My White Privilege Story

I’m a white, Acadian-Canadian woman, raised Catholic in a predominantly white community, currently living in South Korea. I could easily say that what happened in Charlottesville isn’t my story. But having had a geographical closeness to North Korea and USA’s bids for superiority during the decade I’ve lived here, I’ve learned that what happens in the USA affects much more than the USA.

I write this from my experience, and I’ll probably do a messy job of it. I’ve accepted that. What I write might make people uncomfortable. I accept this too. I’m not looking to explain, debate, or justify anything I share, and this isn’t a time for comfort.

I do hope, however, that by writing this I spark something sacred and courageous within you. I hope my sharing empowers you to shine your own light.

Darkness can’t remain dark once you shine a light on it. What happened in Charlottesville is an example of how the darkness has strived. I’m committed to doing my part in making sure it doesn’t envelope more than it already has. As Peggy McIntosh writes in her article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

“To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”

So to do this, I’m writing about ways I think I’ve contributed to racism and how I think I’ve benefited from white privilege. I understood why it was important to share my story after watching Brené Brown’s Facebook live video. And I found the resolve to write this after watching Vice’s documentary on the Charlottesville protests. As I’ve written about before, this documentary is something I normally would have avoided, but avoidance is what got us into this mess, and again, this isn’t a time for comfort.

Ways I’ve contributed to racism

Last week I posted this image of overt and covert white supremacy on my Facebook page. This encouraged a short discussion about the term “white supremacy” and the need to unpack the terms listed under “covert white supremacy”. My intention in posting the pyramid was to raise awareness regarding how white people might secretly, if not unknowingly, be contributing to racism. Then I suggested that we may need to create a more precise pyramid to make sure the concepts weren’t misleading.

Although I’d like to do this, and hope someone does, I’ve decided my time is better spent doing my own messy and imperfect unpacking. So here goes:

  • I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language from a mostly euro-centric curriculum in South Korea for the past 12 years. I can refute linguistic imperialism, and work on promoting English as a global language, but I can’t deny that my job was built on the shoulders of white Europeans who colonized Asian, African, American, and Oceanic countries.
  • I’ve used racist terminology. This was when I was much younger, but regardless, I did it.
  • I’ve remained quiet while others made racist jokes. This was also in my younger days. I’m not justifying having done this. I’m just providing a timeline because I’ve changed.
  • I’ve remained quiet as older people belittled the economic reality of people of color, especially that of African-Americans and First Nations people in Canada. I didn’t know how to speak up to these people I’m supposed to respect.

I may be in denial of a few more. I’m not sure. That’s the sneaky thing about racism, or maybe implicit bias; we can sometimes be unaware of our racial conditioning. But the more I unpack, and shine a light, the more aware I’ll become. And in this awareness, change becomes possible.

But there’s a bit more unpacking to do.

Ways I’m benefiting from my white privilege

In her Facebook live video, Brené Brown explains that, “privilege is not about how much you work; it’s about unearned access and authority,” and that “privilege when it comes to race is about unearned rights.” So because I’m a white, English-speaking woman from North America with a Catholic upbringing, I have many unearned rights.

My unearned access and rights have served me well in Korea. I can complain all I want about being stared at, and about being treated differently because I’m not Korean [i.e. microagressions (but also nothing like the microagressions many others experience)], but the underlying reality is I’m benefiting from my white privilege, especially as it pertains to my income and social status. Things have changed in recent years, but there is still a widely held preference in private and public schools to hire white teachers, preferably from North America, Australia, or England. I’ve never had to worry about my white skin or blue eyes being grounds for scrutiny. There’s something unjust about this.

I know there are many other ways I’m benefiting without merit, and I think that just by unpacking what I shared about my career as a teacher could reveal a lot more, but this post is long enough.

I’m still not sure what will come from telling this story. I sense it has something to do with spiritual activism. I also know I’m tired of being controlled by darkness, and maybe by sharing my story with you, you’ll come to terms with how tired you are too. If that’s the case, please know you aren’t alone. There are safe spaces for you to share your truth, and to let your light shine. This blog is a place to start.

RESOURCES:

Courageous conversations:

Resources for healing and action:

  • Consider your position on using language that shames people who don’t share your position by watching Brené Brown’s video at 20:50. She starts off with,”Shame is not a motivator for better behaviour. Shame ignites two things: rationalization, blame.” She then continues to explain how you can speak to people with different beliefs without shaming them.
  • Marianne Williamson’s talk after Charlottesville where she encourages American citizens to learn more about their history and strategies for non-violent resistance.
  • 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action – I recommend choosing one item from this list, and cut and pasting it to Google. Here you’ll find examples of what that action looks like, and how you might carry it out.
  • Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha) by Mahatma Gandhi

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The morning Kali bit me

I wondered how long she was coiled up under my pillow waiting to bite.

She had an important message that morning, but I’ve only recently started to understand it.

