Why “we share some of the same problems” is a minefield (but can be navigated!)

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:

  1. it immediately attracts accusations of racism
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Helps aboriginal activists begin to think critically about divisions within ‘white’ people. Not all ‘white’ people are the same.
  4. 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.

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23 Responses to Why “we share some of the same problems” is a minefield (but can be navigated!)


  1. Brian Fisher says:

    Thank you so much for your reflections.

    The struggle to remove the barriers between me and others has been lifelong. If I say to someone “Get over it.” or “I’ve got problems too.” I am being defensive and have turned the focus on myself. “Get over it.” means it’s not my problem. “I’ve got problems too.” means your problems can’t be any more important than mine.

    These statements don’t seem to apply to those who have more power or resources than I have. They are a sign that I perceive the other as lesser than myself.

    So what to do? Be as generous as I can be and continue to try & treat everyone with the love, respect and understanding that I myself appreciate. Oh and also work to transform our society into one that supports and embodies those values.

  2. john lavers says:

    well you’ve bitten a lot to chew here. and kudos for trying! i’ll have to read it again before i go into detail. however on the surface i mostly agree. i am franco/gaelic. both sides of my family have survived great historical discrimination. the acadiens hid for a century in back woods cumberland county to avoid the ethnic cleansing of the acadiens and came out only to pretend to be english so as to get work. imagine the layers of contradictions. the other side are scotts gaels. we came to canada on coffin ships and barely survived. however all this was mostly generations ago. i do run into ignorant people with negative sterotypes and occasionaslly rail against the injustice. but BIG BUT i am so white i sun burn in fifteen minutes and have blue eyes. when i walk into a social group with a half native friend–as i have– no one looks for a moment at me. i get to piss everybody off just by the dint of my outlandish statements and personality. on the other hand the part native friend i am refering to was watched like a hawk. if he had a beer and said any critical word people said he was drunk, and when he sang songs(this was a folk music group thing) his origional compositions were called not folk, while mine were fine.i could go on.

    when i used to go to folk festivals in the united states people used to call me a middle class anglo as a compliment(i have several university degrees so i speak well). wanting to get the gigs i rarely objected. they liked that i knew all kinds of celtic and french songs they had never heard but didn’t think i was unlike them in any way. so i got gigs quite often. on the other hand my part native friend used to busk with a sign saying “saving for a hooker”. i thought it was the funniest buskers signs i have ever seen, but he didn’t get the gigs and he was a better musician than me. icould givea lot of examples. but the point is there is no comparison between the opression against gaels(irish and highland scots) and natives. i try to remember that when i am railing on line against imperial injustice. i can pass any time i want to and especially when i need to. no person of colour can. police and most other authorites treat people of colour differently–especially natives. when i was a criminal defence lawyer i used to defend a lot of native clients . most of the charges were from events where the police would never charge a “white” person. and most legal aid lawyers would plead these people guilty. i was young and naive and pled no one guilty. i got most of my native clients aquited. so the justice system was stacked as were the defence lawyers with in it. usually the crown were so surprised that normal defences were being raised for a native defendant that they came to court unprepared to properly prosecute the case. so the next time you or your kidsd are at a big party that’s too loud and has too much booze, remember if it were natives the” paddy “wagons would be hauling away loads. if it’s a “white” party, they usually just break it up and send people home.

    class is another important issue here. maybe i’ll cogitate before i go into that one, suffice it to say a lot of discrimination is now subsumed into class . it’s a hard one to separate.

    • Robert Columbia says:

      It’s interesting how I have sometimes had the attitude that “I’m not an Anglo, I’m a Celt – we are peace and nature-loving people who are struggling to survive the near-eradication of our culture by the mean Anglos”, but the reality is that I look like an Anglo, talk pretty much like an average Anglo, and can wear an Anglo hat without being accused of being a sneaky minority trying to claim Anglo status. There is also the problem of dividing the romantic Anglo-tinted view of what Celts were (e.g. hippies in white robes dancing in stone circles and loving everyone) and the reality of historical “us versus them” warfare between Celtic nations and between Celtic nations and others (e.g. Romans, Vikings, etc.).

