Since I decided to use a blog as a tool for me to process the recent election, I had a plan in place on how I was going to unpack the advantage systems that I see existing for some candidates over others. It was going to start here, build on this, expand on that, which would lead to this and keep going until I got to the colonial systems in which we’re all entwined. After spending the day at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls Inquiry Public Hearings in Edmonton, it now seems ignorant to not want to start the conversation there.
I have done a lot of reading on privilege and acknowledge that I too have privilege over some in our society and in our city. My adult life has been, and will continue to be, a journey to recognize this privilege and find ways to include others who do not have the same advantages to operate in the systems that we have created. Even getting to a place where I can acknowledge these systems and powers that are in place has been a journey. I know that there are still many people oblivious and those who are willfully ignorant or even downright deny the existence of privilege. Getting that group of people to become aware is often a daily struggle for me.
There are thousands upon thousands of articles and blogs written about white privilege. Google can fill you in if you’re not sure what it is I am referring to. I’m not sure where this analogy started or who said it first but many people say asking white people to explain privilege is like asking a fish to explain what it’s like to live in water. If your reality is simply understood to be that way, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s even there if you have never known anything different. I agree with this analogy as a starting point but then my mind goes to a vision of what happens when you take a fish out of water – frantically flapping around and, ultimately, death. I can understand how the fear of losing everything you know can trigger a defensive response. I don’t want people who have benefited from privilege to think about the loss of it as similar to the loss of water for a fish.
For me, I think of systemic white privilege as a web over society. It’s the finely woven strands that keep us all in order and govern how we connect with each other. There are places in the web that are flexible and malleable that allow for movement with the elements. There are also parts that are much more rigid and thickly layered, intended to restrict movement. There are places where the web has torn and been repaired but also places where the tears have grown and expanded to allow for gaps. This web over all of us is the system of white privilege. Our web is based on colonial constructs of what is right and wrong and who should be able to move freely and who should be restricted. By its nature, the web does its best to reward conformity so as not to disrupt its structural integrity. Sometimes it can be hard to see the web is even there until you hit a snag.
Being white does not necessarily award you the ability to move freely within the web but conformity to the expected norms and hierarchy does. Those who aspire to and model privilege also begin to be able to move more easily. On the flip side, those who don’t model the same conformity or those who start furthest away from the expected ideal get caught up in additional restraints that others do not have to deal with. This is privilege to me.
If you’re not following my analogy of the web, that’s okay. Sometimes things are perfectly clear to me but others don’t see it the way that I do. One thing is certain, the systems of white privilege are there whether we see them or not.
Consider these questions:
- Growing up, did you see people like you in lead characters on TV sitcoms?
- Thinking back on the all the bosses you’ve had in your life, how many were white males?
- Can you go into a chain restaurant and order your favourite meal that your mom used to make?
These are all signs of white privilege. These are also factors that are out of your direct control but create societal expectations of what the norm should be which directly influence our decision making perhaps without us even realizing it.
Bringing this lens to our government structures and, more specifically, to our electoral process, I’d like everyone to think about the conformity that is encouraged and expected. For generations in this place now known as Canada, our colonial government was made up only of white, affluent males. They were charged with setting up the rules by which we are all expected to play. They are also who we associate with being the decision makers in our society at a foundational level. Yes, this has begun to evolve over time and diversity is now more present than ever in all orders of government. However, it is still easier for those who emulate these qualities and have the innate support of these long-standing systems. And it is still harder for those who do not.
Take a moment to reflect on that.
At the core, this is is what I would like more people to be aware of. Know that these sometimes barely visible norms are there, encouraging us to think and act in a particular way while discouraging others to act at all. I still have a lot to process from the last year and a half and even more to process from today’s MMIW hearings.
In honour of those who have struggled to break free from the confines of the web and those who passed on trying, I acknowledge you. Your experiences may be different than mine but we are also alike in so many ways. I will continue to acknowledge the systemic white web of privilege and the role that I play in both conforming to the expected patterns and creating the intentional tears. I will use the space that I have because of my own privilege in this world to shine a light on the systems that keep us all in line. And I will continue to question why others are afraid to see the truth to deepen my understanding of the challenge I am up against.
For my Auntie Irene and the other missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.