What’s the Right Way to Deal With a Racist?
Jagmeet Singh’s reaction to a heckler has been a viral sensation, but some people of color think the praise has been telling.
Screencaps via YouTube
This article originally appeared on VICE Can.
When someone is hurling racist insults at you, keeping your composure is no easy feat, but finding it in your heart to tell them that you love them and hear them is something else entirely—it's safe to say not many people could do it. That's why a video of Canada's New Democratic Party leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh remaining unbelievably chill as woman yells at him for supporting Sharia law and being "in bed" with the Muslim Brotherhood has been seen tens of millions of times. It's earned him an outpouring of support well beyond party lines, and his approach has been lauded as "inspiring" and "instructive."
But online, some young people of color are dispelling the notion that Singh's reaction—calm and compassionate in the face of blind hatred—should be the template for how to respond to a racist. "Are we not allowed to feel the pain from those attacks? And to express that pain as complex human beings? To expose the trauma?" wrote activist designer Sheila Sampath in a Twitter thread.
The video has garnered Singh publicity on par with Justin Trudeau, shared outside of Canada by people like CNN's Van Jones and Jake Tapper, and Martin Luther King's daughter Bernice King, who wrote that Singh had "demonstrated [her] father's belief that love is a powerful force in the face of hate."
But compare that widespread approval and admiration to how the media and members of the public have treated less forgiving approaches to racism, like Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and Antifa. It becomes pretty obvious that Canadians are much less willing to lend their voices to support activists who are justifiably angry.
Remember the vitriol hurled at BLMTO co-founder Yusra Khogali when she tweeted a prayer for the strength "not to cuss/kill these men and white folks out here"? After the then months-old tweet was unearthed—in the wake of a fruitful two-week protest by BLM demanding police accountability—the backlash was fast and furious. Many on Twitter demanded that Khogali step down and journalists tripped over themselves to get an explanation for the controversial remark.
Khogali had written the tweet after being bombarded with messages from "white men asking [her] to prove that racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny exist," she explained in an op-ed. For many, her defense—that she'd used "a rhetorical flourish, to voice [her] frustration" —wasn't enough.
Those people may not understand how devastating it is to be on the receiving end of racism, how intensely people of color feel it, or how infuriating it is to have your response to it questioned and policed. Many of us won't be as patient as Singh, nor should we be expected to as that impatience comes from a real place.
While the media rushed to condemn Khogali, they drowned out BLM's peaceful efforts to hold police officers who have killed black people to account. When the focus is on tone, more important conversations often get derailed.
Many have made the argument that calling out racism doesn't work—we've just spent a year debating the ethics of punching Nazis, and whether it's even productive to call neo-Nazis "Nazis." But it doesn't appear that Singh, who did the opposite, succeeded in changing the mind of the woman screaming at him. In a video taken after the incident, the woman, since identified as Jennifer Bush, says she came to the event to ask why Singh supported a Liberal MP's motion to condemn Islamophobia, and why he opposed the niqab ban in 2011, calling both policies "Sharia." Then she added that she isn't a racist. At no point did she apologize for her outburst or acknowledge Singh's kindness.
Singh, who is hoping to become Canada's next Prime Minister on a platform of inclusiveness, has spoken out about dealing with racism growing up, but now has to grapple with it in the national spotlight. And it won't come just from people like Bush, but also from the mainstream, in places like Quebec where the NDP worries it'll be abandoned by voters if the party's leader is a devout Sikh, as progressive community leader Andray Domise wrote in Maclean's. But Singh has built his brand on the idea of championing a "politics of love to fight the politics of hate." His actions in this instance are on message and palatable to every kind of audience—this is crucial since he now faces the monumental task of impressing not just people of color, but also white liberals. And as a politician who's dealt with racist hecklers in the past, he's probably deeply aware of how a turbaned brown man being anything less than gentle towards a white woman would fulfill a racist stereotype. Would everyone be fawning over Singh in the same way had he yelled back at Bush, or had her immediately escorted out of the room?
It's easy to root for someone whose slogan is literally "Love and Courage," and who can stay so positive in the face of open hostility. As a potential leader, Singh's reaction is commendable and makes sense. But it shouldn't be treated like the only and right one—that creates an impossible standard for visible minorities, dealing with the blows of subtle and overt racism every day, to live up to. Canadians should get used to people being less gracious about racism—because the truth is, the work of dismantling racism, in most cases, is much harder than loving the racist.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter.