This blog post grew out of necessity. A friend of mine from high school, having read an excellent piece called What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege, asked me to share some of my own brushes with racism. Her suggestion, like the Facebook post by “J” which apparently inspired Lori Lakin Hutcherson to write the Black Opinion On White Privilege piece, was a sincere request for help to see the world as I do for a moment, knowing that the same scene can appear vastly different to two people if only one has rose-tinted lenses.
I figured I’d type out a point-form list of a few remembrances and be done with it. Lakin Hutcherson’s article, after all, had done a great job (seriously, go read it if you haven’t already). I started gathering anecdotes and jotting them down; I realized how many of them I wanted to expose, then cut a few out; I’m finally ready to share them. But first, some background info.
I was born in Canada to black, Caribbean-born, Canadian-raised parents. I live in downtown Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, but I grew up just north of it. My parents and I lived in a housing co-op with a variety of cultural and ethnic families; that co-op was nestled into an upper-middle class neighbourhood, and you may correctly assume that white faces were the majority there. Funny how class and race are so intertwined — whoops, I’m getting off topic. My first high school had about 1,500 students; if memory serves, 16 of us were black in the 2000-2001 school year, and 15 the following year. Eva, who met me at that school, is the friend who asked me to share some of my experiences as an obvious minority there. I’m glad she did, and I hope and trust that she will not interpret my explanations of otherness and white privilege as accusatory or divisive.
I’ll be taking numerous cues from Lakin Hutcherson: aiming for brevity, keeping it chronological, acknowledging that “Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured.” (Disclaimer: I don’t always add the word “white” before “privilege” and please don’t ask me why unless we have both time for a really long talk.
One last thing: writing this has made me realize that I’ve forgotten, perhaps intentionally, numerous slights and incidences which could be part of the list. It appears that racism is discussed less in Canada than in the United States. I can see why my neighbours who are unaware of their privilege are surprised and defensive when their “But don’t all lives matter?” query is met with something more hostile than they expected. If any of you are hoping for me to heartily reinforce my country’s reputation for interracial harmony . . . meh. If you’re hoping to gain insight from my point of view and you’re aware that it might clash with yours, here we go.
1. I switched schools frequently, initially because my family kept moving, and then because I was enrolled in the Gifted program for my fourth, fifth and sixth grades and my first two years of high school, and the Arts program for my seventh and eighth grades. Throughout my time in both of those programs, in three different schools, I was the only black female in my class, usually the only black student in the class period. Have you ever been the only one of a certain group or community in your classroom? Was it uncomfortable in any way? It actually began to feel normal for me. If you have never felt a sense of otherness like this, or you have and it felt strange because it isn’t what you’re used to, you may be starting to hone in on your privilege.
2. One day in the fifth or sixth grade, my classmates and I were being taught about how there were only a few different original “races,” one of them “Negroid.” When an illustration of a face with dark brown skin and a broad nose and lips appeared on the projection screen, one of my white, Jewish classmates sitting in front of me turned around and stared searchingly at my face. I can now see that she could have just been gauging whether my features resembled the ones being shown (I mean, they did if she was comparing my face to hers). At the time, though, I felt acutely embarrassed to be scrutinized that way. Have you (n)ever felt objectified as a result of being the only member present of a certain group or community? Have you (n)ever stayed quiet about it because speaking up would only have made the embarrassment worse? That’s another example of white privilege.
3. There was an interesting thread on Twitter lately, asking people how old they were the first time they had a black teacher. Probably because my lack of representation in school settings felt “normal” for me, I was actually surprised to realize that I don’t remember having any black teachers until my second or third year of university. A black teacher at my second high school was a tremendous personal influence on me, but I wasn’t in any of her classes. If you have never had to stop and think about the first or last time you saw yourself represented in the leadership around you, be it in school or worship or politics or media or recreation, that is an example of white privilege. As far as I can see, this is actually the central tenet of white privilege: assuming that “white” is the norm, or the default, so it is safe or logical to ignore non-white stories, experiences, opinions, and concerns.
Important note: for this piece, at least, the preceding paragraph is the closest I will come to addressing the need for proper representation in the world of arts and entertainment, where I have chosen to base my career, because that topic opens a Pandora’s box which will likely take me longer than the duration of my life to cover adequately. Know that I’m not oblivious to this much-needed conversation; let’s discuss it later; please continue reading.
