White people need to feel what it is like to stand watching the backs of those further up the corridors of power.
We stood in the hallway of a retreat centre and listened to our instructions. The animator would read us a question. If our answer was yes, we were to take a step forward. If our answer was no, we were to stay where we were.
The animator told us to move forward if this statement was true for us. “When I learn about our Canadian heritage or about ‘civilization’, I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.” I stepped forward.
She read: “I can do well in a challenging position without being called ‘a credit to my race’.” I winced and stepped forward.
We were a racially-mixed group and it was clear that White people were moving more quickly down the hall than those with African, Asian or Aboriginal roots.
And then the statement: “When I am at worship in my home congregation, I see many pictures and symbols that represent my race and culture.” Another – reluctant – step forward.
By now the distance between we White folk and our racialized colleagues had lengthened considerably. Questions like “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” slowed my progress because I am a woman but these questions were not enough to narrow the gap.
Looking back down the hall at those who had taken maybe one step, perhaps two, while the rest of us progressed step by step almost without stopping I felt my stomach go cold. I didn’t want to think about what I was seeing but couldn’t avoid feeling what was happening. That of course was the point. White people need to move out of our heads – our intellectual understanding of the impact of racism on the lives of our racialized colleagues – and feel what it is like to stand watching the backs of those further up the corridors of power. It’s an experience I won’t forget.
Now that Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States of America, the distance will only grow greater in that country and we will feel the chill in Canada. Racists here will be emboldened. We who are White will have to redouble our efforts to step back from privilege and to walk beside those who are being left behind. It’s going to be a long, hard road. May our faith make us strong enough to keep on walking.
- The exercise Learning to see White privilege was developed by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, a White American feminist.
- For additional resources see White Privilege: The Elephant in the Room
Kristine Greenaway is Responsable des Ministères en Français, L'Eglise Unie du Canada/United Church of Canada.