Christina Chrysler (Local 417, CAAT-A), inSolidarity
I’m a smart woman who knows nothing. This is a realization I have been living with very consciously since becoming a professor in 2014. I was born fair skinned, blue eyed, to a working-class family in small-town Central Ontario. I knew one Black kid growing up, and apart from an uncle and cousin of Indigenous descent, my childhood was as white as it could possibly have been. When I was about 12, my entire world view shifted after reading a book entitled “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. An awareness within me began to develop. I was/am a person of privilege, though I was unfamiliar with the term at the time.
We didn’t have money. My parents worked hard, but there wasn’t ‘extra’. We never had family vacations or extravagant holidays. At 15 we lost our home. There was no money set aside for my education – I worked my way through school.
As an adult I’ve been a single parent and have known first-hand the inequality that still exists between men and women. Yet still, I am privileged. I am privileged because none of those things were made worse by the colour of my skin. No one has ever questioned my belonging, no one has ever been skeptical of my credentials, no one has ever hesitated offering to assist me when I’ve been in trouble, and I have never once considered it unsafe to call the police.
I was first hired at my post-secondary institution as Curator, and was later told repeatedly that I was a good ‘face’ for the gallery. While I wanted to tell myself that meant I was personable, what it truly meant was that my blonde hair and blue eyes made people comfortable and looked good in the paper. It made me ‘likeable’ without ever having to do a thing. It stung. Not only was this insulting to my capabilities and experience, it was also misogynistic and in retrospect an example of my privilege. To be clear, I wasn’t hired over anyone of colour; but that isn’t really the point. My “whiteness” held value to my employer.
Like thousands of other members, I joined OPSEU’s tele-town hall on Anti-Black Racism July 7. The evening session began with a member asking why we weren’t saying ‘all lives matter’. My heart sank. I felt frustration for the panellists, I felt hurt for my union brothers and sisters of colour, and I felt sad (yet unsurprised) that we as a society have so much work yet to do. Farley Flex summarized the responses eloquently by stating, “We can say ‘all lives matter’ when we can say all lives are valued equally.”
Sadly, we are far from that reality. As Peter Thompson noted in the discussion, nine Black, Indigenous, and racialized Canadians have died in police custody since April. That’s three a month…that we know of. If you are able to read that without taking pause, I challenge you to ask yourself why that is. If you read that and responded with shock that this could be happening in Canada, that is privilege and one I am guilty of as well. It’s privilege because it suggests you, like me, have had the luxury of indifference toward what racialized people have been living for generations.
I was born with a debt to pay. I won some kind of cosmic lottery that meant I was born white into a world where that equals power. I did nothing to earn this. I, like everyone else of privilege, owe society a positive contribution on behalf of those who weren’t as fortunate as me. Sometimes that looks like stopping someone in the middle of a racist joke, or educating others on the meaning behind common phrases (because words matter). It can feel awkward, really awkward, but I also know I am in a position to voice such things without fear of retribution. My privilege is a power I can use to contribute to change. If I’m not contributing to change that means I’m contributing to oppression; I’m not willing to knowingly do that.
I have taught hundreds of students of all ages and diversities. The most valuable things I have learned are to listen, examine my own biases and do better, to respect people’s lived experience, and to advocate for those who don’t feel they have a voice. Am I without flaw? Absolutely not. It’s hard to recognize our own privilege when we live in a world designed to support it, but I do know that I have a responsibility to try. We all do.