The anti-racist ad that triggered a backlash

Certainly provoked discussion.

The comments by the Saskatoon city councillor on what they are trying to achieve with the campaign – more mindfulness and awareness of personal advantages (or disadvantages) – are sensible:

In the first phase of the campaign, the committee called on residents to submit videos of themselves answering questions about their thoughts on and experiences with racism, and what personal role they can play in ending it in Saskatoon. Williams was one of a few dozen culturally diverse volunteers to submit a video.

Here’s what he had to say: “I am a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male: the most privileged demographic in human history. If I’m going to be the bridge to ending racism in Saskatoon or anywhere else, I have to acknowledge my own privilege and I have to acknowledge my own racist attitudes, and work through my discomfort.”

In June, the city rolled out phase two of the campaign, which involves ads spread out across the city in bus shelters, restaurants and bars, along with four billboard installations, featuring quotes from former volunteers. In Williams’ billboard, which shows his face, but not his name, his quote was boiled down to: “…I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”

With those 10 words, Williams, a professor at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, ignited a firestorm on social media of folks jumping to defend themselves against what they took as an accusation. One Reddit user kicked off a debate on the platform, asking: “Why is the city of Saskatoon purchasing billboards simply to say white men have privilege?” To which someone else replied: “You then invite a series of people who hate men and are racist against whites to criticise your every word and action until they are satisfied by your subservience.” Another wanted to make it clear that: “I have not had one hand out due to being white I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. All of my friends and family have worked their ass off to get where they are.” Ezra Levant’s the Rebel, went on to call the billboard itself racist, as did an alt-right British group called Western Defence, and a slew of other Twitter users.

In an email to Maclean’s, Williams said that, despite the backlash, “I’m proud to be part of the ‘I am the Bridge’ campaign. I chose my words carefully and I stand by them completely.”

The city is likewise defending the billboard, saying that it wasn’t meant to suggest all people are racist, but rather to encourage residents to consider how they can play a personal role in mitigating racism. “Certainly the level of feedback indicates that the campaign is doing its job,” said Saskatoon city councillor Hilary Gough, “which is to get people talking and thinking about racism and the reality of it in our community.”

Indeed, surveys and polls on racism in the province do suggest that race relations are tense and deteriorating in Saskatchewan. Last year, following the murder of Colten Boushie, a 22 year-old Indigenous man from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, the NRG Research Group and Peak Communications conducted a survey on racist attitudes across the country. In Saskatchewan, 46 per cent of respondents—more than anywhere else in the country—said racism was a big problem. Meanwhile 30 per cent of respondents in the western Prairies (Saskatchewan and Alberta), said race relations in their communities have gotten worse over the last decade.

Of course, broaching the issue of racism often draws prickly reactions like those towards Williams’ billboard. “Certainly, I think there is some defensiveness in this,” she says. “It takes time to learn about one’s own privilege without feeling like we need to feel guilty.” Part of the backlash, though, comes from a mistinterpretation of the campaign, says Gough. “We aren’t saying that everybody is racist and has racist attitudes, but we are trying to create space for each of us to consider how we can most productively engage with the structures we’re living in and figure out what our role is in eliminating and addressing racism.”

The I Am The Bridge ad campaign, which cost the city $14,000 this year, runs until July 16.

Source: The anti-racist ad that triggered a backlash –


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: