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Recognizing White Privilege

HCRL's picture

           Over winter break, I spoke with my parents about white privilege. My family is white, and I believe has been benefiting from white privilege for many years. My father understood the concept, but contended that it did not apply to him because he is Jewish. He is an intelligent, thoughtful, and left-leaning person, and his refusal to acknowledge his white privilege irritated me greatly. During our conversation I learned a great deal about my father and his experiences as a white Jewish man. Over the past two months, I have slowly come to understand that his opinions are a product of the environment in which he was raised, and are heavily grounded in lessons and viewpoints taught to him by his parents. This same statement applies to myself as well, so I wondered why this particular perception of the white privilege-negating effect of Judaism had not been passed down to me. I realized that I actually had been taught this for much of my life, but that developing sharp critical thinking and questioning skills time through my time in the Bi-Co has lead me to push back against this belief. This realization propelled me to reflect uponhow my cultural identity has evolved throughout my life, and also to question the direction in which it is moving.

            There are two pieces of my culture that I find to be particularly interesting, impactful, and intertwined: religion and race. I will explore my childhood and current experiences with religion and race, and how they impacted my perception of my personal privilege. This becomes especially interesting to consider when analyzed through Sekani Moyenda’s theoretical lens. I will then delve into how these cultural factors affected myself as a learner throughout my life, using Teju Cole’s beliefs on the “White-Savior Industrial Complex” to problematize some of my learning. Lastly, I will speak about how my cultural and learning experiences have influenced myself as a teacher, with the help of Chia-lin Huang’s own cultural autobiography.

            I was raised to recognize how fortunate I was to live in a upper-middle class household in Canada, but also to believe that I did not benefit from white privilege due to a being Jewish. This was never made explicit, but my family never fully considered ourselves white, and my parents spoke often of anti-Semitism. My religion, Judaism, has vastly impacted my entire life. This stems from my parents deliberately working to instill in me a deep connection to Judaism and Jewish communities, based on the same work done by their parents. It is instructive to explain my parents’ families in order to illustrate my family’s culture.

            My parents both grew up in middle class families that treasured Judaism and Israel. My father came from a traditional Jewish family−they frequently attended services at their orthodox synagogue, and adhered to strict Jewish dietary laws. My grandmother completed high school in Edmonton, Alberta, but my grandfather left school to work at a grocery store in a small town in Saskatchewan to support his family. My mother’s family also deeply valued their religion. My grandfather was the principal of a Jewish school, and the director of a Jewish camp. He completed university studies in Poland and Montreal, but my grandmother left high school in grade nine to work as a secretary to earn money for her family after her father died.

            My parent’s homes cherished Israel even more then they did Judaism. All four of my grandparents were heavily involved with Zionist organizations. For example, my paternal grandmother moved to Israel to work the lands before the state’s creation, and my maternal grandfather helped found the Canadian Zionist Federation. In their eyes, Israel was vital protect the safety and longevity of the Jewish people. Each of my grandparents lost much of their family in the Holocaust, and they perceived Israel as a solution to the whole world fighting against the Jews. My paternal grandfather had fled from Lithuania to Canada right before the war and had experienced anti-Semitism first hand. My three other grandparents were born in Canada, the country whose immigration agent infamously stated that “none is too many” referring to the number of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe that Canada would accept (“None Is Too Many”). As a young child, my grandparents told about instances in which they were made to feel very badly about their religion. It is clear to me that my grandparents’ vast experience with anti-Semitism led them to feel marginalized in Canada, a mindset that was passed on to my parents, and then to myself and my sisters.  

            Judaism was an integral aspect of my upbringing. I attended a Jewish school from ages three to thirteen, and a Jewish summer camp from eight to twenty. My school was fairly liberal, although when teaching about Israel, it shifted to teaching what are considered right-leaning views. Israeli history was a central focus of the curriculum, and while I do not believe I was taught lies, I was certainly not taught the whole truth. I definitely perceived Israel as the underdog fighting to survive in a region dominated by adversarial Muslim countries. Much of my extended family resides in Israel, and I loved visiting them and eating copious amounts of kosher shawarma. I was raised to take a lot of pride in my religion and connection to Israel, but also to avoid publicly proclaiming that pride. For example, when I was ten, I purchased a sweater from my camp that displayed Hebrew letters, and my parents would not permit me to wear it outside of my house. I put up a bit of a fight, and they explained that they did not want other people to be able to identify me as being Jewish. Interestingly, that was not a sentiment that I shared. I did not conceive of my religion as something that needed to be hidden. This slightly shifted as I entered the later years of high school, when I became more hesitant to publicize my Jewishness, as I was afraid of acquiring the “Jewish American Princess” label, or producing feelings of resentment towards me. However, I was always proud of my Jewish heritage, and greatly enjoyed celebrating Jewish and Israeli holidays and culture.

            While Israel is not technically related to my race or religion, it has had an enormous impact on the privileges I was taught to recognize as a child. I believe that my father distancing himself from white privilege is very grounded in the volatile safety of Israelis, and anti-Semitism stemming from anti-Israel sentiment. It is also important to acknowledge that my parents were discriminated against for being Jewish in their childhood and young adulthood, which has not been my own experience. I know that my own recognition of white privilege was grounded in realizing that despite being Jewish, I am still very much white, and that while in Canada and the United States, I never or rarely worry about dangers stemming from my religion. This was not a quick process; it involved learning, talking, and reflecting a great deal on what constitutes whiteness. I was hesitant to accept this label as, like my father, I felt that there was a piece of myself that did not fit the dominant North American white culture. However, I now see that privilege takes many forms, and that my religion is not at all related to my whiteness.

            Today, I see myself as a white, Jewish woman (among other identities). I still am very proud to be Jewish. I am involved with a Tri-Co Jewish group, and maintain Jewish dietary laws. More importantly to me, I love gathering with my extended family and friends to celebrate holidays. I also still value my connection with Israel, although I have a much more complicated relationship with the country than I did as a young child. I have certainly faced numerous acts of anti-Semitism as a young adult, but they have been isolated incidents, not systematic discrimination. This was a pivotal realization for me to make to realize the white privilege that I benefit from.

            Sekani Moyenda’s own cultural autobiography, How I Got My “Black Attitude” Problem, is in many respects the absolute inverse of my own. She illustrates the presence of institutional racism in the education system, both against students and teachers. She explains how she learned about racism from her mother, but only at age 14, when her mother decided it was time to explain it to her (27). While writing her story, she struggled to find examples of racism before that age. In retrospect, she can pick out instances of racism, but at the time she hadn’t made the racial connection (19). The only commonality between our experiences is that both of our parents expected their children to be discriminated against based on a piece of their heritage. However, our parents educated us in opposite ways about that potential discrimination. Moyenda mentions that her mother “felt [she] would have to deal with racism all [her] life” and that “[her mother] wasn’t going to bring it to [her] awareness any sooner than [her mother] felt she had to” (27). I wonder if my parents raised it to me and my sisters at such a young age because they did not see it as a significant barrier that would exist throughout our lives, but rather as a hurdle that might pose some difficulties. This is a luxury that Moyenda’s mother did not have. Unlike Moyenda, I have only faced a small amount of prejudice, and zero discrimination because of my heritage. While it is not a pleasant thought to encounter, I have had an easier life because of discrimination against Moyenda and other people of color. Her theory that systematic racism is pervasive in educational systems, and in other settings, seems quite consistent with my experiences of receiving only benefits from being a white individual.

            Throughout my education, I have always belonged to the most powerful racial group in the school. White individuals have run each of my elementary school, high school and college, and thus my education has been catered to white students, such as myself. While my elementary school was almost entirely white, my high school and college have large non-white populations. In fact, my high school had a majority Asian and Canadian-Asian student body, although the administrators, and most teachers, were white. I have never felt out of place in a classroom, and the content of what I have been taught has never silenced my own history. As a learner outside of the typical classroom, I had similar privileged experiences. My elementary and high schools both organized volunteer opportunities at organizations serving Vancouver’s homeless community, which is largely First Nations and Aboriginal. I also travelled to Peru with my high school to volunteer in a small town and help repair its school. At the time, I thought very highly of myself for helping these “poor, marginalized and oppressed” non-white communities.

