When I first heard Jagmeet Singh was removed from the House of Commons, I tried to ignore it. He had called Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien a “racist” for not supporting a motion addressing systemic racism in the RCMP, and refused to apologize for using unparliamentary language. Singh hadn’t invoked a banned word, mind you. It came down to “tone.”
But when I watched Singh’s tearful statement in response to the demands of a handful of white MPs, I cried with him. Like Singh, I am Sikh Punjabi. I too have been raised by racism, and have been asked to apologize for naming it. I have spent my life digesting insults to keep friends, and ignoring jokes to keep jobs.
Watching Singh not back down was invigorating. He faces racism while fighting racism, yet he continues. His confidence is inspiring me to unlearn the “keep quiet” mentality I’ve grown up with.
The first time I was asked to apologize for calling someone racist, I was eight. I grew up in Regina, Sask., where my brother and I were the only Indians at our school. I remember how small I felt. I had a Black Barbie and a white Barbie. A friend said I wasn’t allowed to play with the white doll because I had brown skin. I said that was racist. She cried and locked herself in the bathroom. I told my mom, who panicked and made me apologize. My friendships were already precarious; to keep them, I realized, I had to act like others’ feelings were more precious than mine.
This followed me into adulthood. A few years ago, I attended an Indian wedding with my white friends. One girl, a repeat offender, complained about an event we had missed. “I was the only white person there,” she said, upset. I got angry and was then asked to apologize. I refused. She was visibly shaken, the tension in the room now my fault, not hers. I spent the rest of the night feeling guilty and sending her smiles to make up for my outburst.
“White fragility keeps people of colour in line and ‘in their place.’”
My friends’ defensiveness — their weaponized tears, hurt feelings — characterize what Robin DiAngelo defines as “white fragility” in her book by the same name. She told Teaching Tolerance that if a person of colour accuses someone of racism, “They’re going to now have to take care of the white person’s upset feelings. They’re going to be seen as a troublemaker.”
That’s me. That’s Singh. That’s countless others who have called out racism and received backlash for it. In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial oppression towards Black people and has been blacklisted from the league since. Whether it’s a dramatic reaction or withheld opportunities, DiAngelo says “white fragility keeps people of colour in line and ‘in their place.’ In this way, it is a powerful form of white racial control.”
It is, and it’s terrifying. And when you’re the one babysitting the reactions of white people who cannot or will not acknowledge your experience of racism, it’s also degrading. Singh became visibly frustrated when he observed that “people see racism as not a big deal.” People of colour whose experiences of racism go unacknowledged have long dealt with this “gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display,” as Reni-Eddo Lodge calls it in ”Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.”
We are so conditioned by white fragility to not bring up race or racism, that it feels taboo to bring up even within our own community. It’s also the only way to ensure we don’t detonate a collective trauma bomb.
I remember when my brother asked my dad what it was like wearing a turban in high school. Did the others make fun of him? Is that why he cut his hair? My dad didn’t answer. My brother pushed, but our father remained silent. My grandparents moved across the world to give us a better life, so my father talking about the discrimination we face would suggest they had failed.
Whether in hush-hush tones or angry diatribes, admitting you’re not equal feels like a cancer without a cure.
‘What he did took courage’
White fragility, white centering — white whatever-you-want-to-call-it — is racist and at the heart of systemic racism. It’s at the core of the story of what transpired in the House, yet we haven’t heard from the Speaker or Therrien, whose insensitivity has been brushed aside by the media, as if with the same dismissive gesture he made when rejecting Singh’s motion.
One skewed headline reads, “Jagmeet Singh Playing ‘Cheap Politics’ By Calling Bloc MP A Racist: Duceppe.” In it, former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe says Singh was faking his emotions. In “Why Jagmeet Singh Needs To Apologize,” the non-white writer’s uncritical op-ed centres Therrien’s whiteness in the incident, and supports his defence of the MP by listing off nice, white people who aren’t racist. On CTV’s Question Period, Singh is asked, “If someone doesn’t agree with something that you agree with, would you hesitate to call someone a racist in the House?”
Few reports detailed what happened the following day in a COVID-19 committee meeting. A Bloc MP asked the Speaker not to allow Singh to speak because he hadn’t apologized. Singh was permitted to, because the meeting ran under different rules, but when he did, the Bloc Quebecois walked out.
As an Indo-Canadian, I feel betrayed by Parliament and the media’s portrayal.
Considering Singh is the only racialized leader in the House, what he did took courage. He stood up to racism — something BIPOC, in the name of survival, are often hesitant to do. Rightly so, if even Singh, a racialized man with privilege and power, can’t escape the punishment of white fragility.
After weeks of Black Lives Matter protests, society is talking about racism. Where’s the sense in forbidding the term “racist” in the House? To not offend white people? It seems that way. I had to learn at a very young age how to manage racism, now it’s time for white people in Parliament to learn how to be called out for it.
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