Names have been changed to avoid the legwork of including their real names.
When I moved to Edmonton at twenty-three, I realized that small towns are exactly that, small. Not a lot of people flock to them. Edmonton, however, was the most diverse place I had ever been. Chinatown had been a myth, or some made-up place before moving there. There’s a Little Italy right next to it and across town, there are areas with a majority of South Asian people with Mosques like my hometown had Christian churches. It opened my eyes and my mind to so much, and I was no more than fifteen minutes from it all. This is what has turned my brain inward to my bookshelf.
Something that's been occupying my mind lately is how I take in the world. The books, movies, TV shows and music I take in; who has created it and who the face of it is. Going through the bookshelf that I share with my wife, I notice the books that belong to me are disappointingly cut from the same cloth. Though they span genres from science fiction to historic non-fiction, fantasy and literary novels, they are 99% written by White men. There's one person of colour in my collection and two White women. No women of colour, no LGBTQ representation, just White guys. My wife is doing much better than me, plenty of LGBTQ on her shelves, a lot of women, and more People of Colour, especially women of colour. Our bookshelves, DVD racks and record shelves are physical representations of ourselves and how we take in our society and world at large. Mine, unfortunately for all of us, seems to represent North America’s diversity situation at large; a White, hetero normative, cisgendered blanket.
Though the world around me is a wonderful mix of experience and lives, my bookshelf contains a singular experience: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, David Foster Wallace, Phillip K. Dick, Christopher Moore, Chuck Klosterman, Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut; some of them my favorites, some of them teachers, all of them White. I’ve done my White people homework. I’ve read the viewpoint, and as widespread as the subjects are, it all inherently comes from a place of unconscious Whiteness.
Whenever I’m asked about my favorite books, I do what most of us do, I go for the cool answer. I’ll always give off Sphere by Michael Crichton as my favorite, but when I really think about it, the book that sat with me the closest, since the period that allows me to check the box “some college”, is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. It’s a fact that I always seem to forget, and I blame White Normalization.
When White is our norm, we lose sight of how race, ethnicity, religion and culture plays into the lives of others. When White is our norm, we whitewash our movies, sending Emma Stone to play a half-Asian Hawaiian Woman, and Joseph Fiennes to play Michael fucking Jackson. When White is our norm, we believe Women in headscarves should be liberated from oppression, regardless of whether that Woman chooses to wear a traditional headscarf or not. When White is our norm, we lock ourselves out of the experiences and wisdom of millions of people, billions if you want to learn some other languages. If White continues to be our norm, we will stagnate as a culture.
The most common thing I hear from White people on TV about outspoken Black people, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, is that "Black people make everything about race." But, to this I say that the only reason for any of it is because they're forced to have Black down on their human identification card. As a White person, I have the privilege to be able to go through my life without my race ever being an issue. It’s not even on the table. I'm never forced to think about "White Issues," I'm never the friend with an ethnic background that doubles a novelty act to my group of friends, and I've never been able to be described with a single word. If left to our own devices, we typically don’t talk about race, or racism. It’s almost as if White people need a brown sugar coating to even swallow the idea of a conversation of race, and then label POC with the stigma of “always making everything about race.” For this reason, we must force the conversation ourselves. This is the heart of White Privilege. I capitalize the words because it is a real and tangible thing, and our language needs to reflect that. White Privilege is a proper noun.
A terrorist who just happens to have Middle Eastern descent attacks something, and some White people make all Brown people that terrorist, whether they’re Middle Eastern or not. They could be South Asian, hell they could even be Mexican or South American, but because they’re brown, they’re an "A-rab." Black people get the same shit, but when Brock Turner gets arrested for raping an unconscious woman, no one changes their opinion of White, college aged males; they single him out—we allow a rapist an identity, and a voice before passing him far too leniently through a broken justice system. How much do you know about Freddie Gray, who was KILLED for ALLEGEDLY having a switchblade? Now, how much do you know about the nineteen-year-old, three-time All-American Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner? The pass we choose to give certain people in this society is pathetic, especially when we refuse to see the reasons for said pass.
It’s time that we as White people start owning the fact we’re White. The image of White pride has been completely tarnished by the Neo-Nazi trash that for some reason or another still stalk the Earth, but being White is something to be proud of, just like being Indigenous, Black, South Asian, East Asian, South, or Central American or anything at all is something to be proud of. Being you is something to be proud of. Being White just needs a face lift, some way for people to know that being proud of your White skin doesn’t mean that you’re anti anything, but rather, that being White means that you posses the power to dismantle an antiquated and inhumane system from the inside out. What’s more punk rock than that?
Owning your Whiteness can be done in the simplest ways. I started my journey on the Emoji path. As we’re all aware, the Emoji platform has been progressive since the first major update—the one that allowed us to move away from the “Simpson’s Yellow” skin tone, and reflect ourselves more in the shade of the little Emoji people.
Last year, Andrew McGill of the Atlantic published a story called “Why White People Don’t Use the White Emoji,” in which he used Twitter’s API data to analyze the use of the various shades of Emojis in use online. From 18,000 tweets, he found that only 19% used the lightest skin tone, 30% used the second lightest, and the remaining 52% used the three darkest skin tones. In the article, he goes on to talk of shame associated with the lighter tones, and how the people he talked to explained that it seemed a little too “White pride adjacent” for people to be comfortable using them.
