The future Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) imagine for themselves is always in relation to their present-day lived experiences. Since June 2019, Quebecers have been protesting against Bill 21, while at universities like McGill, student attention is centred on a one-dimensional “climate justice.” On Sept. 25 2019, the Arts Undergraduate Society of McGill (AUS) voted to strike in support of the Sept. 27 climate march: Roughly 900 members of AUS showed up. However, only 90 students attended the Jan. 17 AUS General Assembly (GA) to strike against Bill 21—a law banning public sector employees, such as bus drivers, teachers, and police officers, from wearing any kind of visible religious symbols. Often, campus activism is white activism, and students need to diversify their causes to create substantial change.
Even when they show up for issues that affect racialized students, white students too often only rally behind causes that also affect them. When white activists take a stand, often it takes space from marginalized voices. During the September Climate Strike, because of the presence of exclusionary white activists who participated in ways which were alienating, BIPOC felt unsafe: For example, members of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion aggressively barged through a group of Indigenous activists in order to make their way to the front of the march.
Proven by the failure of AUS to meet quorum on Jan. 17, it is difficult to raise momentum for causes at McGill if white allies choose not to mobilize: White students did not show up to the GA, and as a result, there was no strike.
White students shouldn’t rally solely for movements that affect their futures; the future white activists are striving for is a future that BIPOC have not even begun to imagine. Many BIPOC, such as victims of war, are focussing on surviving for tomorrow. By failing to use their privilege to uplift BIPOC in their activism, white activists hijack social movements by placing themselves and their feelings at the centre of every cause. White activists must, therefore, make an active effort to diversify their movements in order to create safer and more inclusive activist spaces for BIPOC.
Having specific demands can help accomplish goals in activist movements, however, when these demands become too insular they can also turn multifaceted movements into one-dimensional issues. Activist groups should seek to articulate practical aims for themselves while also acknowledging the complex context that accompanies ethical issues. Often campaigns headed by white activists are guilty of having ‘tunnel-vision’ which prevents them from addressing injustice comprehensively. For example, Divest McGill—a student environmental justice group—was created with the goal of focussing on fossil fuel divestment; but solely focussing on one aspect of McGill’s unethical investments distracts from all the other investments the university has in other domains, notably in the military-industrial complex and the illegal settler-colonial occupation of Palestine. Divestment, therefore, means more than just divesting from fossil fuels: It means divesting from all unethical industries.
The complexity of injustice expands to issues beyond climate change. Since the passage of Bill 21, there has been an increase in hate crimes towards racialized people and Muslims, and McGill’s campus is not safe from hate either. Bill 21 is an example of institutionalized racism, and although the CAQ claims that the policy is part of its effort to secularize Quebec, it has the opposite effect: Bill 21 limits the religious freedom of racialized communities. With the passing of the law, racialized students are reminded that they are not welcome in Quebec, as well as at McGill, because of the university’s inability to properly respond to the law.
White activists must alter their perspectives on injustice to recognize nuance. If one wishes to truly call themselves a climate activist, they should recognize the intersectionalities of climate change and war. POLI 339—a comparative political science course which is taught for half its term at McGill and for the other half in Israel—is an example of an issue with multiple intersections. Israel is a settler-colonial state and has been accused of greenwashing—a practice involving pretending to be ‘environmentally friendly’ in order to cover criminal activity. Despite students democratically showing discontent by voting against the authorization of the course, the AUS Executive Committee overturned the decision, and the course was supposed to be offered for a second time this summer. The existence of a course like POLI 339 makes Palestinian and other Arab students feel unsafe on campus and this is a notion which has not been given enough attention in the on-campus narrative surrounding the course. POLI 339 is another example of why one who wishes to truly be an ally must include BIPOC issues in their activism.
Injustice is intersectional by its very nature: It can manifest through race, gender, class, colonialism, migration, and war. Yet, these complexities are often dismissed by white activists. White allies should show up, but show up acknowledging their own positionality, and stand in the back. Let BIPOC be the leaders of their own fights—that is what being an ally means.
*An older version of this article was originally published by the McGill Tribune. This version reflects the author’s voice more accurately.