Guest Post: Dr. Keith Carlson, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-Engaged History

Give up privilege —

In her recent guest post on this blog, Dr. Satwinder Kaur Bains provides us (people of European descent) with a clear and powerful call to action: To move past rhetorical statements denouncing racism and to instead take tangible steps to change ourselves — and in the process to dismantle the structures of systemic racism that affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) people each and every day. She calls on us to “name that which we resist naming, give accountability to the most affected, and share in as well as acknowledge the real pain that colleagues and friends… are experiencing.” Tangible actions like these, she clarifies, are what BIPOC people “have not experienced or heard” in the past, and need to hear and experience now.

Key to affecting this change, and answering her call to action, it seems to me, is recognizing and dismantling the race and gender privileges that are so pervasive in our society.

If you can’t see or recognize your privileges, don’t despair. Privileges are designed to be invisible to those who benefit from them. Indeed, it is the invisibility of white privilege and male privilege that makes them so insidiously powerful. The invisibility of these privileges creates the false sense among those of us who have them that we don’t have any white male privileges at all. The invisibility of our privileges makes us think that the world treats all people equally regardless of people’s gender or skin colour. The invisibility of our privilege makes us think that whatever achievements and comforts we have, we have earned through our hard work. The invisibility of our privilege makes us think that whatever lack of achievements or lack of comfort that others have or experience is because they haven’t worked hard enough.

This isn’t to deny that many white males have worked hard to achieve what they have. Rather, unlike class privilege which is typically easy to see, white privilege and gender privilege are invisible. It’s easy to see that the children of millionaires have privileges. And it’s easy to see that children of millionaires still have comfortable lives regardless of whether they work hard or are lazy. It’s harder for us to appreciate that those of us who are simply born with light skin and/or are born male have special privileges too.

Because white male privilege is designed to be invisible, having someone point it out can be disconcerting and make us defensive. This is an understandable response, because it causes us to feel that a component of our identity (the integrity and honesty of our hard work) has been challenged. Ultimately, however, getting defensive is unproductive. Indeed, it is counterproductive. We must resist letting ourselves become caught in this trap. We must resist letting ourselves have the comfort of painting ourselves as the victims.

So how then do we come to see and identify our privileges if they are invisible to us? The best way, I think, is to consider not the things we worry about, but the things that we don’t worry about.

For example, if you’ve never felt that the security guard in a store was following you up and down the aisles, you’ve probably got white privilege. If you’ve never had to worry that if you call 911 the police might treat you with less concern and urgency because of your last name or because of your street address, you’ve probably got white privilege. If you can dress down and wear a hoodie and tattered jeans and then walk around downtown and not worry that people will think you are a bad person or a criminal, you’ve probably got white privilege. If you don’t get nervous when a police officer pulls you over for a random check and you haven’t done anything wrong or illegal, you probably have white privilege. If you can walk across a parking lot on campus late at night and not worry that you will either be the victim of a crime or be accused of being there to commit a crime, you’ve probably got white male privilege. If you have never been afraid of how people might judge you if you express love and affection to your partner in public, you’ve probably got straight privilege.

There are many privileges and they express themselves differently. If you don’t have them, that’s when you notice.

If one thing is clear, it’s that BIPOC people are rightly tired of waiting for change; they are frustrated with promises of reform from the rest of us that time and time again have resulted merely in words or in soft actions. They are calling on us to hear and feel their pain and their exhaustion, and to take real, tangible, public actions towards dismantling the structures that sustain and perpetuate inequity and prejudice and underlie white privilege.

And so it seems to me that for those of us with white privilege (and male privilege and other privileges) to make real tangible change, what we need to do is:

a/ first recognize our privilege, then

b/ acknowledge that other people are harmed and disadvantaged because they do not share our privilege, and finally

c/ take tangible actions to dismantle the attitudes, biases, and prejudices, that have given those privileges to some of us and denied them to others.

I truly believe that by giving up privilege we can gain new shared mutual advantage. If we think this sounds scary, that’s probably because we have white male privilege, and it remains invisible to us.

Dr. Keith Carlson
Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-Engaged History