FCAT, Community in Practice

FCAT hosts Safe Space for White Questions online discussion

August 25, 2023

Have you ever had a question about race, racism, social change, or social justice that you were too nervous to ask? Ajay Parasram and Alex Khasnabish started Safe Space for White Questions (SSFWQ) to address what they felt was a lack of opportunities for white-identifying people to ask awkward or potentially controversial questions about these subjects.

On September 8, 2023, Drs. Parasram and Khasnabish will host a session just for FCAT faculty, staff, and graduate students. This event is the first of many internal conversations that the Faculty will have as part of our new Community in Practice initiative to respond to and demonstrate our commitments to decolonization, Indigenization, truth and reconciliation, and the wide range of issues within the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) compass.

The first SSFWQ event was held in person in 2020 on the Dalhousie campus where Parasram is an associate professor in the Departments of International Development Studies, History and Political Science. His research interests include the impacts of historical colonial events and the ways in which those events continue to affect political action. Khasnabish is a professor in sociology and anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University whose research focuses on radical imagination, radical politics, social justice and social movements.

After the first in-person session, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any gatherings and Parasram and Khasnabish decided to move the discussions online. Their popular YouTube series now has over 20 episodes, each with hundreds of views, and runs every month, allowing anyone to anonymously submit their burning questions about race and social justice issues inside and outside the academy, which the two see for the first time during the show.  

“We’ve certainly had questions that push the boundaries and are pretty in your face in terms of their resistance to some of the social justice and anti-racism themes we’re talking about, and we’re happy to take them,” says Khasnabish. “If you’re not in it for the people who are not already convinced, then what are you doing here?”  

While they are answering questions submitted by specific individuals, they keep in mind the silent majority who are listening without asking questions, and they aim to model how to have principled disagreement while sharing their responses, as sometimes Parasram and Khasnabish will have different perspectives. For example, one prefers to use the term “BIPOC,” while the other will use “racialized,” and they will express their reasoning in a respectful way.

“One of the motivating factors for why we wanted to do this show in the first place,” says Parasram, “is that the progressive left has this purist disposition that if you hold a conservative view, we'll shout you down for it. So we're trying to say, in some sense, we have to return to the core fundamentals of academic freedom or intellectual freedom. Not in the way that the right likes to co-opt intellectual freedom and academic freedom but through the honest pursuit of ideas.”

“If you're not actually talking to white folks,” says Khasnabish, “especially those who are kind of cultivating a sense of grievance and resentment, then how can you imagine transforming a society like Canada in which 80% of citizens self-identify as white, according to the 2016 census.”

Parasram and Khasnabish will often receive questions involving very specific personal scenarios, but for their online show they generally stick to content that will apply more broadly. “We're not doing one-on-one therapy with people,” says Khasnabish. “What we're trying to do is to demonstrate that you can you can have these conversations in an everyday way that don't reduce the world to a parody of victims and perpetrators.”

Fernwood Publishing took notice of the SSFWQ sessions and offered to take on production. After an editor noted that many of the same questions were coming up each month, Fernwood approached Parasram and Khasnabish to summarize the top 10 in a book, and they wrote Frequently Asked White Questions.

The book is being used in many classrooms and boardrooms as an educational tool. It’s part of the syllabus of a first year gender and women’s studies course at UBC, it was read by a group of graduate students at the University of Westminster, and it will soon be part of the Halifax public school library system. Groups such as the Vancouver Opera board are reading it and having constructive discussions about its themes, and Parasram and Khasnabish recently facilitated an event about the book at the Vancouver Public Library.

Parasram and Khasnabish will continue their monthly SSFWQ sessions until they feel like it’s no longer needed. “I love the work that we're doing and I'm so heartened to see the way people have responded to it,” says Khasnabish.

Through both their YouTube show and their book, Parasram and Khasnabish are modelling a form of scholarship that connects with the broader community and breaks systemic cycles of harm. “This is the kind of everyday work that we need to think about transforming society through,” says Khasnabish. “As a social movement scholar, I totally believe that it's through the everyday work of organising person to person that we create durable and robust change at the grassroots.”