Last year I stumbled across a blog devoted to Plains Cree, written by a linguist who I’m ashamed to admit, manages to even out-geek me in the love-of-language department. It was actually his blog that inspired me to start writing one of my own, though now mine has spiralled out of control and I discuss language much less than I’d like to.
In any case, the Môniyâw Linguist (I’m going to rename him ML for the rest of this post) often brings up interesting and challenging points related to language and culture. We don’t always agree, but the discussions are definitely worth having. I also think that sometimes, it is actually less an issue of ‘disagreement’ and more of a need to ‘tweak the terms of reference’, but we certainly aren’t eye-to-eye on everything, which is fine.
ML is someone I consider ‘friendly’, in the sense that I’m pretty convinced he’s not a racist creep, and we can have civil discussions that don’t get terminally derailed. It is this kind of audience I try to keep in mind when I write, though I am not always successful.
What’s the point? Well I was all set to respond to a recent post of his when I realised my response was going to be too big for a ‘comment section’ response. Thus here we are!
Where I think we agree
ML’s post discusses the bias against working-class people in academia and recommends a book on the subject. He aims the recommendation mainly at “aboriginal activists who like to talk about ‘white’ people”.
If you’ve noticed, I avoid the term ‘white’ like the plague. I do this for a number of reasons:
- it immediately attracts accusations of racism
- it is an inherently problematic classification.
You’ll notice the order in which I placed these reasons. It is deliberate. The number one reason I avoid using a term that settlers have created for themselves (i.e. was not a term anyone else coined for them) is because using this term almost always results in the conversation being completely derailed by complaints of racism or ‘reverse racism’ (an utterly ridiculous term in itself).
Yet even if this did not happen, I’d dislike the term. Given the history of conflict between those who are now considered ‘white’, it is a term of very limited use. The term is deceiving. It has been used abroad and here in Canada to exclude, oppress and marginalise a great many groups of people, including those who now get lumped in as ‘white’ as though none of that ever happened (or continues to happen).
Who Gets To Be White is less of an issue in Canada than it used to be, but versions of this shifting hierarchy continue to be applied even today. For example…are fair-skinned Muslim Albanians ‘white’? No really, some people actually debate this kind of crap, but let’s stay far away from White Nationalists, okay?
I think that ML believes this history is not well known, and I tend to agree. I think that history gives us many examples of various groups of people who are currently considered ‘white’ who before the great ‘white-washing’ (lol, sorry) were treated in ways that can be compared to the treatment aboriginal peoples have experienced.
Although I avoid using the term ‘white’, I do talk about ‘settlers’ and no, I don’t preface every discussion with a historical analysis of marginalisation of settler populations by other settler populations before I give myself permission to take this short-cut. I don’t personally like the term ‘white’, but I cannot always avoid using it, and more importantly I think it remains a valid term if only because it is a category that is denied to people with dark skin. A denial that has real life, negative repercussions for ‘non-whites’.
So I’m going to just include myself in the category ML was referring to so I can more quickly get to the point. Or not so quickly
Where I’d like to tweak the terms of reference
ML gives some reasons for suggesting the book he does:
Why you should read it:
- Details the class splits within academia, and the hostility academia has to working-class people, along with the reciprocal hostility that the working-class has to academia.
- Addresses the way that class and sociological factors impact the kind of work done in academics. What we societally define as ‘knowledge’ has a very strong class component, since only people from a certain class are involved in the production and dissemination of it.
- Helps aboriginal activists begin to think critically about divisions within ‘white’ people. Not all ‘white’ people are the same.
- Helps aboriginal activists realize that many of the problems aboriginal people face within the university are actually shared by some of their fellow ‘white’ students.
I’ve bolded the parts I want to address. Alright, bear with me because these discussions are fraught with potential pitfalls based on different understandings of what words mean and it is very, very easy to talk past one another, not realising that you might actually be agreeing. It may be that I won’t explain my position well enough and it will have to be fleshed out in the comments, and that’s okay.
As well, for this one post, I’m going to drop the ‘w’ bomb a lot, but don’t get used to it.
Alarm bells ringing
As I pointed out earlier, something very disturbing happens regularly when people bring up the issue of commonalities between ‘whites’ and ‘natives’. The legitimate issue being discussed is often subsumed by the attempt to deny white privilege, and this is why alarm bells start ringing very loudly when I hear, “not all white people are the same” and “we share problems”. On their face, these two statements are obviously true. It’s what they so often lead to that is the problem.
Asking us to “think more critically about divisions within ‘white’ people” unfortunately sounds an awful lot like, “we want to make this about us some more, thanks.” Something that us ‘aboriginal activists’ have already spent a lifetime trying to get away from. The phrasing suggests that not only do we have the power to exclude ‘whites’, but that it is also our responsibility to open up to ‘white’ people, as though we have somehow excluded ‘white’ people, and that this is obviously wrong and counter-productive. Again, concepts that are deeply rooted in colonialism (intended or not) and immediately have me going ‘hmmmm’.
