Provocative Permitted.

The complainant, Glenn Black, objected to a guest on the CBC Radio programme Out in the Open referring to protecting her children from “pervasive whiteness.” The discussion centred on one woman’s decision to pull her children out of a U.S. public school system because they were exposed to racism and a white culture which did not reflect their reality. He thought it wrong to present such polarizing and harmful views. The discussion was provocative but it did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

Out in the Open, a CBC Radio programme which probes a variety of issues through people’s personal experiences and narratives, presented an episode titled “Protection.” It featured a series of interviews with people who had taken action to protect someone or something important to them. One of the featured interviewees was a Black woman who had taken her children out of the public school system in the United States to protect them from “pervasive whiteness.” Akilah Richards talked with programme host Piya Chattopadhyay about her belief that her children were forced to conform and faced forms of racism in the school system, and why she thought it was important to provide an alternative type of education for them. You said it appeared that “‘pervasive whiteness’ is the new meme for ‘systemic racism.’” You considered the term to be “pejorative, unfair, unjust, wrong, polarizing and harmful.” You were particularly concerned that Ms. Chattopadhyay echoed that phrase in a question to Ms. Richards when she said:

It's so interesting that you say that because of course, "pervasive whiteness" exists everywhere. Racism exists well beyond any school yard. It is pervasive by nature of that word. These "-isms" exist everywhere.

You thought these allegations were alarming and were not backed up by any data or statistics or any sources. Rather they relied on anecdotal evidence from the guest. Furthermore, you stated, it was unclear in the interview that Ms. Richards’ experience is American, and not Canadian. You also believed that in instances where guests make what you consider inflammatory and unsubstantiated allegations, it should be addressed in the editing and final presentation of the programme:

If there is a live radio show, there is a limited toolbox for handling inflammatory, unsubstantiated allegations made by Guests. However, with the editing of taped interviews, Host's post-production commentaries could be added on unsubstantiated accusations. Post-production editing of Host's comments can help ensure a professional balance is maintained so as to avoid obvious biases and unsupported allegations against millions of Canadians and Canadian institutions.

You added in the absence of verifiable data, listeners have no way to assess the validity of the assertions. You pointed out that one can find anecdotes or bits of information to prove any thesis, but this did not pass muster in a journalistic context. You thought it was the responsibility of the programmers to provide context and information about the allegations, and in its absence to make sure the audience understood this was only anecdotal. You said you enjoyed Ms. Chattopadhyay’s work in the past, but wondered if she allowed her own views to shape the presentation:

Perhaps the non-white CBC Radio Host felt a kindred spirit and shared experience with her non-white Guest, both of whom may have similar anecdotes of "pervasive whiteness" from their personal lives. However two similar anecdotes do not necessarily substantiate the unproven allegations; neither "systemic racism", nor "pervasive whiteness". With 36 million Canadians and 7.6 Billion humans on Earth, there is likely one or more "false facts", spurious correlations, or personal anecdotes to "prove" every possible human condition or opinion.

You stated that the phrase “systemic whiteness” was used by both the guest and the host in a pejorative sense:

I see a huge difference between an allegation of racism (whiteness) versus an allegation of "systemic whiteness". I agree there is reason to believe that racism (whiteness) could exist is some circumstances and moments in the US. Unless substantial, objective evidence is presented, I reject the unsubstantiated allegation of "systemic whiteness".

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Producer of Out in the Open, Brian Coulton, replied to your concerns. He noted that the mandate of Out in the Open is to share “frank conversations and opinion” about difficult subjects, and to explore those topics, like racism, by hearing the lived experience of a variety of people. He noted that it was not the first time race and racism had been addressed on the programme. He explained that this segment was part of a broader episode about protection. The host was exploring Ms. Richards’ reasons for removing her children from the public school system. He pointed out that this was based on her personal experience. The discussion centred around her views about why her children needed protection and what she was protecting them from.

In explaining that motivation, Ms. Richards describes her personal experience of seeing her children of colour policed differently in school than white children. In her opinion, that added unique pressure on them to fit in. As she said, "I didn't want my daughters acclimated to this idea that how they self-actualized was directly tied to how obedient they could be, how quiet they could be, how much racism they could tolerate inside of a classroom setting." Ms. Richards also used the term “pervasive whiteness” to describe what she was protecting her children from within that setting.

He noted that in forming a question to challenge Ms. Richard’s solution to protect her children from racism, Ms. Chattopadhyay echoed the phrase her guest had used. She framed her question to Ms. Richards by saying “of course, pervasive whiteness exists everywhere,” and went on to ask how taking them out of school prepared them for the exigencies of living in a broader community. He agreed that in this case the host might have phrased the question a little differently, that it would have been better to explore what the guest meant by that phrase, and how it should be understood:

It was her intention simply to pick up the term Ms. Richards used and suggest the same thing can be found outside the school. Of course, there are no quotation marks in radio and a slight inflection to indicate the term is not yours can pass by unnoticed. But no matter who uses it, the problem with the term, as you rightly suggest, is that it is not a clear and readily understood part of common parlance. And that lack of clarity is something we might well have addressed in the conversation.

He emphasized that in his view, while the question might have been better formulated, Ms. Chattopadhyay did not endorse the views of her guest in any way. There was also no criticism of allegations about whites as a group, or of any particular Canadian institutions. He explained she was acknowledging that there is racism in the “world at large”.