  3. Wayne K. Spear says:

    You’ve certainly covered the main points. Reading this I’m reminded of the work years ago of Vic Satzewich and Terry Wotherspoon. The only thing I’d add is that “aboriginal” or “first nations” or Kanien’kehá:ka (my prefered term for my own nation) are not racial/ethnic categories. I’d argue the same is true of Metis, but you may differ on that. The point is, my relationship to Canada as an aboriginal person is not like any “white” person’s, and it never can or will be. (I share your thoughts on the term white, btw). Specifically, aboriginal refers to a historical and land-based relationship, and it has also refers to our relationship to the Crown and by extension to Canadians, a relationship enshrined in treaty and history (including our oral history). So, yes, class and race matter if you are doing some sort of street cred exercise, or making political alliances over a specific intiative, but since indigenous people are not defined by poverty or exclusion – which are very real problems – nor should others assume they are “like” aboriginal people insofar as they suffer. It’s a pretty weird and ugly idea when you see it as it is. We’re defined by our relationship to the land and to culture and language and our inherited stories and traditions, much of which have been assaulted but not in all cases destroyed.

  4. That last post you quoted:

    This is a pretty common perception of White Identity …because all space is space for everyone”, a perception Whites share with no one.

    This is so true, it left me gasping. As a so-called white feminist, I note there are even hierarchies there and they are often hierarchies of pain. i.e. I was raped by a relative, therefore my opinion about the price of tea in China is more valid than yours.” I have witnessed this need to “float to the top” in many situations and it makes me sad.

    I remember reading the book “Over the Hill” by Baba Copper, in which she described her experience of being an old dyke feminist. She complained of having to sit on the floor in meetings when she was in her 80’s, while young, fit women sat on chairs. They saw no reason to give up their chair to another woman, even though that woman suffered from arthritis.

    It may be that “we have come a long way, baby,” but we have a very long way still to go. Thanks for this. Very thought provoking.

  5. La Schliggs says:

    Thanks for the education, âpihtawikosisân.
    Your post is bracing. And it’s unsettling this settler.
    That’s a good thing.

  6. Vanessa McCourt says:

    Nia:wen Kowa (Big thank-you) for your post and thoughts. So many truths and a lot to digest! I look forward to hearing you speak tomorrow at Queen’s University!

  7. Perry Bulwer says:

    Here is a blog article from yesterday that speaks directly to some of the issues you have raised about white privilege, but within the atheist/skeptic community, which is the community I most identify with.

    “Calling out Racism on the RDF site”
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/blackskeptics/2012/03/21/calling-out-racism-on-the-rdf-site/

    RDF refers to the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

    By the way, I am a white guy. Well, actually I am more like a guy with pale skin covered by pink blotches and hundreds of brown polka-dots (eeww, it doesn’t sound very attractive when I spell it out like that). I know it is about far more than just skin colour, but it took me quite awhile to figure out this white privilege thing and understand the ways in which I was privileged even when I didn’t feel so. I’m still not sure I am always aware when it occurs, but it is articles like yours and the one I linked to that help me understand the issues and examine my own behaviour and opinions.

  8. Jadey says:

    I’ve generally referred to myself (a Canadian settler of European descent) as a “White” person thinking that that implicitly recognized that I of course have white privilege, but you’re absolutely right that it’s not enough and that many people who identify as “White” are absolutely using it to deflect acknowledgement of their privilege. It can’t be implied – the acknowledgement has to be explicit.

    Thank you. That really clarified something that has been lapping at the edges of my mind for a while now.

