Last summer, police found the body of a 15 year old First Nations girl in the the Red River. Tina Fontaine was murdered, wrapped in a plastic bag, and dumped in the river.
Last week, someone mailed a card to her family with the following words: “You guys are nothing but a bunch of drunken Indians.” It went on to say that Tina was “following in her father’s footsteps, drinking beer, passing out in back allies.”
Who the hell (and I chose that word intentionally) does that? Seriously?!?
This, right after Macleans Magazine called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, and another report said that Manitoba is the worst place to live in Canada if you’re First Nations.
It’s time to talk about racism, my friends.
I’ll wager that 99% of us reading this aren’t overtly racist. We’re not sending racist hate mail, we’re not using racial slurs, and we’re genuinely nice people just doing our best in the world. So if we’re not racist, what’s the problem then?
Let’s start with a story.
When I was growing up in a predominantly white town, one of my good friends was black. As 13 year olds, the staff at the local dollar store would follow us around to make sure we weren’t helping ourselves to the five finger discount. Every time we split up, guess which one of us the staff member followed? Welcome to the world of white privilege.
There are fancier definitions out there for white privilege, but I simply think of it as white people living in a world of unintended benefit. Most often, we’re unaware of these benefits, and how the system is working in our favour.
This hit home for me when I was doing my MCC orientation 10 years ago. They introduced me to the concept of white privilege through an episode of 20/20. The show featured two men with equal education, job experience, and life skills. The only difference between them was their skin colour; one of them was white and one of them was black. The show sent them to do mundane tasks such as buying a car, buying insurance, and renting an apartment. You can probably guess what happened. The black guy was quoted a higher price for the car. The black guy was quoted a higher price for the insurance. The black guy was told there was no vacancy at the apartment block, and the white guy was offered a lease on the apartment just 5 minutes later. Without fail, the white guys life was better, easier, and cheaper than the black guys, and if it wasn’t for the TV cameras, the white guy wouldn’t have even known about it.
The stats and stories on this kind of thing is remarkable. People with ‘black’ sounding names have a lower chance of being hired. Black people in Ferguson are stopped at a higher rate than white people, even though white people have a higher rate of being caught for illegal activity (or, as John Oliver said, “Of course white people are doing illegal things. They know they won’t get pulled over!). It goes on and on, and most of us are completely unaware.
There’s one more thing about white privilege that’s worth mentioning. While most of us are unaware of the benefits we receive, many of us are unintentionally favouring white people as well.
Let me explain. Several years ago, Harvard university created an online test. It showed us several words underneath a face. We were supposed to click the positive or negative word as soon as possible, while the skin colour of the person changed each round. The program was measuring if there was a difference in how quick we found the positive or negative word depending on the face we were seeing. (Click here to take the test!)
I took the test. My result? I have a slight preference for white people.
I, who would never send racist hate mail, who lived as a <1% minority in Zimbabwe, who has friends of all skin colours, who has a First Nations teenager living in my basement finishing high school… I have a subconscious preference for white people.
Now if you extrapolate that to the millions of kind, well meaning people in Canada who aren’t overtly racist, the result is a society that unconsciously favours white people. Plus, when you throw in some good old historic racism, we have quite the racist system on our hands here.
If we’re all a part of this system, and many of us are benefiting from it and most of us don’t even know it, how do we even begin to address this whole racism thing?
First of all, check out Michael Champagne’s thoughts on turning racism into resolve. He’s a First Nations leader from the North End in Winnipeg who’s working at anti-violence and community development. The first step to addressing racism is listening to the voices that are already addressing it.
Secondly, here are a few handles that I have found helpful over the years, courtesy of Richard Rohr and his Franciscan tradition.
1) Seek to understand before being understood. Always.
2) Name your own privilege. It’ll be okay. Really. As a straight, rich, white, educated, married male with 2 kids, I’m pretty much at the top of the privilege pyramid. And I can name that. If a woman names it, we label her a raging feminist. If someone who is poorer names it, we call them either jealous or lazy or a communist. If someone who identifies as LGBT names it, we accuse them of pushing their gay agenda. If someone from a different skin colour names it, we accuse them of being anti-white and that they should just get over it already and that we’re not all racist. But, as someone who is receiving all the positives of a system built BY people like me FOR people like me, I have to start by naming it for what it is. And in this particular case, racism. Naming racism is the first step to addressing it.
3) “We don’t think our way into a new way of living. Rather, we live our way into a new way of thinking.” “We have to leave our worlds where we have everything under control, where everybody likes us, and head into a world where we are poor and powerless. And there we’ll be converted despite ourselves.” (All from Rohr’s book Simplicity). We can’t think our way out of this one. We have to live our way out of this one.
Checking our agendas at the door and giving up power and control is quite the antithesis to an agenda driven system built on power and control. But it’s only there, in that place where we feel powerless, can we begin to address the racism that we’re all a part of.
Grace and Peace.