“If you ignore the problem you are part of the problem.”Yasin Osman, photographer, cartoonist and founder of Shoot for Peace, as quoted in the toronto star
I’m a white guy. They don’t get much more white than me. I grew up white, in a white neighbourhood, in a white town, in a pretty much white province, Prince Edward Island.
I am the embodiment of white privilege.
I’ve been stopped by the cops a few times in my life for speeding, once because I had a taillight burned out. I never thought the police would beat me up or hurt me, let alone kill me. Never crossed my mind. Once a cop in Quebec asked me to get out of the car and walk in a straight line (I’d told him I’d drunk a glass of red wine six hours earlier). I walked the line perfectly fine; he still made my wife drive instead of me . This cop was an idiot. Still, it was a peaceful encounter. I imagine now that had I been black it wouldn’t have been as peaceful.
This is just one example of how I have benefitted from being white. I could list many others. Here’s a fairly trivial one: flesh coloured band-aids. The colour of whose flesh? My flesh.
Here’s another one: growing up, I read positive portrayals of people like me in books, watched shows about them in TV and in movies. This was reflected in my own writing. Reading an early draft of a novel I was writing, I was shocked to learn that I hadn’t included any black characters. Even the final draft is not satisfactory. There is one overtly brown character and another character that I deliberately made ambiguous. My thinking was that she could be interpreted as either black or white or anywhere in between. I should have just made her black.
Here’s another one: if a white person does something stupid, or is lazy, or commits a crime, that fact will not be used against me and others who share our racial identity.
Here’s another one: did you know that lighting black people in movies and TV has long been problematic? Cinematographers would just light for white people. If a white person was in the frame, they’d light for that person and leave the black person in shadow. Not cool.
There are many other examples of white privilege. For other examples I suggest you do your own research. You can start with this essay by Cory Collins. The thing is, it’s a subject that requires some thought to really understand the nuances. I certainly didn’t get it right away. I probably still don’t fully understand the implications. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I will never fully understand, because I’m not black, and I can never truly understand the lived experience of being black, no matter how much I talk to people who have lived it, or how much I read about it. I can only try to deepen my understanding as much as I can.
Here’s an example of me not getting it.
Once I was in a leadership course. The subject of hiring came up. I was a hiring manager at the time. I spoke up: “I will hire the best person for the job,” I declared, “because the corporation needs the best people it can get in these jobs. I don’t care what colour they are. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m colourblind. All that matters is that we get the best person for the job.”
I was ignorant. I didn’t know any better (not that that’s any excuse). There are at least two things wrong with what I said.
First, when I went to hire someone, I would get about one hundred candidates for a single position. I’d whittle those down to about twenty and then someone would pre-interview the rest. I’d wind up personally interviewing about eight. Most of those candidates would wind up being white. Why? That’s a deeper, more complicated question. My guess is that black people weren’t getting into the schools we were looking at because of other systemic racism issues, or weren’t doing well there because of systemic racism, and so on. The fact is the deck was stacked against black candidates as a result of systemic racism. I thought I wasn’t being racist. I didn’t have to be: reality was plenty racist enough without me. So when I went to hire my “best candidate for the job”, often it could only be a white person because a black person didn’t even have a seat at the table. For me not to be racist, and to counter the systemic racism, I needed to make sure that there was equal representation amongst my candidates.
The other problem with what I said during that leadership course was the business of me being colourblind. I used to love to tell people that I didn’t see colour. We’re all the same colour, I would say. I’ve done this up until recently, I’m sorry to say. As I learn more about racism and white privilege and systemic racism, I learn more about not just how I’ve benefitted from being white, but how I’ve been hurtful and damaging as a white person. Saying that I’m colourblind is, first of all. absurd. It’s denying reality. We are all different colours. Insisting that we’re not is refusing to accept the lived experience of the people around us. It’s ignoring the reality of race and when we ignore the reality of race how can we talk about it, and if we can’t talk about race, how can we talk about and defeat racism?
I have to admit that I was afraid to write about this subject. I was afraid of getting it wrong. Of writing the wrong thing, missing some nuance and being called out on it. I was afraid that it would come off as virtue signalling. That’s why I placed that quote at the top by Yasin Osman. It spoke to me, reminding me that I have a voice, and a platform, however small, and that I had an obligation not to ignore the evil of racism, and an obligation to speak up against racism in all its forms. And more than that, an obligation to do so as a white person, even if I don’t fully understand it yet, even if I do get parts of it wrong.
I continue to learn. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to perpetuate systemic racism. I don’t want to see black people treated unfairly. I don’t want to benefit at their expense. I don’t want to see black people hurt and I sure as hell don’t want to see them killed.
White privilege is, in part (as Cory Collins writes), “the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity.”
I choose not to exercise that power.
I denounce racism in all its forms.
Black lives matter.