uncomfortable by discussions of race, even as people of colour are the ones being attacked or harassed.
Some commentary, however, has focused on Singh’s language of “love and courage” as farcical, as it makes no sense for him to wish that upon a white supremacist. And perhaps, even if this wish of love and peace was his true intention, his composure in this situation should reveal to us how often he has probably handled this in his life. This was the reaction of a man who has become very practiced at dealing with xenophobic and racist attacks. But as the Canadian media praised this demeanor, and the message of love conquering all, it reinforces that, time and again, people of colour are responsible for ensuring that white people are not made uncomfortable by discussions of race, even as people of colour are the ones being attacked or harassed.
Second, Singh’s response was widely assumed to be “fighting hate with love,” a reaction that white people view as the right way to respond to overt racism. Yet, when we viewed the video, it almost looked as if Singh was mocking Bush (when Bush mentions the Muslim Brotherhood, Singh gives a little chuckle). This tactic is especially familiar to women of colour. Oftentimes, when women of colour are targeted or verbally abused, they feel the only response is to mock the attacker (this will likely resonate for women and woman-identifying folks when they experience street harassment). Mockery allows a marginalized group to deflect the abuse while also making the reply palatable for white Canadians who are, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefer[s] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” It also expresses anger and hurt in the least destructive and, oftentimes, the safest way possible. As women are often socialized to believe, the onus is on us to respond to threats not in kind, but with pleasantry, with love rather than hate.
Third, there was little discussion of the racial and gender optics of the video in the response to it. As a non-white male who was facing an aggressive female attacker, Singh had no choice but to take the gentler approach, lest he be seen as the “aggressive foreigner” who dared to stand up to a white woman. He would have been playing into many racist tropes about people with brown skin. These tropes equate darker skin with aggression, and they are the same tropes that allow Mike Huckabee to characterize Whoopi Goldberg’s comments during a difficult line of questioning in an interview on The View as “irrational and angry,” rather than admiring her passion. With those three words, Mike Huckabee demeaned, diminished and dismissed the legitimacy of Goldberg’s arguments, most of which questioned President Donald Trump’s fitness as president.
Regardless of their gender, people of colour have always been expected to be subservient to white people, which is why the myth of the model minority is so pervasive. A “model minority” is a minority who are perceived by white people as quiet, who don’t rock the boat, who “succeed” based on the erroneous but ubiquitous myth of immigrant groups coming to North America and “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Subservience by minority groups is expected and fetishized, and when people of colour speak out or challenge inequity it is misconstrued as aggressive, rather than being admired or even revered as it is when white people challenge an unfair system.
But much as Hillary Clinton couldn’t avoid the sexism that was levelled against her during the 2016 presidential campaign, it seems that Jagmeet Singh cannot avoid racism in his 2017 leadership campaign. Canada’s white media cannot seem to find a way to write about Singh without racialized tones that assume his ability to lead a national party is deficient, especially given the previous writing about Singh’s religious affiliation and whether he would be able to garner votes in Quebec. Though he most certainly had to endure the racist attack at his speaking engagement, it was really the aftermath of the coverage about “how well he handled it” that really highlights for us Canadians’ race issue: tolerance of racism shrouded in respectability, which condemns Black Lives Matter for stopping a parade instead of addressing the racism they are fighting against, in which complacency and stability are prized above justice and equity.
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