This often happens in my line of work. I frequently work 16 hours a day trying to make change within organizations and society; helping organizations to advance workplace diversity and inclusion, helping them assess the issues within their workforce and create meaningful change, conducting social research, developing and delivering training programs.
Normally when I go to sleep I am exhausted. So, when I wake up, I like to ease into my day with a few cups of coffee, checking my Twitter feed, and then a brisk walk before I get to work.
But it is not going to work out that way today. Steve Paikin's "Did the Nancy Elgie story have to end this way? Some personal reflections" has my blood boiling. (The post was included on LinkedIn and has since been disappeared from the internet.) And so I'm at my laptop forgoing my walk and am hammering this piece out at what for me is an ungodly hour.
Instead, as a Black person, I experienced a public education system that didn't reflect me, teach to me, or support the success of people like me. When my family moved out to Midland and Lawrence in 1972, we were the only Black family on the street. We were welcomed with our house being egged nightly. We fought against the racist sentiment in the neighbourhood, while my parents fought racism at work, and my brothers and sisters and I fought racism in the school system. So when the parents in York Region began to raise concerns about how their children were treated, I understood their concerns.
I've also been working on a project that includes consultations around the GTA on the experiences of Black students in the public school system. What I hear is that not much has changed since I was in public school. I've heard the stories of Black student success being undermined because their teachers see them as thugs, threats and as uneducable. I've heard stories of Black students being suspended for minor issues while their White peers get in-school punishment. I've heard stories of parents of Black children as young as three being told by teachers that their child is "not academically inclined."
With a degree in sociology and working as a consultant for 15 years, I understand how racism and racial inequality is perpetuated within organizations. How organizations make grand statements of commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and then undermine the work by cutting off resources or overloading those responsible for doing the work. I see how leaders in the organization champion the illusion of inclusion while maintaining policies that harm racialized people; or design policies that, on their face, support equity but ignore them in their day to day practice. I understand how in Canada we are much more polite with our racism. It is baked into organizational policies, practices and culture, and so much a part of what we do, that it is hard to see.
Then the "Nancy Elgie 'N Word' Story" broke.
After she denied saying the N-word, then admitted to saying it, then apologized for saying it, I expected her resignation to follow. Instead, she asked us to look into her heart. Then her children came to her defence.
I saw the community rise up to demand her resignation and stood firm with their demand. And I watched the story drag on. I wondered whether a man who had used the C-word or B-word at a public meeting in reference to a woman, head injury or not, would resist resigning and whether his colleagues would stay silent for so long.
But I felt that the Black community rightly felt "aggrieved" as Mr. Paikin puts it.
In his column, Paikin compares this incident with another and reflects on the two different outcomes. He suggests that the situations are similar. I suggest that they are not.
His comparator is that of a 25 year old hockey player who used a homophobic slur against a referee. He claims that one significant difference between the two cases is that the hockey player intended to use the slur while Elgie did not. He references the head injury as the reason why "her brain short-circuited" and she used the N-word in reference to a Black parent. He claims that she was not "calling the parent 'the N word' with the intent to damage or insult her." He goes on to ask the question, "Does intent matter?"
In examining human rights issues, a distinction is made between intent and impact, with the focus being on impact. Paikin places the emphasis on intent and ignores the impact that Elgie's words have, not only on the parent who was being referenced, but on the Black community in York Region who have been raising a series of concerns about racism at the board, and on the larger Black community who have been fighting for equity in education for decades. He also ignores the larger context of anti-Black racism not just in education but in the broader society. He fails to ask some important questions: What message does it send to our communities, that a school board trustee can openly use the N-word, one of the most racist words, and not resign? What message does it send to the Black students within the board? What message does it send to the Black community who have had to make human rights complaints in order to have their issues addressed?
Paikin also notes another difference between the two situations -- the hockey player's apology came later while Elgie "apologized immediately to the person she was talking to, and that person accepted the apology." Really?
When the story first broke on December 8, 2016, Elgie said there is "no merit" to the accusation. Elgie apologized only after the conclusion of the board's investigation.
Paikin commented on how "graciously" the LGBTQ community reacted to the hockey player's apology, suggesting therefore that the Black community was not gracious in accepting Elgie's apology and should have allowed her to keep her position as school board trustee. He suggests that Elgie should be given the same opportunity as the hockey player to "fix the situation, rather than be exiled."
This gets me to another point. It seems that the expectation is that the Black community should graciously accept apologies or token efforts to address racism.
An apology for 200 years of slavery should be enough. Why are you asking for reparations?
An investigation by the SIU which invariably clears the officer of any wrong doing should be enough. Why are you asking for accountability?
The police say they are inclusive. Why are you demanding that they not be included in the Pride parade?
Words on a paper saying that we are committed to diversity should be enough. Why are you asking for equitable outcomes?
He suggests that words and token gestures should be sufficient to appease the Black community and in demanding equity and accountability the community is not being gracious.
Paikin also says that "You could argue that Elgie ought to be held to a higher standard because she was an elected official… You decide. I offer no opinion on that." It is curious that he has no opinion on whether a school board trustee who influences education policy, impacts the education of our children, sets the example for students and educators within the board, and deals with complaints of racism by students and parents should be held to a higher standard than a hockey player. While both may "influence young people" I would suggest that the school board trustee has greater impact on the lives of children, particularly Black children, than does a hockey player.
Paikin concludes that he is not Black, and "therefore am in no position to weigh how hurtful Elgie's utterances were to Ontario's black communities" and says that he is not writing the column to defend Elgie. But he suggests that Elgie should be given a second chance that "will ultimately lead to a place of more understanding, more harmony, and frankly, more love."
Having said all that, I am one for second chances. We all make stupid mistakes. We misspeak and use the wrong words. Certainly I know I have. And, sometimes we have words in our vocabulary the impact of which we don't fully understand.
Participants in my training sessions often raise concerns that they afraid that they might say the wrong thing. My response is that the relationship will determine whether or not you get a second chance.
If you have a relationship with someone and misspeak, they can call you on it, and you can immediately apologize. And you can move on. Sometimes, this opens up the opportunity for conversation and the relationship is strengthened.
But when your first response is to deny the accusation and then apologize after an investigation, it looks less genuine. Further, if you have been a champion for social justice and have been working with the community and misspeak, it is easier for the community to accept that apology. Paikin suggests that Elgie is a good person and is a real champion of public education. I suggest that the Black community didn't see it that way.
I would also suggest that sometimes an apology isn't enough. Sometimes the harm is so egregious that one needs to demonstrate how sorry one is by resigning. It is not up to the person doing the harm to determine the extent of harm done, it is up to those harmed to make this determination.
There used to be a day when using racial slurs would require the immediate resignation of a public official. The situation would not drag on for months; the resignation would be immediate. It appears that in the era (or error) of Trump we are expected to overlook the words of politicians and look into their hearts to find out what they really mean by their words. I suggest that words matter. And the words of our politicians matter. I am not so concerned with what is in your heart -- that's between you and your God. I am concerned what comes out of your mouth, your deeds, and how they support or undermine social justice.