Jennifer Yang, The Star, May 7, 2018
In Philadelphia, two Black men are arrested by police for simply sitting in a Starbucks. In Australia, the pop star Halsey goes online to vent about the lack of hotel shampoos for ethnic hair. On Twitter, an exchange between two Canadian politicians — one white, one Black — sparks a national debate over issues of race and privilege.
Such stories are increasingly making waves around the world and each new headline seems to generate a flurry of tweets, thinkpieces and conversations about the notion of white privilege. After percolating in academic circles for decades, the term “white privilege” has found mainstream currency in recent years; it has also attracted both repudiation and support.
For many people, they are now engaging with the idea for the first time and asking: “What is white privilege anyway?” This week, hundreds of people will gather at Ryerson University to explore this question and more at Canada’s first white privilege conference, an event that has been held annually in the United States since 1999.
To address some of the basic ideas around white privilege, the Star spoke with two scholars who will be attending the conference: Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president for equity and community inclusion, and Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto’s women and gender studies institute.
Both have spent much of their careers thinking about white privilege and the ways in which it shapes our world. Here’s what they had to say:
Let’s start with the basic question. How do you define white privilege?
Green: In very basic terms, it is an unearned benefit or “perk” that one receives simply because of their skin colour. A more multi-layered way of looking at it is that white privilege operates in terms of a system that benefits particular groups over others. It’s a system structure that all of us operate in — whether we’re aware of it or not.
Walcott: For me, what the term “white privilege” seeks to allow people to understand is the way in which societies, like the one that we live in, are default white societies. Everywhere we look in these societies, all of the ways in which people are accorded, important, respected and so on centre around the idea that anything that is white North American or white European is the absolute standard to reach.
But what that means is that many people who are not white can never, ever achieve that standard, and many people who are simply born white are assumed to have reached that standard, even if they themselves can’t reach it either. So that’s what we begin to call “white privilege”; the ways in which we live in a society where some people, because of the accident of their birth, can enter that society — its institutions, government, education, universities, even the holidays we celebrate — and participate at levels and in ways that other people are unable to.
Can you think of some examples of white privilege in action, both on the micro and macro level?
Walcott: Let’s say (a Black person) enters a department store and they want to buy a pair of pants in the men’s section and a T-shirt for their child in the children’s section. They will make sure to pay for those pants in the men’s section and then go to the children’s section. Meanwhile, you see many white people who have piles of clothes, they walk all through the store and all kinds of floors, and they don’t have to think about it. The reason we pay before going to another floor is because we know that the possibility of being accused of shoplifting exists for us.
That’s an example of white privilege. When you don’t have to think about how you move through your everyday life, worrying about whether or not you’re going to be stopped by security or police. Non-white, Black and Indigenous people in Canada have to think about that all the time.
Green: On a macro level, unfortunately, it’s the way particular groups are treated by the police versus others. The CBC just came out with their own statistics (showing) that in particular areas of the country where you have a high population of Indigenous or Black Canadian citizens, they find themselves disproportionately impacted by the police in a very different and sometimes fatal way.
Another macro aspect is the diversity on boards; they still continue to be predominantly white and predominantly male. Probably another example is one’s name; if you have a racialized-sounding name, or a less English sounding name, then you’re less likely to be called back for a job interview.
So those are examples of privilege that for some can be very invisible, but is very visible for many of us.
A lot of people deny that white privilege exists. How do you understand that denial and where it comes from?
Walcott: When white working-class people hear “privilege,” they often think you’re talking about the individual material benefits that some people have. And yes, of course, a part of that is individual material benefits but when we’re talking about white privilege, what we’re really talking about is (how) the possibility of a white person being able to make it out of the working class is many, many times higher than, say, a Black person or Indigenous person.
When we talk about white privilege, we’re also talking about a body of ideas where even white working-class people can understand themselves to be more important or contributing more to society. So white privilege is not just about individuals being able to accumulate things for themselves, it’s also about a way of understanding the world — and that cuts across class.
Green: What I think is very interesting about white privilege, and just privilege in general, is you never really get to know what’s happening unless you walk in another person’s shoes.
I’ll give a personal example. My son was unfortunately hit by a drunk driver and as a result, he ended up needing to use a wheelchair. That experience has absolutely opened my eyes to how the world privileges those who are fully able-bodied: restaurants, institutions, buildings not having elevators, buildings not having ramps. That’s something that people can get and understand more readily because it’s something they can see.
White privilege operates in the same way. What happened with my son had a very profound effect on me, but it also helped me to greater understand how systems and white privilege and other privileges impact our day-to-day lives … and how the world sees us and invites us in. Or not invite us in.
A common reaction when someone’s white privilege is pointed out to them is defensiveness, the feeling that they’ve been accused of racism. Is pointing out someone’s white privilege the same as pointing out their racism?
Walcott: No, it’s not. Of course sometimes pointing out white privilege is about pointing out a set of racist practices or behaviours, but pointing out someone’s white privilege is not always about calling them racist. What you’re trying to point to is the way in which that person can do something — or have an experience — because of their whiteness that is not available to other people.
If we understand white privilege as embedded in the structures and institutions of society, then we can’t assume that everybody who benefits from it is actually engaged in racist practices. People are simply going about the ways in which they have been taught to live a life in this society. That is part of the reason why the idea of white privilege rubs some people the wrong way, because they don’t fully understand that the way in which they’re doing things will accrue to them a set of privileges.
I’d like for you to address the perspective that white privilege is an inherently racist concept and talking about it is racist. How do you respond to that?
Walcott: It’s wrong, absolutely wrong, because white privilege is not about demarcating a particular racial group. It’s pointing to ways in which an already demarcated racial group — in fact, a group of people who have historically marked other people as “not white” — has, through violence and other means, built a society in which they accrued the most privilege.
But more importantly, when people make the claim that to talk about white privilege is racist against white people, what we’re seeing is an attempt to hijack the language of civil rights and human rights and to turn that language in on itself … to take the progressive language that is supposed to push back against forms of oppression and use it to actually continue those forms of oppression.
Green: There are actually a lot of white scholars who have not only developed the concept, but explored the concept and done a lot of work on the concept of a white privilege and whiteness. So I don’t necessarily agree that the term in and of itself is racist.
For me, I see it as a way to bring to light something that can be extremely uncomfortable to discuss. I do agree with that — it’s very uncomfortable to discuss — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to shy away from it.
What do you hope will come out of the upcoming white privilege conference?
Green: What I envision is that it will start the conversation in a very constructive, intentional way and get individuals to begin to look at various aspects of privilege that we operate in and how they impact all of us — looking at that, taking in this information, and seeing how it can be applied to their own personal circumstances. This is a means of helping us move the needle in the conversation around inclusion, and being able to truly make Canada an inclusive society.
[Editor’s Note: The writer is The Star’s “Identity and Inequality Reporter.”]