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White People, Stop Being Defensive About Privilege

08/06/2015 08:55 EDT | Updated 08/06/2016 05:59 EDT
Centre Daily Times via Getty Images
Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says 'Black Lives Matter' during a Ferguson protest organized by a group of Penn State University students on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in University Park, Pa. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/TNS via Getty Images)

Canadians can usually rely on the U.S. to prove discrimination still thrives in 2015, but last week, Ottawa gave our Southern neighbour a run for its racism. Last Monday night, a downtown mural honouring Sandra Bland, the black woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail, was defaced with the phrase "All Lives Matter" and a white moustache. Earlier in July, another Tech Wall mural that read "Black Lives Matter" was sprayed over with tags and the words "Stay Off."



Within hours the original mural of Bland's face was restored by the Black Lives Matter chapter in Ottawa. But the dangerous mentality that marred the mural is much harder to erase.

Though nobody was caught mid-defacement, the perpetrator(s) likely fall into the group that sees Black Lives Matter - the movement that emerged after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's death in 2012 - as a threat rather than a rally cry for justice. The typical retort, "all lives matter," conveniently ignores that in reality, some are treated as if they matter more than others. For example, black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens, according to ProPublica. The "all lives" slogan and other ignorant mentalities about race are rooted in a dangerous rejection of white privilege. As it turns out, white people have a difficult time accepting that their skin colour grants them advantages that other ethnicities simply do not enjoy.

White. Privilege. If you're white and reading this (I am white and writing this), what do those words mean to you? Acknowledgment of your place in a system that's consistently oppressed certain races? Or an unwarranted attack on your identity? Many, including Taylor Swift, mistakenly choose the latter. When the black rapper Nicki Minaj recently tweeted "If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year," Swift snapped back: "It's unlike you to pit women against each other." (The blonde pop star was nominated for the MTV Video of the Year award. Minaj was not.) The Bad Blood singer took a critique of racism in the music industry as a personal insult. Swift's defensiveness is a common reaction from white people when confronted with the reality of racial discrimination.

The math is pretty simple here. If you're white, you benefit from white privilege. Whether or not you identify as racist is beside the point. Since you live in a society that culturally and politically oppresses black people, your skin colour grants you more opportunities. Yet often the caucasian instinct is to reject this basic formula.

As a woman and a feminist, I'm all too familiar with how defensive men often become when you point out any aspect of the patriarchy. But as a white person, I've also been confronted with examples of prejudice toward black people and felt the urge to respond: "Hey, I'm not a racist."

A recent study from Stanford University found that white people find ways to shirk responsibility when reminded of their privilege. Instead of feeling guilt, participants became defensive and shot back with their own personal hardships ("I was poor. I was bullied.") Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, referred to the reaction as "white fragility" in a 2011 journal article: "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation."

Why are white people so easily reduced to school-yard tactics when confronted with reality? We feel threatened. Of course, a personal defence misses the larger issue of discrimination entirely. But the ability to silence irrational emotion with logic is harder for humans than it should be.

A study from New York University found that the concept of white privilege messes with our sense of personal achievement. It's easier to believe you landed your job at a law firm through long hours and smarts, not because your parents shelled out for Ivy League tuition and knew a senior partner at the firm (in reality, of course, success involves a mix of hard work and opportunity.) To preserve the self-made myth, white people deny or distance themselves from privilege. You faced struggles, too. You know white privilege exists for some, but you have black friends. Maybe you don't "see race." All these tactics dodge personal responsibility.

To fight racism, white people need to own up to their privilege. Of course, the right mentality alone won't erase discrimination. But without it, there's little hope of political change. Authors of the New York University study concluded that white people who deny their leg-up in this world don't support affirmative action policies. That's a huge shame, since the best way to reverse the racial oppression rampant in criminal, housing and education systems in North America is to legislate greater equality.

White people need to reject the instinct to become defensive about racial issues. Save those feelings for your diary. We must instead recognize our personal role in big picture discrimination, rather than create a narrative that exempts us from blame. You can own up to white privilege without being a bad person. But denying oppression in any way - whether through a hashtag or spraypaint - is at best tone deaf and at worst racist. Canadians should really know better.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen