White privilege is one issue that must be confronted as a precondition to releasing the energy required to successfully challenge institutional racism. It is the collection of benefits based on belonging to a group perceived to be white, when the same or similar benefits are denied to members of other groups. It is the benefit of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that white people receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color.
Whiteness and White Privilege
Just as there are racial identities of colour in Canada, there is also a white racial identity. To Canadians of European descent whiteness is akin to normalness; yet, as Frankenberg points out, it is unacknowledged and unknown to most white people. Euro-Canadians do not define themselves as white - they merely construct themselves as NOT being people of colour. This invisibility of whiteness is historically, socially, politically and culturally produced and linked to relations of domination. This domination manifests itself in the form of white privilege. These privileges are invisible to most Euro-Canadians; yet, they exist. They are built into Canadian society. It is a protective pillow of resources and/or benefits of the doubt that repels gossip and voyeurism and instead demands dignity.
Examples of White Privilege
• Author Frankenberg mentioned examples of white people moving to the opposite side of the street when two, tall, black men approach on a sidewalk. These people do not move aside when approaching other white people because the are assumed to begood or normal. She also indicates that she received shoddy or poor service when she went into cafes in her town with friends of colour.
• Powell talked about expectations of failure for people of colour in US universities. A university sent out two different letters to new students. A letter to white students stated that they were the best and brightest, that the university was delighted in offering admission, and that they would be honoured to train the students for the leadership roles they would take in the community and country. A letter to black students stated how wonderful the university was and how fortunate the students were to have a chance to attend. The letter also outlined that many remedial and support programs were in place to help them when they ran into difficulty at this world-class university.
(Under) normal circumstances, white students get the “white” letter and never know that the second letter exists, while black students are absolutely clear that theirs is a race-coded letter. Black and white students meet at the same college in the same classes but with fundamentally different messages about their right and ability to be there.
• A similar effect as the one above exists in Canada with inner-city schools. Inner-city, in this author’s experience, is really just a race-coded word for Indian/First Nations where there is an assumption of failure and lower standards, translating into lower achievement.
• Powell also found that white students know the rules of the game and are better achievers just as members of white society know the rules of the game. This is one of the advantages of being white - they learn the rules as they grow up and succeed in life. Those who are not white, never get a chance to learn the rules and they are generally not successful.
White students who were overwhelmed and unable to finish the paper asked for an extension. Several of them took an extra 24 hours and turned in A papers, receiving an A-. Black students also reported lack of time as a major difficulty in completing the paper; however, none of them considered asking for an extension, which as one black woman said, 1) would put me (the teacher) in an awkward situation and 2)would feel like “asking for welfare”.
• Personal stories related to this author by persons of colour tell of scrutinization by police on the streets, discrimination in renting apartments (and the assumption of a partying lifestyle), and university professors being followed around by security in department stores. This lack of trust or expectation of wrong doing is not accorded the average white person.
One way that white privilege is maintained is through the construction of stereotypes of people of colour. Generally these stereotypes are different from ideas of a normal Canadian and depict negative images. Examples of this include those of Natives as alcoholics and lazy; of Chinese as treacherous; etc. The overall effect is to infer that whiteness is goodness.
Much of their (white) identity production swirls around the creation and maintenance of the dark “other” against which their own whiteness and goodness is necessarily understood. The social construction of this goodness, then, provides moral justification for privileged standpoints.
People of Colour are expected to conform to the values of whiteness yet this is impossible because it is based on race. As long as whiteness goes unacknowledged, anyone of colour will have difficulty in conforming.
Blacks and other people “of colour” are viewed as recent newcomers, or worse, “foreigners” who have no claim to Canadian heritage except through the generosity of Canadian immigration officials, who “allow” a certain quota of us to enter each year.
Even if a person’s family has been in Canada or the US for a number of generations, a person of colour will never be as good as a white person, and will never be allowed access to the privileges that accompany colour in our society.
To most residents (in the US), African Americans and Mexican Americans were simply the latest (and not too welcome) newcomers in a series of immigrant groups and would have to engage in the same process of self-help, assimilation, and perseverance that previous groups had experienced.
Other literature illustrates this privilege and the lack of incentive for whiteness to be cast aside. Roediger examines the struggle for acceptance into the privileged white race by the Irish from a historical, political, economic and psychological perspective. The Irish immigrant was once negatively stereotyped as the “Irish nigger” during the flood of immigration during the mid-1800’s. The “success of the Irish in being recognized as white resulted largely from the political power of the Irish … voters. The imperative to define themselves as white came but from the particular ‘public and psychological wages’ whiteness offered”. These wages included preference in hiring over other groups, admission to public venues on equal footing with upper classes, admission to white schools, etc.
