On Confronting White Privilege in Scholarship, Activism, & White Communities

I’ve been trying to think of how I can meaningfully contribute to the conversations going on right now surrounding police brutality, white supremacy, and justice for victims of systemic racism and violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, yet another name on a growing list of state sanctioned killings of non-white people, a list which has tragically yet predictably grown longer as I’ve mulled over these words.

I am extremely self conscious that even this statement is an expression of my privilege as a white person, that I feel entitled to take up intellectual space on this subject in a moment like this. I’m not sure what else to do, and it feels incumbent upon me to say something. I’m not sure that I have a platform – people who read this are generally my close friends and family – but if I am at least posturing as someone with a platform, then how I use it is a moral question I have to reckon with. I’ve largely given up on having meaningful conversations on social media, but for the sake of my white friends and family who might need a push in the right direction, I want to share these thoughts:

As a white person it is my responsibility to educate myself about racism and combat it. As a compassionate human being it is my duty to find ways to act in solidarity with victims of racist violence and oppression. That means going beyond passive non-racism and learning how to be actively anti-racist. That means calling bullshit when friends and family perpetuate systemic racism, knowingly or unknowingly. It is my responsibility to acknowledge that I have never had to struggle with racism and I do not know what it’s like. Because I am white, I am exempt from so many injustices that have become routine for people who are my neighbours and friends, members of the same community and society we all share, people who have to live in fear for no other reason than they exist in their own skin.

The victory of Black, Indigenous and all non-white people is the victory of open society for all of us. The inaction or failure of white people to show up to that struggle is a failure for all of us too. I know that I can do better. When I engage in scholarship or write on issues that I think are universally important, I don’t look at those issues through the lens of anti-racism. I have been thinking about how the kinds of activism that I am most passionate about – mad studies, education reform, and perhaps closest to my heart, ecological justice – are all steeped in racist attitudes of white privilege and supremacy. All of these movements would immeasurably benefit from embracing their intersections with anti-racism and social justice.

It is a privilege to be able to talk critically about the injustices of modern psychiatry and profit-motivated treatments for mental illness without addressing the fact that the people who most disproportionately experience undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental health issues AND who are the most stigmatized for these issues AND who are the least likely to be able to access adequate mental health resources, AND who are disproportionately detained, charged, or imprisoned despite (or due to) those mental health struggles, are the victims of systemic racism and oppression. To the best of my knowledge these issues have gone mostly ignored even in mad studies, where most scholars are predictably white.

It is a privilege to be able to talk about education reform in abstract and utopian terms without addressing the racism happening NOW in our schools, the increased policing of non-white students, the chronic under-funding of majority Black neighbourhoods and public schools, the crisis of Indigenous education in Canada, the lack of access to social services and educational supports for students with special needs in these communities, and the routine discrimination and violence these students face at the hands of educators and peers.

It is a privilege to be able to take strides towards ecological justice without simultaneously tackling social and racial justice, to think about growing food and raising animals without thinking about the challenge of raising families and growing communities where people are constantly afraid of being murdered by the state. Climate change threatens us all, yes, but we cannot fight climate change without simultaneously fighting racism, white supremacy, and fascism in all its forms. The threat of climate change requires a united response, and we cannot respond so long as we remain a divided people.

White people need to be able to confront these evils within ourselves. However well intentioned we are, we are also deeply ignorant, and that ignorance causes harm. I encourage white people to learn from non-white voices, and have conversations with each other that are deeply uncomfortable, as we do the hard work of understanding our complicity in racist violence and oppression, and take action to end that violence for good. If you are a white person reading this, and you think that white privilege doesn’t apply to you, or if you squirm a little when you see the words Black Lives Matter, or if you think Indigenous people who die in police interactions generally deserve it, or if you are just feeling hopeless and wondering where to start… Please, let’s talk. We can do better, and we can help each other do better by educating ourselves and supporting each other in taking direct action for a better and more just world for all. When we vote, when we protest, when we advocate, we cannot do so only out of self-interest for those who look like us. As white people, we have inherited a legacy of violence, colonialism, imperialism, slavery and oppression, and it is our moral duty to understand that legacy, and work to repair the harms that it has caused.

I am determined to work harder to include concerns that do not just apply to me or people who look like me in all of my work. I recognize that I will make mistakes, I will fail, I will feel awful about it, and that being an ally means I will have to confront those feelings, and then try harder. So as I am thinking about how I want to work as an independent scholar, as an education reformer, as a some-day ecological farmer, I am committing to include in those plans the platforming and amplifying of BIPOC voices, learning about the issues that affect BIPOC students, and re-framing my thoughts on ecological justice to put social justice at the core of this vision for a better society. On top of continually listening and educating myself about racism and white supremacist violence in our communities, this is literally the least I can do.

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