            Reflecting on these learning and volunteering experiences, I was very guilty of perpetuating what Teju Cole has coined the “White-Savior Industrial Complex.” I did not work in Africa, but as he explains in his the Atlantic article, volunteering in Vancouver and Peru did make me feel like a “godlike savior” and satisfy my emotional needs. My intentions were whole heartedly good, but it did not occur to me to respect the agency of the people with and for whom I was volunteering, and would likely not have occurred to me to consult with individuals if I organized a project in their community. These are two central mistakes Cole describes as ubiquitous in the complex. Fortunately, I have come to recognize the extreme importance of these actions. I cannot pinpoint a specific moment when this was elucidated to me, but based on reading my fairly condescending common application essay, it occurred during my years in Pennsylvania.

            Cole speaks about the importance of avoiding the White-Savior Industrial Complex while working abroad, but it can also apply to domestic situations. It is especially applicable to teaching individuals who come from cultures different from that of the teacher. Teachers must not assume they know what is best for their students. This is true both in typical classrooms, and less traditional learning spaces. I am not a teacher, but through my placement in a women’s prison I am able to do some teaching. In the prison I support the learning of some individuals from cultures which I have little direct experience with. The three education classes I have taken or am taking−Identity, Access, and Innovation in Education, Multicultural Education and Schools in American Cities−have made very explicit three important steps to becoming a good multicultural educator: recognizing my own cultural practices and beliefs, learning about the cultural practices and beliefs of the individuals I am working with, and applying what I learn to both the pedagogy and content of my teaching.

            Chia-lin Huang’s cultural autobiography, Professional Actions Echo Personal Experiences, delves into her experiences teaching indigenous students in Taiwan, as a Han majority outsider (174). She speaks of how she wished she had learned more about the indigenous community before she started working within it, and challenges that ensued from being unfamiliar with its culture (176).  Similar to Cole, she also mentions the importance of not trying to “save” her students, or make all of their decisions (181). I am striving to act on all of her recommendations for teachers. It is very much a work in progress, and recognizing my own privileges is extremely critical. I am also learning how to achieve a good balance between connecting with learners through their culture about which I have learned, and sharing my own culture with learners. For example, in the book club I participate in at the prison, we had a discussion about our favorite characters in a novel that explores the dynamics of a drug-dealing scheme. One of the characters lies to his wife about his involvement in the drug trade, which irked me. However, many of the women in the book club expressed their fondness of the character. I mentioned that I was troubled that he had repeatedly lied to his wife, but most of the women who are incarcerated contended that he was just trying to protect her, so the lies were irrelevant. If I was at Haverford, I would have pushed my point harder. However, having had the opportunity to build relationships with the women, and also to learn about mass incarceration in the United States, I knew that many of the women in the club come from neighborhoods similar to the book’s setting, and that some of them are likely in prison for drug-related charges or convictions. We were probably viewing the book through very different lenses, so I did not argue or elaborate upon my contention. I was pleased to have articulated my own belief, but also not to have forced it upon others.

            It is hard for me to anticipate what kind of learner and teacher I will be in the future, as five years ago I could not have predicted where I am today. I do know though, that my own culture, based on my race, religion and various identities, will continue to evolve, and I hope to develop a deeper understanding of each of those elements, and the privilege or difficulties associated with them. It is imperative for me to reflect upon my own culture in order to better understand myself, and also to better connect with individuals with whom I work. If I continue to learn more about the causes and implications of white privilege, I may even be able to convince my father that it currently applies to him in some small way.                                                                       


                                                                                      Work Cited
Carlson, Kathryn B. "'None Is Too Many': Memorial for Jews Turned Away from Canada in 1939." The National Post. N.p., 17 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
Cole, Teju. "The White-Savior Industrial Complex." The Atlantic. N.p., 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
Huang, Chia-lin. "Professional Actions Echo Personal Experiences." Becoming Multicultural Educators: Personal Journey toward Professional Agency. San Francisco: Jossey-    Bass, 2003. 170-93. Print.
Moyenda, Sekani. "Sekani: How I Got My "Black Attitude Problem"" Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2001.         17-33. Print.