Creating a "safe space for white questions"

- October 27, 2020

Ajay Parasram, an assistant professor at Dal, co-hosts a monthly drop-in session aimed at helping white people understand the impact of existing racial structures. (Provided photos)
Ajay Parasram, an assistant professor at Dal, co-hosts a monthly drop-in session aimed at helping white people understand the impact of existing racial structures. (Provided photos)

When Ajay Parasram began his career teaching at Dal in 2016, stepping to the other side of the classroom and facing students as their instructor, he noticed in starker terms just how many more opportunities some students had than others.

What struck the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences assistant professor and Dal political science alum in particular was how QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) students didn't seem to be afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts to make mistakes as they learn.

“At the risk of generalizing, white students get to make harmful mistakes all the time that have deeply triggering implications for QTBIPOC all around them, but we accept that they are learning and accommodate them, as we should,” explains Dr. Parasram, who is an assistant professor in the departments of International Development Studies and History and cross-appointed to the Department of Political Science.

“I just want everyone to reap the benefits of safe intellectual space, but in order to build that, white people need to deepen their understanding of how race operates so that they don't demand the emotionally draining free labour from the QTBIPOC in their lives at all times,” says Dr. Parasram, who is also a founding fellow at the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

Motivated, he began to encourage open and safe conversation among his students and colleagues to try to make life a little easier for members of the QTBIPOC community. He established a monthly drop-in session welcoming white-identifying people in particular, who would like to ask questions and deepen their understanding about a wide range of issues generally captured under the banner of “progressive” politics.

Safe Space for White Questions is designed to be respectful and free of judgement. The drop-in sessions, which he co-hosts with Alex Khasnabish (associate professor in Mount Saint Vincent University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology), encourage friendly and considerate conversation aimed at helping people better understand the impact of existing racial structures.

“I want all my students, regardless of who they are, to be able to safely develop their analysis and understanding of the world without carrying an unfair burden of care, so I thought, 'Why not contain and remove those emotionally taxing and difficult conversations and put them in a contained space where they can be dealt with care, publicly, so everyone can benefit?'"

Going online

While only a few people attended the first event, held in person in February, he says some amazing questions were asked which led to some great conversations. When COVID-19 caused many event cancellations, the sessions were paused until September when Dr. Parasram revived these events — only this time online.

Dr. Parasram thinks the online environment offers an anonymity that is more comfortable for many people. Participants are able to ask questions anonymously if they wish.

“We had dozens come out to the first online session, and even if they weren't asking questions, they were learning from the questions others posed,” he explains, adding that the online format also has the benefit of being archived and shared widely.

More than 200 people have watched the recording of September’s online session so far and he hopes that trend continues with future sessions, the next of which happens this Wednesday, October 28 from 12:30 – 1:30 pm. The events will recur on the last Wednesday of each month.

Dr. Parasram hopes these sessions help to build racial resilience for white people, and that they gain the confidence to learn more about systemic racism and choose to do the hard work of dismantling it. He adds that over the last decade or so, he has been approached countless times by white people in private contexts looking for advice about understanding race in structural terms.

“Sometimes they are well intentioned questions, often they are vitriolic personal attacks accusing me of being a racist because of the kind of work that I do," he says. "I don't think I'm unique in this respect, and most QTBIPOC deal with this daily.”

Tackling racism with an ethic of care

He explains that his research in the field of structural white supremacy and racial resilience comes out of his lived experience as "a South Asian man living on stolen Indigenous territories across Turtle Island" (North America) and being involved in anti-racism (broadly defined) and pro-Indigenous sovereignty organizing for more than a decade.

Dismantling white supremacy is difficult care work, says Dr. Parasram, but it needs to be done with an ethic of care because that’s the only way that people change their minds.

“That can only come from a process of learning and drawing conclusions from one's learning. I've heard from many white people that they feel afraid to ask questions in public talks and classes because they feel that they will be shouted down or condemned by ‘social justice warriors’ and the like for not already knowing what the correct thing to say or think is. This feeling is real, and it speaks to the pathology of white fragility and its imbrication with the development of Canada as a still-colonial state," he says.

Beyond the courses he teaches at Dalhousie, Dr. Parasram gives guest lectures to all sorts of different crowds: high school students, soldiers, rabbis — whoever wants to learn, really. Through these lectures, he learns a lot about how structural white supremacy normalizes itself in people’s thinking as a result.

“The ability for white nationalism to organize people into its hateful ranks is alarmingly high because many white men in particular are not accustomed to having their worldviews challenged and are ill equipped to deal with it. So, we hope to equip them! When you understand that racism is a system, you can begin to move beyond your individualism and see yourself as a person committed to justice for all.”

Dr. Parasram encourages anyone to attend the Safe Space for White Questions sessions, as long as they come with good intentions, by which he means a genuine interest to learn and not a desire to argue.

Later in the evening of October 28, Dr. Parasram will bring his history and international relations expertise to a Dalhousie audience through Open Dialogue Live: Neighbourly Relations. This event will explore the impact American politics have on gender, race and class issues, immigration, journalism and more. Register now.


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus