People are often surprised that I was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario. In Saskatoon they imagine that a black girl, with Jamaican parents, who is originally from Ontario is obviously from Toronto… but we are not. Growing up we were one of a handful of black families in the city of Sudbury — in fact there were so few of us, that until recently I am fairly certain my parents knew each black family to one degree or another. Sudbury, Ontario being minimally multi-ethnic or multi-racial meant we stood out, and somehow became representatives of our race. This phenomenon was both a family responsibility, as well as a community one. Thus our fates were handed to us. How we behaved at the mall, how we drove, who we spent time with, the mistakes we made, the grades we received, the tone we used, the way we questioned authority — all of life was framed around the notion that we had to show white Canada that we were just as good and just as deserving to participate as they did.
My parents didn’t instill this in us with any type of notion that white privilege was a thing. In fact, if all those years ago, you had asked my mom what white privilege was she wouldn’t have had a clue… but ask her if she thought hard work was enough to get a job, or your credit score enough to garner the favour of a landlord she would have told you that: “When you are black, the only thing that’s enough, is being more than enough.” We knew from a young age that we had the unwanted responsibility to be representatives for our race. Now, that doesn’t mean that people were not nice to us, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have a large group of white acquaintances and friends, and it doesn’t mean that we lived with a constant cloud awaiting the white hammer to drop on our heads, but it did mean we grew up with an early awareness that simply being ourselves wasn’t enough to win the respect of our peers.
From childhood till now I live with the awareness that my skin colour is enough to close doors. It is enough for people to put it into consideration when they hire me. It is enough for people to use as a reference point to highlight their surprise at my personal accomplishments or ability to communicate. It is enough for me to be stopped as I leave a store or followed as I enter one. And every time I think that maybe, just maybe this idea of systemic racism or white privilege is all in my head something happens to remind me that my mind is not playing tricks on me.
Just recently I prepared to walk out of a store, with my many purchases and my infant son perched atop the shopping cart. Everyone was walking in and out without question, the security guard nodding his head in greeting and acknowledgement of their coming and going — I naively imagined I would have the same experience. Rather, as I approached the door, after spending hundreds of dollars in their store, he stepped in front of me and asked to see my receipt, to check my bags and to verify my purchases. I was confused, embarrassed and angry as white customers freely exited the building. When I confronted him on his bag checking policy, he immediately got ruffled: “How could I insinuate he is racist? It’s just that there has been a lot of theft lately…” His answer wasn’t good enough for me. I was reminded of what I have always known, being honest, working hard, doing one’s best, and paying for your items is not enough to suggest that you are trustworthy when you are a person of colour.
White privilege creates a different story: when you aren’t white expect to be treated as though you are not white… not every time, not by everyone, but enough that you simply want white Canada to acknowledge white privilege is a thing. A thing that impacts me and my family over and over and over again. But my story isn’t one in isolation, and so I asked my long time friend, Springwater Meawasige to share her perspectives on white privilege as an Indigenous woman in Canada… here is her story.
About the Author: Springwater Hester-Meawassige
Springwater Hester-Meawassige is an Anishnaabe/Cree woman and a proud mother. She is an activist and educator seeking equality for indigenous people and acknowledgment of indigenous history and their present realities.
Being an Indigenous woman in Canada is the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I love being Indigenous and I love being a woman, but I am also aware that the journey is difficult. Being university educated, gainfully employed and residing in a nice Toronto neighbourhood carries a lot of privilege. I have financial privilege. I carry healthy family privilege. I am armed with my Spirituality and Traditional Indigenous knowledge, which is another form of privilege, because colonization denied this to many. I have a firm understanding of racism in all of its various forms, including white privilege and colonization. All of these pieces that I carry have provided me with insight to better deal with society’s negative treatment of Indigenous peoples.
The unfortunate reality is that I have been dealing with racism all of my life. I deal with it systemically and overtly, while out shopping, at the airport, looking for housing, at work and in many, if not every other area of life. In fact, I don’t know life without feeling the negative effects of white privilege. I carry no Indigenous skin privilege, rather my mere existence has often provoked the government, media and white supremacists to make repeated attempts to break my spirit. Through my own reading on white privilege, I have begun to understand and respond differently to racism.
I no longer say “I experienced an act of racism today” but rather, “I have suffered the direct repercussions of white privilege/supremacy/entitlement.” My race is not the problem, but their privilege is. Yet, when I share my thoughts with white people, they often become very confrontational and emotional. The response of white Canadians, range from sadness to anger to indifference, with very little in between. Far too often, racism is an easier topic to discuss, for white Canadians, because it is so easy to remove one’s self from racist behaviour. Even the most racist person can claim — and seek to prove — that they are not a racist, and be convincing to themselves and others. With white skin privilege there is no act of doing, but rather just being. When white privilege is confronted, unpacked and non-white people have as much decision making power as the white majority, perhaps then we might see significant progress in Reconciliation and the work of anti-oppression.
So how can Canada respond? I don’t expect white Canada to immediately notice when their friend who is a person of colour is being falsely targeting, racially profiled, or singled out. But what I do long for is that when a person of colour says this is my experience — I am a man or woman who has been at the receiving end of a system that says “being white is better” that we listen and accept their story as truth.
No comparison between how you behave and how others behave,
no downplaying or belittling how the other person felt.
No rationalization of the situation.
All we ask for is acknowledgement — acknowledgement that racism is real.
Acknowledgment that racism is more than racial slurs, but is also found in the low expectations we have of people of colour.
Acknowledgment that being white means you often get a free pass that people of colour never experience.
Acknowledgment that the stories of our children and our children’s children are already being written based on how the world categorizes them.
Acknowledgment that our experiences speak into our stories.
Race matters…and it’s time that Canada says this is where we are in history, let’s work together to bring change.