The word, privilege; what a scary word, eh?! In fact, I’d say that privilege could be the top-ranking feared word in the English language today, outranking the loanword, jihad. I remember the days when predominantly white people would toss the word jihad around like a ragged doll, misusing it, misinterpreting it, and mispronouncing it by elongating the “a” so that the word was anglicized with a southern drawl, jihad. I blame the media and individual ignorance, but mostly the media who capitalize on said ignorance. One minute, the media paints us ALL to be terrorists and due to the resulting fear, people scream and shout “kill them all!”; the next minute, all the ignorant and scared individuals who bought into the media are ALL islamophobes and there’s nothing wrong with the poor average Muslim. “Why are you all hating on Muslims?” the media questions. Well, Barb, maybe it’s because you spent ten years calling them terrorists, how ’bout that? I can’t stress it enough folks, the media is not working for you, is not your friend, and is actually struggling to remain relevant in a day where information is easily accessible. So what do they do to generate a larger audience and eventually revenue? They instigate, they write click-bait titles to get you all riled up, but most importantly and dangerously, they find ways to capitalize on your emotions, and one of the ways to do this is to politicize the media. Anger, fear, hate and shock make money in the news. I digress; however, I will get back to the media and its contribution or lack thereof to bring awareness to privilege among our society. So let’s get back to today’s big and scary word, privilege.
White privilege: Thank you, officer, for my speeding ticket
What is privilege exactly? Why are people reacting indignantly or uncomfortably, and in some instances the word just mortifies people into feeling like they have committed a crime? Naturally, the word either makes you feel terribly guilty or terribly dismissive depending on which political side you’re leaning; specifically, when the term white privilege is the topic of discussion. As a person of colour who can get away with being from almost anywhere around the world, and am almost always mistaken to be a nationality that I am not based on the features of my face, my language, and my articulations, I can certainly say I appreciate the term white privilege and what it means. Seriously, let’s give the conservative supporters a break since they’re a little on edge about the word, and use me as an example instead to explain white privilege; in fact, white privilege holds a lot more weight if you’re a person of colour who can camouflage among more than one ethnicity.
1990: Passaic, New Jersey, USA
As a baby in New Jersey, I had fair skin with a head full of soft and bouncy, light brown curls. Everywhere we went, people would stop my parents to tell them I looked like Shirley Temple. My parents would smile gleefully as the idea of resembling a white celebrity was the biggest honour. There is a time in every immigrant’s life where they want to fit in very much with their new neighbours and the new culture to which they immigrated, that they begin to hide their heritage, their past and their identity. For my parents, it was easy because they were fair-skinned like me, and all they had to do was drink beer and party, laugh, join in on the jokes, and not complain. This is the epitome of white privilege; people didn’t assume they were thugs AND their baby (me) looked like Shirley Temple, what a bonus! However, their accent and their names – even my name – would deceive them, especially my father whose native tongue was a Semitic language and whose name gave away his heritage. In fact, my father purposely went by his middle name because it was more “American-like”. My mother had two over him though; she spoke Parisian French so effortlessly and perfectly, ou-la-la!, and her name was very European-like. At some point, as an immigrant tries to fit in with no one giving them any indication that it is OK to be different, i.e. government administrations, they go from accommodating others so they can be better understood to erasing themselves entirely to the point where they are no longer recognizable. White privilege was my parents’ protection while living in a very poor community in New Jersey.
1995: Kanata, Ontario, Canada
We moved to Kanata in 1995, a predominantly white town at the time with farmlands surrounding neighbourhood complexes. By then, my dad’s English was flawless and my mother would tell people she was French, and so they then felt like they could really blend in. We did blend in for a little while until I had a fight with my “best friend” Lucy (a pseudonym) about some nonsensical playground etiquettes (there was a park nearby). My parents were always embarrassed by my over-active behaviour, and so immediately apologized to her parents and made me apologize. In retrospect, I likely started it. But what’s interesting is how a small fight between six-year-olds can cause an entire neighbourhood’s feelings to change toward my parents. Almost instantly, we were reminded that we were not white enough and will never be white. And so began the lesson my parents ingrained in my head, “you can eat with them, drink with them, play with them, but remember, Hazar, you will never be white.” I never understood my parents and always laughed because I didn’t believe them. I’d bring home a white friend to play Barbies or Power Rangers, and when she’d go home, I’d say, “See? They’re not so bad,” and my parents, bless them, they would smile and say, “One day, you’ll understand.”