  9. Mare says:

    Hi Chelsea,

    I wanted to email you my mum’s blog. We live on Haida Gwaii. My mum and dad both moved here in the 70’s and stayed. I was born here and have lived here all my life. I am of Irish and Welsh descent and live in Skidegate with my husband, who is Haida and my daughter.
    We just recently met with the Joint Review Panel for the Northern Gateway pipeline.
    I thought you may be interested in my mum’s blog because she is writing about culture and life here on Haida Gwaii and the constant struggle it is to keep united and together… no matter who you are or who you came from.
    http://blueseaskyhaidagwaii.wordpress.com/
    Hope you enjoy.

    • Mare says:

      Also “Unpacking the invisible knapsack” is a piece I re-read every so often to keep fresh in my mind. Thank you for reminding me of it again.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    This is a bit of a difficult post for me to read for a couple of reasons, but it gave me a lot to think about.

    As a middle class white woman, I grew up knowing and being taught that “what you are experiencing/learning/living is better than what other people in the world and your own country are getting just because of where/who you were born to”. Does that give me a complete understanding of what white privilege is? NO. Does that stop me from feeling hurt when people say things that sound like “You don’t understand the issues I face” or “White people will never get it” or “You aren’t allowed to have an opinion on this issue because your ancestors oppressed our ancestors”? NO. What it does do, is give me a starting point, one that I have been trying to build on, and I appreciate articles like yours for that. I’m thankful to teachers and parents who have grounded me enough to make me stop, step back and say “You know what, maybe I *don’t* get it.” and articles like yours that help to broaden the picture of what white privilege actually is, and how to deal with it.

    The other problem I have is the concept of “white guilt” and “white privilege”. This is actually a really troubling issue for me, so forgive me if my grammar goes a little shaky while writing this. I have long been involved in various social justice organizations and recently spent a summer traveling across Northern Canada with a science outreach organization. The point was to encourage students in under serviced areas of the North to be interested in science and engineering and to pursue either one in post secondary education. While traveling, in the flow of conversation, the other girls I was working with asked why I was there and why I was so involved in other organizations. I tried to explain my position, that I believed in equality, and that one of the root causes of poverty and systemic class segregation was a lack of opportunity. Partway through my explanation, one of the other girls laughed and said “so it’s white guilt”. I was shocked, tried to explain that no, I felt no desire to atone for what ancestors I had never met may or may not have done, but all of my comments were now shrugged off. My opinions were no longer valid now that they had this cute little label. It’s just white guilt, she doesn’t really care about these people. The conversation instantly shifted, and I never got a chance to explain myself.

    I realize that my experiences are not as troubling as others. I realize that “white guilt” probably is a thing and some people find it annoying. My problem is when “white guilt” becomes part and parcel with “white privilege”. Yes I understand I have it better than most. Should I feel guilty about something I had no control over? Am I not allowed to have any other reason for wanting a more inclusive society? I guess my point is that I hate boxes. I hate when people say things that sound like “Oh you’re a native activist so you must hate the Indian Act and have a history of substance abuse” or “Oh you’re an LGBTQ supporter so you must *love* the musical Rent” or “Oh you’re a scientist so you must hate religion and have no social skills.” I get that it’s human nature to categorize things, but people aren’t buttons. We don’t fit into boxes very well.

    I’ll finish by asking a question in case anyone bothered to read this whole thing. As a white middle class woman looking to promote equality in an unequal society, how would you recommend approaching subjects of systemic discrimination without falling into the trap of White Privilege = “white guilt”

    Thank you

    • Emo says:

      You describe yourself as “a middle class white woman”, but state that you shouldn’t feel guilty about something that you had (past tense) no control over. That just doesn’t compute. It’s entirely appropriate that you should feel guilty about problems that you know about (but are doing nothing to rectify) right now. We all deal with history in the present tense: we study the past not to subtract from the sum of those wrongs, but to understand what the past can add to the present.

