Earlier in the summer, I wrote a column about Black Lives Matter Toronto in which I said people who've never experienced racism—particularly politicians and media pundits—should be careful when weighing in on the subject, especially if they're just going to be dismissive.
One of my friends reacted to the piece with absolute outrage. This person, a white male journalist, told me that I was trying to "shut down white voices." Towards the end of our exchange, in which he admitted he was worried he was eventually going to lose his job to a person of colour, he called me a "bigoted little witch."
His views sound extreme, especially for someone who works for a mainstream media organization. But he's not alone. It seems the more we talk about racism, the stronger another narrative becomes—one that paints white people as the ones who are truly oppressed.
According to a survey released last year 52 percent of white Americans said they believe discrimination against them is on par with discrimination faced by black people and other minorities. In Canada, a poll taken in 2014 showed that most Canadians don't think they're racist—84 percent claim they have friends of different racial backgrounds—but 32 percent make occasional racist comments, and 27 percent agree with racial stereotypes. Those ideas are at odds with each other, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the basic concept of racism.
Last week, news broke that Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef was born in Iran, not Afghanistan, as she'd been led to believe her whole life. The Globe and Mail revealed the truth about Monsef's birthplace, prompting Monsef's mom to admit she'd lied to her daughter about where she was actually born. Consequently, some accused Monsef of being deliberately deceitful to the public and even suggested that her citizenship should be revoked and that she should step down from her job. While many journalists were quick to back up the story as legitimate—and aspects of it might be—there seemed to be a resistance to even entertaining the possibility that a white politician who'd been born outside of Canada would not have faced the same level of scrutiny. For suggesting as much, in a story VICE published, I once again found myself being accused of racism against white people.
My default reaction to claims like this is to roll my eyes. But seeing as it's no longer just Twitter trolls who believe in reverse racism—white fragility probably accounts for a large part of Donald Trump's popularity—I decided to reach out to some social justice advocates to ask why they think a certain segment of white people get so defensive when minorities vocalize their oppression. And why groups like BLMTO are being painted as divisive and race baiting when really all they're doing is fighting for equality.
"When you're so deeply invested in your privilege, and in this case white privilege, racial equality feels like oppression," said Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based civil and human rights lawyer.
Simply put, Morgan said reverse racism doesn't exist and a person who claims otherwise is "outing themselves as someone who has little to no experience or knowledge of what racism is."
Read More: White People Explain Why They Feel Oppressed
Racism is based on a couple of things—historical, systemic oppression and power, Morgan explained. And as far as history goes, white people have never been persecuted for the colour of their skin—so there's no point comparing their experiences to those of black, brown, and Indigenous folks.
"It's slavery, colonialism, theft all kinds of violations on systemic proportions... versus feelings being hurt."
There's a difference, he noted, when white people who are in a position of power espouse a hatred of minorities than when it's done the other way around.
In April, BLMTO co-founder Yusra Khogali was highly criticized when a tweet of hers that said "Plz Allah give me strength not to cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today" was discovered.
But Morgan said even if all people of colour straight up said they hate white people, it wouldn't affect a white person's ability to get a job, an education, or increase the odds that they'd get carded or charged for a crime. "If all white people had that view [of black people], that would have a very dramatic life impact on the material reality of all those people."
The exclusion of white people in spaces created for minorities is another controversy that sometimes comes up in the media.
Last fall, flyers for a white students union popped up on a handful of Canadian university campuses. On its website, the group behind the campaign, Students for Western Civilization, claims schools are bombarded with the message that "only white people can be racist, because white people are the sole beneficiaries of this white supremecist (sic) system." To balance things out, a white students' union "would serve as a platform to promote and advance the political interests of Western peoples."
Meanwhile Ryerson University's Racialised Students' Collective received backlash for kicking two white journalism students out of a meeting because they weren't marginalized or racialized. Ditto when BLMTO refused to sell white Toronto musician Sima Xyn one of its protest T-shirts during this year's Pride Parade.
"Denying me service due to my race when I'm showing my support to the Toronto #blacklivematter movement is ironic and killing my human rights," Xyn tweeted at the time.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, broke down why none of the above can be considered racism but is instead, again, about hurt feelings.
"It's interesting that as soon as you de-centre whiteness, it becomes about people being anti-white," she said, noting that at a panel for queer black people she attended, some white people were asked to move to the back to make space for black people. A few were offended.
"Why is it that in a place created for black people to have a conversation amongst themselves... to talk about what it means to be black and queer, that white folks felt they had to be at the centre?"
Morgan added that creating something like a white students union or having White History Month would be redundant.
"If you look at pretty much every profession in which folks have gainful employment or relative social prestige, it's overwhelmingly white."
As for the rise of the white victim narrative, both said issues like economic downturn—particularly in the US, where working class Americans are finding themselves struggling financially—play a role. Immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments that stem from falsely equating Islam with radicalization is another factor. But it's also just a response to more people calling out racism.
Douglas said the only reason we're talking about race more right now is because of blatant incidents that can't be ignored—the police beating death of Ottawa man Abdirahman Abdi, or the fatal shooting of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man from Saskatchewan are two recent examples.
"As soon as we begin to interrogate issues of racism people get uncomfortable with it and hence the pushback we're seeing," she said.
If your default reaction to these discussions is to see white people as victims of reverse racism, Morgan has some advice: educate yourself.
"Anybody who would want to use or identify something as reverse racist, I would strongly encourage them to stop for a moment... and really think seriously about the last time they really have taken the time to study or get a deep understanding of what racism is and how it impacts different communities."
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.