MAKING THINGS AWKWARD AT THE DINNER TABLE: A DISCUSSION ABOUT PRIVILEGE
Privilege is one of those topics we don’t talk about in my house… specifically white privilege. I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons for it, but I think the biggest one is that we fear what we don’t understand. I think that when the average white person is first exposed to the concept of White Privilege (myself definitely included), for example, it makes their head explode. Confusion, anger, resentment, aggression… a feeling of someone discrediting all the struggles that you overcame in your life; as if to say you didn’t truly earn any of the successes that you achieved in your life. For a large majority of people I’ll wager a guess that these sorts of feelings do not make you think “Wow! I’m so inspired to go spend my personal time exploring this issue further.” BUT WE MUST. Profound personal growth and development ONLY comes from exposing yourself to emotionally uncomfortable or painful situations in an unbiased manner, and pushing through it not necessarily knowing what the outcome will be – your mind is constantly searching for homoeostasis (equilibrium) and you need to constantly push yourself to snap out of what feels ‘comfortable’. For me, I was of the mentality that “all this white privilege and patriarchy stuff is complete bullshit. These people should all just get over it and stop being so sensitive.” But by talking to people who had the opportunity to study Social Justice and political issues in school, I realized that despite what I felt, I had no ammunition… no counterpoints, or examples, or rebuttals to throw back at these ‘feminazis.’ And so I essentially ventured out on my own personal research project with that mentality – “I completely disagree with your point of view and I’m gonna prove you wrong.” Not too long afterwards, I had done a full 180, and unlearned many of the strong, emotionally-charged opinions which I held true for so long.
So I want to take some time here to really explore privilege in a societal context, and why I think one of the biggest barriers to individual, communal and global equality is due to the fear and apprehension many of us have of holding our feet to the fire.
A quick thought experiment: When you see a person with a physical disability, how do you feel? For me, I’d say I have this deep feeling of “Wow. I can’t even imagine having to go through life experiencing that on a daily basis.” Because I can’t. It’s like trying to conceptualize the 4th dimension – you cannot wrap your brain around it because you have never experienced it yourself. I think the average person would consider themselves privileged in comparison to someone with a physical disability. Privileged in ability. Free of ridicule or judgement. Free of travel restrictions. Able to pursue whatever job they want – unlimited by their physical ability. You are privileged in every sense of the word. There’s a reason we get so mad at dickheads that park in handicapped parking spots – it is a blatant demonstration of privilege and power that one group asserts over another. Now, I just want to note that it’s not always obvious if someone has a physical disability – obviously – and you shouldn’t go cuss out the next person you see walking away from their car in a handicapped parking spot – OBVIOUSLY. However, for the purposes of this thought experiment, imagine that some able-bodied guy drove to the LCBO, and thought to himself “I don’t feel like finding a parking spot.” and parked his leased F150 in the 1 and only handicapped parking spot in the parking lot. You see him get out, and look right at you with a smirk on his face, before he walks into the LCBO. Nice guy, right?
Things get a little more complicated when discussing more subtle forms of privilege: race, religion, mental ability, mental health, gender, sexuality, class, education.
I understand privilege as being personal characteristics that individuals have that yield societal advantages or disadvantages, often unearned. As mentioned, some characteristics that impact your privilege include your race, gender, sexual identity, country of origin, religion, language, economic status, age and many others. These characteristics – many of which people are typically born into – compose your societal identity. What do you think privilege is?
In many cases, privilege is correlated with history. For example, because the structure of our society was primarily created by European settlers (also known as ‘WASPs’) who colonized and developed this part of the world, the systems and infrastructure that was subsequently cultivated was (consciously and unconsciously) advantageous to themselves. For this reason, White, Anglo-Saxon, Straight Males score very high on the ‘privilege scale.’ In contrast, identifiable groups such as persons of colour, or homosexual people for example, have historically been marginalized and oppressed in our society on an institutional level. Many examples of this systemic oppression can be seen in pre-civil-rights-movement United States, where ‘coloured people’ were considered to be second class citizens in every sense of the word. In “Notes from my Middle Passage”, Ikhide Ikheloa discusses the issue of racism between white and black people in the Southern US with reference to his own experiences and insights. In his piece, an important concept he discusses is the distinction between blatant racism, and the dangers of the more discrete forms of racism that have manifested themselves in society today. He speaks about the capability that visual images and words have in shaping both harmony and discourse in society. An example he gives of this is of hearing racist jokes or comments in public. As he later explains, racism and prejudice often travel in the same direction – by being harassed in such a public way, the language and actions that oppressors execute free of contest or resentment from other individuals in a position of privilege or power serves to consolidate and normalize such behaviour. Through this process, internalized prejudices that individuals may hold become validated – and a platform is created for individuals to externalize these prejudices through words and actions. This process of a majority group collectively translating their individual prejudices and biases into actions contributes to the systemic mistreatment and oppression of identifiable groups in society.