He added the context of the interview and its framing made it clear this was an exploration of Ms. Richards’ personal experience. He said Ms. Chattopadhyay used phrases like “in your experience” or “in your view” as she asked her questions. He also told you that there was acknowledgement at more than one point in the interview that Ms. Richards was talking about her experiences in the United States and there was no reference to Canadian institutions.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices encourages a wide range of views and perspectives on subjects in the public interest and areas of controversy. It describes part of its mission in this way:

We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our principles.

The commitment to balance is a commitment to presenting a range of perspectives and a diversity of opinion, as well as respectfully presenting divergent views, taking into account their relevance. It is not an exact science by any means. Furthermore, journalism is iterative - not one news report or newscast or episode of a programme can necessarily capture the range, depth and complexity of the issue at hand.

The discussion in question was an exploration of the lived experience of a person of colour. It was based on her experience, the experience of her children, and how she saw social institutions. That racism exists and that a dominant culture defines our institutions are not radical ideas. You took her language to mean that all white people and all institutions are being condemned. When the term “systemic discrimination” is used, it is not a blanket condemnation of every white person - it is a way of describing historical and institutional bias. You may not agree that it exists to any degree, or assert that this woman has overstated the case. The whole point of having the discussion is to listen to ideas that run counter to our own beliefs and consider their merit. This was not a news item - its context is a particular programme which takes a different approach to some of the big issues of the day - one that relies on anecdotal and lived experience. The programme describes itself in this way:

Hosted by Piya Chattopadhyay, Out In The Open tackles one timely subject each week from many different angles with energy, wit, and journalistic rigour. We hear directly from a diverse range of people with real stories to tell and passionate opinions to share — including our outspoken listeners. We say to the audience: "You're thinking about it - let's talk about it. Out in the open."

The discussion is in no way framed as an analysis of Canadian society and institutions. It is framed as a discussion of one woman’s experience and values and what she is doing to protect her family and try to effect change to a society she sees as flawed. I agree the phrase “pervasive whiteness” is imprecise and unusual. You say her observations are unsubstantiated, but she is quite specific about what she means. Her daughter was told she was scary because she was black. Her own experience as a student was that she was required to take on the values and views of the dominant white culture to succeed. She sees that as unhealthy for her children. She believes that the reality of her children’s lives and culture is not adequately served by the public education system:

So there’s all these same issues that we see that continue to happen now with how students of colour are policed differently, or over policed in school, or how girls of colour in particular are sexualized in school. I saw all of those same things happening and being an immigrant, there was another layer because there was this idea that, okay, well you still have to fit into the culture here so you don’t want to rabble rouse at all if you’re a black child, but if you’re a black Jamaican child you were don’t want to rabble rouse because there are all of these other risks that your people took for you to get here and your goal is to essentially assimilate and succeed. And so that layer was always present. I didn’t understand it the way that I understand it now.

Ms. Chattopadhyay did not challenge notions that racism exist - nor did it make sense for her to do so. She did explore and challenge the choices the guest made. She did not remove her children and put them in a private school or an afro-centric school, but rather through something called self-led education, something she describes as “unschooling.” She is clear that that part of her motivation is to allow her children to develop a sense of who they are outside of the norms determined by white society. As she said, she is protecting them from “whiteness.” You find that offensive, but that does not make it hateful. It is difficult to have meaningful discussions about the impact of discrimination and the struggle of immigrants to assimilate. I do not take Ms. Richards to mean her children need protection from every white person, but from a social structure she feels does not accommodate her nor keeps her children safe. This is not stated as fact, but clearly as her opinion and perspective. Ms. Chattopadhyay echoed her phrasing, which you found problematic. Again, in context, I do not get the sense she was endorsing her world view but rather acknowledging that racism exists in the broader community, not just the school system. I am hard pressed to take her to task for that observation. She pointed out to her guest that children have to learn to function in the world as it is. Later on, she presented the idea that one stays in the system in order to change it. The interviewee categorically rejected that notion:

And I couldn’t disagree with that more, Piya, because it’s the … you … there’s surviving and then there’s thriving, and I believe that a lot of what the people who came before me did was surviving so that we can thrive. If a march made sense in the 70’s and the 80’s, now we have so many more points of access to information and organization that we have to see what makes sense to us. What might make a little more sense in a community is to form a co-op of some sort where we can start to live this politic that we’re marching for. So some of us might want to have the march and that’s cool and then there are others of us who say “I don’t want to be a part of the system because I am not just looking to survive, I’m looking to thrive” and in order to do that we sometimes have to build something anew so that the old thing can become obsolete, and that’s what I believe in. So I’m not for reform, I’m not for making classrooms nicer or prisons nicer. I’m looking at the systemic issues that cause them and I’m looking at the ways that the people who are trapped inside of those systems can get free.

The answer sheds light on the perspective of the person being interviewed. It provides insight and nuanced information which a listener can use to assess the statements she had made. This conversation touched on some uncomfortable ideas.

As for your concern that it was unclear Ms. Richards was talking about her experience in the United States and not Canada, right near the beginning of the interview Ms. Chattopadhyay says:

In our show today, Akilah, we’re talking about protection, what people do to protect what’s important to them. So by taking your girls out of the traditional school system, the American public school system, for you specifically, what are you protecting them from?

As Mr. Coulton pointed out, there are later references to Brown vs. the Board of Education, which is one of the seminal decisions about segregation and education in the United States. Ms. Richards’ assessment of the school system and the treatment and reflection of people of colour is very critical. As stated in CBC’s policies, there is nothing to prevent the presentation of provocative ideas. Having heard those ideas, you have concluded they are unjust and unfair. The producers and programme host did not endorse those ideas - they created a forum for their examination, consistent with CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman