Someone in my community just wrote an opinion piece in the paper relating a recent incident that happened to her, in which she became acutely aware of the meaning of the expression “white privilege.” I read the article, and listened to her subsequent radio interview. She has gotten a lot of slack over this, apparently. I’ve had occasional encounters with her via a social media group that we share, so I felt compelled to look into it. This morning I got a message from her requesting that all Immigrant women on the group tell her about incidents of discrimination that happened to them. I’m not an immigrant, so I didn’t reply. This morning as well, I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers “Black Girl in Maine” where she poignantly explained (as she and her guest writers so wonderfully do on every occasion) how it’s not being equitable and fair when white people say “Yes but” to people of color’s expressions of frustration and discouragement. All this got me thinking, and this blog post reflects my thoughts. A YES, without a BUT. I hope.
I look white, I am not 100% Caucasian, I am 50% Native American, but I don’t look it. I can hide behind my white face and green eyes, and bypass all the racist preconceptions heaved at my Native brethren and sisters, just because of the color of my skin and the unremarkable delineations of my facial features. I have a slight accent, but it’s more often than not equated with Acadians or French Canadians. I am not Acadian, nor French Canadian. I grew up speaking English to parents whose first language wasn’t English, in a country that doesn’t have English as an official language. That’s where my accent comes from. I speak as I write (I like using the appropriate words, and assume that most people will understand, I prefer latinisms because I have a strong Latin language root: Italian), in fact three of the languages I’m fluent in are of Latin provenance. And I never felt shy to use big words, ever since I was a child, I loved using language to its fullest. When I studied in Canada, I scored 100% on every vocabulary test, because I instinctively knew the roots of words. That’s just the way I grew up living in a multilingual setting. My right to use big words was never put into question. I was never expected to speak any other way. I was free to choose my words as I pleased.
Growing up where Natives only existed in the movies, I never had to deal with a negative stereotype associated with my ethnicity, except for this one girl, who brought a history book to school to show me a painting that was depicting Natives fighting against the Spanish army, which in her opinion was proof that my grandparents had killed her grandparents. Her name was Nada, and she was Spanish, what parent in his/her right mind would call his/her daughter Nothing? I imagine that might have had something to do with her aggressiveness. She’d seek me out at recess and bully me, sometimes alone, sometimes with a crony or two, but she got caught. She was eventually relocated to another school. I was in grade one, so don’t ask me the details, because I don’t remember them. But the simple fact that I can recall only one clear incident, goes to show you how unaffected I was by all the backlash my relatives had to endure on their own territory. I wore fringed long shirts, braids, braided headbands across my forehead, moccasins, and proudly declared my Native ancestry. I reveled in my mother’s recounting of the Glooscap story, and never tired of hearing it. I sat and listened each time she took out the Micmac News (in those days we Anglicised our name not to make Anglophones feel uncomfortable for not knowing how to pronounce it). This was the extent of my Aboriginality. I was free from judgment, and free to declare my pride, because there was no negative consequence.
I didn’t know what a Reserve was, I just knew my grandmother’s house was a beautiful big white house always full of happy people and lots of food, home-made pie, home-made dinner rolls, salted butter, molasses, luskiniqn (fry bread), freezies, light blue Trident, and jello (all things I never got to eat in Switzerland, except for the luski and molasses, my mom made sure of that!). Kiju (grandma) had a huge weeping willow on the side of her yard where I’d play hide and seek with my cousins (including second, third and God knows what other degree of separation), bright flowers lining her driveway and a carefully mowed lawn where I’d run around bare foot. To me, it was a palace placed in a wonderland. We’d walk down the shore and play in the salt lake, then, still wet and barefoot, we’d run up the gravel road and cross the only paved road on the Reserve to get to the gas station (which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary), where we’d buy freezies that were as long as half our bodies, with less than a quarter.
My grandparents were always so overjoyed to see us, I can’t recall ever seeing them frown at us, even when we misbehaved, which I’m sure happened, I just have no recollection of being punished for any of it. I still remember feeling my grandmother’s hands envelop the crown of my head and gently kissing it while sniffing the kiddish smell of my hair, as though she was trying to absorb as much as she could from me during those short summers we were able to spend with her (we could only afford to travel to Canada as a family once every five years, so we soaked it all in when we went). I smiled and felt this same feeling, perhaps even more strongly when she would do the same to my youngest child, who was the only one short enough for her to be able to reach the top of his head from her wheelchair. I remember by grandfather singing to my brother every time he wanted to call him; he wouldn’t simply call out his name, he’d sing “Mba’du jij, mba’du jij, chuku’e, mba’du jij.” which in Mi’kmaq means “Little boy, little boy, come here, little boy.” He was the sort of man that never talked much, but when he did, everyone listened. I never once heard him raise his voice, and I can’t even imagine him raising a hand at anyone. He was the embodiment of calmness, and even when the house was hustling and bustling with busy bees preparing meals, eating, talking, sharing, he’d quietly listen, enjoy his meal, enjoy the company, and occasionally say something that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the elder we all aspired to become. He understood everything that was happening and processed it, only providing a single point for all to consider, or, depending on the topic of conversation, inserting a joke in the form of an astute observation that would cause us all to burst out laughing, because he’d just turned everything we’d just heard on its head.
My husband has this same kind of depth and insight, and it’s probably the thing my mom admires most about him, probably not incidentally because it reminds her of her own dad.
At 21 I converted to Islam, I might write about that process in a future post, but for now let me say that I immediately started wearing the hijab. The very fact that I had accepted Islam into my life had lifted an enormous weight from my shoulders, which I didn’t even know I was carrying, until that very moment. Having been given a new lease on life, I wanted to make the best of it, so I poured over books, I prayed on time, I obeyed every rule, and the hijab was no exception. I was cautioned by some Muslims not to rush into things, but I wouldn’t listen, I wanted to get everything right. I had no idea things wouldn’t be all honky dory from now on.
Something strange happened the moment I started walking around campus and on the streets with this cloth on my head. Store employees started following me around. Cashiers stopped chatting and smiling at me. Service wasn’t as readily available. Complete strangers would feel completely justified in discussing my attire. Some of my own relatives and friends made fun of me (sometimes behind my back, sometimes straight to my face). Some of my Professors felt it within their duty to question my choice and debate everything they thought Islam stood for. One Professor in particular would inject classes with her perspective on Islam for all to hear, without giving me the chance to provide a rebuttal. When I wrote papers for her explaining my understanding of the subject she had so aptly given half the version of in class, I would consistently get 10% taken off my grade. I was an A+ student, with scholarships and bursaries, I was a teacher and student assistant, and was nominated to be a part of a club reserved for the top 5% of the University, I won awards on a regular basis, but all of a sudden I was no longer sought after to volunteer on committees and clubs, and I was readily given the choice to withdraw from any competition I had been previously requested to participate in. I thought I was being paranoid, so one day, many years later, I lined up all my papers, graded in the same year, by the same Professor. They all had more or less the same number of words, and mistakes (1 or 2), but without fail, each paper that dealt even remotely with my faith got 10% less than the rest, that’s an A- instead of the usual A+. You might say, so what, an A is an A. No, it isn’t. It’s a 10% penalty based on the subject, not the content, not the style of writing, not the validity of my arguments, not the strategies used, nothing that the Professor was supposed to be teaching and grading me on. She was willfully punishing me for defending my understanding of my faith.
As I went on to my Masters, I was again among the top students, but it wasn’t until my last year that I was offered a position teaching. I refused it, frankly, it felt like they were tossing it my way to be able to say they did it, and they were glad to find I wasn’t interested. This probably hurt my chances, but I figured that given my transcript, I could probably get away with it. I was not recommended for any awards or scholarships, despite my grades. I got over it, barely scraping by financially, but I moved on.
