‘What white privilege?’ ‘Why can’t you be more civil?’

Posted on June 4, 2020 in Equality Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion –  Some FAQs about racism and answers you may find challenging

Denial of racism is complicity, and essential to a supremacist system. But I’ve attempted to answer a few commonly expressed sentiments of people who don’t get it.

If only Quebec Premier François Legault, who denied the existence of systemic racism and slavery in Canada this week, had read “Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal,” by Afua Cooper.

Not even at their most public moments of deep and layered crises can Black people go without having their experiences erased, their reality denied. Ontario Premier Doug Ford denied the existence of systemic racism in the province although he did roll that back Wednesday.

Denial is essential to keep any supremacist system running for the benefit of some, to the detriment of others. By keeping the public discourse focused at the level of “does racism exist?” denial demands no change, no reflection, no accountability. Denial is complicity.

When it comes to anti-oppression, none of us has all the answers; we are all at different points on the continuum of knowledge and experience. I get thoughtful emails from people who understand and act against oppression better than I do and from those who don’t get it but are trying to. Denial, which takes many forms, is point zero of that continuum.

I don’t run diversity workshops, I write a column. However, given the current interest in racism in the wake of a crime so unignorable, I’ve attempted to answer a few commonly expressed sentiments of people who don’t get it, knowing I don’t and can’t do justice to the deep and sophisticated body of research, writing and action by Black and Indigenous authors, academics and activists.

1. I’m not racist/We’re all racist. There is no systemic racism.

“We’re all racist” is another way of saying nobody is racist — unless we use “we’re all racist” to examine all the ways in which this is so. None of us is immune in a society where we’re trained to be racist. We absorb centuries of messages of whom we consider superior, whom inferior. Whom we consider good-looking, whom capable, whom criminal, whom credible, whom measured, whom strident.

This individual mindset influences action — who gets punished at school, who gets put in child welfare, who gets stopped by police, who gets jobs, who gets a loan, who gets a home, who gets thrown into prison — and informs policy that leads to discriminatory laws around immigration, around criminal justice, around schooling, etc. This intersection of individual bias with institutional policies and societal structures creates a system with embedded discrimination so toxic as to be lethal.

When politicians say systemic racism doesn’t exist, they erase historical racism — slavery in Canada, residential schools, legal segregation of schools, hospitals, churches, neighbourhoods. They also dismiss and contemporary manifestations of it — prioritizing colonial profit over Indigenous rights in their territories, immigration laws that sort and sift non-white humans for worthiness to enter Canada, placing impoverished and racialized people in the path of a pandemic. We don’t need a conspiracy; the system does it for us.

READ: “Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present,” by Robin Maynard

2. I don’t see colour. I don’t care if you’re white, black or purple with polka dots.

This sentiment is usually accompanied by some iteration of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that we not judge people by the colour of their skin but the content of their character. Sorry, but I’m judging the people who quote MLK in this context as lacking in character.

That’s because they haven’t bothered to read the whole speech or even the whole sentence: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Colour blindness is privilege and erasure. It means you’re not discriminated against based on the colour of your skin. It may mean you think you don’t notice other people’s race, yet your close social circles and family circles are likely to be monochromatic. It is denial of the suffering people undergo on the basis of their skin colour. Not noticing means not actively disrupting it, which means perpetuating the system as is.

READ: “The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power,” by Desmond Cole

3. There are bad apples in every field. Why are you painting everyone in a bad light? Why are you calling me a racist?

Not all cops. Not all whites. Not all men. Not all heterosexuals. Not all able-bodied people. It’s a given not every single person in a group acts in a bigoted way, but a “bad apples” construct discounts the unspoken power dynamics that operate in societies.

What is the collective impact of the ideas and actions — and non-actions — of those groups on Black people, on women, on LGBTQ2 people, on people with disabilities? When the status quo is discrimination, who suffers when people from dominant groups either act in malicious ways or don’t act at all?

READ: “Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics,” by Dionne Brand

4. What white privilege? The Italians/Irish/Ukrainians were also discriminated against. Alternatively: My ancestors were dirt-poor. They worked their way up. Alternatively: What about personal responsibility, a.k.a why don’t “these people” pull themselves up by the bootstraps?

