Confronting Privilege

by | June 16, 2010
filed under Feminism

Dorcas: You were right, I have been blind. But to myself if anything else. You are…used to risk. I, on the other hand have always chosen comfort and security. My privilege has enabled that. I see now that what begins as caution may become cowardice without one realizing.

The above quote is from Lark Rise to Candleford, and while my use of it is terribly out of context, it really spoke to the way I’ve been reflecting on my own privilege (based on being white, straight, able-bodied, and middle-class) in the past week.

It started when I read an article in my local paper about a request by the Tsilhqot’in nation asking that Begbie Square in New Westminster (named for the infamous “hanging judge”) be renamed and the statue of Begbie replaced byone of Chief Ahan. Ahan is considered a Tsilhqot’in hero. He was sentenced to hanging by Judge Begbie and is believed to be buried under the Square. Now all I knew about Judge Begbie I learned in Grade 4. We learned his nickname and that was pretty much it. Seeing the story made me realize just how incomplete and biased my education had been. I realized, like Dorcas, how blinding privilege can be.

My whole life I’ve been walking around my neighbourhoods and unquestionably accepted the fact that practically every landmark is named after figures from European history. My whole life I happily took off my ancestors’ Christian holidays from school while never questioning if other people’s traditions were accorded the same recognitions. Reflecting on it I realize it’s been comfortable for me to take for granted the legitimacy accorded to my traditions and history over those of non-white communities and First Nations people.

The name of a public square might seem trivial, but I find I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to live in a society where I don’t see me reflected wherever I go. It’s the Eurocentrism – the treatment of white European-ness as normal and everything else as exotic or different – that’s the problem. It’s everywhere and I’m realizing it manifests in my blog when I ignore race. It’s not good enough for me to say the blog is “anti-racist”. By not discussing race, racism, and how policy impacts differently based on race, I’m just reinforcing the status-quo. I also don’t think I do a good enough job looking at issues of ableism or class and poverty.

Part of this is the concern that I don’t want to be “speaking for” marginalized groups. But if I don’t try to address these issues at all, is that really caution or just cowardice?

As the quote at the top points out, those who are privileged have the luxury of choosing to feel comfortable and secure. By extension, confronting privilege can and should be a bit uncomfortable. I showed my blog to a male friend and he said about the feminist content, “To be honest, it made me a bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree, but it made me feel kind of like I do when I hear about things like Residential Schools.” There’s a comfort in complacency. It’s not fun to realize that even though you might not have directly caused a situation (be it Residential Schools or the gender pay gap), you have been complicit by not challenging it or even benefiting from the results.

The first time I noticed my class privilege was when I was in Toronto, studying on scholarship at York University. After tuition, my funding equalled about $500/month, and my rent was over $600. I got a part-time job canvassing on the election campaign but when I came down with mono I had to quit. Then the graduate students went on strike and my funding was even further reduced. Luckily my parents were able to give me money to help with rent and get me back to BC to get a job and get back on my feet. I made some decisions that were poorly planned out, but because of my class I wasn’t judged for them and didn’t experience real hardship in the same way as someone from a poorer background might.

In Teaching Community, bell hooks points out: “no one, no matter how intelligent and skillful at critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain” (p.11). There’s no doubt this is going to be something to work on and I hope people will call me out and comment if they notice privilege-induced blindness on the blog. I’m also interested in others’ stories about recognizing privilege. Confronting privilege may be uncomfortable but that’s where the ability to make change occurs.

On a related note I wanted to direct your attention to a couple good resources for improving equality, and anti-racism in education. The Equality 101 Blog covers a broad range of topics about difference in education. Closer to home Twinkle’s Happy Place is a resource for Canadian educators to integrate anti-racist Aboriginal pedagogy into their classrooms.



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