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Weeding Out Racism

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May 22, 2014

This article originally appeared in The National Post on May 22, 2014.

By Deborah Douglas

Rex Murphy seems to want a free pass on white privilege (‘Check your bigotry,’ May 17). Yet waving away the idea of privilege just because it is hard to hear, difficult see from one’s vantage point or perceived as repetitive, doesn’t mean that it’s not real. It’s too easy to reduce questions about white privilege to a movement gripped by “obsessive mania,” as Murphy described it, or calling anti-racism efforts a form of bigotry in itself.

Murphy describes university culture as “frantically sensitive” to suspected racism, and charges those who challenge privilege and preference as knee-jerk reactors — the real racists — against people simply because of their white skin colour, as if it were only that simple.

“Could there be a better definition of racism, a better example of a purely racist concept, than this, the holding that all a person does and is springs from the colour of his skin?” Murphy wrote.

The fact that privilege is often silent, nuanced and supported by social and unreformed legal codes is the whole point. Anyone who cares about doing the right thing or simple democratic ideals should want to know if they, or the institutions they represent, are operating on an even playing field.

Checking one’s privilege doesn’t cancel out the effort one has put into their accomplishments. And it doesn’t elevate women and minorities who don’t put in the work above those who do. What it does is ask the question of whether access to opportunity is designed a certain way, as to prefer some people over others. What’s at stake matters: Health, wealth and everything that flows from those conditions, which have a societal cost we all share.

Let’s be clear: To acknowledge the role of privilege does not negate the role of self-determination and personal responsibility. They are understood. Even I cringe at new speech-policing concepts such as trigger warnings, which are used to control speech on university campuses. And those on the losing end of privilege could stand to watch how they couch their argument when calling it out. Often, they, too, possess some form of privilege. I know I do. Sometimes people elevate their victimhood to suggest that’s the extent of their value and comes across as a form of emotional blackmail others cannot access.

The beautiful thing about being part of a democracy is the notion of perfecting it. The least we can do is to open our minds and hearts. That’s a nice way of saying that if you’re white or male or upper-middle class or athletic or skinny or good looking or privileged in any way, you cannot go on assuming everything that comes to you belongs only to you, and that there’s something wrong with those who aren’t as privileged.

It is said that to whom much is given, much is required. That same famous source also cautions against suffering fools, which means challenging foolish notions and weeding out racism or sexism in all its nuanced and structural forms.

- Deborah Douglas is an adjunct lecturer in journalism at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion