The complainant, Geoff White, considered the use of the phrase “crying white girl,” spoken by a black panelist, a racial slur. The comment was unkind, but it wasn’t racist. The word “white” did not make it so. Racism is more complicated than that.
CBC News Network broadcasts a political panel, “Sunday Scrum,” every weekend as part of its regular coverage. On December 17, 2017, the panel convened to talk about who they would vote as significant newsmakers of the year that was just ending. The panelists were columnists Susan Riley, John Ibbitson and Vicky Mochama. Each of the panelists was asked to name people they thought had an impact on the public discourse but may not have received the attention they deserved. One of Mr. Ibbitson’s picks was Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Laurier University, who was at the centre of a controversy about the balance between the right of freedom of expression and the right of protection. It was because of her, Mr. Ibbitson said, that the issue which had been simmering in the background - in academia generally - surfaced and was publicly debated. Ms. Mochama, who is black, disagreed with his choice and referred to her as a “crying white girl”, and it was for that reason she got attention.
You considered this racist and inappropriate. You called Ms. Mochama a “blatant racist” and took CBC News to task for providing her a platform to “spew racist attacks against Lindsay Shepherd.”
Other complainants also asked for a review. One called her comment “shocking and racist.” Complainants questioned why the moderator did not step in to challenge her statement. Another asked how this would have been received if one of the other panel members, who are white, would have called Ms. Mochama a “crying black girl.” Another pointed out that no matter what one’s skin color, accomplishments should be judged on their merits - Ms. Shepherd got the attention she did because she had a recording of her disciplinary hearing which went viral.
There was a belief that not only was this a racist and unacceptable remark but that there was a double standard at play. One person asserted that it is the “modern” progressive view that “racism is not determined by what is said, but by who said it and to whom it was directed.”
The Executive Producer of Daily News, Aubrey Silverberg, replied to your concerns. He explained that Ms. Mochama’s comment was said in a particular context. He reminded you that Mr. Ibbitson had mentioned Ms. Shepherd as someone who had influenced events, but didn't get the attention she deserved:
John Ibbitson led off the discussion by pointing to Lindsay Shepherd, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant. It was a recording of her disciplinary hearing at the university that went viral, he said, and “exploded the whole issue of the debate within the social sciences and humanities on the right of freedom of expression versus the right of protection; the right to safe spaces; the right not to be subject to aggression”. “No matter where you are in the debate”, he added, “it was Ms. Shepherd and that tape that blew the entire issue open … for which she deserves great credit”.
He stated it was then that Ms. Mochama voiced her opposition to Mr. Ibbitson’s choice and made the point that there were other times a discussion of academic freedom could have occurred but it was not. He agreed with you that this was a “provocative phrase,” but she had not used “several racial epithets” as you stated. He also did not agree that she was dismissed because of her race:
In fact, she was not even commenting on the substance of what has become a polarizing political debate. Rather, she was alleging that racism was a factor in the attention paid to Ms. Shepherd’s story – or more accurately, her treatment by the university. From Ms. Mochama’s perspective, similar issues on Canadian campuses have been raised by students of diverse backgrounds without receiving the kind of traction that Ms. Shepherd’s case did – and that was problematic.
He added that it might have been better for Ms. Mochama to provide more context to make her point clearer. He also noted that Ms. Mochama is a commentator and not a CBC journalist, and that representing a range of views is consistent with CBC’s mandate and its journalistic standards and practices.
Vicky Mochama is a national columnist for Metro News and was participating in a segment, Sunday Scrum, which calls on commentators to provide opinions about various political matters. CBC has policy governing the use of opinion, and who gets to express it. Commentators are invited to participate in programmes to bring a particular point of view to the discussion. The policy states that a variety of opinions is provided over time, to achieve balance. The overarching principle is this:
Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day.
Ms. Mochama was included in that panel because she brought a certain perspective. She is a national correspondent for Metro News who writes about race and gender. The other two panelists brought different viewpoints. It is important to have this context to assess what was said and whether it violated CBC policy. The panelists were asked who they would name as a person who might have received more recognition than they got in 2017. When asked, it was John Ibbitson, another panelist, who brought up Ms. Shepherd. Here is what he said:
Lindsay Shepherd, who we have heard a lot about. She was the young teaching assistant at Laurier University who was called out on the carpet for showing a video of Jordan Peterson, and it was the recording of that disciplinary hearing that went viral and that really exploded the whole issue of the debate that’s occurring within the Social Sciences and Humanities on the right of freedom of expression, the right of freedom of research, versus the right of protection, the right to safe spaces, the right not to be subject to aggression. This is a virulent debate that’s happening on university campuses across the country. Some of us have written about it in the past, but it has to be said no matter where you are in this debate, it was Ms. Shepherd and that tape that blew this entire issue open and made it part of the national discourse, and for that she deserves great credit.
Ms. Mochama strongly disagreed. She said she got attention to the issue Mr. Ibbitson raised because she was a “crying white girl.” The phrase was not said in isolation. The point is that in her view Ms. Shepherd got the attention for the issues of freedom of research versus the right to protection because she was white, and that others - including people of color - would not have gotten the same response. This is her whole response to Mr. Ibbitson:
I have to disagree, I think that she is someone that exists, and I think that a lot of people responded to her for the same reasons they tend to respond to things, which is that she is a young, crying white girl, but there are a lots of moments in which the academic freedom conversation could have been had and that has been skipped over serially and I don’t think she’s the appropriate person to have launched this conversation because as it turns out she leans hard right on some of her choices.
You may not like the way she expressed herself, but that does not make it a violation of policy, nor does it make it racist. From Ms. Mochama’s point of view, Ms. Shepherd was not worthy of being singled out as a newsmaker, nor was she the best person to represent the issues her experience raised. Her objection actually appears to be more about her politics than her skin colour. It is an opinion expressed. I note that Mr. Ibbitson emphasized again why he thought she was deserving and what she had done was worthwhile. This hardly constitutes racist attacks.
The words “racist”, or “racism” are loaded - and the concept is much more nuanced than a dictionary definition. They are words used in these polarized times so often, they risk losing meaning. Their meaning depends on context - racism is historic, and it is systemic. There seems to be an assumption that there is perfect equivalence. In fact, several complainants wondered if the tables were turned, and a panelist had mentioned a black or Indigenous person or other minority, would there have been a very different reaction. There isn’t equivalence. It flies in the face of the record of systemic racism and the marginalization of people of colour to think the term can be equally applied when someone white is described as “white” is criticized.
Furthermore, Ms. Mochama was not making general statements about all white people. She does not agree with Ms. Shepherd’s politics and dismissed her as someone who got attention by reacting emotionally. The point she was making is that because Ms. Shepherd was white, she got the attention. Her characterization of her may have been dismissive but that is a comment, it is not a condemnation of a race.