Recognizing White Privilege with the Intention to Abolish the System Which Allows For It: Thoughts on the Place of Divisive Narratives

This opinion editorial was written by Rita Neyer, guest writer for The Drawing Board. The opinions expressed are hers alone. Her bio follows the story below.

First pains.

There are these occasions where life surprises me with a first. Over the years, they have been less frequent, but yesterday was one of these days. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to criticism based on my race and body-shape, and these lines are my attempt to make sense of it.

Maybe this only happened at the age of 27 because I grew up in a rural European area. Maybe it is because I did my first degree in a mid-sized city in the same country where a body in all its manifestations is considered a natural component of a person, and racism is not based on skin-color, but rather on for how many generations your family has been living in that village. However, this incident yesterday made me think about stereotypes and the narratives—i.e. a standardized and mostly unquestioned discourse patterns—we produce around them.

Here is my account of what happened:

In order to celebrate the end of term, my friends and I had decided to see a comedy show at a local pub. My being late was rewarded with having to sit on that one first-row seat at my friends’ table that nobody wants to because the comedians would eventually make fun of the person sitting there. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Soon enough—I assume that is what comedians do when they interact with the audience?—I was chosen to represent the skinny, white, privileged girl, and the obvious implication was that I knew nothing about life nor about my privilege, nor about the history of those who did not  and do not experience such privilege.

Before attending the show, we had no idea what would await us—after all, that is part of the fun. After the show, I was totally distraught and perplexed. The comedian had made jokes about me being white and having small boobs. She had commented on my face that admittedly must have looked stressed from trying to keep up with her Southern accent and numerous references to American pop culture that are unknown to most Europeans. She had pitied me for looking as if I would break into tears over her story of having her nipple shot off. Thinking about it, she was right. Stories like these, all these events in somebody else’s life, and the narratives they represent are not really part of my world.

In fact, my world is a protected one of highly self-aware academic conversation that revolves around human interaction in all its facets. It fights gender binaries and religious antagonism. In its ideal form, it provokes constructive discussion while allowing different opinions to co-exist. It juxtaposes narratives with critical analysis of historical ‘facts.’ Some might call this leftist, but I tend to disagree: The form of intellectual interaction I describe here does not care about points on an arbitrary two-dimensional political line. It cares about understanding.

I migrated to Canada last year on the grounds of a four-year-scholarship from the University of Alberta, which gave me the good feeling that people here wanted me to contribute with my work and opinion. Canada was my first choice because of the country’s reputation as being anti-racist, egalitarian and open-minded. Ever since coming here, I have received an incredibly warm welcome. I have made many great friends; I found an amazing boyfriend; and I got the opportunity to do some serious work. Apart from some institutional issues, e.g. with the bank system or on the job market (I cannot lose the feeling that people do not like to employ foreigners), I feel very well accepted and even integrated to the extent that my interaction with people here changes both our vantage points for the better.
However, as a recently ‘converted’ historian (my first degree was in Classics) doing a Ph.D. on early modern suicide, my personal experience with modern-day racism and the various facets of body-shaming have been based mostly on hearsay and what I read in newspapers or blogs, and thus yesterday’s incident was all the more irritating. This personal first feels like an awakening from a nice dream to a slightly unpleasant reality. As an academic, I embrace this while recognizing its unpleasantness. I found that just because I spend most of my life in a privileged academic environment, the concepts I try to deconstruct do not cease to persist in a reality other than my own. Calling out privilege and the division that comes with it will not stop as long as there are those who deny it exists, those who deny that the system continues to be broken. Navigating my privilege and honouring the less privileged experiences of others while figuring out how to move forward together is the challenge at hand.

At the same time, this also made me more aware of the way our society, especially in North America, deals with these problems: taking the bad things in life and turning them into something we can laugh about, to paraphrase that same comedian. By making fun of a random white woman, she had found the perfect means to make her point. However, this is a double-edged sword, since it exposes existing narratives of discrimination by replacing it with new ones.

In the post-colonial narrative,  the one who throws off the shackles first is understandably lauded; however, the colonizer cannot be universally demonized based on the colour of their skin either. To do so is less a criticism of the system that perpetuates social violence and more so the creation of new victims within it, another “us vs. them” mentality, when all our world needs is a “we.” This is not to gloss over the historical experience of different groups, nor to ignore a position of privilege occupied by others. However, it does mean adopting an attitude of cooperation rather than antagonism, particularly for individuals who consider themselves allies.

What I appreciate about this experience is that it gave me the (admittedly unwanted) opportunity to experience such a situation first-hand. I got, in a very small way, to feel the reality of other people daily: the reality of being discriminated against for the colour of their skin or the shape of their body, regardless of the contents of their mind.  I thought I knew how it would feel, but no empathy can ever prepare you for how it hurts. And I am so very sorry that this is reality for so many women daily.

I could have been outraged but this would have just fed the narrative of a privileged white girl finally seeing what it feels like – a narrative that does as much violence to those who perpetuate it as to those it is perpetuated about. In this way, I don’t blame those who push the story of white privilege onto those who are allies. As the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic said, “People have so much pain inside them that they are not even aware of” and I have realized that the best chance to understand other peoples’ pain is to experience a similar pain of your own.

rita neyer.jpgAfter growing up in Western Austria, Rita Neyer first came to the University of Alberta through an exchange program in 2014. According to her friends, she liked Edmonton more than most Canadians do—she successfully reapplied and returned in 2015. She holds a Master’s degree in Classics (Latin) from the University of Innsbruck, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in History. During her first degree, Rita worked as a Student’s Representative, Latin instructor, teaching assistant, and reader for various newspapers. In 2012, she was named winner of the first Neo-Latin poetry slam hosted by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies, and was awarded the Richard and Emmy Bahr scholarship one year later. After finishing her degree, Rita gained work experience as a cataloger for medieval books, and published an edition of an early modern German manuscript.

In her opinion, the most important principle for all academic work is interdisciplinarity. Rita’s research interests hence include a broad and growing variety of areas such as jurisprudence, linguistics, literature, natural sciences, environmental studies, philosophy, and—most recently—history of suicide. In 2016, she presented at the University of Alberta’s HCGSA Conference. Outside of her academic work, Rita is trained in conflict management, and speaks over ten languages. For retirement, she wants to study physics and learn how to play the drums (depending on the neighbors).


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