“Because it’s 2015“. It was an impromptu response that defined a year for an entire country (hint: Canada). Reflecting on how it is currently Black History Month here, and reading about race from the perspective of people I know (check out Tales from the 2.9, for some solid reads), I wanted to add my voice to this. To be completely honest, this is intimidating as hell, writing about race as a white girl, but every voice counts, so I felt compelled to follow through with sharing my experiences.
I started with the 2015 quote because it’s so relevant to what I see. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a country and a time where blatantly obvious systemic racism is phasing out. It wasn’t long ago where segregation dominated schools, sports, communities, and so much more in North America. We know this, we learn about this, we say “oh my god, I can’t believe that actually happened”. In my experience though, while most of us can acknowledge racism is still an issue, there’s a reality so many white Generation Y’ers do not see: we are still reaping the benefits of the white privilege our ancestors instilled in society. And I strongly believe it is our obligation to recognize it, speak out against it and ultimately change it.
How many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist, I have black/brown/Asian/insert any other race friends”? What the hell is that person about to say, to prompt them to say something like that? Obviously something with racist undertones. And that is the predominant race issue I see in our society now. The subtle racist undertones and behaviours that happen so frequently we’re not even recognizing them as such. Growing up, this wasn’t something I thought about. But coming from a white liberal middle class family, why would I? (note: that was likely one of the most facetious statements you could read.)
As I grew up, I slowly became more aware of what racism meant. I learned about it. I witnessed it. I even experienced it, just once, when a girl on the First Nations Native Reserve refused to let me buy gas because ‘they don’t sell to white girls’. But I never lived it. Over time, as I’d see my friends of African, Indian, whatever descent, walk in to a room, immediately becoming hyper aware of that fact they were the only person of colour there, I began to only have a glimpse of what ‘living it’ means. They could point out the few people in the room who would look over at them, nervously or angrily, for no other reason then they were of a different race. At first, being someone who truly believes in seeing the best of people, I thought they were being paranoid. But as I started to pay more attention, I could see it. In a room full of people, there’d often be one or two who would in fact be doing this. Now imagine this happened to you on a daily basis, in a society that prides itself on its multiculturalism. I can’t even imagine the feeling, but I do feel it’s my responsibility to try to understand it as best I can.
While traveling around the world in 2015, I became even more aware of what white privilege means. No longer was it a subtle undertone of society, it was in-my-face blatant. More often than not, I would be the only white girl in a room. But you know what? I didn’t need to worry about what that meant. Because everywhere I went, it seemed to make me special. I didn’t get dirty looks, I wasn’t judged, and people didn’t suddenly worry about if they were safe (my blood just started boiling even typing that). Instead, I was treated better than those around me, I was offered better prices, I was offered better deals. I was even given free stuff more than a few times. Not long ago, a black man even said he’d offer me ‘the white person special’, which killed my heart. He said this as a joke in an attempt to make me laugh, which must means tons of white people do laugh when he says that. It was infuriating. While traveling with a Canadian friend of Indian descent, there were multiple times I noticed it even more. In India, no expectations were placed upon me, while she was judged for not speaking Hindi. In Egypt, I was not expected to be fully covered, while women glared at her for not adhering to their cultural norms. In multiple countries, women would often approach us because they wanted a picture of their children with the white woman, and they would ask my friend in their language if it was okay with me. As we both only speak English, it took us awhile to understand what was happening, yet we soon got used to it, because it happened so frequently. Time and time again, whether with others or alone, I was treated better than people around me. It just isn’t right.
Since returning home at the end of 2015, I am finding myself far more sensitive to it than before. With white privilege being thrown right in my face, what kind of person would I be if I chose to come home and ignore it? It’s easy to focus on the big issues; prison populations by race, young black men being shot by those who swear to protect them, Islamic fear mongering by politicians, proponents of building a wall between the USA and Mexico, etc. Rightfully so, these issues require an immediate outcry and must be addressed. But it seems most people feel these are issues to be addressed by the system, that they themselves are hands off from the solution. Yet if every single person were to educate themselves, become aware of the every day subtleties that create these under-the-radar systemic issues that create a system which allows these big issues to happen, maybe, just maybe, we would all actually contribute to the solution.