Matthew Sears is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick.
Instead of a resolution, I will begin 2018 with a New Year's confession: Until recently, I was a conservative. I rolled my eyes at every mention of what many call out as today's "campus orthodoxies" – ongoing oppression, systemic racism, sexism and misogyny, micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and any hint that speech could be a form of violence.
I considered myself a classical liberal because I believed in individual responsibility and that competition and individuality allow the cream to rise to the top, in terms of both economics and ideas. Above all, I felt I had earned my position as a university professor with a PhD from the Ivy League, and that those who had achieved less than I had earned that, too.
The right-wing Twittersphere talks of "red pill moments" (a reference to a famous scene from The Matrix), in which a person of the left is jolted by the real world to see through left-wing platitudes and join the right as a sensible conservative swayed by facts, not feelings. I prefer Thomas Kuhn's term "paradigm shift," which describes a fundamental change in scientific disciplines. I went through a paradigm shift starting five years ago.
Teaching at Wabash College, an all-male liberal arts college in small-town Indiana, I spent some time with the students and faculty of the Malcolm X Institute for Black Studies. I changed, witnessing the real experiences of these students in Middle America. Coming originally from Atlantic Canada and then studying in the hippie paradise of Ithaca, N.Y., I easily overlooked and ignored the oppression other groups faced (though, to be clear, oppression was still very much there).
But, in Indiana, these students were regularly pulled over by the police (I never was) and tailed by suspicious staff at stores (I never was). They also faced far more blatant acts of racism, including, shockingly, shouts of "white power" from passing cars. There is simply no denying that African-Americans face this kind of thing – and worse – day after day after day. That I don't is just the very tip of my white privilege.
I must note that black, Indigenous and all people of colour have been saying these kinds of things repeatedly, for years and years. It is not to my credit that it took me seeing the marginalization of others with my own eyes to recognize oppression and privilege for what they are. I should have listened to what others were telling me about their own experiences. And, that I, a white guy who merely came to his senses, am able to publish these thoughts is but another manifestation of my privilege. I certainly hope later really is better than never.
Once I acknowledged and weighed the evidence that was right in front of my face, nothing was the same. I began to see the world and myself differently. I saw that I am extraordinarily privileged. I saw that, though I do work hard, I begin way ahead of others simply by being white. I'm not where I am just because of what I've done.
I can't be a classical liberal any more, because there simply isn't a level playing field – not in terms of race, educational opportunities, economic resources and so many other factors – that ensures the best ideas are recognized and that effort is fairly rewarded with economic success. To act like there is is cruel – and self-serving for those already advantaged. If I can distill my change in outlook and behaviour into a general principle, I now err on the side of not presuming my experience is like others' experiences. I try to default to compassion and self-awareness.
Only five years ago, I might have said "all lives matter"; "not all men"; "everything is up for debate"; "I'm a free speech absolutist"; and "students need to be prepared for the real world." Now I say, based on facts and not just emotion, "black lives matter"; "I believe women"; "I don't get to debate the existence of others"; "free speech often benefits the already powerful"; and "marginalized students have already seen more of the real world than I ever will." That's my paradigm shift.
Like territorial acknowledgments, recognizing privilege must be but the first step. Real action has to follow. For me, I have begun by teaching and writing in new and, I think, better, ways that consider ever more perspectives and grapple with the biases and prejudices that linger – especially my own. As we begin 2018, in a world that is more polarized by the day, let's resolve to listen to each other, and be open to paradigm shifts from wherever they may come.