Are white people accorded extra benefits in Western societies simply because of the color of their skin? Scholars taking part in Canada’s first white privilege conference weigh in on the subject and the ways in which it shapes our world.
For many people, they are now engaging with the idea for the first time and asking: “What is white privilege, anyway?” This week, hundreds of people will gather at Ryerson University in Toronto to explore this question and more at Canada’s first white privilege conference, an event that has been held annually in the United States since 1999.
One of the participants, Rinaldo Walcott, the Director of the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute, said, “For me, what the term ‘white privilege’ seeks to allow people to understand is the way in which societies, like the one that we live in, are default white societies. Everywhere we look in these societies, all of the ways in which people are accorded, important, respected and so on center around the idea that anything that is white North American or white European is the absolute standard to reach. But what that means is that many people who are not white can never, ever achieve that standard, and many people who are simply born white are assumed to have reached that standard, even if they themselves can’t reach it either. So that’s what we begin to call “white privilege”; the ways in which we live in a society where some people, because of the accident of their birth, can enter that society – its institutions, government, education, universities, even the holidays we celebrate – and participate at levels and in ways that other people are unable to.”
When asked to give an example of white privilege in action, she said, “Let’s say a black person enters a department store and they want to buy a pair of pants in the men’s section and a T-shirt for their child in the children’s section. They will make sure to pay for those pants in the men’s section and then go to the children’s section. Meanwhile, you see many white people who have piles of clothes, they walk all through the store and all kinds of floors, and they don’t have to think about it. The reason we pay before going to another floor is because we know that the possibility of being accused of shoplifting exists for us.”