Also a colour-blind approach that suggests if European settlers could overcome those barriers, anybody can — all it needs is hard work. The sometimes unsaid part: as opposed to laziness.

This thinking translates into educational concepts such as the “grit and growth” mindset. Grit. Imagine asking people whose lands were stolen, who were starved, kidnapped, enslaved, denied rights to practise their culture, to proper education, to proper housing for centuries to show some … grit. Survival is grit.

The Black Experience Project in the GTA showed that education and wealth provide no insulation to being seen as suspicious by police. When Black and brown people are stopped by police or even attacked when they seek help, it’s not because they’ve not shown grit, it’s because they’re judged by the colour of their skin before they’re assessed for anything else.

White privilege, then, is not material comfort. It just means that a white person in the exact same circumstance as a non-white person is far likelier to find success and growth.

READ: “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” by Andrea Ritchie

5. All nations have problems. What about where you come from?

Agreed. All nations are bad actors who put self-interest first. Nationhood as it exists is a flawed concept. But while issues of oppression exist worldwide, shouldn’t our standards of civilized behaviour be independent of relativism?

That said, where I come from, I am of an oppressor identity, privileged over Dalits, Adivasis and what are officially called Other Backward Castes.

Sidenote: people who inquire after the caste system aren’t asking from a place of caring for the oppressed but a point of deflection. They also ask any non-white people about their “home countries” even if they’ve been on this land for centuries.

My job is with a Canadian newspaper to write for a Canadian — not just white — audience about (usually) Canadian issues. In Canada, whiteness is the racial hierarchy that most privileges white people but especially straight, white, able-bodied men. And yes, it falls on those with the most power to be the most accountable.

READ: “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo

6. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Why can’t you adapt?

That’s a sentiment that might have more credibility had European settlers “assimilated” with the cultures of nations where they settled. However, the project of assimilation is based on the idea that certain cultures are inherently inferior, that they would benefit if they dropped their traditions for European settler norms.

Many immigrants who often come from lands impoverished by colonialism do come here believing society here to be superior and take the knocks as part of the assimilation game. For those who succeed, class privilege can offset the racism, but eventually their progeny have a reckoning.

A reflection on the source of the wealth that draws immigrants here for opportunities — the pilfering of land and labour, and extraction of resources from it — and of people’s own roles in this extraction might be worthwhile.

READ: “Unsettling Canada: A national wake-up call” by Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson

7. Why can’t you be more civil? Why don’t you acknowledge that we’re making progress? Your tone is radicalizing us.

Progress for whom and by whose standards? And if I said what I did in a softer tone, or even when I was saying nothing at all, what were you doing about racism?

When seeking civility, what is being centred? Is it the feelings of people upset at being told their skin colour offers unearned privileges, or the reality of others being devalued? Consider how angry you feel at mere words. How polite would you be after 400 years of having the state’s boot on your neck?

READ: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race,” by Reni Eddo-Lodge

8. We get it, we’ve done bad things. We’re trying our best. What can we about it?

A-ha. That’s saying, educate me though I won’t be educated. You don’t get to jump to “what do we do” without doing the hard work of “what is.” No reconciliation without the truth. Your guilt, your saviour complex, your need for absolution, that’s all about you. Racial justice is not about niceness, it’s about righting wrongs.

To get to the truth, you — a person for whom society was built — have to learn to listen. Challenge what you consider “the norm.” Don’t confuse oppression with lack of agency. For as long as people have been oppressed, they have resisted. Support Black and Indigenous activism, and migrant rights advocacy groups. Read books, listen to podcasts, introspect, reflect. The solutions will come. Meanwhile, work on valuing other cultures without virtue signalling. Challenge racist sentiments in your social circle. Be the change.

READ: “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi

The reading list is by no means exhaustive. “Indigenous Writes,” by Chelsea Vowel; “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,” by Alicia Elliott; “Black Like Who?” by Rinaldo Walcott; “Seven Fallen Feathers” by Tanya Talaga are just a smattering of other names. The knowledge is out there. The question is are you ready to engage with it?

Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around race and gender for the Star.


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