I woke up on Saturday morning to read a shocking article about Buzzfeed Canada’s Senior Writer Scaachi Koul. I wasn’t upset with Buzzfeed’s intention to hire a diversity of writers; variety is a good thing, particularly when it comes to words and ideas. There’s also nothing illegal about running ethically managed affirmative action plan.
If you’ve read most responses in the Canadian media you might have been fooled into thinking that Koul was a victim of a great wrong. BuzzFeed writer’s harassment just the latest example of why Twitter is broken for women, wrote the Globe and Mail; It’s Unacceptable That Scaachi Koul Was Harassed Off Twitter, said the Huffington Post. But as we learned from the Gregory Alan Elliott case, writers for the Globe and Huffington Post aren’t averse to publishing misleading articles for their allies.
Scaachi Koul’s call for submissions wasn’t a simple request for diversity, it was written in a way that left many seeing it as a bigoted and hateful attack. I have no problem if Koul wishes to demonstrate her bigotry, always prefer to know who the bigots are. That said, she crossed the line when she put it into the context of a job ad. Not only is it unlawful to ridicule an identifiable group in an employment situation- but it’s also a slippery slope, one that could hurt people of all identifiable groups.
What Did Scaachi Do? (WDSD)
The uproar against Koul’s behaviour began on February 18th after she posted a call for pitches from freelance writers on her Twitter account. She made eight tweets in the thread, the first started off simply calling for pitches for “Canada-centric essays & reporting”. The second was one her supporters view as a “call for diversity”:
“@BuzzFeedCanada would particularly like to hear from you if you are not white and not male.”
Calls for affirmative action are usually worded differently, more along the lines of “submissions from minorities and women are encouraged”. The latter example would have been perfectly fine, but her tweet was the exact opposite. It was a call to exclude of an identifiable group- white men. It was a really dumb posting, a tactic that as we’ll soon see has been judged as being contrary to the law.
Koul’s next mistake was to add fuel to the fire with an insulting post:
“IF YOU’RE A WHITE MAN UPSET THAT WE ARE LOOKING MOSTLY FOR NON-WHITE NON-MEN. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU, GO WRITE FOR MACLEAN’S”
As most social media users are aware, posting something in all caps is considered to be the equivalent of screaming it out loud. Ask any human resources manager and they’ll tell you that not only is it unacceptable to target an identifiable group with hate in a job ad- they’ll also tell you that it’s a bad idea to scream out insulting and degrading comments while doing it.
Once the criticism began rolling in, Koul dug herself into a deeper hole with another inappropriate statement:
“White men are still permitted to pitch, I will read it, I will consider it. I’m just less interested because, ugh”
“HA HA ANYWAY BAN MEN LITERALLY THROW THEM ALL IN THE GARBAGE”
Adding even more fuel to the fire, she posted another tweet that many have interpreted as horribly racist:
“you owe these pale demons nothing”
When approached by people who (rightly) felt it was inappropriate for Koul to make racist comments on a job ad, Koul responded saying “We’re not hiring, we’re asking for pitches.” Sounds good to people unfamiliar with Ontario’s Human Rights Act, but as we’ll discuss later in this story, the same rules apply to both employees and contractors.
What Did Buzzfeed Do? (WDBD)
The first step recommended by the Human Rights Tribunal when filing a case is to contact the organization one is planning to file their complaint against. Following this advice, I decided it was a good idea to get in contact with Buzzfeed Canada’s Founding Editor Craig Silverman. You can find an archived copy of our discussion here.
As the Buzzfeed’s highest level manager in Canada, and someone who founded the organization, I figured he’d do the responsible thing and make an apology for his employee’s bad behaviour. I was perfectly willing to accept that apology and forget about the fact that Koul’s behaviour has turned Buzzfeed into a hostile work environment.
I noticed that Silverman was already discussing the issue on Twitter. He stated that Koul’s post “clearly wasn’t a job ad,” and that it “violates no laws to encourage women & poc [people of colour] to pitch.” Silverman closed-off adding insult to injury with a sarcastic remark saying, “But yeah thx for the link.”
The link he was referring to was a legal article that criticised CBC for posting an inappropriate advertisement for a position as a kid’s show host. The ad stated that candidates must be “any race except Caucasian.” The article goes into great depth of how and why it’s illegal to write an ad excluding an identifiable group. The CBC ultimately responded to the criticism by doing the right thing and withdrew the ad.
