Why We Must Talk About White Privilege
The idea that systemic racism has victims but no beneficiaries is a lie we must confront and destroy.
In the last days of Toronto’s municipal election campaign, front-runner John Tory was asked—in the wake of a growing wave of racist attacks against Olivia Chow and a number of visible minority council and school board candidates—whether white privilege exists. His response: “No, I don’t know that it does.”
It is crucial that we distinguish these things—white privilege and racism—and that we learn to talk better about each. Toronto is a city ostensibly grounded in the notion that people not only can genuinely integrate and get along, but that we all flourish when that happens—that diversity is our strength, as the the slogan goes. This is a wonderful founding myth for a city, but remains just that: a myth. If we’re ever going to reach that goal—if we are to not just profess that diversity is our strength, but all be made stronger by our diversity—then we need to talk frankly about the gap between here and there.
So let us start here: white privilege is real, and it affects every single Torontonian.
The simplest way of explaining what white privilege means is to point out this basic fact: white Torontonians are not singled out or stereotyped for their perceived race or ethnicity. White privilege is the flip side of racism: if those of us deemed to be “visible minorities” suffer discrimination, white privilege speaks to the corresponding people who, whether or not they realize it, gain advantage from this dynamic. Systemic racism does not just have countless victims, but beneficiaries as well.
White privilege does not mean all white people are born into automatic money or power, and it does not mean that white people, whether or not they have these things, intend to benefit from racism. It means that they cannot help but benefit from it, because it is built into our culture. It means white people are free from the systemic bias, suspicion, and low expectations that racialized people must endure every day. It means that when a criminal has white skin, his actions are never connected to his race, while a criminal perceived as a brown-skinned Muslim inspires hatred and suspicion of other brown-skinned Muslims. It means that white people are not de facto representatives of their race.
White privilege means no one suggests that a white person who fails is a disgrace to all white people, as Desmond Brown said about former TDSB director Chris Spence, the black educator who admitted to plagiarism. It means that if someone does make such a racist contention, a major newspaper like the Toronto Star will dismiss it as nonsense instead of publishing it. White privilege means that whiteness is not taken to be a defining feature of an individual’s humanity, and therefore does not need to be pointed out or discussed.
Many white people are deeply uncomfortable with the naming of their privilege because they take it to be an indictment of their personal thoughts or actions. But white privilege isn’t about what is in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is a set of circumstances in the world, with which we all must contend—but which white people can ignore with impunity, while the victims of racism cannot.
Carding, the Toronto police practice of stopping civilians for non-investigative purposes and documenting their personal information, occurs all over Toronto. However, the carding of black men is most prevalent in a police district in the heart of downtown Toronto, where only 2.9 per cent of residents are black. The police force’s racial profiling is not an example of white privilege—that’s institutional racism at work. But it’s white privilege that allows white people in the downtown core to walk in peace and freedom, unaware that the rights of the black people they pass by on the street are constantly being violated.
It is because of white privilege that some white people are skeptical of or offended by equity programs that assume racialized residents may face greater challenges than their white counterparts. Their presumption is that all races are equal, because that is their real experience as the invisible but dominant racial group. As a result, those who object to these programs argue that phenomena like the racial imbalance among government employees is the result of picking the “most qualified person for the job”—as if qualified people of colour are simply the losers in an unbiased hiring environment.
Mayor Rob Ford knew this when, in 2011, he asked City staff to remove language encouraging the city’s diverse population to apply for positions on municipal agencies, boards, and commissions. Ford’s request—which staff rightly rejected—makes sense for those who have the privilege of assuming the world is a meritocracy. In this world view, no one is responsible for racial discrimination—the smartest and most talented will always somehow be recognized and rewarded—so it would be unfair and even dangerous to try to game the system to favour certain groups.
John Tory’s indifference to the constant stream of racism directed at fellow mayoral candidate Olivia Chow sheds more light on white privilege. He has indeed advocated for systemic equity as a “private citizen,” to use his words. But in a public electoral campaign, he seems to see a benefit in sidestepping talk of the disproportionate struggles of racialized people. Tory told the Globe and Mail he didn’t address racist remarks directed at Chow during a debate because she “spoke very eloquently” in her own defence. Yet subsequently Tory criticized Doug Ford’s stereotypes and insults of children with autism and, most recently, women. These people too can speak in their own defence. Still, Tory defended them, but where visible minorities were concerned, he lost his voice.