Let’s go back to white privilege – everyone’s favourite. This form of privilege is one that manifests itself in our societal structure. Dating back to colonization, our entire society in Canada and the US has been developed by white settlers from Europe. Historically, visible minorities and other identifiable groups have been discriminated against on a societal level by the white colonizers (whether it’s indigenous folks, black people, Chinese people, Japanese people). Over time, this structural oppression has led to the majority having privilege in society over other groups.
I think that there are many social and societal constructs aside from whiteness that shape oppressive systems. In “The History White People Need to Learn” it becomes apparent that a large underlying motivation for the decision to classify a group as “white” is economically-based. For example, “If group X is classified as white and group Y is not, then group Y will not be able to become more financially successful than group X.” As the article explains, whiteness was an aspiration which was like a ‘gift’ bestowed on certain working-class immigrant groups which served as incentive for them to subjugate other minority groups. This lens can be used to project this method of systemic oppression and marginalization to other constructs seen in our history. For example, those born into wealthy families are more likely to remain at that level than someone born into a less financially prosperous household. While some may be able to afford to send their students to a private elementary and high school – where the quality of education is considerably higher than that obtained at a public school – these people will be more likely to get into a high-ranking post-secondary school, gain access to a well-paying job and subsequently recreate or exceed their parents’ high quality of living. In contrast, those who are born into poverty, and have no choice but to attend a lower-quality educative establishment, have decreased chances of getting into a post-secondary school of their choice, or getting a high-paying job – by no fault or choice of their own.
8th fire – a CBC program exploring the relationship between indigenous folks in Canada and the society which was cultivated by European colonizers. It explores indigenous people from across Canada in all walks of life, and the historical experiences they have had with those who came to colonize Canada – having their land taken, being forced to attend residential schools, etc. It was very evident in watching this how much myself and my ancestors have benefitted from the historical actions of these settlers, at the expense of the indigenous people. By stealing, bullying and scamming these people out of the land that they originally settled (such as the area which is now Toronto – originally settled by the Mississaugas), our society was able to prosper and flourish through access to natural resources, while indigenous folks were continually confined to less-and-less land of lower grade.
Cultural appropriation – another fun subject that makes people nice and uncomfortable – is an exercise of privilege. I could probably write an entire paper just on this – as many have. But there is really just one thing that I want to emphasize about it here: RESPECT PEOPLE. That’s it. If something that was very dear to you was used by someone with no perception of its importance was using it wrong, how would you feel? Imagine your great grandmother made a bowl with her own 2 hands during the great depression so that your grandfather was able to eat because they couldn’t afford kitchenware, and it was passed down from generation to generation with the rich lore and story behind it preserved in the family (yes, this is my attempt to illicit strong sentimental emotions – a story about a bowl). You just moved to a new place, but forgot the bowl at your old apartment. You come back to discover that the new tenants are now using this precious family heirloom as an ashtray – how do you feel? Now, imagine that you had a note above the bowl that said “sacred family heirloom”, and you discovered that these tenants had seen that, and still decided to use it as an ashtray – how do you feel now? OK let’s extend this one step further. Let’s say that you left your place for a week on vacation. You come back to discover that these people had broken into your apartment and were now using your sacred bowl as an ashtray, but get mad at your audacity to yell at them for breaking into your apartment and desecrating your family artefact. As if this wasn’t enough, these people are the children of a very rich, privileged and powerful family, who own several properties and could easily find another ashtray. How do you feel? Probably not great about the whole thing. Essentially what this issue boils down to is respect – if you think that something may be culturally sacred to someone else, or otherwise an important part of their identity, treat it with the same respect and care you would treat a family heirloom – or something which you knew to be someone else’s family heirloom. And if you don’t know if it is something sacred, heir on the side of caution.
Overall, I think that privilege is a very deep, often complicated topic that is very touchy for many people. That being said, it is not an issue that people should shy away from discussing by any means.
