A Blushing White Woman is not a Woman of Colour

We’ve never before been so aware that the lives of all people matter, that all the challenges we face are global, and that we are all in it together.

We’ve never before been so aware that the lives of all people matter, that all the challenges we face are global, and that we are all in it together.

I am a settler, like my parents, two of my grandparents, and most of my aunts and uncles. Only recently have I realized that.

My parents immigrated to this country over a hundred years ago. Like so many immigrants, they were escaping the hardships of a repressive class system within a colonizing country that oppressed people at home and abroad. My father was a fifteen-year-old orphan who borrowed money to come to Canada. He worked first in fishing and logging camps until he eventually managed to get a position at BC Electric as a tram conductor and from there worked his way up to become a safety engineer.

My mother’s parents were very young when they came to Canada just before World War I broke out. My grandfather went back overseas with the Canadian forces and suffered shrapnel wounds which made it difficult for him to work for the rest of his life. Both grandparents worked hard to care for their five children, earning enough to be happy and healthy, but never enough to own their own home. My mother was very clever but there was no money for university fees so she went to the Vancouver General Hospital where she would receive free training in exchange for full-time work as a nursing student.

They didn’t know they were colonizers, didn’t think of themselves as settlers. They were spirited, hopeful people who wanted to contribute to a new world, which they did through their careers and their lifelong volunteer work.

I’m an old woman and have only now begun to question whether I belong here. I’ve started to understand many things I didn’t perceive as I was growing up. For many years, I proudly sang O Canada, believing that it was “my home and native land.” Never questioning those words. I grew up only blocks away from the Musqueam people, but I don’t think I ever noticed them. I’ve heard there may have been a few Musqueam girls in my junior high school, but I never met them.

I have friends who are Indigenous, Black and Asian. I think my relationships with them are easy and equitable, but I’m not sure. I can’t begin to imagine the various ways in which they’ve been oppressed or ignored. I’m only now becoming aware of white privilege and the ways in which it has blinded me to inequities. I’m embarrassed by my lack of awareness, my lack of perception, and insensitivity, but it’s not enough to be ashamed.

Recently the term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) has entered common usage. I prefer the term IBPOC which places Indigenous people at the front of the list, since they were here first. Witnessing the ongoing conversations about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people and the emergence of Black Lives Matter movements and many anti-discrimination organizations, I’ve become much more aware of my privilege, my lack of awareness, my blindness with regard to so many things. It’s strange how our whiteness can sometimes make other colours invisible to us. We don’t see the things we don’t see. We have to work very hard to learn how to see the things we have ignored – around us and within ourselves.

I ask myself — do I belong here? And, if not here, then where? Questions of belonging, identity and culture are complicated, and merit close examination.

How can I describe my identity? Canadian nationality, English-speaking, lethargic Anglicanism, though never formally christened in any religion. My parents and grandparents worked hard; never complained, maintained a stiff upper lip, paid their debts, knew their place, despised whiners, and had a sense of fair play. They valued education, work, courage, discipline, honesty, and friendship, as well as music, art, nature, games, good humour and family activities. My strongest childhood memories are of family get-togethers with lots of singsongs, backyard picnics, Dickensian Christmases and lively dinnertime debates. The family structure was patriarchal, relationships were reserved, and feelings were rarely expressed. It wasn’t perfect, but better than many.

We’ve never before been so aware that the lives of all people matter, that all the challenges we face are global, and that we are all in it together.

I hear Indigenous and Black people emphasizing the importance of being grounded in their culture, and I celebrate the opportunities I’ve had to witness aspects of their cultures. I can see that, in comparison with the colourful mosaic of Indigenous and multicultural traditions, my British heritage may appear rigid and pallid.

Do I “own” my identity? My culture? I celebrate some of the traditions that were passed down, but I deplore the white, imperialist, colonizing practices of the British Empire; its racism, prejudice and militarism. Surely other immigrants experience the same conflict with regard to the practices of their former countries. My parents experienced hardship in their early years, and the family I grew up in wasn’t a wealthy one, but there was always food, warmth, money for piano lessons, and new clothes when needed. As a child I was never conscious of the colour of my skin and never questioned my right to go about town with my friends, freely and unafraid. I never saw violence in my home or on the street. It didn’t occur to me that these things constituted privilege. Now I know better, and I wish a degree of awareness had come to me much earlier in my life.

Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated, “For reconciliation to work, and for our relationship to be renewed, there must be awareness, acceptance, apology, atonement and action.” I want to do those things, but how do I go about it? It’s not my place to speak out about the IBPOC issues, though I can support those who do. It’s not the responsibility the IBPOC community to educate me about racism. But I’d like to be part of conversations about these issues. At the moment, I sometimes feel excluded. A blushing white woman is not a person of colour.

I believe that this is a time for white settlers to just be quiet and let other voices dominate. Yet I also know that this is a critical time on our planet, and we’re facing many complex challenges: racial injustice, climate change, economic inequities, gender inequity, food and water sustainability, the Covid crisis. We’ve never before been so aware that the lives of all people matter, that all the challenges we face are global, and that we are all in it together.

In order to come up with solutions, surely we need all voices need to be heard and all of us must be empowered to act.