02/01/2013 05:11 EST | Updated 04/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Watching the Watchdog: Dear White People in Canada

At the start of this year, a newspaper in Johannesburg published a column that sparked heated reaction from South Africans, white and black. What happens when you compare some of the column's charges against white settlers in South Africa with Aboriginal charges against white settlers in Canada?


Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada. He's worked as a journalist in both Canada and South Africa.

Four years ago, Stephen Harper, twenty-second Prime Minister of Canada, stood in the House of Commons and apologized.

"There is no place in Canada" he said, "for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again." He went on: "The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly."

At the start of this year, a fine newspaper in Johannesburg called the Mail & Guardian -- which delights in criticizing the newish democratic black government of South Africa just as impudently as it once criticized the old fascist white government -- published a column along roughly the same lines.

But it went a whole lot further than Harper's apology and sparked heated reaction from South Africans, white and black.

The column, headed Dear White People, was written by one Gillian Schutte who is white and described as a "feminist, filmmaker, writer, poet, activist and author" who "fearlessly and creatively tackles issues of race, identity, sexuality and social justice."

"Let me begin" she writes to white South Africans, "by wholeheartedly apologizing for what my ancestors did to the [black] people of South Africa and inviting you to do the same. I reject their legacy as much as is possible and ... have made it a life mission to deconstruct the phallocentric white view of 'white as right' and the misguided precept that white is central to all reality."

Now, what happens when you compare some of Schutte's charges against white settlers in South Africa with Aboriginal charges against white settlers in Canada? When you substitute the word "Aboriginal" for her word "black" in parts of the rest of her letter?

This is what happens.

"I call on white people to acknowledge how white supremacy continues to play out in the media -- in representations of Aboriginalness -- in the constant accusation that Aboriginal people are racist when they speak their truth."

Remind you at all of a certain Canadian newspaper and TV network?

"I call on white people to reflect on what it means to be born into unearned privilege, to excavate our long history of racist exploitation and assumed superiority -- to acknowledge that this is what we were taught and then to reject it wholly."

Not quite what you were taught in school, perhaps?

"I call on white people to acknowledge that whiteness has become invisible to us and we no longer recognise it for a discourse that perpetuates the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people in ways so subtle that they appear normal."

Recognize yourself? Your friends? Your neighbours?

"I call on white people to admit that the rainbow nation is a myth and until we truly are able to recognise the humanity of all people we cannot claim to be post-racist."

Recognize your nation there?

"I implore you, white people, to listen to Aboriginal voices calmly and not to react defensively to every outrage an Aboriginal voice presents."

Been reading social media and so much of its reaction to Idle No More recently?

And this I can't resist: "Be grateful that you are still welcome in a land that was stolen. And stop bitching and telling Aboriginal people to get over their history. Goddammit -- if those things had happened to white people there would be an entire world domination film industry built upon the 'legitimized suffering of white people' so why will you not understand that colonialism was a holocaust of epic proportions and it will take many, many more decades for the pain to subside."

And: "I call on white people to understand that poverty and unemployment are social conditions. By renaming them 'laziness,' 'lack of ambition' and 'stupidity' you are furthering your own illogical delusions that whiteness has nothing to do with the untenable conditions that most Aboriginal people are forced to live in. These are not inherent traits of being Aboriginal, as many of you are fond of saying. These are the social consequences of a brutal colonial history and current globalisation -- coupled with weak anti-the-poor leadership."

Schutte signs off: "Settler Sister."

So, how did people react to her letter? In a word -- passionately.

In a later column she writes: "Website commentary in the US and South Africa referred to me as a 'white bitch, evil dyke, whore, black-loving-witch who should be shot or burnt or drowned.'"

There were many thousands of responses. From all races. On all sides.

What's your reaction?