More unfortunate phrasing has us being asked to realise that many of our problems in post-secondary institutions are basically just like working class ‘white’ problems. Jeff, I’m just cringing here because I really don’t think you mean it to sound this way, but oh my. *cringe cringe cringe*
‘White people’ versus white privilege
So let’s address what is dialing up the cringe-o-metre here.
White privilege is a privilege based on skin colour. Years ago, Peggy McIntosh wrote a piece called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which I’d like you to give a quick read if you haven’t done so already. Her piece gives specific examples of how white privilege is manifested.
I have very fair skin. I have a certain amount of white privilege because of it. Some of the examples in Peggy McIntosh’s piece apply to me. I’ll list some.
- When both of my children smacked their heads open on the corner wall of a kitchen one day apart from one another, I did not experience immediate suspicion from hospital staff that perhaps I had caused the injuries.
- I am not followed around in stores by employees who feel I am likely to steal things.
- My interactions with people in positions of authority tend to go fairly smoothly compared to interactions family members of swarthier complexion may have.
And so on. There are many ways in which people around me respond to me more favourably because of my fair skin, than they would or do respond to people who are not as ‘white’ looking.
Nonetheless, a great deal of fair skinned privilege does not apply to me, particularly if it is known that I am Métis.
- I rarely see my existing, lived or historical culture represented at all, much less in a positive manner and my children do not learn about themselves at all in school.
- When I discuss aboriginal issues I am often treated as a ‘spokesperson’.
- When I discuss ways in which aboriginal peoples are marginalised, it is often assumed that I am unobjective (i.e. incorrect or exaggerating) and hostile towards ‘white’ people.
- Identifying as Métis results in many people viewing me through the lens of positive stereotypes (e.g. I’m all at one with the earth and spiritual and shit) and negative stereotypes (e.g. I have been called articulate too many times to count, as though it’s a big shocker I can string sentences together. It’s assumed I’ve probably struggled with substance abuse, my not being married yet having children is treated as some sort of cultural weakness and so on).
So the colour of my skin insulates me from certain negative treatment, and in fact elevates me over darker-skinned people. I cannot get rid of this privilege. It is a privilege that I wear, and that I can rely upon. If I chose to not let anyone know I am Métis, there are still aspects of marginalisation I would experience because of lack of representation of my culture in the mainstream and so on, but people would treat me as ‘white’.
Bringing me back to ‘white’ people versus white privilege. ‘White’ people are not a monolithic group, and the classification ignores historical treatment of groups who are now considered ‘white’. However this does not change the fact that fair-skinned people have white privilege.
Layers of privilege
When I bring up white privilege, people who are considered ‘white’ often get very defensive. So they bring up examples of how they are not privileged. They are working class, female, queer, transgendered, disabled, not Christian, left-handed, etc etc etc.
And it is true that if you are any of these things or a combination of them, you will experience certain forms of marginalisation or will encounter obstacles that people who are not these things will not.
None of this negates skin-based privilege.
Having white privilege does not mean you are automatically well off financially, or that you are guaranteed a certain level of education and so on. White privilege is a layer of privilege, and a very, very powerful one, unfortunately. So if we want to use Shrek’s ‘onion’ metaphor, we can peel back layers and determine that an individual ‘white’ person is less privileged than an individual ‘non-white’…but you cannot use this to ignore systemic racism against people of colour.
It does not matter if you did not choose to have white privilege. You cannot wish it away. It needs to be acknowledged.
Being discriminated against does not guarantee we are in the same boat
I’m going to try to explain this a bit more with an example: ‘white’ feminists.
The various ways in which ‘white’ feminists have framed their struggle over the years has been based on their experiences not just as women, but as ‘white’ women (thought this is not always acknowledged). Indigenous feminists, along with other feminists of colour, have had a lot of difficulty dealing with ‘white’ feminists because ‘white’ feminism has for years attempted to deconstruct sexism as being based purely on patriarchal systems.
Indigenous feminists cannot separate our feminism from our experiences as colonised peoples. Our experiences as indigenous women is different from that of ‘white’ women because of the legacy of systemic and institutionalised racism based on our skin colour and our cultural membership. The fair skinned indigenous women among us can escape some of the more blatant racially abusive treatment, but not all of it. Our individual ability to escape some of that racial abuse does not erase the racism indigenous peoples experience as a whole.
Many ‘white’ feminists feel that race-based struggles are important, but not related to feminism. Indigenous feminists don’t get to make that choice.
The conclusion (might be) flawed, imo
ML concludes his post with this:
It would be more effective, and more truthful, for people on both sides of this divide (working-class white and aboriginal) to recognize their commonalities and co-operate.
On the surface, this seems completely reasonable. If these groups are experiencing similar levels of discrimination in academia, then working together may create enough political force to have this acknowledged and dealt with.
