Systems of Privilege: How Can We Be a Part of the Change?
I’m not sure when I first understood systems of privilege, but one of my memories was as a teenager, discussing the Canadian Indigenous reserve system with one of my best friends. I didn’t know it by the word privilege, like other Canadians, privilege meant someone with a lot of money (and that still applies in another context). I lived in a town with a First Nations reserve to the north and one to the south. I was aware of the inequities, though I didn’t understand why those inequities existed.
We can use the word privilege in a few different ways, but the one I continue to try to understand is privilege as defined at a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. This kind of privilege is rarely earned, but rather bestowed upon a person, with or without her consent. The most familiar to me is white privilege.
It’s important to talk about what white privilege is not.
It doesn’t mean that people of Caucasian skin tone (in and of itself, fairly arbitrary and misleading, as are all concepts of ‘race’) all live a rich, easy life. They still struggle, have challenges, live in poverty and a multitude of other things that can happen to any human, anywhere. It doesn’t mean that all white people treat other people badly, or are using their privilege for evil purposes. In many cases, they aren’t even aware of the privilege, because privilege is blind. If we don’t have to think about it, it usually means it’s a privilege – personal safety, clean water, equal treatment under the law. White privilege was designed in the mid-1600s to keep a small minority of people in power in English North America. Certainly similar divisions and prejudices exist in Europe as well as other parts of the world. But for the purposes of this discussion and my experiences, they are framed in the English North American reality.
Talking about white privilege is not meant to confer guilt either. I grew up with what I called white guilt – feeling badly for all the things done by white people to other peoples in Canada and the USA. And, as Jennifer has so rightly pointed out, this guilt doesn’t really get us anywhere. It takes hard work to question the system you exist within, see that it’s not personal, and how to be aware enough to help break down that system, to step outside the comfort zone. This is something I continue to educate myself on and understand so that I can be part of the solution and not a continued part of the problem, even if it isn’t of my own making. The tricky part is trying to find a way to bring more equality into the system, of not defending myself (‘but, I didn’t do this or that’, ‘it’s not my fault’), and simply listening to others experiences and accepting them as valid.
All of which is to say, white privilege is a reality. Bandage (bandaid) colours are called ‘flesh’ coloured, as though there is one main colour of human; in fashion ‘nude’ typically refers to a light skin tone (though I see changes happening here, which is promising in a way); there is an ‘ethnic’ section at the drugstore that has hair products for women of colour (why aren’t they part of the rest of the products?). These are small examples. The bigger ones include how people of colour are treated by the law and justice systems, the inequity of pay for women – not just from men – but from each other – Latina, Indigenous and black women make even less than white women.
And how does that fit in this week’s topic? As was said in the intro –
“When we are in full ownership of ourselves, it gives others around us permission to be in full ownership of themselves also.”
It is by realizing our privilege that we can use it to allow others to have the same rights we enjoy. We can advocate for them, we can educate ourselves, we can be part of the move for equality for all – an ideal I believe we should always be striving towards.
“[I]n the absence of judgement, you allow others to own their power also.”
Yes, it’s important to question, but not necessary to be overly judgemental of my own behaviour – that can lead to the guilt, and again, it doesn’t get me moving forward. We are part of this system, we didn’t ask for it, but we can be a part of the change. So my role is to acknowledge the feelings and find a way to adjust.
“Every human being has the right to the privileges we enjoy.”
I’ll admit that I’m still working out how to be a part of that change, how to make the above statement a reality. I’ve mainly been involved in the education phase, reading about people’s experiences, either through articles, or simply reading books written by people of colour; I want to do my best to be open to other points of view. This is the challenge for me – to find the ways I can challenge the system of white privilege that doesn’t really serve anyone.