Beyond ignoring the good advice in CBC article, Silverman’s other error was to justify Koul’s behaviour by claiming that it’s “not a job ad”. Ontario’s Human Rights Code doesn’t make a distinction between employees and contractors (freelancers), both are treated equally under the law.
I pointed this out to Silverman by sending him a screenshot from the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s web page. I also explained that I’d prefer not to have to go through the complaints process- a simple apology would do. He responded with a tweet saying:
“everyone receives equal treatment.”
His response was vague, not quite the apology I would have expected from a reasonable person. So, I wrote back asking if he agrees that Koul’s racially charged call for submissions was inappropriate. His response rehashed what he said at the beginning of the thread:
“No. Encouraging women and poc to pitch is not the same as offering preferential treatment. All pitches are equal.”
But as we’ve already discussed, Koul didn’t encourage women and POC to pitch, she encouraged white men not to- these are two entirely different things. I pointed this out to Silverman in my next tweet. His response was equally as shocking as Koul’s call for freelance contractors:
“Her serious tweets about pitching us do say that. The sarcastic remarks about white men are clearly not serious.”
First, as we’ll discuss in a moment, I’m not entirely certain Koul was being sarcastic- she has a long history of making bigoted tweets and media reports. But beyond that, anyone who’s taken a sensitivity training course is very aware that “it’s only a joke” is no excuse for making bigoted comments. If you’re not familiar with the concept, check out the Ontario Public Employees Union’s guide to dealing with racism.
OPSEU explains how it’s common for people that complaints about racist jokes are “too sensitive”, “too serious”, or “too politically correct”. Their solution to approaching racist jokes is to encourage people to speak out when people tell them- making it “less safe to harass and discriminate.”
So I responded to Silverman explaining how racist jokes are considered to be unacceptable in Canada- saying “this is not funny Craig.” Once again, Silverman’s response showed absolute contempt for Canadian values:
“You are within your rights to not find her funny”
Absolutely, it’s totally within my rights to not find Koul’s racist and sexist smears funny. But it’s not within Buzzfeed’s rights to use racist, sexist and degrading humour when advertising for freelance contractors- this behaviour is in direct violation of Ontario’s human rights legislation. It’s also diametrically opposed to Canadian values. This is a mistake one would think an American founded publication would wish to avoid at all costs.
What Would The Human Rights Tribunal Do? (WHHRTD)
The Ontario Human Rights Code makes it very clear that it’s entirely legal to execute an ethically managed affirmative action plan. It’s a controversial practice that many Canadians take issue with. Personally, I’m on the fence and can see both good and bad in it. Imbalances can be fixed, but there’s also the possibility of demoralizing the practice’s beneficiaries- who wants to think they were hired as a token?
Regardless, as Craig Silverman explained in his tweets, it doesn’t appear that it was ever Buzzfeed’s intention to run an affirmative action plan. Silverman’s position was that it’s only a joke. Yeah Craig, some joke!
The Human Rights Commission’s website defines harassment using several examples- two of which directly apply to Koul’s bigoted screenshots I’ve posted in this article:
- Epithets, remarks, jokes or innuendos related to an individual’s race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, creed, age, or any other ground
- Showing or circulating offensive pictures, graffiti or materials, whether in print form or using e-mail or other electronic means
The commission defines “hate activity” as such:
“comments or actions against a person or group motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex…”
The commission defines an organization that tolerates such behavior as a Poisoned Work Environment. Here’s how they explain it:
“A poisoned environment is created by comments or conduct that ridicule or insult a person or group protected under the Code and cause them to feel that the environment is hostile or unwelcoming.“
From my own personal perspective – I’m neither a lawyer or an expert on the Human Rights Code – it appears very clear that Koul’s postings are examples of the types of behaviour the code was written to protect people from. Disappointingly, Silverman’s response appears to show a complete disregard for these protections.
I don’t feel comfortable making submissions to Buzzfeed Canada- it’s my perception that they’re a poisoned work environment. As someone who would otherwise be motivated to pitch and submit articles to online publications, I feel that Koul’s posting has turned Buzzfeed into an organization I’d feel unsafe working with.
I’m also not so sure that Koul was simply being “sarcastic”. Her online presence and publications leave me with the impression she’s a genuine bigot. Of course, now that she’s wiped out her Twitter account (why didn’t she just make her account private?) much of the evidence has been erased. But enough has been saved to make it clear that Koul has a pattern of making racist and sexist “jokes”.
What Did The CBC Do?
