I am a person with privilege. I am white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, and over 60. In every category, I have unearned privilege, My trials have NOT been about survival.
I am a settler. My ancestors came to North America as early as the 1700s. One family line immigrated to Canada from the USA in 1798 as United Empire Loyalists (they were loyal to the British king). Another family line “retired” from the British Colonial Service in 1812, after spending time in Nova Scotia and India. My grandparents and aunts and uncles were very aware of their social status as part of what was called the Family Compact of Upper Canada in the late 1800s. My father was far less impressed by this than others in his family.
I grew up in a very white Toronto where I knew nothing about racism. In public school there were perhaps half a dozen people of Asian descent (I always assumed they were Chinese), and there were a handful of kids whose parents had immigrated from Malta, notable for their dark skin tone compared to the rest of us, but still clearly European.
One of my father’s friends adopted a couple of “Indian kids” in the early 1960s – something I now recognize as part of the 60s Scoop – but to my unquestioning eyes as an 8-year old, they were just a couple more of the dozen or more kids sprawling through the kitchen and back yard when we attended parties at their home.
In short, as a privileged kid, I was naïve.
In 1980 I was fortunate enough to attend Cornell University for graduate work. My department with 100 grad students had people from 33 different countries; it was a rich context for learning. The married students housing where I had friends was an international melting pot. The children there ignored colour.
I never knew why I was invited to be part of a workshop one winter day. There were 25 students invited to be part of a workshop on racism – 15 White students and 10 Black. That mix did not match the Cornell demographic. Black students were relatively rare on campus. They were more common in my department, but they were more likely to be from Ghana or Nigeria than from Atlanta. The 25 of us were seated in the front row of the relatively full auditorium.
A Black Baptist preacher (I’m sorry that I don’t know his name) from Atlanta walked onto the stage. For the next 15 minutes he asked us one question after another. It didn’t matter what we said, he would show us how we were wrong or ignorant. It didn’t matter if we were Black or White; whatever we said was wrong. He was very good at it.
It didn’t take long for everyone in the front row to be quiet. We all shrank in our seats as the next question came, hoping to escape his eye. In the absence of volunteers, he would pick at random from the front row. We shrank even more.
And then he stopped, apologized for our treatment, and pointed out that if we had changed our behaviour so dramatically in fifteen minutes, imagine the impact if this went on for generations. Which of course it had for Blacks across a young America. He repeated his apology and said he wouldn’t do it anymore. Then he asked a question. There was silence. No one moved. The room waited. So did the preacher. The clock ticked on the wall. “Why won’t you answer?” he started. “I apologized. What more do you need?” The silence continued. Everyone in the front row was still. The audience fidgeted in small movements, uncomfortable in the silence and for those in the front row.
His point was that an apology is not enough. We needed to see a change in behaviour. We needed to be able to trust that the change was real. And none of us, Black or White, wanted to be the ones to test the situation. We were tired of being “wrong.”
“And don’t you think that those of us who are Black feel that way every day?” he asked.
That experience alone would have been enough to shift my perspective for life.
But then he said something that surprised me, something I have reflected on often over the years. “We are all racist,” he asserted, Me included.” How could he say that?
He posed a thought experiment for us. Imagine you are driving along a country road. As you drive, you crest a hill, and on the way down, the car stalls. It comes to rest in a gully equidistant from the crests in the road in each direction. You need help. This was in 1981. There were no cell phones. Standing beside your car, you notice that there is a person walking up over the crest of each of the hills. In one direction, the person walking is Black. In the other, the person walking is White. To whom do you turn first for help?
“If you are honest with yourself,” he said, “you will pick the person with the same colour of skin as you.” He went on to point out that our decision is made in ignorance. We know nothing about the car repair skills of these people – only their skin colour. And on that basis we make a decision. That, he said, is racism, and it happens to us all. It is normal.
And then he made the point he came to the university to make. What is not normal, what is repugnant, what is unfair and unjust, is to construct systems that embed those ignorant choices into our society. And it doesn’t matter whether it happens intentionally or unintentionally. It doesn’t matter if it is explicit or if it is slid in sideways, like requiring drivers’ licenses as ID for a population that largely cannot afford cars, and so has no need for that particular type of ID. That is what we need to work against.
I am racist. I am. I know it. I don’t like it. But all I have to do is walk among people not like me to know it. I know it every time I think about the car in the valley. I don’t know that I can change that.
What I can do is choose what to do with it. I can choose whether to go with my initial ignorant reaction, or I can choose to acknowledge it and choose different actions. It’s like choosing whether I want to let my feelings run my life, or whether I notice them, acknowledge them, and then choose what I know is a better response.