Many of us do not see, or want to see, how our ideas about race privilege whiteness. The Ford brothers are fond of dismissing accusations of racism by reassuring us they don’t care whether someone is “white, pink, or purple” (writer Rachel M. Brown calls this “the invocation of strangely colored people“). The goal is to ridicule claims that people are treated differently based on their identity. Tory employed a far more common version of willful colour-blindness in response to the white privilege question: “I think that there are people who are left behind,” he said, without saying who those people are. He continued, “[W]hat I think they need is a hand up, from people of all different skin colours and religions and backgrounds.” Tory was careful to suggest that people of all faiths and skin colours can and should be the helpers—he refused to say that black and brown people, that Muslim people, that members of many groups who suffer discrimination are less often in a position to offer that help.
How do we begin to accept a description of reality that challenges our notions of a multicultural and accepting society? How do we talk about privilege without being consumed by understandable feelings of guilt, anger, blame, and resentment? There are no easy or short answers, but we can begin with a commitment to acknowledging racial inequity and the lasting damage it causes.
No person’s perceived race should be used to explain his skills as a leader or parent, as is frequently the case with black Torontonians. No person should receive inferior treatment at hospital because of her presumed heritage, as is too often the norm with Toronto’s First Nations residents. There is much pain in acknowledging widespread and ongoing racial inequity, and far more pain for the people living it. This pain cannot end until we move beyond words and wishes, into acceptance and action.
When the Star‘s “Known To Police” series exposed the depth of our police’s racial profiling, particularly among young black men, the Toronto Police Services Board moved to change police practices. Although carding still exists, the Board has made positive strides in reforming the practice and mandating that police inform civilians of their rights. However, neither the board nor the police service has formally acknowledged the lasting damage done by routinely stopping innocent people and treating them like suspects and criminals.
The police have produced the PACER report, an extensive investigation into police-community relations, and high-ranking officials like deputy chief Peter Sloly have acknowledged carding’s “unintended impacts on the community.” But most of those affected by the practice will not read the PACER report or hear a quote from the deputy chief. The police board’s first action should have been a significant public campaign to explain how carding failed and harmed the community. More than a new policy or chief, open police discussion about carding’s specific and disproportionate impact on black and brown people would be a powerful signal of change, and a step towards reconciliation.
We must learn to characterize the racist attacks on political candidates as attacks against our country and democracy. Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, incumbent city councillor Mike Layton, and council candidates Jane Farrow, Joe Cressy, and Alex Mazer, have forcefully condemned attacks against municipal candidates including Munira Abukar, Mohammed Uddin, and Ausma Malik. Other candidates like Chow and Andray Domise have been speaking out for weeks or months. This chorus of solidarity should be unanimous, and we must learn to produce it as reflexively as the haters spew their vitriol.
Let us also work to destroy the deadly myth that our unequal society is a reflection of merit. Black and brown people experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, underemployment, and poorer health outcomes. It is the height of privilege to defend a social system that produces such skewed outcomes as “fair.” We need aggressive employment equity targets and an explicit commitment to anti-racism in our public and private workplaces, we need zoning strategies to ensure grocery stores and not just fast food outlets are within walking distance of every Torontonian—we need to remake every social system to provide equal access and opportunity, instead of assuming that merit will win out of its own accord.
Unfortunately, racial inequity has beneficiaries, and since most of those beneficiaries aren’t fully aware of their advantages, the inequities won’t simply fade away; we need to actively work to redress the imbalances and level the field. Racism is the bully who shows up at a party without being invited: almost no one wants to associate with him, but few have the courage to show him the door. Those of us affected by systemic racism don’t have the luxury of ignoring that bully. When we talk about white privilege, we are simply asking those who do have that luxury, who could ignore the bully, to recognize their good fortune, and to come and stand with us instead.