4. I doubt I will ever forget this one. I was a teenager riding the #5 Clark bus home from school, as were a bunch of other students, one of whom I will call Dave. Dave is white and Jewish. And let’s call the other male character in this story Mike. Mike was a fellow visible minority at Thornhill Secondary School, and we got along so well that we started referring to one another as cousins. (Sidebar: if the idea of a play cousin sounds funny to you because you’ve never felt the urge to fabricate a familial relationship in order to combat the isolation to which you’ve grown accustomed, you aren’t used to being in the minority. Another hint that it might be time for a privilege check.) Anyway, Dave looked out the window and saw Mike, then snickered and boasted that he was “blacker than” Mike because Mike “doesn’t even do drugs.” He literally said “I’m blacker than he is,” and laughed. Given my temperament, I’m surprised that I didn’t cuss Dave out, but the point here is that if you’ve never had a person who shares none of your cultural background “joke” that they are a better representative of that background than you — while assuming that the proof of belonging to your background is limited to an illegal activity — AND feeling comfortable enough to say this out loud in front you — you might be privileged. Let’s all hope Dave grew up (I’m still in touch with Mike, he’s doing just fine) and move on.
5. In fact, let’s move on to my second high school. For some reason, the Gifted program didn’t extend past the tenth grade. I didn’t feel like staying at TSS, so I arranged to switch to Vaughan Secondary School, which was actually my home school. The classes I took were geared to “stream” students toward university (as opposed to college or trades), and being the only black female in the classroom was still my norm — but now, in a school of closer to 2,000 students with far greater diversity than TSS (including more than 50, maybe more than 100, black students), I felt less like an anomaly in the hallways. There were even situations in which I found myself to be part of the majority, like our gospel choir. We were pretty much all black and/or mixed, and we were pretty surprised to find out one day that a Caucasian student who was briefly part of our ranks had taken issue with the way someone else in the choir described her. She had been referred to as “the white girl” and she didn’t like that. Pause. Here’s how I feel about labels and descriptors. When they’re used to stereotype or over-generalize, to dehumanize, to insult, of course that is a problem. However, if someone refers to you as “the white girl,” with no ill will at all, not because they’re saying something negative about you but because they’re asking someone a question about you and they don’t know your name yet and “white” is a more accurate descriptor than, say, “funny” or “new,” you probably don’t have any reason to feel offended. Uncomfortable, maybe, and apparently she was. But, as another choir member pointed out when we had this discussion (the white girl wasn’t present), “It’s not like somebody called her a cracker.” Not until university did I gain more insight into this issue of so many white people not liking to be called white (short answer: because to define something or someone suggests that they are “other” than whom or what is predominant or “normal”), but if you feel that someone calling you a colour is offensive while it makes total sense for other people to be called colours, you’re pretty steeped in white privilege.
6. Let’s skip ahead to university. I took Radio and TV Arts at Ryerson, where I learned so much more than I’d expected to.
(a) While in full chase after several scholarships, I learned that even one of your “friends” might make a snide remark about your applying for awards which are specifically for visible minority students (in case anyone reading this is wondering about my academic credentials, I graduated third from the top of my class while working multiple part-time jobs, and in eight semesters of full-time studies I received exactly two grades that were lower than an A—).
(b) When a few students of colour proposed forming a group or committee called Students of Colour in Radio and Television to address what can only be described as habitual whitewashing in the media, I learned that the status quo is one of the most challenging obstacles to progressive change — that the folks in charge might not consciously want to keep others out of power, but they really don’t want to have to do or think differently than they’ve done or thought so far, and they probably won’t unless they’re forced to.
(c) During one very interesting English class, I learned that privileged people spend little if any time even wondering about the concept of paying reparations to the descendants of disenfranchised people. Specifically, I got very frustrated during a conversation about whether the legacy of chattel slavery lives on in present-day North America (yes, the question was whether it does, not how it does), and my lasting memory is of trying to explain that whether a white North American has racist beliefs or not, they continue to benefit from the effects of slavery the same way a black North American continues to be hindered by those effects, eventually blurting out “The White House was built by slaves. Are they going to stop using the White House?” and realizing in the sudden brief silence that I’d momentarily penetrated a force field of ignorance surrounding many of my classmates. If your cultural and historical perspective is treated with respect when it is discussed in an academic setting, and attempts to include your perspective are given due consideration; if, on top of this, your classmates don’t question whether your work ethic and intellectual merit are responsible for you attending classes with them (even as you smoke most of them on exams and assignments), then your privilege is well above average. Congratulations.
Is this blog long enough yet? I’d actually hoped that my painful experiences regarding race would have peaked in high school, petered out in my twenties, and would then maybe-but-hopefully-not re-emerge when I became a parent. Imagine my surprise at the following two revelations, both of which occurred in 2016.