They were given public deference … because they were white. They were admitted freely, with all classes of white people, to public functions (and) public parks. … The police were drawn from their ranks and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with leniency. … Their votes selected public officials and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment. … White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and cost anywhere from twice to ten times colored schools.
The Irish and African-Americans “lived side by side in the teeming slums of American cities of the 1830’s”. Yet, there was little incentive for the Irish to question their class position and dependency on wage labour. The “pleasures of whiteness could function as a ‘wage’ for white workers. That is, status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships. … White workers could, and did, define and accept their class positions by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and as ‘not blacks’ ”.
Creation of ‘Whiteness’ in Canada
To fully understand the creation of whiteness in Canada, one needs to look at its historical formation. The study of whiteness is derived from the study of colonization. Edward Said described the relationship that British colonizers had with the people of the Middle East during early colonization. At that time, this area was referred to as the Orient and Said described this relationship as Orientalism. The Oriental or other was an image or stereotype created by the British. The other was basically everything that the West was not - s/he was dark, savage, bestial, lowbrow, etc. (Roediger, 1991). In some ways, British culture was able to define itself by positioning itself as opposite to the other. For example, British culture was civilized because its citizens did not live in grass huts. British culture was technologically advanced as compared to the spears of the other. From this othering , colonizing countries like Britain, France, Germany, etc. were able to see themselves as civilized, advanced and dynamic when compared to the stable and primitive others . The fact that no single Oriental identity even existed was not taken into consideration (i.e. India and Egypt are very different cultures but categorized as Orientals in early colonizialism). This othering process also provided justification for colonizing as the colonizer could claim that they were civilizing a primitive culture.
This process of othering was carried to North America and was used in the colonization of Native Americans and in the enslavement of African Americans. “Indians” were seen as a homogeneous group of savages despite the fact that individual groups varied extensively and had well developed social systems. “Niggers” were also portrayed as savage, uncivilized and with low intelligence. By creating this identity, expansion into North America was justified.
Stereotypes have an important function in the maintenance of racism. Between 1500 and 1800 A.D., the stereotype of Indians as savages served to justify the dispossession of Indian lands. The dispossession and its legacy have created a powerful-powerless relationship between white and Native peoples. In order to maintain this power structure, new stereotypes of Native peoples have been created, as the need has arisen. (Larocque, 1989, p.74)
Besides providing a justification for dispossessing lands of colonized people, the creation of a stable other has helped to maintain this relationship of inequity. In Canada, the stereotype of a traditional Indian conjures up images of mocassins, beads, canoes, etc. It is as if these groups of people have been untouched by western civilization during the last two hundred years. This stable identity has been perpetuated by the othering process involved in traditional anthropology since its inception.
(Traditional anthropology) depicted the colonized as members of a harmonious, internally homogeneous, unchanging culture. When so described, the culture appeared to “need” progress, or economic and moral uplifting. In addition, the “timeless traditional culture” served as a self-congratulatory reference point against which Western civilization could measure its own progressive historical evolution. The civilizing journey was conceived more as a rise than a fall, a process more of elevation than degradation (a long, arduous journey upward, culminating in “us”). … It portrayed a “culture” sufficiently frozen to be an object of “scientific” knowledge. This genre of social description made itself, and the culture so described, into an artifact worthy of being housed in the collection of a major museum. (Rosalda, 1989, p.31)
Inherent in the construction of these static stereotypes is the assumption that whiteness is goodness. Other races need to conform to the norm of whiteness . There is no room in Canadian society for the other unless they are in their purist form (i.e. unless the Indian remains primitive and stays on the reserve where s/he belongs). Otherwise, they should be assimilated into Canadian culture . By creating and maintaining static stereotypes, public attention to cries of structural inequity by marginalized groups can be deflected. For example, people of Native descent are no longer real Indians - if they were, they would not be having these problems because they would be living their traditional lives.
