The Bubble of White Privilege

A4863D1A-8382-41CC-8878-D0D024A58F7B I recently decided that this is something I wanted to post about.  I’m not an expert but I wanted to share some of my memories I’ve had over the years about how I feel my white privilege and my experience as I grew up sheltered and seemingly unaware of  a lot of the racial atrocities around me.  I grew up in a small town in western Canada, basically your white, Anglo Saxon community. I don’t remember any black kids in my school growing up at all. The town I lived in was near an Indian reservation and so there were a number of indigenous kids who attended my small school. For the most part it seemed they were part of the school community from what a could gather. I think this was largely in part because of a lovely teacher  who very much brought a sense of community and harmony to our small school. While she was not indigenous herself, she had built a special bond while teaching the children and working with the people of the Siksika Nation. She developed a strong understanding of their culture and language and learned how to speak the Blackfoot language. I believe this truly helped the indigenous students in our school from being alienated. However, all students benefited from this gifted teacher. She was eventually inducted into the Siksika Nation as an honorary member in June 2008 with the name of “Nitssiitapiakii” (Indian Woman) She was a brunette petite women of American heritage who wore her hair in braids and she was always adorned with traditional native beaded jewellery and hair adornments. She was a kind and musical lady who was very loved by students and the community at large. She always had premium plus crackers in her desk that she would share with everyone. She always had lots of fruit or an extra sandwich for anyone who didn’t have a lunch.  This generosity made it so no one had to feel ashamed of not having a lunch.   I also had an indigenous friend named Diana, she lived in town down the street so we played together often. She had a big brother named Ralph who everybody was afraid of. To this day I’m not even sure why. I can’t recall him ever being mean to me, but I suspect it was because he towered over everyone and looked much older than his age. I was too young to understand what was going on. I just blindly followed what I was told.   The kids that were in my class from the reservation definitely had sporadic attendance at school. Again, it didn’t really occur to me why that might be.   I remember as kid hearing rumours of the “Indians” as we called them stealing vanilla and Lysol spray from the local grocery store. Apparently they paired their vanilla and sprayed their potato chips with Lysol. It wasn’t unusual to see an intoxicated indigenous man stumbling down the Main Street.  I am not really sure why or how this started but it instantly made me afraid of them even though I truly never had a negative encounter with anyone.  I also remember one Saturday  morning my family awoke to a big native man sitting at out kitchen table. Our door was unlocked as we lived in a small town. He had made himself a coffee. I remember my mom freaking out and screaming at him to get out of our house. He was very calm, he stood up and said he was sorry, he thought he was in a friend’s house. He said he had mistaken our house for one nearby. Honestly at the time, we had no house numbers or street names in our small town so I believe it could have been an honest mistake.   As I grew older we eventually moved to a slightly larger town. Again, very few visible minorities.   In the early 80’s a large group of Vietnamese refugees came to our town.  I found them very intriguing. It was obvious to me at about age 10 that these kids definitely had superior education. Everything from their beautiful penmanship to their math skills was very obvious. They were also so humble and gracious. Despite the fact that they were refugees fleeing their country. It was never explained to us why they were here or what they had been through. It wasn’t something that was discussed.   It wasn’t until I was in junior high when I moved to a larger city that there were actually any black kids in my school. I became very good friends with a black girl. We met as we both shared a love of track and field. She was confident and athletic and popular. From what I remember I don’t recall any discrimination or racism. The only thing I do remember was that she had two brothers and a sister. She,  her mom and one of her brothers had very dark skin, yet her dad and her sister were very fair. I remember innocently asking her if they were white?  She wasn’t offended by my question she simply said, yes everyone just assumes they are white. Perhaps  she never let on any struggles with racism. I did notice that she would sometimes purposely play down her athletic ability . I suspect this was to avoid anyone from being jealous of her athletic ability.  As I grew up as a young adult in university and started my career, race had never really occurred to me.  I felt I was always surrounded with a multicultural mix of different people every day from many countries, speaking many languages, many skin tones. I’ve never witnessed a racial act of violence. Of course,  I  am not naive enough to think that racism doesn’t exist in Canada.  I understand that I’ve led a sheltered privileged white life never seeing or hearing about racial violence.  It’s almost as though I lived in this bubble. In junior high and high school we learned about atrocities such as the Holocaust, Japanese interment. I remember watching black and white documentaries in social studies and feeling physically sick at what I was watching. Interestingly enough in my schooling we never studied anything about the Black civil rights movement, the struggles with apartheid in South Africa.  I only learned of these things through  the news media only. The most shocking thing  that I’ve learned in the last few years is about Canadian indigenous residential schools.  Indian residential schools operated in Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s. The last Indian residential school closed in 1996. Children between the ages of 4-16 attended Indian residential school. It is estimated that over 150,000 Indian, Inuit, and Métis children attended Indian residential school. The school system was created for the purpose of removing Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Over the course of the system’s more than hundred-year existence, about 30 percent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally. The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to an incomplete historical record, though estimates range from 3,200 to upwards of 6,000.  Based on the time when this was occurring I myself was still in school and into my adulthood and I knew nothing about it.  I am required for my job to take courses about the Canadian indigenous in the last few years.  Watching and listening to documentaries has made me realize what has been going on for many years. All those years not understanding the struggle, that oppression, the blinders that were part of my white privilege. There is something fundamentally wrong that there is such a lack of knowledge, education, awareness about these issues.  I am almost 50 years old and I feel truly uninformed and uneducated in racial issues. However, I feel like it’s not too late to educate myself, to really try to at least know what has happened and what continues to happen but obviously not truly being able to understand what it’s been to experience racism. I quite frankly feel ashamed but I vow now and going forward to be aware, take action and spread the word and knowledge about systemic racism. It’s never too late to educate yourself. 

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