Last summer, we had been seeing these critters scurrying across our floors more often than usual. Bugs are something you learn to live with in the Korean countryside. I must say, however, I never worried that this black armoured creature with her blood-red pinchers would ever find her way into our bed. But last July, I learned that from now on, we’ll need to shake out our sheets and flip our pillows before attempts at summer slumber.

Before getting out of bed to start my work week, I turned on my side to rest for a few more moments. I felt something hard and cold on my shoulder, but figured it was a pillow zipper. When I stirred again, I learned I was wrong. A sharp, swift pinch caught my shoulder! I quickly sat up, pulled back the pillow, and there she was: the familiar centipede with her recently triggered pinchers.

Luckily we learned this variety of centipede isn’t poisonous.  All I’d have to worry about would be a strong itch and swelling around the tiny vampire-like bite marks. Of course, I’d also have to worry about going to bed at night. But something else played on my mind: what was the meaning behind this?

When animals make sudden or unexpected appearances in my life, I enjoy learning more about their spiritual meaning. By doing a quick Google search of the animal + totem animal (or spirit animal), interpretations are easy to find. Of course there is greater depth to this concept than just a Google search, but I like using such spiritual modalities to help me understand the greater meaning that life is presenting at the moment.

But unlike animals such as the fox, bear, or crow, there wasn’t much on the obscure centipede. What I did find, didn’t speak to me at that time.

It wasn’t until I finally opened my new Shakti Coloring Book a few days before the eve of 2016 that I was able to make sense of my summer morning encounter. As I was skimming the explanations and Hindu goddess illustrations of Ekabhumi Charles Ellik, the word  “centipede” jumped out at me. I learned that each Hindu god or goddess has a vehicle (vahana), and that this vehicle is usually an animal. Ekabhumi writes:

Animals help both to identify a goddess and to give insight into how her power is expressed.

Okay. Interesting. So what was the expression of this particular power?

Centipede: poison, hatred, fear, darkness

Okay. Not so cool.

Skimming all the other vehicles listed, I didn’t see words that felt quite as menacing as the one’s which belonged to the goddess who desperately wanted to be identified. Hopeful words such as abundance, protection, playfulness, or immortality defined the other 23 listed vehicles. I guess I was in for quite a ride!

So who was this centipede carrying anyway?

Kali's centipede - The Shakti Coloring Book

According to Ekabhumi’s research, the centipede was considered to be one of Goddess Kali’s vehicles.

Who is Kali and what does she want from me?

The way we see Kali at any given moment has everything to do with where we are in our own journey. Whether Kali seems terrifying, fascinating, or loving depends on our state of consciousness and our level of both emotional and spiritual development. But she always invites us to a radical form of ego-transcendence (Kempton, p. 122).

It was starting to make sense. The week she bit me was halfway through the first (and now only) launching of the TESOL course I had put together (see the previous post Connecting, Reconnecting, and Disconnecting in 2015 for a bit of history on this). Many forms of doubt had slowly started to creep in. My confidence and even my joy was starting to wane. My ego was on high alert for sure: the perfect moment for Kali to present herself. It was time for an ego eradication, but I wasn’t ready to listen.

What did that mean for me? It meant my doubt, my need to be perfect, my fear of making mistakes, my desire to be liked — my ego — dug its teeth into me and didn’t let go. It dimmed my light and led me into the fog. The fog followed me into my first semester in the Department of English Education, a department I would have been happy to teach for in years past. And although I was grateful for this new position, I had an overpowering sense that the darkness was taking over.

She is a massive love-force that is literally death to the ego. When she erupts in your life, Kali will cut away whatever is extraneous, whatever is indulgent. She is especially hard on arrogance, including the arrogance that makes us believe prematurely that we are outside the rules, before our earned wisdom has legitimately  given us the right to set aside rules in the service of higher values (Kempton, p. 124).

Now that it’s winter vacation, and I have time to look back and make sense of how I was feeling, I see how I was easily led by my bad habits: perfectionism and the disease to please. I understand what Kali was warning me about that morning. She wanted me to look into my fears, my habits, rather than push them away. Although it’s hard to admit it, that’s what I did. I did my best to ignore my fears because facing them was too scary.

The biggest experience of Kali’s love always accompanies those moments when we have allowed ourselves to let go of our egoic agendas. As she sweeps away a layer of ego, the depth of care is revealed (Kempton, p. 126).

I haven’t let go of all my agendas or fears. I know I have a lot of work to do. But I’m starting to see the light of Kali’s care beaming through the fog. I see her vehicle coming down my path, and I’m ready to hitch a ride.

Shout-outs

  • to Anna Loseva for turning me on to the meditative world of colouring and for inspiring me (perhaps unknowingly) to finally buy The Shakti Coloring Book I’d been eyeing.
  • to Elizabeth Duvivier for organizing and facilitating The Goddess Book Club. Although I participate at my own slow pace, it’s so much fun to explore the Goddesses through her videos and questions.
  • to Sirja Bessero for telling me about Sally Kempton’s, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga, and for leading me to Elizabeth’s book club. Most importantly, thank you for writing The Year I Almost Turned My Back on Teaching English and for helping me remember that the fog follows us all.