Letters to the Editor, feedback to Humanist Perspectives
‘White Guilt’ perpetuates victimhood
I am so tired of reading about the guilt of ‘White Settlers.’ My grandparents were all immigrants in the early 1900s.
I grew up in the Yukon. One of my early memories is of my father talking about how the Indian Act had made dependents of the Indian people and was thereby denying their dignity. At the time, ‘Indians’ was a perfectly accepted term by everyone, including indigenous people themselves. I add this lest I offend the tender feelings of the ‘settlers.’ From an early age, I was taught that all people were to be respected, no matter their religion or colour.
I feel no guilt for the past. I refuse to be caught up in identity politics that insist that just because I have white, excuse me, White, skin, I bear responsibility for past inequities. I do not.
Continuing to treat any identity group as victims is, to my mind, simply a way to perpetuate victimhood. The result is the bigotry of low expectations, leaving no way out of victimhood.
Kudos to Trudy Govier (Identity and Identity Politics, HP #218) for having the courage to take up Richard Dawkins’ challenge despite the blowback he received. Here is Dawkins’ Twitter message from April, 2021:
In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.
In her article, Govier reaches the uncontroversial conclusion that our current cultural climate allows for one cross-identification but not the other. A deeper examination of one example she used sheds light on how we have come to this culturally sanctioned contradiction.
Grey Owl was born Archie Belaney when the initial numbered treaties were signed between Canada and its Amerindian populations. These treaties used a cultural definition of aboriginality. Chiefs signed on behalf of their bands, all of whom were assumed to be Indian even though people of European origin had been joining these bands since the beginning of the fur trade. If a person from one of these bands obtained a university education, he or she would cease to be Indian because that person would have chosen a non-Indian way of life. Similarly, if a woman married a non-Indian, she would cease to be Indian on the same presumption. Conversely, when women without Indian status married a person with such status, she would be given a treaty number recognizing that she was now an Indian. Grey Owl’s statement, “I feel as an Indian, think as an Indian; all my ways are Indian,” can be understood in this context.
A cultural definition of race breaks down when special privileges are awarded on the basis of race because people will tend to identify with the privileged race. In the early half of the twentieth century, for example, many Metis families emphasized their Scottish or French heritage and forgot or denied their Amerindian ancestry. After 1982, when new rules made this possible, many Metis became Indians for the economic, educational, health care and income tax advantages that accrue to that status. This led to some bizarre situations. In La Ronge, Saskatchewan, the father of a woman I supervised became a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, but she had previously been unaware of having any aboriginal ancestry.
Those who favour granting special privileges or entitlements based on race will necessarily favour a biological definition so as to exclude the undeserving. Those who wish to take away special privileges will favour a more fluid cultural definition. In today’s Woke culture, racial definitions are considered rigidly biological while the cultural construct of gender is taken to trump the biological definition of sex – the exact reverse of the definitions used 100 years ago.
While I appreciated her discussion, I would have liked to have seen Govier acknowledge Dawkins’ challenge in her article. For centuries, humanists have been censored for posing such difficult questions. We need to protect our rights, flowing from the Enlightenment, to continue to ask questions and challenge taboos. For that, we need to support each other.
Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson is President of the New Enlightenment Project: A Canadian Humanist Initiative. Using the terms of identity politics, he occupies the intersection of “humanist” and “Metis.”