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The White Privilege Diaries 2: Celebrating our heritage

I'm not sure exactly when I stopped being white. Somewhere in the 2000s, I think, but all I know for sure is that doing so annoyed everyone. By firmly identifying as Irish-Canadian, people of colour have said I'm attempting to sidestep my white privilege and absolve myself from my own racism. Not true but a fair criticism. Meanwhile, white people have insisted I'm ashamed of being white and demand to know "what’s wrong with celebrating our heritage and culture." Nothing, I say, except that "white" is not a culture. 

I met a woman from Nigeria years ago and, in one conversation, I asked for her opinion as a Black woman and she frowned at me. "I’m not Black," she said, "I'm Nigerian. 'Black' is a North American thing.'" For the people descended from those who were forcibly brought to this continent in the slave trade, the Black culture we know in North America — the one that gave us all jazz, potato chips, hip-hop, soul food, slam poetry and so much more — evolved as something new to replace the African histories that were stolen from them. That's what white people who treat our two groups as equivalent don’t recognize.

A posted job vacancy sign from 1915

See, I know my family history and heritage. My ancestors are Irish, having come to Canada and America as refugees starved out of their own country in the 1800s. It was still less than a century ago when Irish people were called ridiculous slurs like "paddy" or "bog-trotter" and denied jobs and housing. Eventually, we amassed enough power to be assimilated — whiteness bestows the privilege of joining a majority as some default "everyday person" finally — but just as this is used as a weapon against people in other groups, whiteness steals from people of European ancestry too. It dulls, it flattens, it erases and we must resist it. I am blessed with friends who are Scottish, Polish, German, English, Italian and Scandinavian, all with interesting backgrounds and foods and cultural histories. Why would we want to give all that up to be “white?"


At the White Privilege Conference in Tulsa (check out part one if you haven’t already), I was delighted to meet Minnesotan educator Ryan Virden, a fellow Irishman who teaches how a world free of racism is actually in white people's best self-interest. By eliminating an oppressive hierarchy of race, all groups are free to mingle, cooperate or compete as their true and interesting selves, rather than wasting energy upholding the dehumanizing dictates of whiteness as some ideal. Ryan explains it further here:

I experienced all this in my own life. By abandoning whiteness and learning how my Irish immigrant family’s struggles resulted from the oppression our ancestors faced in earlier centuries, I saw how how I was part of a great tradition of poets, songwriters and shipbuilders. The violence the Irish experienced within the British Empire led to our solidarity with Black people, Indian people, the Indigenous Peoples of North America (more on that in a future post!) and Palestinians. We share a common cause with these people and a desire to connect with each other that those insisting on racial hierarchies lack. I have gained far more from being Irish than I ever did being white. Whiteness is not a privilege, it's an obstacle to being fully human.

During the lunch break, I found myself sitting with an older Black woman who works for the school board in Tulsa. The horrific murder of 16-year-old nonbinary high-school student Nix Benedict in February was still fresh on my mind and the two of us had a long conversation, sad yet hopeful, about the great need to protect trans kids in America. Then we talked about the TV show POKER FACE because it's really great. I didn’t come away from my second day at the White Privilege Conference feeling ashamed of my heritage and culture, I felt prouder of it than ever and the better world we're all trying to create together. And in the final instalment of my Oklahoma diary next week, you'll see where I stumbled...

Breakfast Culture's “Ally is a Verb” group and individual anti-oppression coaching workshops show how to use privilege to speak up and support, how racism manifests in ways big and small, and how to be effectively anti-racist. Schedule a talk with Jefferson Darrell today to learn more:

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