Centering Whiteness

Heritage and culture feel like fraught topics of discussion that will inevitably lead to me embarrassing myself and revealing my ignorance, if not latent racism. However, for me, because I am white, the discussion and consequences are not inevitable. I can choose to avoid discussing culture and heritage for fear I will make a mistake, or I can try and explore out loud what growing up white in Canada has meant and means for me today. That I am able to make the latter choice in this article is an example of the privilege of being white. The power to disengage from this particular discussion is the power of whiteness —the power of living as the default.

I am white of the most apparent pale skin, blue eyes, blond hair and disappearing eyebrow ilk. My maternal family came from England to Vancouver Island three generations ago. My paternal grandfather won a scholarship to St Andrews but turned it down to come to Canada instead. Despite my family’s immigrant past, because of how I look when I am in Canada, I have never been asked “Where are you from?” or the uncomfortable follow-up, “No, but really, what are you?” Compare this with my Canadian colleague, whose grandfather also came to Canada as a young man. He was born not in Scotland but in what was Korea, and she is frequently asked both those questions. I am assumed to be from here because I am white. She is assumed to be from somewhere else because she is not. Of course, neither of us are from here in the way that Indigenous people are, but my whiteness renders my belonging assumed.

In the past my white features might have been part of a more diverse group, but culturally my whiteness is the default. In school, I learned European history and read classics all written by white people (primarily men, but that is another article). Even the books we read that were ostensibly about non-white experiences, like In the Heat of the Night (dealing with racism in the American South), were written by white men.   

Occasionally there would be a unit on Indigenous culture, but the same rigor and resources were never allocated to exploring Indigenous society pre-contact or the destruction and devastation that settlement wrought. At home and at school I read the Little House On the Prairie books where the narrative of settlement was uncomplicated by a reflection on who the land being settled belonged to or, indeed, the deeper philosophical discussion of whether land was something to own or something to share, something to conquer or something to tend.  

It is difficult for me as a white Canadian to grasp how cultural differences continue to be the source of so much suffering. My maternal grandfather’s people were poor. They lived in Vancouver close to Lord Kitchener Elementary. Before he was old enough to go to school, my grandfather used to play with one of the neighbour boys in the school playground. They played marbles and practiced throwing around a baseball, plotting the fun they would have when they would be old enough to join their siblings in school.

Finally, they were old enough. They always walked to and from school together. One day my grandfather waited outside their door and no one came out. He knocked, but no one was home. Although not wealthy, the neighbours were better off than my grandfather’s family. They owned their own tiny house and a successful fishing business. They were also Japanese. My grandfather never saw his friend again. They were part of the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. The government confiscated their home and business and interned the entire family.

I don’t know what happened to their family. I don’t know if they were interned in BC or Alberta. I don’t know if, as was often the case, the family was separated. I don’t know if anyone from the family survived until 1988 when the Canadian government paid some reparations. I don’t know how to measure the benefit that white fisherman like my grandfather’s family experienced after their competition was eliminated.

It is uncomfortable to write but still true despite my discomfort. My cultural heritage is one of benefiting from the theft of other people’s culture, heritage, and land. If we are ever going to reckon with the pain in our history, white people like me will need to feel uncomfortable and we will need to recognize that this discomfort is not the same as the discrimination and marginalization that BIPOC folks experience every day. In my Canadian story, the power of whiteness is not so much in what it reveals but what it conceals.