I grew up in a pretty homogeneous neighbourhood and went to schools where just about everybody looked like me.
That’s just the way the world was — or so I thought. Sure, I heard of the poverty in other countries and once we got TV, I occasionally saw pictures on the news of starving kids.
I don’t remember when I became aware that growing up in Canada meant I was among the privileged of the world. That privilege came in many forms — economically, socially, racially.
It meant access to a good education and health care, having enough money, the freedom of worship and choice of occupation.
It meant access to the many physical and economic resources of this country.
But there was one area where I was not among the privileged.
Although I didn’t like it and thought it unfair, the assumption in my younger days was men would get better jobs, earn more money and generally have more opportunities.
Today, the subject of privilege, and sometimes its sister, oppression, is a topic often raised.
Thank goodness, collectively and as individuals, we are becoming increasingly aware of privilege and what it means. But speaking about privilege can cause some to react with anger.
Last spring, the Gold Trail School District initiated a poster campaign about privilege to spur a discussion about societal issues.
But the campaign led to such anger and vitriolic response that it was pulled. That initiative and the subsequent reaction became the genesis of a free public forum and educational event on privilege, to be offered this Saturday at Kamloops United Church.
What is privilege? Who has it? How do we get it? Or not get it?
What is the responsibility of those with privilege?
Privilege may be defined as unearned rights, benefits, immunity, advantages and favours that are bestowed upon individuals and groups solely on the basis of their race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, social group or other key characteristics.
Privileges are often hardest to see by those who carry them, since these privileges are usually normalized by society. The fact that not everybody has these privileges is frequently forgotten, unseen or ignored.
The responsibility for addressing privilege is not equal.
Privilege might be described as “intersectional,” meaning that it can cross a wide range of domains.
A person might be privileged in one aspect of life, but not in another. For instance, what if a white heterosexual male is privileged, but lacks privilege in another area because he is deaf?
Whenever we hear words with “ism” or “phobia,” we can be pretty sure we are dealing with the topic of privilege (e.g. racism, heterosexism, homophobia, able-bodyism).
Although some will suggest that equality for all can address the issue, in reality, equal treatment erases our differences and, in fact, promotes privilege.
For instance, clearing a snow-covered ramp for wheelchair users clears the path for everyone, whereas clearing the sidewalk for most users does not.
Privilege does not mean you’re rich, a bad person, have had everything handed to you or have never had challenges or struggles. Privilege just means there are some challenges and struggles you will never experience because of who you are.
I invite you to ask yourself these questions as you think about privilege: When have I felt privileged? Not privileged? Do I feel defensive when a person of another race says, “white people”? Do I feel angry when people tell me I benefit from “white privilege”? Do I feel offended by the questions?
Saturday’s forum will include a group of speakers and panelists. The Very Rev. Dr. Bill Phipps, former moderator of the United Church of Canada, will be the keynote speaker.
He has a long history of giving leadership in the area of privilege, particularly with Indigenous rights and the LBGTQ movement. He was the first leader of any church to offer a public apology for the church’s involvement in, and the hurt caused by, the Indian residential school system.
He was the executive secretary of the United Church in Alberta when the church determined it was just and faithful to consider homosexual persons for ministry.
Bill Sundhu will be moderator of the panel discussions.
He is a human rights lawyer and a former judge. Sundhu is from a minority racial group and knows first-hand the effects of discrimination. He has been involved extensively with Indigenous communities and serves as circuit lawyer on Haida Gwaii, primarily with First Nations people. As well, he has been appointed to the list of legal counsel for the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Panel members are Kamloops Pride board member Sam Numsen, Lower Nicola Indian Band Chief Aaron Sumexheltza, lawyer, wheelchair basketball player and disability advocate Jessica Vleigenthart and Y Emergency Shelter for Women director and Violence Against Women general manager Michele Walker.
The forum will take place on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Kamloops United Church, 421 St. Paul St. downtown.