During my PhD studies I was actually encouraged to delve into the intersection of my faith with the subject I was studying, and that allowed for enormous growth for me, it was amazing to be able to read what I loved, increase my knowledge of history and theories that actually impacted my life in a direct way and apply them to the topic of my thesis. This was probably the most rewarding tract of my academic career. Here I was encouraged to teach, join clubs, be a part of committees, and participate in every way I could. And then 9/11 happened. Although I was safe in the Department, and my colleagues were supportive and non-judgmental, I faced a lot of stresses on my way there because of the cloth on my head. It never occurred to me to remove it. I simply didn’t go out as much. I stopped teaching. I quit the committees. I only went to the library and attended compulsory meetings. By now I was writing my thesis, I had passed comprehensives, and successfully completed all my coursework, so I plunged myself into reading and writing. Fortunately I was in the humanities, so there was no lab work involved. All my work revolved around reading, analyzing words and concepts, and writing. This was a tough year, and I seriously questioned whether it was worth it. I got through it, and as soon as I graduated, on the Dean’s list, I quit. My brain was exhausted, and all I needed was for it to stop running full speed. I needed to slow down and take stock. I started knitting, crocheting, sewing, cooking, baking, and decided that I was now ready to have kids, and move to Libya.
If I thought my last year of doctoral studies was hard… I had no idea what hard meant! Libya slapped me into shape like nothing ever did before. The reality of being a “Western woman” in a traditional North African country that had blocked itself (partially willfully) from the rest of the world for four decades was like walking into a movie set, based in the IXX century, but I was the only actor, everyone else was living on the set, or so I thought. I had spent four years close to my sister in law, back in North America, and we had discussed Libya and Libyans at length during this time. We got along well, and I thought this, along with the many Libyans I had befriended over my decade-long marriage to a Libyan, had prepared me for what I was about to get myself into. A well meaning friend kindly cautioned me against moving, but I had no real appreciation for what she meant, I had never lived it, I had only visited it in my mind! In my mind I would be surrounded by hijab-wearing women who support each other unconditionally, believe the same things I do, behave the same way I do, and have the benefit of a societal structure based on my beloved Islamic principles. Oh my oh my! Was I ever wrong! Muslims are human! Who knew? They’re not perfect! Why didn’t anyone tell me? They make mistakes, have bad habits, and mix good and bad all the time! How dare they be like everyone else in the world?
I was entitled. I was a white looking woman with a privileged Western upbringing, with the benefit of Tribal ties that only extended to blissful summers without all the backlash or off-Reserve racism. I thought I was owed my rights, no matter what other women got. I thought I should be given duties only befitting my expat status. I thought I could pick and choose what most suited me, and leave the rest. But I was in for a surprise. If you live in Libya, you will get what Libyans get if you do what Libyans do. But since you don’t have a hundred relatives to care for, you are expected to either make up for it somehow, or forget about being treated like a Libyan. And if you do manage to do the work, being treated like a Libyan isn’t necessarily something you’d want, after all. Honestly, I was too chicken to do everything that Libyan women do (I don’t know how they do it, honest to God!), so I had to make do with what I got, which in my privileged mind wasn’t up to par with my initial expectations, but all things considered, was a lot more than what all other women get, which is why I never got any sympathy from any of them. Crocodile tears, I guess they’d call them. I had nothing to loose, so whatever I got was a bonus. But in my entitled mind, it was never enough. This, as I’ve learned, is what you call “white privilege.”
Nothing could live up to my expectations. But my bar was set so high, it was unrealistic for me to achieve any sort of satisfaction. I was comparing what I always took for granted to what many people don’t even know exists. And that, dear reader, is how I am entitled.
I hope this gets you thinking of ways in which you might feel entitled, or ways in which you might respond to people like me. Feel free to comment below, like and share, and I’ll be back soon with another slice of “wisdom.” Until then, take care