It is not an insult to call people racist when they are being racist

Jagmeet Singh’s expulsion shows how deeply imbedded racism is in our systems of power

The NDP leader’s comment was a far cry from the ways MPs have addressed each other in the past.

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor, and Manisha Sharma, Peak Associate

On June 17, the leader of the NDP party, Jagmeet Singh, was kicked out of Parliament over not apologizing for calling Alain Therrien, a Quebecois MP, a racist. The underlying reason for his expulsion was that his use of the word “racist” was considered “unparliamentary language,” and that he refused to apologize for saying it. 

It seems that those in Parliament would much rather dismiss racist ideologies and systems than acknowledge racism is still alive and well in Canadian politics. To them, the word “‘racist”’ is considered unparliamentary language when hurled at others. The obvious deficiency in this logic is that when Parliament punishes a member for calling another member racist, but does not punish members who are promoting racist policies or rhetoric, it endorses one behaviour over the other. The message that this sends to broader society is that it is more acceptable to be a racist than it is to “impolitely” point out when someone is being racist. We need to start normalizing the stigmatization of ideologies and actions that are obviously detrimental to society, rather than insisting on polite and silent complacence with their existence.  

What is interesting about this specific case is that MPs have a long history of using vulgar language in Parliament; insults much stronger than the word “racist” have been used several times to describe fellow MPs. Of course, these MPs, like Singh, have been asked to apologize for their unparliamentary behaviour. But more to the point, calling someone a racist shouldn’t be viewed as an insult as if born of personal disagreement or emotional tension. Rather, it should be viewed as a point of fact when people are behaving as racists.

If we were to stop pussy-footing around the feelings of racists and actually call them what they are, then perhaps we could introduce some real civility into our politics, and not just pay lip service in a way that allows some people to espouse views that negatively impact a significant portion of our population. I understand that if Singh were to have used actual derogatory language along with his remark that he would and should have been condemned. But he didn’t. He simply called out a racist for being racist. 

Systemic racism doesn’t require racists to accept that they are racist. By its nature, systemic racism operates invisibly as part of a broadly accepted system of beliefs and practices that ultimately harms certain people based on arbitrary physical characteristics. The panicked pearl-clutching at the idea that someone might call a racist a racist is absolutely a part of that harmful system. It’s a novel idea, but perhaps if Therrien doesn’t desire to be called a racist, he should stop acting in a way that is clearly racist — such as refusing to condemn systemic racism within the RCMP.

It is cowardly to punish those who are pointing out the truths of injustices in our system. What is so bad about Singh calling Therrien a racist for failing to accept and agree that change within the RCMP is necessary in order to prevent further discrimination and violence against racialized people? What’s more, why is the moral refusal to defer to the decorum of authority more socially unacceptable than actually being a racist? Sounds like Singh knows what he’s talking about. 

The first step in addressing systemic racism in government is acknowledging that it is still present and alive in our systems of government, and it is not okay that it exists there. The second step is to not be afraid to call out politicians for condoning racist or discriminatory policies. The third step, don’t kick out members of Parliament when they call others what they are — a racist.