Unpacking the Invisible White Backpack in a Time of Black Lives Matter

WHITE PRIVILEGE - Showing Up for Racial Justice - SURJ

In a time focusing on the impact of racial equality, Black Lives Matter advocacy is pushing for the human rights of all those who do not identify as White. As a person who identifies as White, I do not go through life with the same experiences as people who do not identify as White.

I grew up in a family with a White mother and a stepfather from an African country. His ancestry was East Asian, African, and European. He did not have light coloured skin. His hair was lightly curled and he had a European shaped nose. My half-sisters had different skin colours and different hair. One sister had lighter skin “passing as White” with reddish hair and blue eyes. The other sister had darker skin looking very East Asian with dark brown eyes and very curly dark hair. In school, my sisters were told they could not be full sisters as they “were not the same colour.”

I did not start noticing the differences in my family’s skin colours until my grade 7 friend (who was Black) pointed it out. She came to my door one day and told me my stepfather was “Black.” I realized that she was right in the sense that he had dark skin and did not “look White.”

My awareness of skin colour did not change my experiences in my life journey as I accepted people for who they were and how they looked. I never considered that the colour of one’s skin could highly influence their life’s experience. I was colour blind.

My view of the world changed when I started my PhD studies in equity and inclusion. We spent over a week discussing issues around race, gender, background, and privilege. At this point, I was introduced to the idea of the Invisible Backpack I had carried around my entire life. As a person who looks White, I had been handed many privileges that those who don’t look White do not have.

This blew my mind. I never realized how being White gave me so much privilege. As I started unpacking this privilege, I saw many inequities in society and commerce as so many people were excluded due to their colour. My colour blindness evaporated. As an educator, inclusion is very important to me. But when I looked through all the teacher materials and books I used I only noted people that looked like me … they were all White.

Shaken by my revelation, I spoke to my friend about what I had learned. She stated that “colour blindness is a purposeful evasion as it does not honour people who do not pass as White.” She further went on to state that “as a Black Woman, I have to deal with the lack of privilege that comes with the colour of my skin.” As a well-educated Black woman, she had experienced being undermined by those who were White. Her ideas and comments were regularly questioned in her career and social settings. She told me she regularly experienced having her comments dismissed in social settings while her White husband’s were noted.

My husband is third generation Japanese Canadian. He is often asked where he is from and even though he is aware of what people really want to know, he launches into the “Where are you from” game. There’s a typical pattern to the conversation. When asked “Where are you from?”, he usually responds with “Oakville, Ontario.” The person usually follows with “Where were you born?” and his response is “Oakville, Ontario.” Then the person typically asks, “Where were your parents born?” in which he responds “Vancouver, BC.” At this point, frustration sets in and he is again asked “Where were your grandparents born?” The person finally gets the answer they were looking for, “Japan.” The person can now categorize him as of Japanese descent and not Chinese.

I spoke to my husband about my revelations from learning about the White Backpack. He told me he was always one of the only non-White people in school and at work. He knows that White people have more privilege and “it has always been that way.” He did mention that when we are out as a couple, we regularly receive glances of disapproval as an Asian man with a White woman. I’ve noted that the further away from the city we get, the more “looks” we experience.

The process of uncovering my White privilege has been ongoing. I check myself to make sure I am not precipitating my privilege over those without privilege due to the colour of their skin.

Below is a seminar developed in my studies on White privilege. I found it unpacked my own privilege and the experiences of others who may not identify as White.

On August 28th, 1963, DrMartin Luther King Jr, PhD stated “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. I was a year old when he spoke these words. Dr. King dreamed of racial equity and inclusion. It is my hope that I will live to see this dream in its true form.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD

Activities to discuss colour-blindness and the White Backpack.

1. Colour-blindness (5 minutes)

How does colour-blindness affect schools? Read & Reflect In groups of 5, people to discuss issues around colour blindness in schools.

“Color-blindness does not deny the existence of race, but the claim that race is responsible for alleged injustices that reproduce group inequalities, privilege Whites, and negatively impact on economic mobility, the possession of social resources and the acquisition of political power. Put differently, inherent in the logic of color-blindness is the central assumption that race has no valence as a marker of identity or power when factored into the social vocabulary of everyday life and the capacity for exercising individual and social agency.” (Giroux, 2005, pp. 66-67)

2. Daily effects of white privilege as per Peggy McIntosh, 1988 (10 minutes)

“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

Play segment of Freedom Writers movie showing the above in a classroom.

Hand out one or two statements to each person. Have people discuss these statements in their group to uncover their privilege.

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
  8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my colour.
  18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the Revenue Canada [IRS] audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
  30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of colour will have.
  31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
  32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odour will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
  37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
  45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
  46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” colour and have them more or less match my skin.
  47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  48. I have no difficulty finding neighbourhoods where people approve of our household.
  49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
  50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social

The Invisible Backpack (15 minutes)

Ask people consider how they identify as people and outline their own privilege they carry in their lives.

The invisible backpack is the unacknowledged privilege that people carry due to their gender, language, religion, culture, race, social class, ethnic status, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, and geographic location. What is in your invisible backpack?

.

Tools for Educators

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

Racism 101: Definitions

What are my rights? Racism and the Law

Tools for Equity in the Classroom

Aboriginal Education Curriculum

Anti-Racism Workshop Manual for High Schools in Peterborough by Hassan Hassan

The Storytelling Project Curriculum: Learning About Race and Racism Through Storytelling and the Arts (US-based)

Speak! Radical Woman of Colour Media Collective CD

Anti-Racism Resource Kit

“Canada’s Creeping Economic Apartheid” by Grace-Edward Galabuzi (2001)

Teaching Human Rights in Ontario

References

Giroux, H. (2005). Spectacles of race and pedagogies of denial: Anti-black racist pedagogy under the reign of neoliberalism. In L. Larumanchery, (Ed.), Engaging Equity: New perspectives on anti-racist education. Calgary, AB: Detselig.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Independent School, Winter, 1990. Downloaded from http://www.case.edu/president/aaction/UnpackingTheKnapsack.pd

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Updated: October 8, 2020 — 5:33 pm

The Author

Deb Weston

I love teaching. I’ve been teaching over 20 years in Ontario. I’ve taught grades 2 through to grade 8, including split and contained Spec Ed classes. I am an advocate/ally for issues dealing with Workplace Health & Safety, Special Education, Mental Wellness, LGBTQT, and Aboriginal topics. I have qualifications in Special Education, Reading, Technology, Mathematics, eLearning, and Integrated Curriculum. I hold a PhD in Education Policy & Leadership. I am learning disabled! I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together. My opinions are my own, usually supported by peer-reviewed literature and law. Follow me on Twitter @DPAWestonPhD

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