ALEX AND THE MYSTERY OF THE INVISIBLE BACKPACK: A RIVETING TALE OF NOT ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING OPPRESSION
I grew up in Mississauga, in what I would consider to be a very culturally diverse community. At the middle school I went to, for example, white people were by far the minority demographic of students – my old yearbooks are in storage so I can’t give exact numbers, but I remember there being about 10 white kids in my grade 8 graduating class (of let’s say 100 kids). At school, our teachers did their best to expose us to social justice issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, stereotypes, prejudices, marginalization – ‘the -isms’ for lack of a better word. I was often confused and annoyed that these conversations never seemed to pertain to me (a white male), and were more-so geared toward ethnic minority groups, or as I perceived them, ‘the rest of the class.’ I still remember a lesson we had in which the teacher was talking about oppression, and said something along the lines of “every minority group has experienced oppression. Black people… Japanese people… Chinese people… Aboriginal People…” the list went on, and as I looked around the class I was so confused about why everyone else was a part of this ‘minority’ except the white guys. In a very ironic way, I felt excluded. It was as if I was asking “WHY CAN’T I EXPERIENCE OPPRESSION LIKE EVERYONE ELSE?!?!?!?”
As she continued to rhyme off groups that have historically experienced systemic oppression, I was thinking to myself “WHAT ABOUT ME? WHAT ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE? I’VE GONE TO SCHOOL WITH ALL OF THESE PEOPLE… WE ALL LIVE IN THE SAME NEIGHBOURHOOD, WE ALL PLAY AT RECESS AND ALL GET ALONG AND YET I’M THE ONLY ONE WHO HASN’T EXPERIENCED THIS? WHAT MAKES THEM SO DIFFERENT?” As her list went on, I got more and more agitated as everyone in the class was ‘included’ except for me (and the other 1 or 2 white males that may have been in the class at the time). Finally, right at the end, the teacher glanced over at me (I likely looked very grumpy and confused), and added on “… and even some white people.” And I thought to myself “WELL FINALLY…”
I wish now that I could go back and explain a few things to my younger self – as I’m sure we’d all love to for one reason or another. I would explain how deeply complicated the issues that are being discussed are, and how the profound, reaction-invoking statements people make like ‘everyone except white people experience oppression’ require a lot of time learning and reflecting to truly understand and internalize [I still feel like I haven’t completely wrapped my head around it]. I would discuss with myself how it is normal to be irritated and frustrated at hearing things you don’t understand which may seem like a personal attack. Or to feel excluded: “please specify if you are a visible minority (ie. non-white)”, or targeted: “You have privilege because you’re white”, or even the victim of ‘reverse racism’: “You can’t say that cause you’re white”. If there was one thing I would tell my younger self, it would be that there will always be concepts that frustrate you, and confuse you, and annoy you, and anger you. But you need to investigate them; not avoid them. You need to approach them in an impartial, open-minded way, and you need to dive in.
My confusion and frustration festered throughout middle school and high school. When a job application would ask if I was “a person with a disability… a visible minority… a woman…” it seemed even more to me like this ‘group that I wasn’t included in’ got special treatment just for the colour of their skin, or their gender. Getting called “cracker”, “white boy”, “honkey”, “redneck”, “bird shit”, “white shit”, “Wonder Bread™ ” (I’m not making this up) did nothing to help this feeling I had of being a victim of reverse racism. When people would so aggressively criticize ‘white people’ as a whole… “I hate when white people do this… white people are all so racist… white people are so soft…. White people have caused so many problems in the world…” or even just a good old “fuck white people.” It would drive me crazy. “WHY ARE YOU PROJECTING THE BEHAVIOUR OF CERTAIN PEOPLE ONTO AN ENTIRE GROUP? THAT’S RACIST! THAT’S STEREOTYPING! AREN’T THESE ALL THE BIG NO-NOs YOU POLITICALLY CORRECT LIBERAL ASSHOLES ARE ALWAYS TELLING ME ABOUT?” It was aggravating. When my English teacher in grade 9 said that white people can’t experience racism, I complained that “people call me a redneck and a cracker… isn’t that racist?” and she said something to the effect of “boo hoo they called you a redneck… That’s not racist.” Well thanks for so eloquently clearing that up for me. Glad we’re all on the same page now.
“WHY CAN PEOPLE SAY ALL THESE MEAN THINGS TO ME BUT IF I SAY THE N-WORD IT’S SUCH A BIG DEAL?”
