What I wish I had been told about white privilege growing up.
Growing up I was oblivious to so many ways that I was privileged. I grew up with both of my parents and an older brother who loved and supported me. I was given opportunities to excel in school, and the possibility of further education after high school. I always had a roof over my head, and there was always food on the table (even if we didn’t always know how to pay for it).
Over the last several years my husband and I bought our first house and our son was born. These two changes to my life have made me increasingly aware of the privilege that I am afforded. I want so keenly for my son to be aware and grateful for the privilege that he is given, even in these first years of his life. Especially because he is growing up in a neighbourhood where not all the children have these same privileges.
I didn’t have many friends growing up who were not white. I wish I had realized what was going on when a high school friend made a joke about there being “only a few of us brown ones around.” I wish that joke had prompted me to make sure that they weren’t being excluded or disadvantaged. I wish I had known more of their story, more of their struggles. Not because I could be their saviour, but because my world would have been richer from having diverse perspectives, instead of just assuming that everyone was like me. That assumption was part of the privilege I took for granted.
I wish I had been told sooner that I could share my privilege, by advocating for others, by insisting that no one get left behind. Instead, I felt the competitiveness of some of my classmates — those who had to work hard to just be considered equal. In response to this competitiveness I felt threatened. I felt the ease at which some things came to me, and I just quietly hid my successes, and hoped that the competitive students wouldn’t notice and take offense. I would never have called my opportunities and open doors white privilege. My family had our own struggles — everyone does, so I had no sense that I was given more privilege than others. But I was. My very ignorance of the privilege, was part of the privilege.
So, how do I want my son to grow up? There isn’t much I can do about the fact that he is a white male, born to educated parents. There isn’t much I can do about the fact that he has so many people around him reading books and teaching him things, that he will likely have linguistic skills that make life easier even at a young age. But I do want to make sure that he is the kind of kid who notices ALL the kids around him, who invites them into his world, and goes into theirs. And shares his influence and privilege for the sake of others.
Most days I have no idea how to encourage that to happen. I don’t always know how to make this happen in my own life and spheres of influence. I think that is why my response back then, and most days now, is silence.
It is ironic to me that being silenced is part of oppression, and yet in the face of the overwhelming need to fight the injustice of racism, I often feel like I should be silent. Not because there is nothing to say, but because I don’t want my white voice to overpower other voices that should have a platform to speak. Yet, I worry that my silence can be seen as indifference, as apathy, and ignorance; or at worst, as participation in the systemic injustice that turns my stomach.
It is a benefit of my privilege that I can choose to be silent. To close facebook or the twitter feed to the rhetoric on fighting racism and put it away for the night. I can walk around my everyday life, and without doing anything, I can claim all the privilege my white skin affords me. This ability to choose not to engage was clear to me again as the #MeToo campaign took place.
When #MeToo was trending, I had the, all too rare, privilege of not adding my voice to that flood of testimony, because I can say with gratitude that I have never been sexually intimidated or assaulted. I struggle with the fact that my silence on this issue (or any issue) — which I truly do want to hear others speak their experience into — is also a sign of my privilege.
I want to hear honest stories of struggle, but I also want to hear the stories of successful subversion of the systems of privilege in Canada. I want to hear how people are sharing whatever power and influence they have with others. And I want to do all this in a sustainable way, that helps me not get overwhelmed and discouraged, so that I am tempted into silence.
My husband read me a quote, from a very interesting blog post, that is not at all on the topic I’ve been reflecting on, and this seems helpful for me right now. Melinda Selmys reflects that, “I have a particular sphere of influence, and I will do a lot more good by acting within that sphere than by pontificating about how other people with more influence ought to behave.”
So, I will aim small. I will try not to be silent when I have opportunity to speak against injustice, and I will share my privilege in whatever ways possible. Today, that way is sharing a bit of my story in a blog post.