We so desperately need to remove the identity politics lens for just a moment and agree that maintaining dignity and respect for all goes so far in preventing situations like this from occurring.

A few days ago I released a video discussing the recent tragedy of Richard Bilkszto’s death.

Richard was a principal with the Toronto District School Board who recently committed suicide. He was amidst a legal battle with the board over harassment he received in 2021 during a diversity, equity and inclusion training session.

The details can be found in Deadly DEI – The Case of Richard Bilkszto, or in news article from basically every major news agency. The take away is that Richard pushed back against statements a DEI consultant was supporting, and when he disagreed with her assessment, she publicly reprimanded him, saying, “You in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people”.

In the events that followed, Richard was chastised in several other sessions, took a leave of absence and eventually received a Workplace Health and Insurance payout when they found harassment had occurred in his workplace. Richard attributed his inability to later land contract positions as fallout from the publicity. In May 2023, he filed suit for damages, which again brought this ordeal back into the forefront of media attention.

Now I mentioned earlier that coverage of this story can be found in basically every major news publication. I’ve read a bunch and most have provided decent coverage. But yesterday The Toronto Star released an article that shook me. I am a paying subscriber to The Toronto Star because I truly believe in the importance of diverse perspectives and take care to consume media across our entire political spectrum. But this is the sort of article that will make me reconsider my support.

“You in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people”.

DEI Consultant – Toronto District School Board DEI Training Session

The article is written by Shree Paradkar, the controversial Social and Racial Justice Columnist at The Toronto Star. Unlike other columns that discussed the nuances of the situation, In the column, Shree chose to use Richard’s death as an opportunity to stoke inflammatory rhetoric and create racial division.

The article opens with the line, “One man’s fatal mental health crisis has been co-opted by political opportunists and turned into an attack on anti-racism training while also, chillingly, targeting one Black woman.”

That sentence is pretty much the flavour of the entire article. The black women referenced (Which the author always capitilizes, suggesting black is more than just an adjective), is the DEI consultant who chastised Richard. In the narrow purview of this columnist, the hired DEI consultant who attacked Richard and his ‘whiteness’ is the one who has been targeted.

Now, I do want to recognize up front that there are some who are literally suggesting that the consultant is directly responsible for Richard’s death and should be held criminally liable. That’s a rather extreme position to take and frankly that’s not how our laws work. 

Looking at the facts of the case, it’s evident that in her position of power as a respected instructor leading the session, the consultant targeted an individual and directed humiliation and ridicule towards him, and allowed this to continue over multiple sessions. Sessions on Equity and Inclusion, I might remind you.

And that is exactly what many people are highlighting in news articles, Podcasts, Freedom of Information requests and online discussion. They are holding the consultant responsible for what she chose to do: which was to respond quite rudely to one of the employees she was being paid to instruct, showing negligence in terms of how this might affect his mental health and future outcomes.

But how does the The Toronto Star columnist interpret the tragedy. First and foremost, she points out that ‘suicides are rarely caused by single factors” in support of her main argument: that the DEI consultant who harassed Richard is being unfairly attacked in this incident. It’s true that suicide is frequently multimodal, and it’s certainly possible that applies in Richard’s case, though I don’t believe it’s appropriate for any of us to speculate beyond what the family has shared publicly.

But why does it matter if there were other causes at play? Richard professed to those who knew him how much this situation was weighing on him, and we know very clearly the connection between this particular event in Richard’s life and what came next. He was publicly humiliated in front of his leadership colleagues, and his superiors did not stand behind him and speak out about the treatment he was subjected to. He was shaken and there is a clear and documented link between the harassment Richard encountered in this session, the way his employer fell behind the consultant with their support, and the downstream deleterious effect on his subsequent employment.

Now, there’s a word for circumstances, attitudes and institutional structures that indirectly disadvantage individuals downstream. It’s called Systematic Oppression and it’s a word that originates from the post modernistic deconstructive thinking that inspires the modern DEI movement. I’m not a fan of that way of interpreting the world, but isn’t that exactly what Richard encountered from the consultant, his employer, and the main stream’s media coverage of his grievance over the past two years? It sure presents a lot like Systematic Oppression.

Systematic Oppression is usually reserved for oppression towards a subset of race and queer minorities, and such oppression can (and does) exist, but as it turns out, institutions like the Toronto District School Board and powerful people (like high-end DEI consultants) can likewise systematically create oppression towards others through the reinforced power imbalance of their institutional positions.

Yes, even towards a white man.

And that’s the primary point here. Richard asked for TDSB to investigate this situation two years ago and they refused. Only now, in response to an entire province becoming awoken to how rudely he was treated while under their employment, have they finally announced they will investigate the circumstances surrounding Richard’s death.

what depresses me so much about this inflammatory article is that for Shree it seems to be a zero-sum game.

And what did the Toronto Star columnist write in response to this announcement?

The author writes, “Consider this: On the one hand, reams of data that show racism maims and kills. That the system of white supremacy has caused an epidemic of suicides among Indigenous peoples. That the risk of suicide among LGBTQ2+ people is rising. On the other hand, an isolated tragedy, contentiously linked to a conversation the anti-anti-racists don’t want to have. Guess which of the two the system comes down on.”

Shree is right that the societal circumstances we have created, the attitudes that have prevailed over many decades, and the systems of our institutions have resulted in hardship for people of various ethnicities, indigenous people, and LGBT individuals. She’s also right that suicide amongst each of these groups is higher than the general population, and that there is a probable link between the poor treatment they’ve received and their mental health.

But what depresses me so much about this inflammatory article is that for Shree it seems to be a zero-sum game. I am not okay that transgender individuals feel marginalized to the point that they commit suicide. It’s unacceptable that Indigenous people are marginalized to the point of suicide. And I am not okay that Richard felt marginalized to the point of suicide either.

There have been so many initiatives in recent years to raise awareness towards circumstances that lead to poor mental outcomes in marginalized communities. That is a good thing and we should keep doing that. And now, we have clear evidence of systematic failure in a professional training environment that has led to poor mental health outcomes.

No one is arguing that we must champion Richard’s experience at the expense of other marginalized groups. We could do both! Less suicide is a win all around.

Institutional training conducted with dignity and respect for the attendees could have made all the difference, and the way this inclusion training was facilitated does not strike me as particular inclusive. But in the Toronto Star article, the author laments that Ontario has announced a review of the allegations of Richard’s mistreatment with a view to ‘reform professional training’.

Why does she think it’s a bad thing that we might produce DEI training that doesn’t chastise someone who disagrees with the opinion of the instructor? My take is that this is wonderful, because if ‘professional trainers’ are given a pass to treat people—any person—with such flagrant vitriol and disrespect then we absolutely should reform professional training.

This has been a lot and there’s so much more I could say. But above all, can’t we please take off the identity politics lens for just a moment and realize that maintaining dignity and respect for all goes so far in preventing situations like this from occurring. All meaning black people, and transgender people, and indigenous people and disabled people.

And yes, also white male principals. There should be no minority limitation on dignity and respect.

Richard strived to decenter race and create environments where all students could thrive, but the Toronto Star piece is a posture to do exactly the opposite and promotes further racial division. That’s the inclusive way to approach our fellow Canadians.

Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.

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Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.