Of the many examples I’ve seen researching this story, the most egregious was a piece she did on CBC Radio’s show “q”- former home of Jian Ghomeshi and his friend Big Ears Teddy. If it wasn’t bad enough that q’s management allowed Ghomeshi to get away with his nastiness for so long, Koul’s piece Morning rave, or boring rave? is ugly in and of itself.
The CBC sent Koul to a New Age “conscious clubbing” event where people gather early in the morning for yoga and a morning workout dance. I went to a similar evening event in Vancouver in November 2011- celebrating a successful protest I organized blockading Stephen Harper in a building the day before. It was a bit hokey, but I still managed to have a great time.
It took less than a minute into the interview for Koul to start attacking the event based on the participant’s race:
“It’s full of white people as far as the eye can see“
Her broadcast was peppered with similar comments about “white people”:
“Like, when you’re in a group of a couple hundred white people and they all start raising their hands for something, I want to get out of there. Like I’m not sticking around to find out what they’re doing.”
“Everbody was so attractive and so white, I can’t get over that. Like to be fair this was a white party, so they made everybody wear white- but maybe some people took it literally. Because I was like one of five non-white people there”
Debating Koul’s broadcast with one of her supporters on Twitter, I pointed out that it was completely unnecessary for her to focus on the participant’s race. He responded justifying her behaviour claiming that she “felt excluded as a POC,” and that “an entirely white crowd IS odd in Toronto.” True, but not at a New Age religious gathering- they do tend to be dominated by white people.
It’s a lot like how Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques tend to be dominated by non-whites. But could you imagine a white person walking into one of those establishments and complaining that they felt “excluded” because they are “full of brown people as far as the eye can see?” They’d be viewed as bigots, wouldn’t they?
In addition to “laughing out loud” when participants sat down and passed around “intention cards”, Koul took her bigotry one step further- asking a question that’s similar to the faux pas of saying “where do you come from” to a POC:
“There was another white guy wearing a headdress, and I made sure he was white because I checked. Yeah, I asked him, because it really made me angry.”
Once she determined he was white – fair game in Koul’s book – she explained how she was “mean to him” because she disagreed with his decision to wear a headdress. Because, in Koul’s world, it’s okay for her to decide what is right and wrong about people’s religious practices (New Agers have a habit of appropriating indigenous identities) and it’s okay to directly condemn those whose political correctness isn’t up to her own standards- religious gathering or not.
Now let’s put this into perspective. How would Koul and her allies react if a white person walked into a mosque, laughed out loud at their practices, asked a man wearing a Washington Redskins hat what his race was, and followed-up by attacking him for wearing it? I’m guessing they’d be rather upset- most Canadians would see this as inappropriate and disrespectful.
The CBC owes Canadians an apology. That said, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting- death by asphyxiation isn’t a pleasant experience.
What Will Greg Do? (WWGD)
I’m not a big fan of the concept of human rights tribunals, My personal belief is that it’s better to let bigots speak out as loud as they please; it’s easier to identify them that way- Koul has done a great job at it. That said, there are a couple of situations where I feel they are genuinely useful.
The first is when, like the CBC, the organization expressing or broadcasting the hate is benefitting from government money. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for this sort of crap. The second, and most important, is when it comes to employment issues. The government has a genuine responsibility to protect people from discrimination in the workplace.
Many of Koul’s supporters have taken the approach of ridiculing “poor white men” who feel like the world is unfair to them. While I find the ridicule abhorrent, I do get what they’re saying. That said, it’s a slippery slope. If it’s okay to post job ads that degrade white males today, it could easily become okay to do the same about Asian males tomorrow- once that happens, it’s open season on everyone else.
Personally, I’d rather not go through the hassle of filing a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. Beyond the time it will suck out of my life, their application form doesn’t work on my Linux computer- the idea of having to boot up Windows is nearly as distasteful as listening to Koul’s racist hate speech.
So with that in mind, I’d like to offer Buzzfeed Canada an alternative path. It’s a simple solution, one most ethical organizations would find easy to agree with. It’s time for Craig Silverman to stand up and do the right thing. Admit it was inappropriate to use racist slurs in their job ad by publishing an apology on Buzzfeed’s website. I don’t believe I’m asking for too much- just do the right thing. (It would be nice of Scacchi Koul would do the same, but my instinct tells me her ego wouldn’t be able to handle it.)
Okay Buzzfeed, the ball is in your court now- will you play nice?