October 20, 2014

Commentary | February 14, 2013
Of race and privilege
Back to basics
Written by | Visual by Catherine Polcz

Whilst discussing a grad school application with a friend, I mentioned that I was highlighting my racialized background. The friend rolled their eyes, retorting, “I wish I was more minorities, I wish I had more cards in my deck.” I choked and changed the subject.

My friend’s statement reflects many of the conversations about race that have circulated campus this year. I have noted a belief that discussions of race victimize white people, and that persons of colour benefit from social advantages due to their racialization, such as affirmative action programs. This narrative portrays these advantages as sufficient enough that politicized persons of colour should refrain from ‘sensationalism’ and simmer down.  This shallow conception of oppression must be juxtaposed to significant societal shifts regarding race. We have fostered an environment in which  ‘racism/racist’ have become dirty words. This has made it polite to skirt, or even ignore, issues of race. ‘Being a racist’ is now stigmatized, but so are attempts to discuss occurrences of individual or institutional racism. This silence directly bolsters the privileges that are central to racism.

It should not be contentious to note our society’s systemic racism. The lived experiences and experimentally tested evidence for endemic racism is voluminous, be it in our health services, law enforcement, educational systems, immigration systems, et cetera. Nor is it revolutionary to highlight that being born not white provides individuals with a plethora of barriers and limitations. Not all persons of colour are equally or equivalently affected by these factors. No individual is simply their race; we all are situated within an intersectional web comprised of our sexuality, genders, economic statuses, and many other dynamics. Oppression is influenced by all these factors, allowing individuals to navigate society with varying success. For instance, wealthy individuals, such as myself, enjoy economic privilege regardless of race. Likewise, in situations when this social privilege is unidentifiable – walking along a street, for example – people tend to be treated according to visible identifiers, such as race (hence my tense relationship with police officers).

McGill perpetuates this racism at a macro and micro level. The macro level was discussed in a recent Daily editorial (“This institution is still too white,” February 7, page 18). At a micro level, McGill is unfriendly or hostile to persons of colour. The articles “You are racist” (Commentary, October 18, page 7) and “All racism happens because of whiteness” (Commentary, November 8, page 7) both explored how racism hangs like a miasma on the McGill campus. I believe the reactionary, rather than constructive, responses to these articles is telling. Now, for the millionth time: you have privilege. If you are a white person, ingrained into your skin from birth is an inalienable privilege that means you are, were, and will be treated fundamentally differently from people of colour. This privilege makes it easier for you to use and accrue social, political, and economic capital giving you access to broad mechanisms of power in society. Meanwhile, your obliviousness to this has real consequences for persons of colour. This is why you are, have been, and will continue to be a perpetuator of inter-personal and structural racism, unless you attempt to challenge systems of privilege. This is why you are racist.

The unwillingness to appreciate this truth is racist. A belief in ‘colour blindness’ is racist. The concept of being ‘post race’ is implicitly a product of privilege. Whiteness confers upon yourself a tabula rasa, a state of ‘racelessness’. In the mirror you see a ‘sporty person, with a great laugh’. I get to see ‘Black male’. When described to a friend, you’re an individual. I am my race. If I succeed I am a testament to my race. If I fail, I am a disgrace. If I get shot dead by a trigger happy asshole, who thinks a soda can is a threat, it’s because of this fact. We are not all the same. Race was socially constructed, but the scaffolding’s gone, leaving a sturdy and well-founded colonial effigy that does exist. To pretend it doesn’t, to dismiss our daily experiences and oppressions with platitudes, is to ignore the impact it has on persons of colour.

This is the stage in the argument that someone yells about anti-white racism. Wouldn’t it be awful if individuals could be assigned characteristics because of a physical trait. However, the highlighting of privilege does not assume shared personalities. Instead it asserts the benign notion that our societal images of employable individuals, intelligent individuals, marriable (date-able, sexually attractive) individuals, and law-abiding individuals, are predicated in whiteness. You benefit from this daily: realize this, accept this – and then let’s have a real discussion about race.

Meanwhile, whiteness protects you from a particularly persistent, racially targeted, form of psychological abuse (known as micro aggressions). To experience this:

1) Have your professor check with you every time race is raised (just to make sure the ‘black community’ is content).

2) Be referenced every time a discussion of Africa arises.

3) Be told that your academic success is due to your Asianness (i.e. strangeness, invalidating your effort, instead claiming your success is a function of you racially ‘cheating’ school).

4) Suffer through a list of jokes regarding your race: selling cocaine, running quickly, rap music.

5) Be pestered regarding the lyrics of rap music, or where to find cultural food.

6) Have your nationality stolen from you through questions like “where are you really (or ‘originally’) from.”

7) Have your race stolen from you: “You know Arcade Fire? Dude you’re sooo white-washed.” (I guess the ‘black community’ is going to take back my membership card and rap bible now.)

8) Listen to your professors glorify the intelligence of intellectuals who describe your (male) ancestors as sub-human, and when raising this issue be dismissed as irrelevant/irreverent (the same authors that also treated all our self-identified female relatives as non-existent).

9) Have people note, with surprise,  how ‘articulate’ you are (Compared to what you were expecting?! Verbose, fine, but ‘articulate’?).

This list is a selection of my experiences from a random day this year. However, no person should have to ‘prove’ their oppressions. It is basic decency to respect others’ emotions and experiences. These acts represent an attempt to compare persons of colour against a set of racial stereotypes; they are a list of arbitrary, oppressive measures against which our daily actions are measured. These aggressions are constant, and over-shadow my educational, social, and daily experiences. Yet, if you challenge this, you get told to ‘lighten up’ (hah), get called an alarmist, or get your personal information sent to white supremacists.

I am not calling for ‘white guilt.’ Guilt re-situates the oppressor in the centre of the response to this oppressiveness. Your guilt is not necessary, or useful. Instead I ask for you to become an ally. Allyship means discussing, situating yourself within, and challenging privilege. Having privilege does not make you a bad person. You were born with it; it is not your fault. However, are you going to use it to perpetuate systems of oppression? Or are you willing to validate experiences, not give dismissive and patronizing responses to the experience of minoritized communities, and engage in respectful discourse over race and its effects? It means not making wistfully patronizing statements about your desire for minoritization. Likewise, it means realizing that whiteness is a form of racialization, just as constructed and mediated (but not nearly as oppressed) as any other racialization, that needs discussing and deconstructing. You’re racist. It’s not (fundamentally) your fault, until you decide to do nothing about it. Now do something.

Alexander McKenzie is a U3 student studying Essentialisation and the Male Gaze (Poli Sci/IR). He was raised of, in, and around whiteness, and this article comes from a place of intense frustration, but also love. He will happily respond to all comments, other than those predicated on: tone, semantics, or minutia. He can be reached at alexander.mckenzie@mail.mcgill.ca.

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