There seems to be a need to deny that racism exists. … An area of growing concern to me is the very common practice of blaming Native peoples for their socioeconomic conditions. Blaming “forgets” that racism has also been institutionalized in government policies of assimilation, paternalism, and the historical and continuing confiscation of Native lands and resources. These policies have had a devastating impact on Native peoples but the fallout has been explained away as stemming from “cultural differences.” In turn “cultural differences” are reduced to stereotypes such as “Indians can’t or won’t adjust” to city life. In other words, Indian “culture”, rather than colonization or racism, is blamed for whatever has happened to Native peoples. (Laroque, 1989, p.74)
With the rise of Quebec nationalism in the 1960’s, the federal government’s response was to “increase and centralize its power. This entailed supplanting supposedly British institutions within Canada with indigenous Canadian equivalents” (Legare, 1995, p.348). Concurrent to this were the demands by other groups to have their contributions to the development of Canada recognized.
(Other) sections of the country began to imitate Quebec nationalists and articulate their own claims based on ethnic background and regional interests. They contended that, as immigrants from other (i.e., non-British and also non-French) nations, they too had contributed to the developing nation. They argued that their contributions were being ignored in the two founding nations debate, and they demanded equal recognition with French and English Canadians. (Legare, 1995, p.349)
Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturialism, the government of Canada officially recognized the multicultural nature of Canada within a bilingual framework. This strategy was an attempt to reconcile the division in Canada between French, Aboriginal, and immigrant assertions of rights; and, to define a Canadian identity in the face of an invasion of US culture.
is no coincidence that ethnicity and multiculturalism were officially discovered at a time when Canada faced internal and external threats to its nationhood. From the start, it was ‘intended to ground Canadian nationhood in an identity that could be differentiated from threatening Others both within and without.’ Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau believed that multiculturalism could serve as ‘the glue of nationalism’, a glue that could bind a uniquely defined nation, governed by a strong federal government. As a solution to internal divisions, official recognition of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework could counterbalance the contesting regional loyalties that endangered the unity of the nation. At the same time, by accepting all ethnically defined claims as equally valid, it could effectively neutralize nationalist claims to special status or rights, re-establishing and strengthening national unity.
Multiculturalism (MC) views Canadians as having British values, customs, etc. while still allowing for immigrants to celebrate their past cultures in a formalized way. These celebrations take place on special occasions and showcase historic traits such as food, clothing, music, material objects and language. However, this display is very much like the cultures found in museums or on a bookcase. They are taken out on special occasions but afterwards they are put back and everyone returns to normal or British customs. The overall effect of MC is to neutralize nationalist claims of special groups by making everyone the same or equal in present-day, British Canada or French Quebec. Those groups that do not accept this have to make a claim of distinctiveness or special status. However, this is impossible because under MC everyone is distinct and equal.
Although MC sounds very egalitarian and defines Canadian culture by its tolerance for the other cultures that make it up, it is still racist. MC reaffirms Aboriginal and immigrant groups as the other of traditional colonial discourses. By refusing to accept folklorization of their cultures and demanding to express their own cultural identities, these groups are excluded from citizenship in the eyes of many Canadians. They are “redefined as “special” (the problematic Canadian) or even unfair to those citizens who “chose” to give up their old ethnic selves and embrace loyalty to the Canadian nation”. Whiteness is the norm to which they are expected to conform as expressed by a quote from the Winnipeg Free Press: “By what right do Aboriginal people (and immigrants) receive services and demand rights when they are unwilling to contribute to (i.e., be of) the nation?”.
MC only recognizes diversity superficially. The underlying assumption to most Euro-Canadians is that Canada is still white . Stereotypes play an important role in perpetuating this view. The construction of the other through stereotypes has helped to maintain whiteness , white privilege and its invisibility . The construction of static, primitive and dark images are used to elevate the status of whites and define them as NOT the other. The goodness and dynamic nature of whiteness is inferred but not overtly stated; and, the privilege that accompanies whiteness is assumed the normal consequence of not being the other.
RACISM FREE ONTARIO FAQ: What is “white privilege”? – Racism Free Ontario Initiative
Racism Free Ontario is a 100 day anti-racism campaign across Ontario. Like our facebook page and follow us on twitter! For more info visit RacismFreeOntario.com
See more FAQ: What is racism? What are different forms of racism? / What can you tell me about the history of racism? / What are important terms and concepts to know? / What is a Microaggression? What are Racial Microagressions? /Who are People of Colour? Why can’t I use the term “coloured”? / What is colour-blindness?/What is white privilege? / Is there such thing as “reverse racism?”/ What is meant by the racialization of poverty?/How does racism relate to the other “isms”? / Is the Canadian legal system in denial of its white privilege? /What if I have spent years using harmful language? / What should I do if I witness racial violence?
I don’t know why the font sizes are different and I can’t be bothered to fix it T_T