Bonus #1: I was leaving a funeral with three colleagues of mine. As I think about it, this would have made a great setup for a corny joke or an improv sketch: we were one Muslim, one Jehovah’s Witness, one Jew, and me, a Christian. We all got to chatting about significant ceremonies for religions other than our own, and I mentioned that I’d attended lots of bar and bat mitzvah receptions but only gone to some of the synagogue ceremonies — you know, since some synagogues require only Orthodox Jews to be present, but the rules for the party are less strict. Now, my Jewish coworker is sweet but blunt. She barely let me finish my sentence before stating that anyone claiming to be Orthodox Jewish shouldn’t lie like that: there is no such rule. You can attend the bar/bat mitzvah service whether you’re Jewish or not, never mind “having” to be Orthodox; and she should know, because she also works part-time at a synagogue. A recent poll on my Facebook page garnered input from a wide number of friends, mostly Jewish, at various points on the spectrum between Orthodox and non-practicing, and one former classmate even asked her uncle who is, in her words: “a cantor (the guy who stands next to the rabbi and does the singing)” (hi Steph!). The overwhelming majority said you do not have to be Jewish to enter a synagogue, while three speculated that it might be a preference for some who are extremely devout, but not a rule. Remember Eva? She chimed in, introducing herself on the thread as a “super religious Jew” and asserting that “everyone is welcome in a synagogue!” . . . so I’m left to conclude that I wasn’t exactly lied to back then, but I wasn’t exactly told the truth either. It’s all water under an 18-year-old bridge by now, since I don’t even remember which of my classmates told me this. I know it happened more than once, and that I believed it. I know I’ll have my guard up if history repeats itself with my kids.
Bonus #2: the month of July was emotionally draining for many of the black people I know, and while that sounds like an exaggeratedly broad remark it is absolutely true. The back-to-back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the circulation of gory images containing their bodies, the heartbreaking cries of their family members, the hypocrisy and tacit acceptance of such a large portion of the general public — none of this was new, please understand that. What was new, particularly for black Torontonians after the Black Lives Matter TO protest which interrupted Toronto’s Pride Parade, was the volume of the backlash. Also, the closeness of it. I, and many of my friends, suddenly saw that a number of acquaintances, coworkers, former classmates, hell, even (former?) “friends,” were dismissive of — or hostile toward — a movement which is insisting that my life matters as much as Jane Creba’s did, or that Mike’s matters as much as Dave’s. Knowing there are people in my life who value my input only if I remain calm enough so that they don’t start to feel uncomfortable, that’s old news. Re-learning it at the age of 30, though, meant losing a significant amount of hope that things will be different for my children. If you can wonder about descendants of yours who don’t even exist yet and your first thought is something other than fear they will be racially profiled, I envy your privilege because I’ve been scared to have sons since I was 14.
If you’ve read this far, you may be curious about my experiences away from home. Do Black Lives Matter elsewhere? So far, the only places I’ve lived besides Canada are the capital of the United States (so that’s a nice quick answer) and the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Racism in the Middle East is a whole different animal, but here’s something to ponder: I had difficulty getting a taxi at an upscale Dubai nightclub because I, in a parking lot full of women wearing party clothes, was assumed to be a prostitute. Just me. The only black woman in sight. With my shoulders covered. Fuck outta here. Oh, pardon me, here’s the polite Canadian translation: if the shade of your skin has ever shielded you from assumptions that would have otherwise been made about your behaviour, particularly if one of those assumptions might have literally landed you in jail, you are winning at the crooked game of white privilege.
I’ve edited this piece several times by now. Stories have been deleted and memories questioned, and I’ve begun to wonder about the feedback I might receive. It doesn’t feel complete yet, though, because I need to point out one thing about the anecdotes I’ve shared.
Beneath every one of these is a deep, troubling sense of self-doubt. When prejudice affects the way you are treated by fellow human beings, your sense of faith in the kinship of humanity is poked, tested, occasionally broken. Did they really just do that to me, even though they know I’m a person too, because of the kind of person I am? Doesn’t the fact that we’re both human supersede my colour/sex/orientation/religion/net worth? If not, am I to blame? Is something wrong with me? If you don’t understand the effects that continual rejection and otherism can have on even the strongest personality, you are either in complete denial of your privilege or you are so dense that nothing else I say will make a difference to you. My tendency, as someone who believes in self-determination and self-responsibility, is not to jump to the conclusion that every negative thing someone says or does to me is because I’m a person of colour, a woman, etc. As seemingly small incidents pile up, though, it is damn near impossible not to doubt yourself. And far too many people eventually perpetuate stereotypes, staying or living in the confining spaces they believe have been created for them. If you’ve never doubted your ability to choose your own nest instead of being shoved into a box, a cage, or even a hole, your privilege is such that I literally cannot imagine how the world looks to you.
This has taken me far longer than I expected it to, so I’m going to wrap it up. Many thanks to Eva for asking with warmth, respect and humour about my experiences attending the same school at the same time as her, and yet learning some very different lessons. In fact, thanks to all of my friends, from everywhere. Looking over my shoulder can be painful, and yet it’s a great way to remind myself of how many people are in my corner.
D C Dolabaille