white centering

White centering in Quebec erases the people in the margins

“The mark of a successful society should be for all to feel included and valued.”

“White centering makes people with white privilege fear their whiteness being decentered because they have been taught to believe that if they are not centered, then they are being marginalized and oppressed.”

—Layla F. Saad

As conversations about systemic racism and the need for increased representation of minorities continue to occupy the public space in Quebec, the denial by many in well-placed positions — from Premier François Legault to popular pundits — continues to baffle me.

To what purpose?

How does rejecting a well-documented and clearly proven pattern of under-representation, racial profiling and systemic racism that impacts significant segments of our population throughout multiple facets of their daily lives serve Quebec in the long run? The mark of a successful society should be for all to feel included and valued.

La Presse journalist Paul Journet recently wrote an excellent column about Quebec’s inability to acknowledge and tackle systemic racism. It’s a topic I’ve written about many times before and the central premise always boils down to this: Because of French Quebecers’ traumatic history as an oppressed cultural and linguistic minority, there’s a frustrating reticence to acknowledge that they, too, are now in a position to oppress minorities.

Despite a complete turnaround in status since the ’60s, Quebec francophones continue to see themselves solely as a persecuted minority. As such, it often leaves them unable to critically assess their own contributions towards maintaining a status quo that disadvantages and often erases others.

From “Speak White” to white privilege

Journet sums up the incongruity nicely in this sentence: «À l’époque, on leur disait Speak White. Maintenant, on parle de leur ‘privilège blanc.’»

“At the time, they were told to ‘Speak White.’ Now, we talk about their white privilege.”

I’m grateful to see more French-language columnists tackling these important issues. If nothing else, Journet is more likely to be heard by those inclined to always label these discussions as Quebec-bashing, and less likely to be told to “go back to where he came from.”

That last statement is not an assumption on my part, it’s what routinely happens when I write about identity issues, racism and representation in Quebec. The gratuitous accusation of Quebec-bashing, when not warranted, is often its own form of minority-group silencing. It’s meant to shut the conversation down.

There’s no denying that French language and culture need to be protected and that vigilance is required. You’ll find few Quebecers who disagree with that. But the French language and culture are also the majority culture and language in Quebec, and, as such, in a position to oppress, drown out and discriminate against other languages and cultures. Two seemingly opposite truths can co-exist, and the existence of the former truth doesn’t cancel out the existence of the latter. You can belong to a group that has experienced and continues to experience prejudice, oppression and stereotypes while still holding majority privilege.

Unproductive reaction

This ungracious and highly defensive reaction I often see — when racial, cultural and religious minorities state they don’t feel adequately seen, heard and understood, and aren’t fairly treated, and ultimately represented in Quebec — has always struck me as both unkind and unproductive. It makes no sense to me.

Who better to empathize with and understand the need for equal representation and visibility than a group that has historically had to fight hard for its own self-actualization and preservation? Shouldn’t the very real and documented experience of systemic racism and discrimination against French Quebecers instill empathy for other victims of marginalization and discrimination, regardless of national, cultural and religious background?

Why is the Black Lives Matter movement in Quebec so often mocked and treated by many French-language pundits as a foreign phenomenon, “imported” from the U.S., as if racism and discrimination aren’t experienced by the Black community here, too? Why are Indigenous concerns so often brushed off as unimportant because “we had a better relationship with Indigenous tribes, it’s the British who abused them,” as if French colonialists weren’t also on stolen land? Is “better” really all that good?

Representation matters

When Brooklyn Nine-Nine was remade in Quebec as Escouade 99, it was — there’s no other way to say this — whitewashed. A show known and celebrated for the diversity of cast members was picked up and pretty much copied verbatim when it came to the now-French dialogue. Black Quebec actors were cast in the roles of two characters originally played by Black actors, but the two Latina characters were now played by white French Quebecers. Even Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy on the original show, expressed surprise and disappointment.

I watched the controversy play out and I found the excuses and justifications by the producers to be weak. I found the unwillingness by some members of the public to understand these concerns about representation even weaker. Some claimed it was hard to find Latina actresses in Quebec, but Urbania seemed to have no problem quickly finding four Latina-Québécoise actresses to interview about their thoughts on the topic. These women never even had the opportunity to audition for roles tailor-made for them, and in many ways it felt like the SLAV tone-deafness of the summer of 2018 all over again.

White centering

In Me and White Supremacy, author Layla F. Saad explains that “white centering is the centering of white people, white values, white norms and white feelings over everything and everyone else.”

“White centering,” she writes, “makes people with white privilege fear their whiteness being decentered because they have been taught to believe that if they are not centered, then they are being marginalized and oppressed.”

I found this book incredibly helpful in clarifying how majority privilege works, regardless of race, and how it can intentionally or unintentionally dominate the conversation and the mainstream point of view, leaving no room for other voices. In order to correct a historic wrong, Quebec has worked hard for the past 60 or 70 years to ensure that the dominant French culture and language takes centre stage. But in doing so, it doesn’t know how to decenter itself, even temporarily.

The incredible amount of navel gazing and derailing that can often be witnessed in this province every time minorities express concerns about racism and representation is, I believe, due to “white centering.” It’s only amplified by Quebec’s often acrimonious and deeply insecure relationship with the rest of Canada and its constant fear (both very real and often, highly exaggerated… remember, two things can coexist at the same time) of English swallowing up its culture and language.

Being seen

It’s impossible to deny the importance of representation having recently seen the universal heartache over Chadwick Boseman’s death. His regal portrayal of King T’Challa of Wakanda in Black Panther and, before that, of baseball great Jackie Robinson, and the impact he had on the Black community — particularly young children — was unmistakable. His portrayal allowed them to finally feel seen in a way they hadn’t been able to before. That’s no small feat.

In accepting an award in 2019, Boseman spoke about how fewer opportunities were available for Black actors, compared to their white counterparts.

“We know what it’s like to be told there isn’t a screen for you to be featured on… we know what it’s like to be beneath and not above,” he poignantly said.

The French majority in Quebec can say that they don’t see themselves portrayed anywhere else but in Quebec, and they would be right. But where does that leave Quebec’s minorities who end up seeing themselves nowhere? ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.