In 1988 the white American feminist writer Peggy McIntosh wrote a powerful essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Based on Racial Inequality” (pdf). McIntosh argued eloquently that although racial progress had taken place, there was still a power differential between whites and people of color.
McIntosh's essay was groundbreaking because she was a white woman writing about what blacks could never attain.
According to McIntosh, white people are conditioned to think of their whiteness as neutral, normal, common and not as the other. McIntosh also argued that white privilege is invisible and a form of unearned assets that white people obtain simply by being born white. In addition, just as men don't have to think about male privilege due to male dominance in society, neither do whites have to critically think about race and how they benefit because of their race and being the majority.
The issue of race has been ignored by the Canadian media in relation to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s crack scandal. The question is why? The silence about how he takes advantage of his white privilege is casually ignored as though it does not exist.
Ford has marketed himself as a working-class white male politician, but this is not true. Ford is from a wealthy family, yet he presents the image that he is not a part of the Canadian political elite.
White privilege grants Ford the ability to get a pass for his deleterious behavior. Would a man of color or a woman be afforded the same latitude if he or she were smoking crack cocaine?
My answer is no. Earlier this year in Toronto, there was high-profile news about a black Canadian man, Chris Spence, who was director of the Toronto District School Board. Spence had to resign because he plagiarized several articles he wrote for the Toronto Star. I am not saying what Spence did was right.
However, imagine Spence acting like Ford, refusing to resign and give up his top position at the Toronto District School Board. The Canadian media would not accept a black man being so defiant. Spence knew he had to resign. He had no choice.
Ford, on the other hand, has admitted to smoking crack cocaine, and he has also admitted to being frequently drunk in public. Last March security had to call a cab for Ford because he was drunk at City Hall at 2 a.m. The fact that Ford was associating with young men of color who happen to be drug dealers is also a big part of the story. One young man, Anthony Smith, who was photographed with Ford last year, is now dead. Yet the mayor is still in office, promising to seek help for his problems.
Ford’s white constituents give him a pass for his unprofessional behavior because he is a white man. The people supporting Ford have sympathy for him because they identify with him. The shock and the horror any Canadians do have are due to the fact that Ford is associating with black gang bangers. Smoking crack is associated with underworld people, not rich white folks like Rob Ford.
Ford is a perfect example of the “mythical norm” that African-American feminist Audre Lorde wrote about in her groundbreaking book Sister Outsider. According to Lorde, the mythical norm is the white heterosexual male who has the ultimate power in society. The mythical norm can also circumvent the laws because he is treated differently by the state compared with people of color.
In America, there is already a discourse about this type of racism, yet Canada pretends to be morally superior to America. Canadians are not comfortable discussing race issues because it taints the mythology that Canada is a multicultural paradise. Canadians pretend that race is an American problem and not a problem in the great white North.
Canadian culture is indeed racist, but the racism is more covert than overt. Canadians engender this invisible racism by not talking about it.
It seems that the silence about Ford’s white privilege speaks volumes about Canadian society. By pretending that race is not a factor in this crack scandal, the Canadian press is also a part of the quandary. The four major newspapers in Toronto have barely scratched the surface about race in the Ford crack scandal, and they continue to be reticent about how he is being treated differently.
The paucity of news or television broadcasts about the issue of privilege and race is not surprising, since Canadians have polite bigotry. Canadians are polite racists. They are just bigots in private, not in public.
Orville Lloyd Douglas is a Canadian writer and the author of You Don’t Know Me.