November 2017: A test for white people

(The following appeared in the Chronicle Herald: Voice of the People, Nov. 11/17.)

At a Lessons in Anti-Racism Organizing panel in Halifax recently, Lynn Jones was a model of restraint when asked whether society had made progress in the campaign to eradicate racism.

“Are things better now than they once were?” the moderator asked. Ms. Jones turned the question back on us, a largely white audience, for answering. It was meant to make us think. And it did. There’s a simple test in the form of a question that each of us can ask ourselves: Would I want to be black?

If we’ve made progress toward the eradication of racism, the answer should be simple. Yes, we’re saying, in principle, I would want to be black. We’d be saying in effect that we feel there is no difference between the experience of being black and the experience of being white. And that would be admirable.

Me? I’d need to think twice. I may not be rich, I may not be royalty, but I know a good thing when I’ve got it. I like being able to come and go without explaining myself. I like doing and saying as I want. Generally speaking, no one questions me. I’m not afraid for my safety.

No one’s deciding based on the colour of my skin what my limitations are, what I can and can’t do. I’m my own boss. I’d have to be willing to give up advantages conferred on me by the brute-force efforts of my forebears and enforced by the institutions and systems set up to serve my type. I’d have to not only be fully awakened to the fact that such advantage exists, ill-gotten and unearned, but awake to the fact that I was party to its continued existence and willing to either share it or dismantle it.

There’s no acceptable explanation for why being white is easier. There’s nothing about being white that warrants catching a break or earning bonus rewards and yet it does, endlessly, in many different ways. And those of us who are white keep cashing in and propping up our privilege, reinforcing the advantage and the right to advantage (or if not reinforcing, then denying the opposite — the existence of racism). We all need to answer the question, “Would I want to be black?” and keep answering it until we get to “Yes.” We’ll know our work is done when we’re no longer asking those we’ve oppressed if we’re there yet.

Cindy Littlefair, Halifax


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