One thing that delights me everyday is people’s use of emoji, especially in texts. My friend always uses the shades that are smack dab in the middle, because he’s bi-racial. It’s always a three with him (one being the lightest, five the darkest) and it’s great, because as silly as these little hieroglyphs are, I do actually feel his whole identity through his texts. But, I have members of my lily-white family who religiously use a number four, or even a five to represent themselves. I talk with my wife about it a lot, and what drives them to use it. As far as my family goes, I can’t say that it’s shame. Maybe a slight fetishisation, as is common in small White towns. The only Black culture we’re exposed to is the Hip-Hop dimension and the romanticized “street lyfe,” so Black becomes ingrained with “the coolest” in our minds. Long ago, I filed those Emoji’s under “harmless attempts at being hip.” But lately it’s been bothering me that I don’t bring it up. We must be the ones to start these awkward conversations. Whether it be calling out the language of the ones around you or bringing attention to the way they talk to and about People of Colour, you have to be the one to do it. No one else will.
These are my two favorite Emoji’s. 😎✊ The sunglasses dude is obvious, I use it when I’m feeling cool or like I’ve pulled off something slick. The fist, however, can be highly contentious. When at three, four or five, the fist becomes the legendary symbol of Black Power. The first two, could easily be construed with White power. My wife called me on it when I decided to start using it in force. She said, “be careful using that thing, eh?” like I had somehow turned this little White fist into a very real gun. I didn’t understand what she meant, not until I read the Atlantic article. She was projecting the shame and unease of her own Whiteness onto me. Something we like to do in groups, and usually under more hostile situations. White people tend to react badly to the fact that we’re complacent in creating and fueling the machine, throwing out things like, “what god-damned privilege?” and, “White people have problems too.”
Playing #WokeBingo isn’t the aim of my thinking here, though. As I get older, I get more and more bored with my surroundings. I’ve been living in an overwhelmingly White world, barely penetrated by what Spike Lee calls “flavour,” and falling victim to the liberal groupthink that seems to permeate borders, social media and everything willing to let it.
When I was a kid, Grande Prairie was a White town with a sprinkling of First Nations people. One of my best friends through elementary school, Ronnie, was Aboriginal, but not knowing anything about anything when I was a kid, I thought he was Chinese. When I was little, I thought there were Spanish People, Black People, White People and Chinese People, and that’s it. Mainly because there was never any way other than TV to even see People of Colour back then, and a little bit because kids are incredibly reductive of huge concepts like race. It wasn’t until having a conversation with another White kid that I realized that Ronnie is Aboriginal, and thus my eyes were open.
On the journey through school, I started to become more familiar with the concept of immigration. A girl from eastern Europe moved to the class one day, her family having moved to escape war in Bosnia. Another girl moved from the Philippines, and when I got to junior high school, I was introduced to the South Asian segment of the city, who mainly lived in areas that defaulted to different schools than me. The city was a lot different than the southside allowed me to believe, and change was neigh.
When we got to high school, the change came to a head one day in TAP class due to a moment of that tricky, well-intentioned silent racism. TAP is the Teacher Assistance Program, where you meet with about ten to fifteen other kids and a teacher to kind of touch base as you move through high school. Same class, all four years. In grade ten, Jason started going to our school. Jason is the darkest skinned Black guy I’ve ever met, and it was clear that the same went for almost everybody. I can’t remember where he said he was from, but his family had moved from a small town outside of Edmonton. Someplace with an exotic sounding name, like Josephburg or Lamoureux, and when he said that to the class, our teacher, an elderly White woman asked with excitement, “where’s that!?” It was hard not to laugh when he said, “outside Fort Saskatchewan” and her face dropped with an “oh,” spilling her anticipation of tales from the Dark Continent onto the carpet at our feet. It was an innocuous moment that for me that highlighted the expectations we sheltered White people can have with people we’ve never met. The possibility that a kid this dark skinned was born in Alberta didn’t ring in her mind at all.
To get back to my point though, ask yourself, next time you watch a movie, “where are the Trans people?”, “Where are the Latinos?”, “Why is my city full of Aboriginal people, but I’ve never seen anybody on screen?” Then think about your friends that fall into these denominations, how you can relate to the hero in almost every movie, and how they’ve only recently started to have these experiences—maybe. Go search #RogueOne on Twitter, go back to the December it came out and see the Latino response to Diego Luna. Find the Queer, Black subsection of Twitter, and see how they admonish Moonlight for true representation. Seek out the people, and the experiences, relate them to yourself and feel the gravity of the situation.
The fact of the matter is no matter how far you feel from it, this is a life and death situation. In the system that was assembled in a country built on the backs of genocide after genocide, it is impossible for anyone but the creators to be free. As what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “sympathetic White people,” and the creators of this system, we need to acknowledge our privilege instead of feeling the shame attached to it, for though it was obtained through centuries of oppression, our privilege is transferrable if we work for it. The world has changed, and we have changed, but our infrastructure has not. We need a societal and cultural infrastructure overhaul. We can change our politicians to align with human dignity. We can choose our entertainment to be made by People of Colour. We can work to change the views of those closest to us, to shatter the ceiling of ignorance on our culture and invite the world in. When privilege is the norm, we will be free. We do not need to be White saviours, we need to be White allies. If we can weaken the inner walls, the outside pressure will buckle the machine.
Writer, performer, producer and musician from Alberta.