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Give me some of that "White People Confidence"

A friend of mine was shocked when another friend offered some “helpful” advice; “get out there and just put on some white people confidence.” Evidently, there was no malice intended. So, why was my friend shocked by the “well-intentioned” words of encouragement? I am personally struck by the matter of fact tone in which the originator offered the advice. Nevertheless, I ask again – why the shock? “White people confidence” is a “thing.” The evidence of its existence is embedded in our everyday language; think about terms we use to describe white society like dominant culture, white privilege and white fragility. During my research, I happened into a “well intentioned” explanation of “white fragility;” check out what I found: “Although white fragility is not racism, it may contribute to racism by dismissing white domination and racial conditioning.” The article continued, “By developing racial stamina, white people can better address racism and strive to become anti-racist.”

I first suspected that there was such a thing as “white people confidence” many years ago in my first year as an undergraduate student. I had attended a residence party of a friend of mine from the Caribbean, and he had a white roommate. I happened to sit on the roommate’s bed when I noticed a message he had written to himself on the wall. This happened many years ago, but I remember the message said something to the effect of; “I am going to graduate from Carleton University, I am going to land a great job; and I am going to make $100,000 a year.” As I sat there reading the message, in that moment it felt like the lights in the room suddenly dimmed and I was alone with a spotlight set on me. I thought to myself; “well I’ll be. This is how white people think?” I remember contrasting that young man’s words to himself to my own self-talk. I too expected to graduate and one day find a job. However, I remember expecting to land a job making $30,000 a year, not a hundred grand! Do not ask me where the 30k number came from. Nevertheless, that is what my expectation of myself was. I applaud the young man’s personal aspiration and vision for himself. But, from that day on, I kept the memory of this disparity of expectations in my heart. I had just experienced an internal collision of two worlds. I was both disturbed and fascinated with the limitations of my words and thoughts about myself and at the same time wondered about what accounted for my counterpart’s self-confidence.

On another occasion in my undergrad year, I was in line at a Bank in Ottawa, while two “businessmen” stood adjacent to me at the corporate line. I would love to say that I overheard their discussion, but the two were speaking so loudly that I might as well have been apart of the conversation. The first guy said “I just made my first million.” The other responded “I made mine a few years ago, and once you make that first one, the second one is easy.” I suppose one can argue that we live in a free society, and the men had every right to discuss their business affairs as they sought fit. But please tell me, why was it so important for them to have everyone in the bank hear about their financial gains? I thought about my hard working parents, and whether they would ever have a chance to stand in a public place and announce the words, “I have just made my first million!”

Many years later, I ended up finding a job as a Correctional Program’s Officer with Federal Corrections. At the time, I did not make $100,000 a year. However, my salary was respectable and I was proud of my accomplishments. Working in a prison was interesting. Each day was met with unexpected challenges and situations. On one particular day, I unsuspectingly walked into a conversation with an inmate that worked as a cleaner in my section. As I remember, the inmate had a lengthy sentence, and he worked in my area throughout the course of my employment in the prison. We had many friendly small talk exchanges over the years and I can’t remember what actually sparked this particular discussion. What I do remember is that at a point in the conversation, the inmate said to me; “Sunday, even though you are out there and I am in here, I am still better than you.” I wasn’t offended, but the statement most definitely threw me for a loop. I did not retort, but I thought to myself “well I’ll be. There it is again! Even when in prison, white people feel a sense of superiority.”

I was perplexed about the whole thing and wondered what accounts for the feelings of “I deserve to be at the top of the food chain.” I found some solace in French theorist Emile Durkheim’s theory of collective conscience. Durkheim postulated that collective conscience is the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a group – shared beliefs, ideas and moral values, operate as a unifying force within society. Simply stated, white society has built social constructs, which have accustomed some of its members to uphold the beliefs that this is their place in society.

Can anyone argue against language being a social construct that upholds society’s values? I have been most fascinated by the now common use of the term “white privilege.” Am I the only person that notices that people use the term more as a badge of honour or as an excuse at best? I shutter to hear even one more person say, “I know, I know I can’t fully see things your way because of my white privilege.”

Let’s dig a bit deeper; we know that language is at the core of cultural expression, values, and beliefs. What part of the term “white privilege” connotes an understanding of a problem that needs to be remedied? Do the words stir any call to action within you? What is the opposite of privilege – not privileged? Big deal! There are many privileges I do not have and do not bother me at all. In actuality, Sociologist Robin D’Angelo coined the term in 2011 to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged.

Now try this on; what emotions stir in you when you replace “white privilege” with “white advantage”? A term that I feel is more sociologically indicative of the collective conscience of our society. For me, when I consider the opposite, it rings very true that I have been disadvantaged all my life, and it stirs a call to action in me.

How do we get people to understand that “words matter” and they can be either a unifying force, or a catalyst to promote discord. Wouldn’t it be great for people to understand the implications of certain words and meanings and how they could trigger potentially unresolved feelings in others?

What do we do then? Moreover, whose problem is it anyway? Well that’s just it, the work of seeking equality and inclusion for historically “disadvantaged” people in our country is work that is incumbent on all of us. Consider what life would be like for all Canadians, if we were to make greater efforts to be more conscious, consistent and deliberate in our scrutiny of misconceived ideas of divisive ideologies that are unconsciously accepted, and taken for granted.

Einstein wrote, “human beings experience themselves, their thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.” In my interpretation of Einstein’s letter, the true path to inner peace can only come from widening our circle of compassion, to be more conscious of the other, to be more inclusive in our understanding of ourselves and to be more deliberate in the design and development of an inclusive collective conscience.

As Canadians, we are accustomed to language as part of our collective conscience. A variety of languages characterizes our country; and a multiplicity of cultures epitomize our nation. In a fundamental sense, diversity is our true collective conscience. Seeking opportunities to change the prevailing paradigm and participating in the creation of space that is more inclusive, reflective, and palliative for all Canadians, is our collective responsibility. This truly is the better way. More over, it is unequivocally the Canadian way. The stories I have shared are part of the continued chronicling of my Canadian experiences. Experiences which after all, are your experiences.

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