The anti-racist ad that triggered a backlash

One white man acknowledged his ‘privilege’ on a Saskatoon billboard. A lot more took it personally.


“I am the Bridge” campaign billboard in Saskatoon. (650 CKOM)

The man with a white beard, glasses and pleasant half-smile looks unassuming on the deep red billboard looming over the busy Saskatoon freeway. But to judge by the public reaction to his words, displayed in white block letters next to his portrait, you’d think this man was a rabble-rouser.

It’s unintentional, of course. Jim Williams, the man in the billboard, is simply a Saskatoon resident who volunteered to share his thoughts on racism as part of the city’s anti-racism campaign called I Am The Bridge. In 2015, the Community Diversity and Race Relations office of the city’s community development department launched the campaign in response to the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, specifically around anti-racism education.

In the first phase of the campaign, the committee called on residents to submit videos of themselves answering questions about their thoughts on and experiences with racism, and what personal role they can play in ending it in Saskatoon. Williams was one of a few dozen culturally diverse volunteers to submit a video.

Here’s what he had to say: “I am a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male: the most privileged demographic in human history. If I’m going to be the bridge to ending racism in Saskatoon or anywhere else, I have to acknowledge my own privilege and I have to acknowledge my own racist attitudes, and work through my discomfort.”

In June, the city rolled out phase two of the campaign, which involves ads spread out across the city in bus shelters, restaurants and bars, along with four billboard installations, featuring quotes from former volunteers. In Williams’ billboard, which shows his face, but not his name, his quote was boiled down to: “…I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”

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With those 10 words, Williams, a professor at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, ignited a firestorm on social media of folks jumping to defend themselves against what they took as an accusation. One Reddit user kicked off a debate on the platform, asking: “Why is the city of Saskatoon purchasing billboards simply to say white men have privilege?” To which someone else replied: “You then invite a series of people who hate men and are racist against whites to criticise your every word and action until they are satisfied by your subservience.” Another wanted to make it clear that: “I have not had one hand out due to being white I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. All of my friends and family have worked their ass off to get where they are.” Ezra Levant’s the Rebel, went on to call the billboard itself racist, as did an alt-right British group called Western Defence, and a slew of other Twitter users.

In an email to Maclean’s, Williams said that, despite the backlash, “I’m proud to be part of the ‘I am the Bridge’ campaign. I chose my words carefully and I stand by them completely.”

The city is likewise defending the billboard, saying that it wasn’t meant to suggest all people are racist, but rather to encourage residents to consider how they can play a personal role in mitigating racism. “Certainly the level of feedback indicates that the campaign is doing its job,” said Saskatoon city councillor Hilary Gough, “which is to get people talking and thinking about racism and the reality of it in our community.”

Indeed, surveys and polls on racism in the province do suggest that race relations are tense and deteriorating in Saskatchewan. Last year, following the murder of Colten Boushie, a 22 year-old Indigenous man from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, the NRG Research Group and Peak Communications conducted a survey on racist attitudes across the country. In Saskatchewan, 46 per cent of respondents—more than anywhere else in the country—said racism was a big problem. Meanwhile 30 per cent of respondents in the western Prairies (Saskatchewan and Alberta), said race relations in their communities have gotten worse over the last decade.

Of course, broaching the issue of racism often draws prickly reactions like those towards Williams’ billboard. “Certainly, I think there is some defensiveness in this,” she says. “It takes time to learn about one’s own privilege without feeling like we need to feel guilty.” Part of the backlash, though, comes from a mistinterpretation of the campaign, says Gough. “We aren’t saying that everybody is racist and has racist attitudes, but we are trying to create space for each of us to consider how we can most productively engage with the structures we’re living in and figure out what our role is in eliminating and addressing racism.”

The I Am The Bridge ad campaign, which cost the city $14,000 this year, runs until July 16.


The anti-racist ad that triggered a backlash

  1. Con-morons…..everything has to have a caveat.

    • Cue the bitter self-loathing white woman to attack her race and conservatives.

  2. If the professor feels this way he should step down and hand over his job to someone who he feels is less privileged. If he feels that skin colour is a instrument of privilege then I urge him to visit the poorest counties in America, they happen to be in Appalachia.

  3. I love how so many of us white folks just don’t get it. Do you think that privilege means everything in our life is perfect and that we all live a life free of strife? No, it’s subtler than that, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be up in arms over a sign like this one. For example, I can tell you that if I show up at the deli counter while the clerk is away – when he or she of whatever race comes back – he or she will offer to serve me over a white woman or a visible minority 99% of the time regardless of my being the last in line. And if I suggest that someone else was first often those other people, whether they’re female and/or of another race, will be embarrassed and insist that I should go first. That is privilege and I get that many of us white people want to pretend that’s just other folks being polite, but that is a clear demonstration of the unspoken hierarchy in our society. And the lack of self-awareness of some individuals coupled with an inability to observe how things work around them is why we’ve got billboards centering out the straight white guys of the world. Get a clue and maybe there won’t be a need to hit you over the head with reality checks. Or don’t learn and grow, but complain about how everyone these days acts the victim and then complain about being a victim, because that will really serve to disprove how utterly clueless you are. Just as crying about how your spot at the top of the food chain is being threatened only serves to show that you see being in that position should be your right rather than your privilege. And if you want to know when’s your parade? Every single day, whether you feel like celebrating or not!

    • You’re saying that if the clerk at the deli comes back and you’re at the end of the line they will offer to serve you before all the people that are clearly in front of you? LOL stop lying. If you have to resort to making up outlandishly fake scenarios to prove your point, doesn’t that make you stop and think a bit?

      • What SomeWhiteDude is saying happens all the time, and not just to visible minorities. My parents were white immigrants who spoke English with a heavy (nonBritish) accent all their lives. Since they were white, the poor service didn’t start until they started talking but once they did, there was often a visible shift in the service person’s demeanour and helpfulness. Not always, but often enough that it made them feel beat down and alienated. This was in a small town where privilege was probably more ingrained than in a larger city.
        I think if you had this happen to yourself or to a family member you might show more understanding. The professor on the billboard is to be commended for his empathy.

        • This guy is saying that today in 2017 he sees this happen. A black guy is first in line, but the clerk will call the racist white devil from the back of the line to serve him first. He’s lying. You believe him because you follow this divisive propaganda that the media pushes. The professor on the billboard is just virtue signalling, he isn’t to be commended at all. The whole point of doing it was to be commended by smarmy liberals.

  4. Racism and privilege are two separate issues. Privilege is getting an advantage, racism is disparaging or hating someone. A privileged person may or may not be racist, although some of their advantage may be based on institutionalised racism (there may also be skills, luck, or other coincidental qualities involved). Racism does not require privilege and based on demographic data there would be more unprivileged racists than privileged racists. It is usually ‘disadvantaged’ people who blame others for their situation. Sometimes these are people being racist and sometimes these are people suffering racism.

    The billboard, as the statement of one person, does more disservice to the cause that has many layers within the whole community. It is also narcissistic to think their effort can solve racism anywhere beyond their community.

    • I don’t believe in White Privilege. It is the invention of the left. Doesn’t make any sense.

  5. Ok, look other white people. When we talk about things like ‘privilege,’ what a lot of you hear is ‘benefits,’ or ‘handouts.’ It isn’t about that. Having white privilege isn’t about getting handouts or an extra dollop of whipped cream on your sundae. It’s about not getting kicked in the teeth.

    You did work hard to get where you are, but a lot of other people worked even harder to get to the same place because everybody was actively trying to stop them.

    I also hear a lot of people talk about how there are a lot of white people who have had a really hard time because of their class and economic discrimination. At least one commenter mentioned Appalachia, which is a really stark example of this. What you have to understand is that class privilege and racial privilege do not cancel each other out. It is possible to have one and not have the other. They show up in different ways.

    You worked hard to put yourself through school because there wasn’t great access to education where you were, or maybe because your family didn’t put a premium on schooling, or maybe you had to work three jobs to pay your tuition. Getting that education that you can put on a resume was hard work, and no one can take that away from you. But somebody else worked hard to get the same resume only to have hiring managers dump it in the trash without looking at it because their name was ‘too black.’

    You had to drive crappy cars your whole life, cars held together with spit and bubble gum, before you could finally afford something nice. But no cop ever pulled you over because that car was too nice for someone with your skin colour. And no cop ever arrested you because the neighbourhood you were driving through was too nice for a white person to be living there.

    When we talk about white privilege, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard to get where you are, or that you didn’t face discrimination because of your accent or where you came from. What it does mean is that a whole lot of other people had to put up with that too and a lot of other barriers on top of that because they weren’t white.

    It means that nobody ever looked at you and assumed that you didn’t belong because of the colour of your skin.

    It means that you might have had to wade through a river of crap to get where you are, but somebody else had to go through twice as much upstream to get to the same place.

    White privilege doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard to get where you are, it just means that you weren’t getting kicked in the teeth because of your skin at the same time, and that once you got where you are nobody assumed you didn’t deserve it or that you didn’t belong.

    • People understand the concept of privilege and racism. What isn’t understood is how walking around self-flagellating is going to improve your situation. Does seeing a neurotic human groveling pathetically help your disadvantages? What purpose does this kind of behavior serve to better anything? It doesn’t. General awareness isn’t what this kind of act is about. It is about signaling your virtue and that you are “above” that kind of behavior to other privileged, neurotic peers.

      • I’ll start out by acknowledging that you have part of a point here. Some people do use things like privilege as buzzwords to inflate their own moral superiority, there are assholes on all sides of the political spectrum. But that doesn’t mean that acknowledging privilege is universally a bad thing or hypocritical. A small percentage of people do abuse the welfare system, but that doesn’t mean that we should get rid of the system entirely. And, frankly, that isn’t what is happening with this billboard. This professor had to know the level of criticism coming his way over it.

        Acknowledging your privilege, if you actually engage with it and do it honestly, does not feel good. You have to come to terms with all the ways in which something that you don’t have control over benefits you and hurts other people.

        If you don’t acknowledge that there is a problem, you can’t and won’t do anything to fix it. And most people don’t acknowledge it in their own lives, because doing so honestly really sucks. When somebody says they are ‘privileged’ because of their skin colour, they either loudly argue that they aren’t privileged in any way because of a certain area in which they don’t have privilege (such as class) or get angry and yell about how they aren’t racist. You can see lots of examples in this thread alone of both of those behaviours. And, in all honesty, it seems like the only way to get through to people like that is to have other white people talk to them about it.

        To sum up, white privilege doesn’t mean that you are racist, it means that you have an advantage because of your race. It means that other people are racist and you happen to benefit from it.

        And one kind of privilege doesn’t cancel out another. You can be disadvantaged because of your class, or disability, or sexual orientation, etc. and still be advantaged because of your race. It isn’t a zero sum game. If you aren’t privileged in one area, it should make you want to work with people who are also not privileged, rather than turning on each other. That way you can work together to deal with the jerks and systems that keep you all down.

  6. I am not sure what privileges Jim Williams received, but where has this guy been the last 30 years? There is no group more discriminated against than straight white able-bodied males. We even import people from other countries to discriminate against us.

    • Poor babies.

      • If you want to know why the alt-right is growing, there’s a helpful device you can use–it’s called a mirror.

    • I would imagine that the professor has spent much of the last 30 years in Saskatoon, but I could be wrong. Maybe he spent a bunch of that time in Winnipeg, where indigenous kids routinely turn up dead in the river and the cops can’t be bothered to investigate.

      You aren’t discriminated against because of your race. You might be discriminated against because of your class, or maybe level of education, sexual orientation, or any number of other factors. Having one sort of privilege doesn’t cancel out disadvantage in other areas. You can be white but discriminated against because you are gay, or rich but discriminated against because you are black. It isn’t a zero sum game.

      I’m really not sure how you think being able bodied factors in to it, unless you have some aversion to ramps.

      It’s also possible that you are a jerk. I really don’t have enough to go on from just four lines.

      In any case, other people wanting to rise to the same level as you is, by definition, not discrimination.

  7. Intersectional racism at its finest.

  8. To the privileged, equality will always look like oppression.
    I also think we need to somehow get out a good definition of what privilege means in this context. It does not mean given special, extra attention or rights. It simply means being seen as the normative standard against which every other group is ranked, rated, or listed. The whole point of being privileged in this context, is that you are not aware of it because that’s the way it has always been. To all those protesting at how they are where they are because they have worked hard and done it all themselves, imagine yourself as the “other” trying to do the same thing in a society that gives more chances to you. I speak as a white professional female who certainly felt the sting of white male privilege in the work place in the early years of my career, and who had a mother who had to give up her profession as soon as she got married.

    • Privilege doesn’t mean having everything handed to you, or starting a race at the finish line. But it does mean that you don’t have as many people kicking you in the teeth when you try and run that race.

      And lots of people besides white men have privilege. A black, straight man has privilege because of his gender and sexual orientation, even if he doesn’t have privilege because of his race. A white woman has privilege because of her race, but not her gender. An upper class, Hispanic man has class privilege, where a working class white man doesn’t. But he has white privilege that the Hispanic man doesn’t. It isn’t a zero sum game.

      But white, straight men (a category I fall into) have way more areas of their life where they have privilege than where they don’t. And a lot of people in that position would rather push others down than lift them up to the same level.

  9. To be a member of the majority group in virtually any nation is an advantage. To be part of a cohort seen as having criminal tendencies (due to committing a disproportionate number of crimes) it is a disadvantage. Yet somehow only the white man has privilege . This is neither here or there, it’s just another term for cry babies to use in their ‘holy war’ against the western white man. I can certainly understand why that white man put up the billboard, judging from his employment he’s undoubtedly overpaid, maybe grossly overpaid. He wants to keep the gravy pouring in until his juicy indexed pension kicks in so he is ‘virtue signalling’ big time. There is a blanket term for people like that which has sadly fallen out of use ‘suckhole’, it used to be a bad thing to be a suckhole, to be a suckhole meant you were a bottom feeder who would do anything for approval, with the rise of the left the term fell out of use because being a suckhole had it’s advantages. Feminists can only stand suckholes, Marxist administrators demand you be suckholes; but guess what? Nobody with any character can stand them, and the tides are changing, the era of the suckhole is coming to an end.

    • Let’s try to keep the level of discourse civil, shall we. I wonder if it was comments like this that caused Maclean’s to disable the comments section for so long.

  10. Do you types really have so little self-awareness that you cannot comprehend why people find this ridiculous?

    Let me spell it out for you. In your haste to trip over one another to out-virtue-signal your peers, you have quickly devolved to the level of barebacked religious fanatics, self-flagellating in the streets.

    This man took out a billboard (the most in your face advertising possible) that serves no practical purpose other than to say “look at how progressive/woke/doubleplusgood I am!”.

    How self-righteous does one have be to not see how silly this behavior is? Have you types really diluted yourself so thoroughly that you believe you are somehow changing the world with this neuroticism?

    • He was asked to participate in a project, and he did not pick the quote they used. He didn’t spend his own money on this, but he did have to know that there would be a lot of precisely this sort of backlash from participating.