      QUOTE “Should I feel guilty about something I had no control over?” CLOSE QUOTE

      Answer: yes. Even Mike Holmes wants to help Attawapiskat –and not because he’s an expert on First Nations, but simply because he’s an expert on housing construction! http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/12/02/f-first-nations-housing.html It’s completely natural for everyone in the white middle class (from Mike Holmes to you) to feel that they should do something; and you have a choice, because you can do something (rather than just feeling “white guilt”).

      The practical meaning of privilege is that you have a choice: those who have no privileges have their choices made for them.

      • Elizabeth says:

        I think there was something not quite clear about my comment, so allow me to rectify that.

        There is a separation between feeling guilty about something, and doing something about it. As I mentioned, I have been a member/contributor to various social justice causes since I was nine years old (the situation I described happened while working for this organization http://north.actua.ca/). Through these experiences, one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that telling people how awful a situation is does almost nothing to encourage them to do anything about it.

        I am not saying that I don’t want to do anything or that I shouldn’t have to do anything. I want to help. I really want to help. What I don’t want, what I find hurtful, is when my opinions and questions are dismissed as “white guilt” rather than a genuine desire to do the right thing. I understand that I have to go into every situation with respect and treating the other with dignity. What I’m asking is that rather than blaming me for something my ancestors may or may not have done, tell me what I should do now to help fix the problems that exist now. Guilt does nothing. Actions do. Awareness campaigns (usually) do nothing. Fundraising and negotiations do. Don’t tell me I should feel guilty, tell me what you want me to DO and I’ll do it. All I’m asking is to not assume that just because someone has “white privilege” that they also have “white guilt” (one is inevitable, the other is an attitude).

        Also, I would argue that Mike Holmes wants to help the residents of Attiwapiskat because he wants to help people (all people), not because he feels guilty and wants to make up for past grievances. Also, Mike Holmes is awesome, thanks for the link :).

  11. Sarah says:

    Great article.

  12. Natalie Irene says:

    Thanks for your post. I really appreciate “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and am bookmarking that page for future reference (and to recommend to others).

  13. MT says:

    Hi Chelsea, thanks for this and yr whole blog. It’s fantastic. You are really awesome!

    I wanted to say a few things about one of your points. I’m not sure if I misunderstood, but at one point, it seemed like you were equating whiteness with skin colour when talking about the Invisible Knapsack and white privilege. I know better than to set out defining what “white” is but for me, I know it’s not about skin colour. [for the sake of clarity and context, I want to say that I’m talking about what this means for people who are not white but do have lighter skin and are seen as white, and I’m not talking about people who are white and have lighter skin.]

    I understand that the benefits that come with having lighter skin are very real, but I’m not sure if they are a “white privilege”. I think of it more as a double edged sword. Lots of people who are not white but read or seen as white by other people face a certain kind of erasure. Like, to the people looking at them, they can’t possibly not be white because they don’t fit their image of what a native person, black person, Arab person, mixed person, and so on look like. This kind of reaction comes from people both inside and outside the communities that they identify with.

    While there are certainly benefits to “passing as white”*, there are some really painful aspects to this, such as exclusion from communities.

    *Passing implies something one is doing. It has a negative connotation and implies an active deception. But really, we can’t help our skin colour. It’s that people look at someone’s skin colour and think they must be white because of their fair skin, and can’t possibly imagine they might be mixed, Native, black, anything but white.

    • Just heading to breakfast with my lovely daughters, I will come back to this very excellent discussion:)

    • What ‘white’ means is going to vary depending on who is articulating the definition. For example, I have pale skin. Without any other visual or contextual clues, people will assume that I am White. I capitalise it to indicate that I am attempting to refer not just to skin colour, but also ‘culture’. What is being assumed about me based on my skin tone is that I am a member of the majority culture, and all the associated beliefs about majority culture are imported to form opinions about what kind of person I am, individually.

      I did touch on how that erases acknowledgement of my culture, but I do feel that because of my skin tone, I receive benefits and a higher level of treatment than those who are darker skinned. No, that’s not strong enough…I don’t just feel that I receive better treatment, I know for a fact that I do.

