The Original Sin of White Privilege

Margarete Wente, The Globe and Mail, May 27, 2017

Justus Walker was enjoying his Grade 11 class in sociology. Then came the lesson on white privilege. The teacher handed out a checklist with instructions for the students to score themselves on how much of it they had. The questions included things such as: “I can go into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions.” The answers would determine their “privilege points.” After they had completed the exercise, the students were asked to line up in order, from least points to most, and discuss the impact of white privilege on their lives.

Some of the questions were hard to answer, because Justus is multiracial – some Scottish, some Jamaican, some Indian, and so on. Which cultural traditions is he supposed to identify with? He doesn’t self-identify by race, ethnic origin, or skin colour. “I just am Canadian,” he says. As for ethnic food, “I can find Jamaican food in a grocery store but I can’t find haggis.”

White privilege is now a part of the Ontario school curriculum. It is taught in teacher training, and is a routine part of anti-bias education. The idea is that white people benefit from unearned advantages based on race. Canada is depicted as a deeply racialized society where people are automatically advantaged, or disadvantaged, by their skin tone, race and (by extension) gender.

Justus and his mom, Karen, were guests this week on Ontario Today, a CBC Radio call-in show that, to its great credit, dared to tackle this incendiary subject. Among the other guests was Arlo Kempf, who has taught anti-discrimination to teachers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “Adding the lens of privilege implicates everyone in the conversation,” he explained. “We have to look at those invisible spaces of whiteness where privilege goes unchecked.”

Karen Walker disagrees. “If you took out the word ‘white’ and used any other race, it would be perceived as racist,” she said. “It’s stereotyping in reverse.”

I spoke with Ms. Walker after the program. Other parents in the school were also uncomfortable, she said, but were reluctant to speak up. As a dark-skinned person, she felt she could stick her neck out. “A lot of people are afraid to say that this is racism,” she told me. “But it is.”

Ms. Walker grew up in a small Ontario town where minorities were rare. Her Jamaican father told her she’d have to work harder and do better because she was a woman of colour. But for her, discrimination wasn’t a problem. “I’ve never really felt outside of the Canadian culture.” She hoped that Canada was becoming “the colour-blind society that Martin Luther King advocated for.” Instead, she says, “we’re trying to force people back into these boxes, to the detriment of our kids.”

Canadian schools have long been preoccupied with social justice. As the schools became secularized, they replaced the old doctrines of morality and Christian duty with the new doctrines of multiculturalism, anti-bullying and environmentalism. The doctrine of white privilege entered the Ontario school system around 2013, according to Mr. Kempf. It is a modern version of original sin, which demands confession and atonement – even from people who are deeply anti-racist. “The term implies that whiteness itself is a problem,” Ms. Walker says. “That’s profoundly hurtful.”

Like many other education fads, this one was imported straight from the United States. The questionnaire, developed by an anti-racism activist named Peggy McIntosh, is known as “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and is nearly 30 years old. It was not modified for Canada, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is quite a different country.

Most of the callers to the CBC program were not in an atoning mood. They were angry, defensive and dismayed. They pointed out that not all white people are equally advantaged, and cited their own family histories at length. “I have a labouring job because I don’t have Grade 11,” said one caller. “I don’t have privilege. Professors at OISE have privilege.”

No one would argue that privilege doesn’t exist, or that racism is extinct, or that these things don’t matter. Of course they do. But privilege comes in many forms. One of the most important privileges anyone can have – far more important to life outcomes than skin tone – is an intact two-parent family. Too bad they don’t teach that in school. Maybe they should.

The other day I read a tweet from Sunil Sharma, who manages an elite program for budding entrepreneurs at the Founder Institute in Toronto. “40% of my new class of entrepreneurs are women,” he said. “75% of the entire class are minorities.”

So much for white privilege. Time to rip up that lesson and move on.

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