Race, paradigms and privilege

Many of us were ashamed, though not surprised, to hear of some of the racial attacks on a local candidate during her campaign. After an article regarding this was shared to one of our local Q&A Facebook groups, an argument broke out over the use of the words “white privilege”.

The statement had been used in reference to the number of people claiming they were surprised this had happened in Orangeville. It wasn’t meant in a pejorative sense, though some took it that way.

The word itself has become somewhat of a trigger.

People hear it and automatically recoil, believing it is all meant in negativity, or that it somehow means those using it believe you have never experienced hardship. However, that’s not what is meant by privilege.

Privilege, without any of the determining words before it, means “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Often, privilege is provided to an individual or group simply because of a few qualifying factors.

It exists in pretty much everything in life. Often, certain departments in a business will have privileges over others solely for being associated with that part of the company. In school, kids with higher grades can sometimes receive special privileges not available to those who do not perform as well.

With discussions around sexism, you’ll often hear about male privilege — things like the ability for men to walk down the street and not have to worry about being harassed, or worse. In some aspects, there is also female privilege. Specifically, in the courts, where for a long time (and still often occurring), mothers were favoured immediately in custody cases solely for being maternal.

Privilege is not always deserved, and it is not always wanted, but it still exists.

When it comes to race, white privilege is one such thing. White privilege is a white paradigm — it refers to a system/community with power, benefits, and privileges distributed unevenly in our culture.

In the case it was referred to on the Q&A group, it was speaking to the fact that often, as the predominant race in Dufferin County, we are both oblivious to and immune to the racism thatcan run rampant in our area.

A few years back, the Banner ran a story on several black residents who had experienced racism over the years in town. A quick Google search pulls up several forums discussing racism in Orangeville, and even one forum dedicated to making Orangeville white again.

When I wrote an article about local groups sponsoring Syrian refugees, the Citizen’s website and FB page were filled with hateful, racist comments about the refugees — people who were fleeing for their lives. If I recall correctly, so was the Banner’s.

Back in college, I would have students I met at Humber’s north campus joke to me that I was from the “Racist white north” when they found out I was from Orangeville.

It’s gotten better. Orangeville has slowly been getting more progressive.

But systemic racism, especially the kind that is hidden under privilege, is harder to eliminate.

Acknowledging white privilege is not about making us feel guilty or horrible about ourselves, despite what some people may think. It’s about learning that we have to step outside of our paradigm to understand what it is that those without our privilege have to face.

It’s about the subtle things, the things we don’t think about every day. As a writer, it came into play for me regarding items like imagery. Learning, from a black woman, how painful it is when black is always evil in literature and white is always good.

That was part of why the movie Black Panther was so positive for the black community — because they weren’t painted as villains, or weak, or savages. They were powerful, they were heroes, and like all human beings, they were even flawed. They were real — or at least, as real as comic book superheroes can be.

White privilege isn’t something new.

It’s not something that has only been created by this generation or the generation before it. It is systemic. It’s been around for hundreds of years, which is, in large part, why most of us don’t even understand when it’s at play. And the impact of privilege doesn’t always exist in the same ways in all communities. Take, for example, Brampton. You’re less likely to find white privilege at play in companies and organizations there because of the large, thriving multi-cultural community. Especially in companies owned or operated either by immigrants or non-Caucasian Canadians.

But it still exists. It exists in the way we talk about other cultures, in the words and terminologies
and stereotypes we use. It exists in the way we don’t even notice racism at play and feel surprised it exists because we’ve never witnessed it ourselves. Sometimes, we spend more time in shock than we do at being outraged over the fact that it’s there. And so, instead of standing with our fellow Canadians who experience it, we stand back, stammering about how shocked we are that it’s happening.

Although it shouldn’t be, standing against racism is still a bold choice.

Because it means having to accept that there are things we all do that qualify as such and working to identify where our paradigm has helped feed into the problem.

It’s not about “demonizing” white people. It’s about reminding us that we need to open our eyes to what is going on beyond our front doors. Sometimes, it’s to what’s going on inside of our own houses too.

This column originally appeared in the Orangeville Citizen on August 9, 2018.

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