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White Privilege

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What is white privilege?

“White privilege” refers to: 

  • A socio-political system that distributes power, privilege and benefits unequally among groups in different societies and countries. 
  • The history of European colonial domination and settlement of the Americas, Asia and Africa on one hand, and the 19th century practice of “race science” justifying this domination, on the other. 

These two phenomena have resulted in a set of political, social and cultural beliefs, assumptions and practices based on the primacy of one group over others – those who identify as white or Caucasian. It is important to remember that privilege is often hard to see for people who were born with access to power and the resources that go with that power.

Perspectives on white privilege (how white privilege manifests): 

Ritu Bhasin (keynote speaker at the 2018 White Privilege Conference, and founder and CEO of bci): “White privilege is the manifestation of white supremacy.”

Rinaldo Walcott (author and director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto): “The face of white privilege is often the person you meet at the front desk. It’s the policeman you meet on the street. It’s the teacher in your classroom. It’s the professor in your lecture hall. It’s the administrator at your university. It’s the CEO at whatever corporation, and so on. The question for me is: how do you begin to make sense of how individuals and structures work to reproduce a world where some of us are fundamentally shut out.”

Darren Lund: “Any unearned advantages and benefits that are gained in our perceived racialized identity.”

White privilege in Canada

A person standing with two other people sitting at computers
  • “Employees are 40 per cent more likely to interview a job applicant with an English-sounding name despite identical education, skills and experience.” (Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat, 2020)

  • “In Canada, university-educated Canadian-born members of a visible minority earn, on average, 87.4 cents for every dollar earned by their Caucasian peers.” (The Conference Board of Canada, 2017)
  • “20.9 per cent of Canadian-born visible minorities reported perceiving discrimination as a barrier to gaining and keeping employment — 10.6 percentage points higher than their non-racialized counterparts.” (The Conference Board of Canada, 2017)
  • Examples of white privilege:
    • There is a lack of diversity on corporate boards; they still continue to be predominantly white and predominantly male. (Yang, 2018)
    • If you have a name that sounds racialized, or a less English sounding name, then you’re less likely to be called back for a job interview (Yang, 2018).
    • “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 Yang, 2018).”

Definitions related to white privilege:

Anti-Black racism: A term that describes the beliefs, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination directed at people of African descent. These beliefs, attitudes and so on are held by individuals of other racial identities and are also embedded in the policies and practices of institutions, including universities.

Anti-Indigenous racism: The ongoing race-based discrimination, negative stereotyping and injustice experienced by Indigenous Peoples within Canada. It includes ideas and practices that establish, maintain and perpetuate power imbalances, systemic barriers and inequitable outcomes that stem from the legacy of colonial policies and practices in Canada.

Anti-racism: Anti-racist practice is an ongoing practice. You will never "arrive." It is a journey, not a destination (DiAngelo, 2020). 

Colonization: A by-product of a people who forgot that the creator made no mistakes when he created you and who needs to find ways to stand that up in themselves (Mercurio, 2019). 

Racism: A system that encompasses economic, political, social and cultural structures, actions and beliefs that institutionalize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of colour. This system is historic, normalized, taken for granted, deeply embedded, and works to the benefit of white people and to the disadvantage of people of colour (Hilliard, 1992). 

White fragility: A state where a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves that include outward display of anger, fear and/or guilt, behaviours such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducting situation (DiAngelo, 2016, p. 247). 

White supremacy: A racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races. It also extends to how systems and institutions are structured to uphold this white dominance (Saad, 2019).

Privilege: “The unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white (McIntosh).” 

White privilege is an invisible package of unearned assets that white people can count on cashing in each day, but which they were “meant” to remain oblivious to. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks (McIntosh, 1989).”

How to address white privilege 

To address white privilege

  1. We must address structural racism by “combating the accreted histories of colonialism, of transatlantic slavery, of land theft, and of ongoing forms of colonization that continue to force people to move around the globe.” – Rinaldo Walcott 
  2. Speak up about the need for more people of colour in leadership positions – Marusya Bociurkiw (storyteller and theorist, and Professor of Media Theory at Toronto Metropolitan University)
  3. Amplify the work of BIPOC thinkers and makers in research. Radically restructure our organizations. See who’s not at the table and ask why. Consult with BIPOC communities and follow their lead – Marusya Bociurkiw 
  4. Examine what whiteness looks like in your context including looking at the history of whiteness in Canada, beyond the United States. – Robin DiAngelo 

In, Seeing the Racial Water: A Conversation with Robin DiAngelo, Robin DiAngelo says: 

  1.  [A] big piece of being white is never having to bear witness to the pain of racism on people of colour.
  2. Whiteness keeps white people elevated, which results in white privilege, white advantage. And to question or oppose any of the concepts above, is white fragility. White supremacy “includes the far end extreme but it also describes the middle, the norm - white as ideal, white as the norm for humanity and everyone else as a particular kind of deficient humanity.
  3. To be a little less white means a little less oppressive, ignorant, arrogant, oblivious, certain and a little more humble and curious and vulnerable.

The concept of whiteness “stays centered by being never marked or named” and allows it to remain prominent in society and the system. Whiteness suggests that white people are the norm and to prevent society from viewing white people racially as it would interrupt their “ability to speak from as the universal human voice and as unique special individuals outside of race.” 

Toronto Met sources

Other sources