Sask. prof discusses ‘whiteness’ with Trent University students in Peterborough

Sask. professor speaks at Trent University about whiteness
Dr. Michael Cappello, a professor at the University of Regina, made a presentation on "whiteness as a system of ideology" to Trent University students on Monday.

A professor at the University of Regina says backlash leading up to his presentation “It’s Okay to be (Against) White(ness)” at Trent University was overblown.

Dr. Michael Cappello, an associate professor, was invited by Trent’s student union to discuss race, diversity and inclusiveness to achieve racial justice.

But the title of his presentation stirred up waves of online criticism and backlash.

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“My purpose was to talk about whiteness as a system of ideologies; a system of power, history, law – to frame that for folks,” Cappello told CHEX News.

He says spurring the outcry were posters circulated on campus last fall which falsely labelled it “It’s Okay to be white.”

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“It’s taunting; it’s a ploy designed to provoke reaction and outrage in order to make fun of… build off of …that reaction and outrage,” said Cappello.


This poster was circulating on Trent University campus last November.
This poster was circulating on Trent University campus last November. Mike Cappello photo

Backlash intensified following several editorial and opinion pieces in newspapers, including the Toronto Sun, which slammed the presentation as racial rhetoric. The Sun said Trent students were fueling a toxic debate over race.

Cappello said he received dozens of hate emails and threatening phone calls prior to Monday’s presentation.

“It was awful to see; personal attacks, like obtuse readings, purposely mis-reading the event,” Cappello said. “I think the Toronto Sun, for example,  was purposely misleading people with the title of their article, or their opinion peace it was anti-white.”

Cappello describes himself as an “anti-racist/anti-oppressive” teacher and educator, who has spent the last four years studying reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

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Students, including Trina James, say his presentation was insightful.

“I think it’s really important for us to talk about what whiteness is, and how it manifests within our society, how it impacts both white folks as well as white people who don’t identify as white,” she said.

“I loved everything that he was saying how obviously it’s OK to be white,” added student Eliza O’Hearn.

The event described whiteness as an academic term “for the ideologies that describe the practices, beliefs, habits and attitudes that enable the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin-colour.”

“There is years of work to understand that stuff and we shouldn’t shy away from that work; this is worth understanding,” said Cappello. “It’s important for folks to recognize it so that we can all learn to live within our society and progress as a community.”