The headline above was the greeting I got exiting a store on a busy street in downtown San Francisco earlier this summer. It was late morning, sunny day, and there were lots of people around.
My teenage son and I were heading to our car and the person asking the question was holding a sign. We were caught up in the flow of people so fast I didn’t get a chance to read the sign or even much of a look at the fellow.
Further down the street, I asked my son if he heard what that guy said to me. He didn’t hear it, asking me what I said back. I told him I didn’t say anything, just smiled at the fellow. “Why’d you do that?” he asked, disapprovingly. Why indeed…
I thought about that encounter the rest of our stay, and my answer, concluding that my smile was the most honest one. Fact is, I do enjoy white privilege. Even if I said I don’t like it, I have unquestionably enjoyed the benefits of it, as did my parents and grandparents, etc, etc. But three of my children born of a Chipewyan mother don’t to the same extent.
What is white privilege? There are billions of people who could give a more credible answer than I. To those people who enjoy it, I would say white privilege is never being hassled, watched, doubted or accused because of the color of your skin. It’s sitting down for job interviews worried only about giving the right answers to people who speak your language and look like you. It’s about having an equal chance at opportunity. Ultimately, white privilege is about never having to worry that you don’t have it. For some people who enjoy it, white privilege simply doesn’t exist. Some get angry at the suggestion it does.
Generally speaking, as a publisher, I ask our columnists to localize their opinions. My answer to that instruction is that white privilege exists in the North. People, especially in Yellowknife, experience it every day. Few speak of it because it’s rooted in our shared history, our laws, our economy. It’s like the air that we breathe – it’s everywhere yet rarely called out.
As for the fellow asking me the question on those streets, he will never know but his activism that day crossed borders, 3,700 km North, strong stuff. He wasn’t threatening, wasn’t aggressive. He was asking to make a point. He didn’t make me feel guilty, didn’t inspire me to change what I am. He made me think and come to my own conclusion.
We are a long way from white privilege disappearing, both in Yellowknife and around the world. But we are closer because people are not afraid to stand on the street and demand change.