The controversial Edmonton anti-racism campaign that called on whites to “acknowledge your white privilege” has now removed the prominent references to “white privilege”. Paula Simons reports:
Lewis Cardinal is a member of the Racism-Free Edmonton board, and a member of the board of Aboriginal Commission on Human Rights and Justice. He says he can’t understand how the “white privilege” message ended up as the main point of the website. He’d been told McIntosh’s essay would be one of a number of pieces of background material on the site, not its key message.
“I think that it was a huge mistake,” says Cardinal. “I have no idea why they launched it with that sitting on the front page. Obviously, I didn’t approve that. I don’t know how it slipped by, but it definitely didn’t get us off on the right foot.”
“The website,” he says “is going to be changed, right away, absolutely.”
Cardinal says it’s vital to address the discrimination in our community.
“But we can’t just say, ‘Racism — it’s a white people thing.’ We all have a role to play here. If we’re going to build a multicultural, pluralistic society, we have to figure out how we’re going to get along and we have to start now.”
Coun. Amarjeet Sohi also served on the Racism-Free Edmonton board. He too was taken aback by the website, which he didn’t see in advance.
“The way it reads, it mainly speaks to white people, not to the entire community of Edmonton. It shouldn’t have been written that way. It should have been more inclusive.”
Nonetheless, he insists, the “white privilege” discussion is an important one to have. As Edmonton’s first In-do-Canadian city councillor, Sohi says he knows first-hand what it is to encounter racism — on both a personal and institutional level.
“Walk into any boardroom, and you don’t see a reflection of your community,” he says. “Acknowledging ‘white privilege’ doesn’t mean every white person is racist. It means that people need to recognize that they have certain privileged status in our society because of who they are.”
Paula Simons’ article is actually titled, Anti-racism website bizarre, offensive to ‘real’ Edmontonians. Although the “‘real’ Edmontonians” in the title invokes the idea that “real Edmontonians are white Edmontonians” and the title reads like, “Anti-racism website bizarre, offensive to ‘real’, white Edmontonians”, she actually means that real Edmontonians are not all white. Simons also writes:
The site parrots an 1989 essay by a prominent white American Women’s Studies professor, Peggy McIntosh, who caused a flurry of controversy more than 20 years ago with her theories around white and male privilege.
But do we really need to import the dated diction of America’s 1980s culture wars to understand our uniquely Canadian, uniquely Edmontonian form of multiculturalism? Transposing America’s black/white race rhetoric to a 21st century western Canadian context ignores our very different social history.
Sohi makes a valid point. But it’s one we need to hear in the voice of real Edmontonians. Why should we let a white American academic, one of the most “privileged” people on Earth, be the one to lecture us on the reality of racism in our city?
It is true that McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is U.S.-centric and suggests that only “African Americans” lack white privilege, which translates very poorly in a Canadian context. However, the general idea of white privilege is very much relevant in contemporary Canadian society. For example, White Canadians have the privileges of “I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my colo[u]r”, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”, and “I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider”, which I do not have as a Chinese Canadian.
Simons does not “get” white privilege, but at least her article was informative and she tried to engage with the issues, even if in a way stereotypical of people who first encounter the notion of white privilege.
ETA: Paula Simons has read this post. She wanted to make clear that she first encountered the white privilege “argument” in the 1980s, but she thinks that it is “imported dated neo-Marxist bafflegab”. Her comment can be read here.