However, my problem is with the preceding conclusion:
Overall, the evidence strongly indicates that much of what aboriginal activists claim is discrimination against aboriginal students is actually far more a systemic, class-based problem – not simply discrimination against aboriginal students.
The working class may have similar obstacles to overcome in order to pursue a post-secondary education that many aboriginal peoples do, including poverty, lack of access to high quality education, lack of role models, hostility towards other ways of knowing, and so on. However, that does not mean the reasons these obstacles exist are the same, or should be overlooked in this call to unity.
ML often brings up the Irish as an example of ‘white’ people who have endured colonisation and repression, and at the hands of some of the same people who have pursued a colonialist agenda against indigenous peoples. I don’t disagree.
But the fact is, in Canada, the Irish are considered ‘white’ and have white privilege. That’s not to say that old prejudices disappeared the second the Irish arrived here. I’ve seen examples of it coming from a province with many ‘white’ groups who have not always gotten along.
Nonetheless, there is no “Irish Act”. Irish-Canadians are given access to education, health care and social services with funding amounts that exceed those provided to First Nations students… just like all other non-native Canadians.
What aboriginal students have to overcome is not so easily comparable to what working class ‘white’ students have to overcome, even if there are some similarities in the way things play out. Working class ‘white’ students do indeed have many obstacles in their way, but they do not have the added burden of being a visible minority and a member of the most systematically marginalised group in Canada’s history.
What we need before there can be cooperation
Maybe this seems like I’m saying, “forget it, we can’t work together” and that I’m promoting ‘us’ versus ‘them’ while claiming that individual ‘white’ people are always better off than individual native people. This is actually not the case.
But what I think is absolutely vital if any cooperation is going to happen, is that non-natives not ignore our differences in the rush to acknowledge our similarities. And more importantly, you cannot impose yourself on us and demand we do things how you’d like them to be done. Even if that means the way things get done aren’t to your liking. Even if that means things seem to go more slowly, and less effectively because of it.
Yes, working class ‘white’ and aboriginal families can benefit from similar kinds of programs because of commonalities… like those focused on early childhood intervention. Head Start programs for example, are intended to help pre-school children of low-income families become ‘school ready’.
But aboriginal families have added challenges that cannot be ignored in the name of ‘equality as sameness’. Colonialism and systemic racism has taken its toll on our communities in unique ways that are best addressed with an acknowledgement of specific cultural needs and population-specific problems.
But we’re not necessarily disagreeing here
So in writing this, part has been in reference to what ML has said, but mostly that has been a jumping off place for a bigger discussion about how I have experienced these kinds of discussions. I realise that is a bit confusing.
What I mean is, all of the above is basically a response to what I see as a dishonest approach to discussing commonalities between groups. A sort of, ‘what they say is this, but what I’ve discovered they mean is that’.
I don’t actually think that ML is approaching this in that way. ML has previously explained that he thinks, for example, that the current system of education fails everyone pretty badly. I agree wholeheartedly. He has also explained how many people who are considered ‘white’ have been removed from their cultures either because of dislocation or that mainstreaming of ‘Canadian culture’ in education. I agree that this is a negative thing as well.
I think that ML conceives of decolonisation as a joint effort which would include a recognition of the kind of internal colonisation inherent in the whole idea of who is ‘white’. As in, a recognition that a lot of folks who are considered ‘white’ got screwed over pretty badly and didn’t have much say in the way things have turned out.
And I think that this can happen and is a good goal… as long as it does not mean taking an approach which denies white privilege. I want white privilege to end, but it won’t end by denying it exists.
Don’t forget that the subject is still a minefield
That is my biggest caution for anyone who wants to talk about how ‘white’ people are not all the same. Recognise that your history and your contemporary experiences do not make you ‘the same’ as those you are urging to engage in co-operative efforts, even if you have similar problems as they do.
If you have experience with being flatly shut down when you’ve tried to have this discussion, I think it is important you learn why certain phrases (e.g. “Not all whites are like that”) are extremely triggering.
It is because they are all too often akin to the “my best friend is black” and “I’m not racist, but” openings to discussions that are really about silencing ‘non-whites’. And you probably have no idea just how often we get to field exactly those kinds of arguments. Our suspicion has been validated too often for us to be expected to open up to someone ‘new’ who has started off the same way. That might mean you are excluded from spaces, no matter how well-meaning you are.
I came across a post I want to share, because I think it is important:
This is a pretty common perception of White Identity that should definitely be talked about more. Nobody wants to be left out of shit, but the fact that Whites literally cannot handle it (while other races put up with it day-in/day-out) and feel personally attacked when excluded from Non-White safe-spots tells you 1. how rarely White people experience someone excluding them based on skin color and 2. how completely White culture has failed to provide tools for sharing space, instead teaching Whites that all space is White space (“because all space is space for everyone”, a perception Whites share with no one).
Ignoring the meat of the message above with a side-track about how ‘white’ people as a term is inaccurate is guaranteed to get you into trouble.
How you approach cooperation is very much going to impact whether you get it.