What I never understood was that despite being called names, being on the receiving end of stereotypes or prejudices, I was not actually experiencing racism on a structural, systemic level. Being called a cracker, for example, compares me to a slave owner; a person in a position of unearned power. I always found being called a cracker to be extremely offensive as I obviously didn’t like being compared to a slave owner. However, this is not comparable to a black person being called a n****r – a term which by historical definition was used by white people to dehumanize and degrade a minority group, thus asserting their power and privilege in a systemic way. This example should highlight the notion that while white people can be victims of name calling, stereotypes, or prejudices, in our current societal structure white people cannot experience racism. Statements like “white people can’t play basketball” are not racist. This distinction is critical.
All I ever heard were the buzzwords (“white privilege”). The catchphrases (“white people can’t experience racism”). the aggressive, absolute statements (“white people have caused so many problems in the world”) I never got context. I never got the long essay explaining in detail how privilege and racism came to manifest themselves in society today.
Mind you, I wasn’t exactly motivated to venture out and find this information. Whenever people would make such profound statements, not opening the floor to any sort of discussion, I would reject these ideologies even more so. All of the qualitative observations I had made up until this point did nothing to inspire me to dive deeper into topics like “white privilege” or “feminism.” During this period in my life, learning about “the -isms” was frustrating for me – I came to resent them.
I would often disregard such statements as not pertaining to me. “I’M NOT RACIST!” I would think “SO NONE OF THIS IS RELEVANT TO ME… GO TELL THE KKK or something”
But as James Baldwin so eloquently explained on the Dick Cavett show, regardless of what an individual white person thinks or feels, the institutions that white people have created breed racism. “It does not matter if an individual white Christian hates Negroes,” he explains, “There is a white and a coloured Catholic Church.” Baldwin goes on to explain that racism on an individual level is not the biggest problem (it is a problem, of course, but not the biggest). The bigger problem is institutionalized racism – the systemic marginalization of a particular group on a massive scale.
A word I never heard before coming to university was “Ally.” In a Social Justice context, that is. While I may not be racist on an individual level, I can’t deny the fact that through no actions of my own, I am on the advantageous side of a racist system. I am privileged. As such, it is MY RESPONSIBILITY to educate myself about my privilege. Furthermore, I should do my due diligence to SUPPORT and STAND UP for those of whom are on the disadvantageous side of the system I’m a part of. To me, this is what it means to be an Ally. There’s another dynamic to it – I can’t just go up to a black person and demand that they explain to me why I am privileged for being white… Going back to my point earlier about ‘approaching topics with an open mind’, it is important to do that, and be mindful of the fact that you may be completely wrong about your opinion. DO YOU KNOW THAT YOUR OPINION IS RIGHT? OR DO YOU JUST FEEL LIKE IT’S RIGHT? Probably more like the latter. As such, think “If I’m 120% wrong about this, is it appropriate to ask a transgender person to explain to me why being transgender is not a choice? Is it appropriate to ask a black person to explain why I have privilege over them for being white?” The answer is NO. If your initial hypothesis IS incorrect, and you ARE wrong, expecting – or rather, demanding – that they take the time and emotional energy to explain these things to you is an attempt to assert your power over them. Read a book. Ask someone who is not impacted by the issue (ie. ask a white person to explain white privilege to you).
This leads me to a really important point. Something that really irritates me… really rustles my jimmies… is people who are in a position of privilege, who have been educating themselves about their privilege, and who don’t take the time to help others make the connections and inferences that they themselves have made. Like my grade 9 teacher that basically said “boo hoo get over it” (very ironic in retrospect), or people I see on Facebook that dismiss people as an ‘idiot’ or as ‘ignorant’ or ‘a bigot’ … This is not constructive, and if you have to immediately stoop to personal insults, that is a reflection of your shortcomings as much as it is of theirs. Whether it’s white people that understand White Privilege, men that understand Feminism and Gender Equality, cis people that can provide insights into issues like Transphobia, or anyone else in such a position that could otherwise provide some avenue of people to learn more about the dynamics of privilege and power in our society. There were so many times growing up when all I needed was a simple explanation, or a resource to go to – things that many people I encountered were in a position to give me – and all I really got were some buzzwords.
As I mentioned, it is the responsibility of those in a position of privilege to educate themselves about their privilege. I’ll take that one step further and say that it is also your responsibility as an active citizen to educate others as well. Let’s say you see a fire in a building… you walk outside. Good job – you’re safe! *high five* Except you left 9 of your co-workers to burn. I would like to think that the average person would have enough decency in such a situation to go back and help as many people as they could.
Saving yourself from the fire is good – helping other people save themselves from the fire is HUGE.