It is Christmas morning and I am just in from a morning dog run with my friend and hunting buddy, Jason Quinn, his dog Nos and my dog Hera. As I was driving home, I started to think about a concept I see used quite liberally in discussions over the blogosphere, namely, white privilege. The term, white privilege, refers to what is held to be “the set of societal privileges that white people benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of color in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice… It can be compared and/or combined with the concept of male privilege.” (Wikipedia) As a white man from a family with solid working class roots, I can honestly say I never stopped to think about the fact that I have a white skin or that in having a white skin somehow endows with me with privileges that are denied those with a different skin colour.
My father never finished high school. He was serving in the Canadian Army as a gunner in the artillery when I was born. My mother was training to be a teacher, but was asked to leave teacher’s college when she was pregnant with my younger brother and sister (fraternal twins) as the director of the school told her it was inappropriate (disgusting, he said) for a pregnant woman to be seen by children in the classroom. During my early childhood, we lived in modest apartments; we moved frequently, as my father was sent to a number of different postings by the Canadian Army. My mother and father had four young children to care for by the time they were in their mid-twenties. We never went hungry and looking back, I realize just how generous my mother and father were, given the modest means they had at the time.
Our family had the good fortune to be living in Canada. By the late 1960s there were opportunities in education for all. My father, not content with his lot in life, enrolled at Queen’s University as a mature student. I remember him toiling away at his studies on his own time, even by correspondence the two years we resided in the United Kingdom (1968-1970). He left the Canadian Army to complete his studies at Queen’s full-time, graduating with a degree in political studies and sociology in 1973. It was a proud moment for him and our extended family turned out for his graduation. I remember my grandad plucking a four-leaf clover from the grass outside the Jock Harty Arena following the graduation ceremony, a good omen it proved to be, as my father found work in the federal public service very quickly. My mother enrolled at Carleton University, earning a degree in psychology, while she worked for the Gloucester Family Day Care, eventually becoming the Executive-Director.
My brother and sisters and I all took advantage of the opportunities for education in that we completed high school and went on to university. My youngest sister and I were graduate students at the same time at the University of Western Ontario. I graduated with a master of library and information science degree and my sister with a master’s degree in audiology in the spring of 1993. My brother and other sister have bachelor’s degrees from Brock University. We have all prospered over the years, but there were lean times for all of us along the way. I had to turn to social assistance following my graduation from the University of Western Ontario as I could not find work as a librarian and was passed over for other jobs in retail sales, shipping and receiving, etc., because employers saw me as over qualified. Never in my worst nightmares did I ever imagine I would have to turn to social assistance. I recall my grade eight teacher, Mr. Ford, always drumming into the class the importance of seeing through our education, lest we drop out and end up “drawing a welfare cheque.” I was made to feel like a bug under society’s shoe when I ended up on social assistance.
I put my nose to the grindstone, taking temporary and contract positions in various federal public service and public libraries and finally, by the time I was thirty-nine years old, Carleton University offered me a full-time position as a librarian. In the present, I have a good job in the MacOdrum Library at Carleton University and live quite comfortably with Mika in a very nice home in Centretown Ottawa. Mika comes from a comfortable, middle-class German family. His father was a professor of German literature at the University of Regina, his mother was a pharmacist, or as I like to tell people, a drug dealer, in Germany before settling in Regina. Mika overcame the disadvantage of being hearing impaired and attended Queen’s University on an academic scholarship, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science in 1996. He has a good job in the federal public service as a programmer-analyst.
I stated in the opening paragraph that I never stopped to think about the fact I have a white skin, but I do recall having this brought to my attention once during my studies for my bachelor’s degree at Queen’s University. I was living in an eight man unit at Princess Towers one year. Of the eight of us living there, there were a number of foreign students: two Libyans, one Syrian, one from Singapore, one Chinese, one from Ghana, and two white men, myself and one other. We got along fine, aside from a few minor disagreements over unwashed dishes and the like. I remember close to the end of the school year when my funds were near exhausted subsisting on a diet that consisted mostly of Red River cereal. One day, as I sat down to a bowl of Red River cereal, Jao, the Chinese graduate student, who had a pile of food in front of him, quipped “you white men sure do not eat much.” I was startled by his remark. “Yeah,” I thought, “I guess I am a white man”; I just never stopped to think about that before. I mean, really, why should I? It is strictly by an accident of birth that I am white and male.
My family and I have done well for ourselves, but by no means was our place in society guaranteed because we are white. We applied ourselves and with a degree of good fortune have all found our niche in society. Would things have been different were we non-white? I honestly cannot say, but while I do not deny prejudice on the basis of race and ethnicity does exist; and while nothing is guaranteed; I think in Canadian society everyone has the opportunity to find their own happiness and success regardless of their race, ethnicity and class into which they were born. On that basis, I conclude I am privileged to be Canadian, regardless of my sex and skin colour.
Posted by Geoffrey