2001: Post-9/11, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
“One day” finally came, and I finally understood what my parents meant. The attacks of 9/11 were mortifying for a number of reasons. The lives lost, the grieving families, the injuries sustained, the fact that it was so close to home, the fear, and anguish; I can’t even describe to you how my parents were feeling in the moment this took place. I walked home from school to find my mother standing still staring at the tv, holding my baby sister. I was 11 at the time and wearing a hijab (head cover) – a decision both my parents opposed when I decided to wear it in 2000 because they were afraid for me and afraid I’d lose my ability “to blend in”. After 9/11, they pleaded with me, crying, to take off my hijab and I refused. “Your mother doesn’t even wear a hijab,” my dad told me. I stood my ground and said, “NO!” My sister had just decided to wear the hijab a week prior to 9/11, but unlike me, she was 80lbs, just over 4ft tall and dark-skinned. My dad would have none of it with her and so forbade her to wear it out of fear she’d be attacked. You see, my parents already knew what was coming as soon as U.S. President George Bush declared that the attackers were Muslim, and the media took that narrative and inflamed it! They fought with me to leverage my white privilege and to take the hijab off. Obviously, they didn’t say, “Use your white privilege,” as there wasn’t a term for it then; but being told to take my hijab off so I can camouflage is in essence being asked to leverage my white privilege. I didn’t understand until weeks later when the harassment began. White kids would walk by me and call me a Paki – a derogatory term used to insult Pakistanis. They would creep up behind me, girls and boys, and pull off my headscarf and shout, “Look, she’s got hair under that!” They’d follow me home and shout, “Does your dad wear a turban?” Keep in mind these are 11-year-old kids and so it begs the question, where the heck are they learning this? I grew up thinking I was one of them, an ally and a friend, and after 9/11, I finally learned that I would never be white.
2015: Cambridge, Ontario, Canada
I was married to a white Dutch-Canadian once, and I legally adopted his last name almost instantly. It was so much easier travelling with his last name, meeting people and even applying for jobs. It made for a humorous ice-breaker when people would look at my first name, then last, then look up to see thick-brown hair, not at all the features of a typical Dutch woman. 2015 was an unrecognizable year for me. I had spent 8 years upon returning from Dubai, UAE, (my parents moved us there in 2002 and we came back in 2007) changing myself completely. I removed my hijab, I introduced myself as “Heather” to people, I adopted a Dutch last name, I put aside my beliefs, traditions and culture to accommodate my husband’s lifestyle, and I moved into the whitest town I could find to get away from “my people”. It wasn’t until 2017 that I realized how much of myself I had erased; I barely recognized myself, all for the sake of white privilege.
I was pulled over by a police officer with a radar gun on Water St. in Cambridge one day. I’ll admit I had been speeding and he pulled me over. I rolled down the window and I asked him how he was with a smile because for some reason I thought this was a “ride program” on a Monday at 10 am, and I was ready to tell him that I was sober and late for work! He replied, “I’m doing well, but how are you?” and showed me the radar gun with my speed. My heart sank, bummer. He asked for my license and insurance, and I handed him the license but couldn’t for the life of me find my insurance! I was late for work, annoyed that I was speeding and was pulled over, and now receiving two tickets for “failure to provide proof of insurance” and for “speeding”. He came to the window looking sorry for me, and said, “Today isn’t a good day for you, is it?” and handed me both tickets. And for some reason, I looked up, smiled and said, “Thank you, officer, I appreciate it.” He responded with a quizzical look on his face and I said, “Well, I could’ve hurt somebody today and you checked me. So thank you.” Don’t get me wrong, I was furious. But as I was driving to work, I began to think, “Thank you? Seriously?” and it dawned on me that my heart didn’t race, I wasn’t afraid to get shot, it didn’t even occur to me that this encounter could ever escalate. So much so, that I thanked him for ticketing me, not once, but TWICE! And this was another example of my white privilege; the fact that I wasn’t afraid that today would be my last day.
White Privilege: Leveraging it to do good
I want to stress that white privilege isn’t a term that is exclusively used to describe white people’s behaviour or circumstances. People of colour do have and benefit from this privilege in North America. I say North America because we’re talking about social issues in North America; however, white privilege is also something that is experienced in different parts of the world. It also doesn’t have to be a bad thing. By acknowledging it, you can then use it to do good by you, and by others. No one is asking you to save the world or to hijack a movement; that would be arrogant, and we will talk about the arrogance portrayed by both the political left and right supporters through their white privilege another time. But today, I want you to consider the possibility that the colour of your skin may not have played a role in the way your life turned out. Everyone struggles including white people; white privilege simply means that the colour of your skin was not an added difficulty in your life.
Lastly, this article isn’t to say that white privilege is the only privilege; it certainly is not. In my experience combined with my linguistics background, there are four types of privilege that can explain why racialized persons don’t necessarily share similar social views: white privilege, economic privilege, geographic privilege, and national privilege. I’ll discuss the differences and how they all correlate in some way in a later article. But for now, I thought I’d share a perspective of white privilege that isn’t commonly shared, and hope it helps you on your journey to learning more about today’s social issues regarding race.
So… how can we define white privilege?
There are a variety of definitions for white privilege, mainly because people have a hard time grasping the meaning, and so it seems that we need different perspectives to help explain the term. Regardless of the differences among those definitions, the underlying meaning remains the same: the benefit attributed to one and gained without merit. In simpler terms, the colour of your skin, a colour you did not earn but with which you were simply born, benefits you in society whether by protecting you, helping you with your career choices and growth, or simply being able to walk or drive around without people making (negative) assumptions about your character without even knowing you.