Equality, not multiculturalism

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A few York University students exchanged furtive nods when their guest lecturer dismissed diversity training as a waste of time and money.
There were outright cheers when Robert Jensen, who teaches journalism at the University of Texas, disparaged multiculturalism.
Jensen is a white, tenured 48-year-old American academic. His 400-or-so listeners were a jumble of races and cultures, beliefs and styles. Yet he was connecting with them.
This is a phenomenon Canadian policy-makers and educators need to understand.
Today's young people don't see multiculturalism as a cherished national tradition. They, like Jensen, regard it as a timid response to the white privilege embedded in society's institutions.
Their generation is not content to institutionalize diversity. They, like Jensen, view hiring targets and sensitivity training as bromides that make white decision-makers feel better, without challenging their dominance.
"I am not contesting the need to make organizations more representative," Jensen said. "But these programs don't challenge the underlying nature of the system. They just address the manifestations of the problem."
Jensen's 2005 book, The Heart of Whiteness, Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, caused quite a stir in his homeland. It also caught the attention of York University professor Greg Malszecki, who teaches kinesiology and health science. He believes it is critical for students to look at the social factors - race, class, income, gender - that affect an individual's life chances. So he invited the author to Toronto.
Jensen, who was born a few kilometres from the Manitoba border but now lives in the heart of Texas, began his talk with a disclaimer: "I'm not going to pretend to talk as if I understand the Canadian context."
Then he acknowledged - before anyone else could - the irony of his position. Here was a comfortable white guy attacking the system that placed him at the top of the societal pecking order. "I have no way to resolve that irony," he explained. "I can either retreat into my white privilege or use the status that my position gives me to speak out."
With those caveats out of the way, Jensen laid out his thesis: America became a global superpower by systematically exterminating its indigenous population, building its industrial base on the backs of African slaves and fuelling its economy by consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.
"These are the systems I live in and they give me privilege," he said. "We have to name these systems to change them. You can see why I'm not a very popular person."
Jensen said it puzzles - and sometimes angers - white Americans when he challenges them to confront racism in their culture. "They say: I've never told a racist joke or harboured a racist thought.
"I say: It doesn't matter. You have privileges that come from that situation so what are going to do about it?"
Embracing diversity or legislating multiculturalism is not enough, he maintained. That merely creates room in the existing power structures for non-whites. The structures themselves have to be changed.
The York students sat impassively through the first half of Jensen's lecture. But when he assailed multiculturalism, their ears pricked up.
They knew what it was like to be allowed into white-run institutions without being treated as equals; to be denied opportunities by bureaucrats who were supposedly colour-blind, to be patronized by employers who had taken diversity courses.
Jensen was tapping into their experience, corroborating their doubts.
Perhaps it was because he didn't know that multiculturalism is one of Pierre Trudeau's revered legacies.
Perhaps it was because he didn't care whose sensibilities he was offending.
Perhaps it was because race, not language, has always been the great divide in America.
Judging from the response in the lecture hall, young Canadians are looking for educators who understand that multiculturalism - however bold it may have been when Trudeau announced the policy 36 years ago - is an aging relic as far as they're concerned. They need new tools to advance the fight for equality.
Unfortunately, Jensen had little to offer on that front. He echoed Martin Luther King's call for a "radical revolution of values." He suggested that students join social movements committed to changing the status quo. And he urged them to "dig in for the long emergency."
Maybe academe is the wrong place to look for practical advice. But the desire to break out of the old orthodoxies is certainly there.
The message for politicians and social activists is clear: Anyone hoping to reach the generation of Canadians coming of age now will have to move beyond the concept of a tolerant, pluralistic society.
These kids want real equality.
Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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