Saturday, February 11, 2017

When White Privilege Becomes White Power

The story of York Region District School Board Trustee Nancy Elgie has taken some disturbing turns since the December 8th, 2016, revelation that she used the word "nigger" in reference to local parent. The remark was made privately, days before, at a public meeting where York Region parent Charline Grant was in attendance. Ms Grant previously had launched a human rights complaint, charging that her son had been the victim of racist treatment in his school. The private comment was soon reported to the parent, and the board initiated an investigation.

In the early stages, Mrs Elgie denied ever having made the remark. The Toronto Star's Kristin Rushowy and Noor Javed write:
Elgie, 82, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. However, reached at her home Wednesday, she told the Star “there is no merit in the accusation, but I will co-operate fully in the investigation.” 
When asked if she was denying having uttered the slur, she responded: “I’m not saying anything like that... I’m just saying there is no merit in the accusation.”
Trustee Elgie promised, nonetheless, that she would cooperate with the Board's investigation.

And the story went dark for better part of two months, when Krushowy and Javed reported on the Trustee's written apologies emailed to Ms Grant and others involved.
“There is no excuse for what I said, only the explanation that I was clumsily trying to refer to your concerns as reported in the media, not to you personally,” said Nancy Elgie of the incident last November when she referred to Charline Grant as a n-----, in public, after a meeting.
“As soon as my brain registered what I had said, I was overcome with shock and dismay. I felt heartsick and deeply ashamed to have said something so hurtful — even unintentionally — and so foreign to the values I have held throughout my entire life,” wrote Elgie, 82, who represents Georgina.
So a two-month investigation into the uttering of an anti-black racial slur went from Trustee Elgie's claim of "no merit in the accusation" to her being very sorry for having said it, but it was an accident.

So what happened during the two months of radio silence?

Toronto journalist Desmond Cole interviewed Charline Grant on his NewsTalk 1010 radio program, on January 22, 2017. Ms Grant explains that the board used its "Policy 240" to investigate the incident -- a policy normally reserved for staff involved in internal workplace matters, and which mandates no direct action, even in the event of a clear transgression. In other words, Trustee Elgie's apology is all Ms Grant, her family, and community may expect from the York Region DSB.

Here's the problem. This isn't an internal matter; it's a very public one, its disposition a matter of public interest. A trustee is not an employee. Trustees are elected officials, entrusted to set and maintain policy, oversee budgets, and supervise the board's director. At the community level, parents and other stakeholders look to trustees to be their voice in the boardroom and in the school. Principals and superintendents look to them to see that their schools get the resources they need from the board.

In this instance, the damage done by Trustee Elgie's words is by no means limited to Charline Grant and her family. YRDSB that has been the subject of other charges of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. Parents in that community are concerned about the safety of their children in those schools.

This should be the story now, but it isn't.

Enter two of Mrs Elgie's adult children: Stewart Elgie and Alyson Harrison, both university professors, the latter a neuropsychologist. In a February 7th, 2017, op-ed piece for The Toronto Star, the siblings plead their mother's case:
Given the ugly legacy of racism in society, it is not surprising that many people were quick to assume the worst of Nancy, even discounting that she had suffered a head trauma several weeks earlier. Such words — even used accidentally — are painful and hard to forgive.
But since a person’s reputation and life’s work hangs in the balance, we ask you to consider a few facts, and then judge for yourself.

The Elgies recount their mother's October concussion, which, they explain, caused her to experience difficulties with words; her career as a child psychologist; as well as the admirable reputation of the late Robert Elgie, their father and a former Cabinet Minister in the Ontario Government.

Pushback on the piece was swift and angry -- necessarily so. Save for an acknowledgement of a "legacy of racism," the concerns of an entire community in York Region are set aside so that we may ponder a "reputation" that "hangs the balance." The article is essentially a character reference written by family members. A photo of Mrs Elgie, looking frail with her head wrapped in a bandage, appeals the reader's emotions. The writers' bona fides on display in the bio-line are an appeal to authority. 

Enter Kathy English, The Toronto Star's Public Editor, in an article dated February, 10th, 2017. Ms English responds to criticisms levelled of the Elgies' op-ed levelled by readers and Star staff:
The opinion article was wholly sympathetic to Nancy Elgie, as one would expect of an article written by her children.
But the reality is that the reason all the facts they recounted had not come out yet was because they themselves had chosen not to tell the reporters and had indeed asked the reporters not to report specific details of their mother’s head injury. When her children later decided to disclose more details, they opted to bypass the reporters who would have certainly asked them tough questions about why their mother had continued to work as a trustee. (Emphasis mine.)
Reporters ask questions. Reporters report facts. Expert opinion is sought from experts who are not attached to a story. People close to the story, like family members, don't get report. In that same newsroom, a family member or close friend of Nancy Elgie doesn't report the story. Anybody looking at this can see very plainly the op-ed was published because the Elgie name is a powerful legacy. 

Privilege. Power.

"But, it's an op-ed," you might say. Getting published on the op-ed page of a major newspaper, admittedly, is not something just anyone can do. The Op-Ed Editor looks for people who have expertise and a point-of-view. That point-of-view might conflict with the paper's position on the other side of the fold. The idea is to put out opinions from a credible source that allow the reader to see a story from many sides. The close relationship of the writers to the person they are writing about crosses a line. Their unwillingness to answer "tough questions" from reporters further undermines their credibility. The introduction of new information, apart from the head injury Mrs Elgie suffered, is impossible to independently verify; nor do we know whether it was brought to bear in the YRDSB investigation.

So I ask, where's Charline Grant's op-ed? Remember her? She was the York Region mom concerned about racism in her son's school. She's the parent Trustee Elgie was talking about when she uttered the slur. She is the face of people in that community who feel the sting of Trustee Elgie's words. The same people waiting for answers and action on anti-Black racism and Islamophobia in their schools.