“White Folks” “White Privilege”
Lately, I’ve been hearing these statements be thrown around a lot. I have been guilty of this too. Especially a few years ago. In response a few friends – close and dear to me – deleted me off facebook. And others grew distant. This hurt and sparked a lot of soul searching.
As someone who had grown up on the receiving end of “Brown” generalizations, I was thrown off. It was quite second nature to make generalizations around race. Some of the generalizations often superseding individual distinctions. And often met with clamouring displays of amusement that the said stereotypes were true. In fact, sometimes they were.
So, initially – I was taken aback. Why had I offended? Well firstly, where the generalized statements of Brownness were in good humour – the accusations of ‘Privilege’ ‘Supremacy’ and at times accountability for the atrocities of the world can be daunting and, dare I say, perplexing. And this is because it is grounded in contextual reality – one which is not of sincere humor – but grave accusation instead. Also because it is debatable.
Take in fact – a fall I spent working a white collar job in a nice city in Eastern Ontario. My roommate was White. Waiting tables and juggling more than one job to pay bills and make art. When the question of White privilege was discussed at home – she’d be a daunting exception to the argument. A pleasant reminder in fact. There I was making more money than her. Just a simple distinction of how we applied agency in our lives, one might say.
Or – let’s take the summer I spent in Berkeley, California visiting my visibly Brown friend who attended Berkeley University. Where beset with a camera and youthful curiosity; I’d discover a few blocks from her home a place called People’s park. Befriending backpackers with no home, those whom had been raised in foster care. Leaving behind Parents who dealt drugs. They dumpster dived and couch surfed. And were visibly white.
How about that time during the annual office staff party? As one of four South-Asians on the team (of a team of forty) I felt the weight of being a minority in the room. I worried about what they thought of me. And at the staff party the host – who was white – decided to play a game. A list of foreign ways of saying Christmas was handed around. “Figure out who speaks the language and where it is from” we were encouraged. I’d learn how to say Merry Christmas in pig latin, gailec, dutch, polish, Spanish and Italian. But that also I’d learn something far more important - that all these people I had generalized as “White” were in fact of various ethnicities.
I should have known better. In one of my British History classes in under-grad I had already been exposed to the fact that white people have ethnicity too. Take the Scottish, Irish and those from Wales. And you’ll find that not even in the United Kingdom did white people all see themselves as the same and, at times, they weren’t particularly very friendly to one another as well.
White people have diversity too. They too have their stories of oppression. They are in fact not all privileged. It is easier – with the current climate in Canada – for some who are visibly white to easily be accepted into certain socio-cultural scenarios. They are perceived and experienced in different ways. The fact that it is suggested they are all privileged is a reflection of this. But in reality whether this is fundamentally the truth remains questionable. When we look at the situation in Canada, though it may all look “white” – certain diversity issues are being worked out (gender, class, ethnicity etc.).
Nevertheless, I recognize that being visibly white makes navigating the world much easier at times. I understand the challenges visible minorities face. I have met those who are visibly black and have been in this country for as long as some of the oldest European pioneers to this country. The Underground Railroad is real and a harsh reality to be grappled with. There is a lot of work to be done. It is not over my head the stories of migration of the, Chinese, Japanese and Sikhs to this land. I know as a visible minority –being one – you are more susceptible to discrimination. This sucks. And you want to understand why. You want to get to the root. But turning around and spewing generalized rhetoric has similarity to that which perpetuates violence towards minorities and may not be the course of action to take.
All I’m suggesting is that – don’t be quick to judge that diversity – and all the challenges that come with managing diversity doesn’t exist when you walk into a room or country that is visibly white. And do not be quick to suggest someone is “Privileged” before having heard their story. By suggesting this –potential allies to address the institutional and societal issues one may strive to solve - may be lost along the way.
I had to learn that one the hard way.