      It is frustrating to have people (generally only non-natives actually) question how I can possibly be native. It used to be painful, and I can imagine that it is still painful for a lot of people who are assumed to be White, but it no longer touches me that way. My frustration is also limited in scope, because if someone really wants to deny I am who I am, what is the point of continuing that conversation? Then again, I come from a specific community where many of us pale, and I come from a larger community with extreme colour diversity.

      I put this here not to minimise anyone else’s experiences, but to be more clear about where I am coming at this from, in case my own experiences make me less aware of what it is like for others.

      Yes, there is colour-policing within our communities and I agree that this can lead to exclusion and marginalisation. I do recognise that this can be a huge issue. Whatever ‘benefits’ there are to being seen as White outside their community can be insignificant compared to the rejection from within the community. This kind of horizontal violence is an internalisation of colonialism and it can cut deeply.

      The ideas surrounding ‘passing’ also mean different things depending on who is articulating them. Some people think that having others assume you are White is a positive thing, and feel you should be grateful for it. Others feel something akin to betrayal when you are assumed as White, because they are not seen that way. “Passing” can be something you do, deliberately, an erasure of your identity in order to fit into the majority society. But it can also be something that is done TO you, and it can be a kind of violence.

      All very complex, and further complicated by individual perceptions of these ideas. But thank you for further articulating how being assumed to be White can have a very negative impact.

  14. Emo says:

    I don’t dig Jeff’s approach (as the Môniyâw Linguist = ML) of ranting about how oppressed the Irish are, and asserting that his own German ancestors’ loss of their language (after they migrated to Canada) is somehow morally equivalent to the European colonization of Canada wiping out indigenous languages (and employing the same Irish and German settlers to do the job, in part) .

    The situation of German immigrants choosing to migrate to Canada and (thus) to stop speaking German is not comparable for a few outstanding reasons, including the fact that (1) it was a choice whereas being conquered by the British Empire wasn’t optional for the Cree, and, (2) the Germans left behind an array of places populated by fluent speakers of German, some of them now incorporated into a small country called Germany, where, among other things, they don’t have any fear that their traditional literature or culture may actually go extinct.

    I meet Germans who choose not to teach their kids German, and I meet Chinese immigrants who carefully consider whether or not to teach their kids Chinese; but none of them are burdened with a choice that would entail that German or Chinese may disappear from the face of this earth. Ultimately, you’ve got to respect the choice they make, simply because it is their choice.

    Conversely, while the future existence of the Cree language really does hang in the balance, I’ve met Cree who decided not to teach their kids Cree, and I can only tell them that I’m putting in the long hours to learn Cree myself… but, from start to finish, I do nevertheless respect that it is their decision. Just recently, I Cree woman who openly said to me that she bitterly hated her own parents because they decided not to teach her Cree, and that she now feels robbed of the language, and of her heritage generally. She is the first adult (that I’ve met) to speak to me along those lines; I don’t know if more people feel that way but wouldn’t say it in public; inevitably, there must be some people who tend to the opposite extreme.

    Anyone who is serious about studying German literature (or German philosophy, German history, etc. etc.) has the option of going to Germany, and anyone who wants to learn Japanese can go to Japan, and they certainly don’t need to rely on immigrant communities in Canada as their source of knowledge. The sad, shocking thing is that if you want to study Cree, you’ve got nowhere to go but right here. The Cree didn’t leave behind some other homeland where the language, literature and culture are still intact, and are still preserved by a society numbering in the millions. The Cree didn’t make a choice to assimilate into the British empire, they had their choice taken from them. And whereas the parliament in Germany still debates the law in German, the parliament of Saskatchewan can’t even record the Cree language in its Hansard (i.e., transcript) –nor have the laws here ever been translated into Cree, and so on. This remains a country run by an army of occupation, and administered exclusively in the colonial language, pushing the indigenous languages into obscurity, and, to some extent already, pushing it into extinction.