For me, this perspective is actually freeing. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not racist. All I need to do is make choices that do not embed the ignorance of racism in social structures around me.
As someone living in Canada, the issues of racism are as alive as anywhere. Different from the USA, but just as real. Many in my country would like to pretend that we’re not racist. It’s not true. As that Atlanta preacher demonstrated, we are all racist.
In Canada we have been more successful at hiding it from ourselves. The most denigrated group in Canada are the indigenous peoples. In the USA, you know them as Indians, although of course they have nothing to do with India apart from the charting errors of Christopher Columbus’ navigator. We in Canada have worked hard to either assimilate them or to confine them to a restricted land base (reserves). At one point “Indians” required permission from the Indian Agent to go off the reserve for any reason: work, hunting, medical treatment, religious ceremonies or just to visit family. While that indignity has ended, there are now more indigenous children in care as wards of the provinces than were ever in our residential schools.
Last year I was led to a poignant reminder of the impact of our colonialism on indigenous people in Canada. I was travelling with my family in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of over 130 islands about 100 miles off the coast of British Columbia. Before contact with white settlers, the estimated population was 6-10,000 people. With contact came disease (TB, smallpox, cholera, and others). Over a period of 30 years the population plummeted to under 700. Villages collapsed. We were led to a canoe which had been abandoned in the forest. The tree had been felled, shaped and hollowed. What remained was for the canoe to be carried to the shore for final shaping. But the village no longer had the 20 people needed to carry it the 500m to the sea. The half-finished canoe has sat, abandoned, for 150 years. It will be another 300 years before it is finally absorbed into the forest floor. My heart was weak, seeing it.
But all is not dark and hopeless. I was delighted when my daughter turned 8, and chose her friends to come to her party. There were 8 girls from 8 countries on four continents. One was Caucasian. The girls didn’t care. They were 8-year olds at a party.
In Canada the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action stir many of us to rethink our structures and our part in the continued racism that affects indigenous people across the country. The literature of indigenous writers stirs our hearts and imaginations.
I will continue to read more indigenous writers. I am now actively looking for opportunities to work with people of other cultures. I am excited because this Fall I started working with my first indigenous client. These are small steps.
My suggestion, the one thing I would encourage you to do, is to begin reading the literature from writers in the minority population of your community. Read Black writers. Read indigenous writers. If the minority community in your area is of Chinese origin, read today’s novels from the Chinese community. Whatever it is, read them. Wonder at their different perspectives, and be curious about what you can learn.
If you are looking for a starting place, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian is a compelling read of how both Canadians and Americans have dealt with indigenous people. Then, for something hopeful, choose Harold R. Johnson’s Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada. And for an inspiring read, pick Cherie Dimaline‘s novel, The Marrow Thieves.
We will still all be racist. But our eyes will be open, and we will recognize more easily where our social structures embed the ignorance of racism. Seeing those structures, seeing the current condition, we can begin to imagine how else the structures might work to serve all citizens equally.
Photo of Warren Hall, Cornell from https://www.cs.cornell.edu/~edward/architecture.html
Photo of Haida Canoe by the author
Photo of country road from https://brownfieldagnews.com/news/making-indiana-rural-roads-a-priority/
Book cover images from the publishers:
 In 1981 the leader of the workshop framed his point as “We are all racist. ” In today’s conversations, the use of the term racist is often more nuanced, referring to people who support or accept the systems of power that disenfranchise another group based on race. In that usage, someone who is black is not racist because they are not supporting the systems. His point stands. Unchecked, we choose our kind. We who are white (and who therefore have privilege in North America) need to be conscious of how our actions embed or support or acquiesce to that leaning within our systems.
 For my American friends, “Indians” of school age were, for many years, forcibly removed, separated from their families, moved off the reserves and taken to residential schools where the children were prohibited from using their home languages, or eating their accustomed food, and where high numbers were subjected to physical or sexual abuse. The last of these schools closed in 1996.
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Hugh R. Alley is a white settler currently living on the unceded and traditional territories of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (Musqueam) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) speaking peoples. His ancestors immigrated to what is now called Canada as early as 1796.
Hugh is an author, consultant and speaker. His book, Becoming the Supervisor, was published in 2020. He is a registered professional industrial engineer and has worked primarily in manufacturing throughout his career. He also spent five years working in the public sector. He has run five different plants and several warehouses as part-owner or line manager. He has run his own consulting company for 15 years, and has taught core supervisory skills to almost 1,000 front line leaders. He has taught at Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology and is a frequent presenter on topics of lean manufacturing, quality, supervisory skills, project management and risk management. His current practice is focused on helping companies achieve significant operational improvements in 3-6 months while significantly improving the skills of the leadership team. He consults primarily across North America.