There is one word that is largely anathema in mainstream Canadian conversations about race, one that has been excised from my work throughout my career. That word is “white.” People, especially white people, really don’t like to say it.
Yes, I know that “white” doesn’t mean anything specific. There are millions of people with peach-to-ivory skin whose genetic makeup, histories, geographies and experiences vary wildly. The terms “indigenous,” “black” and “Asian” are similarly unsubstantiated, yet none of them have ever been removed from one of my stories when used to describe a person. The reason we don’t say “white” is because white is the control group – white people are people and race is a thing that happens to everyone else.
Being white in Canada means a lower chance of developing cancer, hypertension and asthma. It also means being less likely to live in poverty. That doesn’t mean that every white person is healthy, wealthy or the prime minister (though every PM we have had has been white).
It does mean that as cards are dealt in the hand of life, white is a good one to get. But unearned benefits based on an unchosen identity are uncomfortable to grapple with – and that’s why people prefer not to say “white.”
“As a social concept, ‘white’ is profound in its meaning,” Robin DiAngelo, an educator and consultant in Seattle, told me. “It means people who either come from or appear to come from Europe, but it’s necessarily a construct of oppression.”
Dr. DiAngelo, who is white, has dedicated her professional life to examining what it means to be white, what she calls “the missing piece” of studies of race and racism. She spent years as a professor and now leads workshops and seminars about racism for mainly all-white audiences, which include sharing language that helps to deconstruct whiteness.
Because, as with every other race, white is a construct. Racialization, or using ethnicity as an excuse to disenfranchise individuals and groups, can happen to people with light skin, too. In 2016, Ukrainians and Italians in Canada are pretty much white, but both were interned as enemy aliens in the past.
Italian-Canadians are an interesting case: Greeted with prejudice when they first arrived, they’ve since persuaded us to adopt their patio culture (after receiving tickets for eating outdoors in mid-20th century Toronto) and have been elected to every level of government. They now enjoy the benefits of whiteness, but many say that they’ll never be mangia-cakes. Yes, race is complicated.
Dr. DiAngelo tries to teach people not to be afraid of terms such as “white privilege” – daily, unspoken advantages due to skin colour – or “white supremacy,” the entrenchment of whiteness as the sun around which other, inferior cultures revolve.
That fear is a problem. Toronto Mayor John Tory, at an election campaign event two years ago, demurred on whether white privilege existed, while Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson recently called those who accused him of white supremacy as being “vulgar and rude.” What’s actually vulgar is that being white increases access to power and privilege, and that by not engaging with that truth, politicians can help to maintain that inequality.
Dr. DiAngelo has a term for that avoidance, too. “White fragility,” she says, is the inability to cope with conversations about race that don’t protect individual white people’s sense of innocence. Western society maintains that racism is an act that individuals do, not a system that all of us exist in.
Thus, she says, it teaches us that “being a good person and being complicit with racism are mutually exclusive.” To hear an accusation of racism is to believe one’s basic morality is in question, which stirs up guilt and defensiveness, leading to anger and avoidance.
White people experience obvious physical relief, Dr. DiAngelo says, when she tells them it isn’t a personal failing to ascribe to white supremacy. It’s what we’ve all been taught from birth. The conversations don’t necessarily get easier from there, she says, but her audiences’ ability to listen, and to cope with unpleasantness, gradually improves.
The solution to white fragility, she says, is to build up stamina; just as with exercise, that involves doing the painful task over and over again until you get better. So try it. Say “white.” Say it to white people.
This week, The Globe and Mail’s Colour Code podcast examines the language used to discuss race and racism in Canada. Tuesday’s episode, 2Legit, can be found at tgam.ca/colourcode
Robin DiAngelo lives in Seattle. A previous version of this article stated that she lives in California.Report Typo/Error