    In Jeff’s writing I see a lot of agony. I would guess that his fans are people who value that autobiographical agony, and, thus, who enjoy hearing about the language and politics from his perspective. He agonizes about his own ethnic identity (he has that one ancestor who was indigenous, whom he mentions frequently), he agonizes about his own religious identity, he agonizes about what he feels are the prejudices against him (both within academia, and from some of the First Nations people who regard him as an unwanted outsider), and so on.

    What’s lacking in all that agony is any sense of empathy. Having read hundreds of pages of Jeff’s monologues, I’m left with the sense that nobody’s suffering is real except his own, and nobody’s aspirations to preserve and perpetuate the language are legitimate except his own. He’s also quick to assume that his expertise in linguistics entails that he has uncontrovertable expertise on the history, politics and culture; in my limited experience, that seems to be offensive to just about everyone except other white linguists.

    White privilege is real. In general, I think that Canadians are about 50 years behind Americans in just developing the capacity to talk about that privilege (and the legacy of our own history) in an open and offhand manner. Frankly, I wish that guys like Jeff didn’t feel that they have to argue that their own German and Irish ancestors are “oppressed also” in the course of dealing with indigenous issues… it’s just lame. I think it will be 50 years before Canadians have caught up with Chris Rock.

    “So everybody bitches about how bad their people got it. Nobody got it worse than the American Indian …Indians go it bad. Indians got it the worst. You know how bad the Indians got it? […] S**t, I have seen a polar bear… [but] I have never seen an Indian family that’s just chilling out at Red Lobster.”
    Chris Rock, quoted in American Indians and Popular Culture, Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman, p. 257

    And Chris Rock used to work as a fry-cook at a Red Lobster, ya done know.

    • I don’t agree with you that Jeff lacks empathy or only believes the suffering of his ancestors is real. I think that his approach sometimes rings alarm bells, because others (e.g. Flannagan) take similar sounding arguments in order to back up assimilationalist policies…policies I do not think Jeff would support.

    • Becs says:

      But why the heck to we constantly compare who got it worse than another? That game is dangerous and gets us nowhere. What does “getting it worse” entail? Is it the complete loss of a race of people – wiped out and never to be thought of again? Is it the sudden loss of a culture, or what about the more gradual blending of cultures? The loss of a language? Is is death of a large population of people? What kind of death – slow? sudden? starvation? torture?

      • Emo says:

        Although I agree with you to some extent (cf. my comment above, “Frankly, I wish that guys like Jeff didn’t feel that they have to argue that their own German and Irish ancestors are “oppressed also in the course of dealing with indigenous issues… it’s just lame.”) …

        …there is also an extent to which we (inevitably) make our moral demands upon one-another through allegory and comparison.

        I do meet plenty of white people who are animated and opinionated with some cause far, far overseas (that neither they themselves nor the government of Canada is likely to have any control over) and it is useful to ask them, sometimes, to compare “the stakes” of the issue they’re so involved in to the indigenous problems (past, present and future) that they may have taken no interest in at home.

        Indigenous peoples issues fall into an easily forgotten space, as white people neither regard them as foreign politics nor as domestic politics. I’ve met a number of white people over age 50 who really did define their careers as academics and/or civil servants in terms of avoiding First Nations issues (and, needless to say, never thinking once of First Nations languages) while never ceasing to speechify on Vietnam, Haiti, Israel, or any number of distant and foreign “human rights” issues, that they felt involved in (despite having absolutely no meaningful involvement).

        “Odyous of olde been comparisonis, And of comparisonis engendyrd is haterede.” Nevertheless, comparisons are inevitable, partly to try to create some degree of compassion (or sense of involvement) for people who have never really thought through where they stand in relation to First Nations (but who may have chosen any number of moral commitments from the menu of middle-class diversions).

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