In the context of colonialism, it has always been that the man is strong, the protector. Women are seen as mothers, homemakers, something to be looked at. These are just a few of the typical narratives we hear in Canada.
From an early age, boys and girls are taught how to be boys and girls, so later in life they are prepared to be men, and women. Boys are thrown into blue, with a truck in one hand and a dinosaur in the other, while girls are tossed into a pink dress with a bow in their hair. While neither of these two things are necessarily bad, as identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth is not a bad thing by any means, but it has to be a choice. The problem is that children aren’t getting the option, blue or pink? Dolls or cars? Why not both?
I am a cis woman, meaning that I was born a woman and this is the gender I identify with. However, throughout my life I have made the conscious choice to do things that aren’t maybe what would be considered traditionally “female”, such as music and film choice, playing sports, etc. These choices are not made because I am deliberately wanting to go “against” my gender, they are choices that I feel reflect who I am as a person.
It’s important to disrupt the myth of binary gender, that there are only two options, and that you must conform to the one assigned to you at birth. This notion is absolutely ridiculous, in that it steals the freedom of expression and thought from a person. And it’s not just conformation to gender that is seen as a normative narrative, but also that of women being seen as lesser than men. This is an issue which is blatant and obvious in our society. However, because women gain one victory, such as the right to vote, or an equal cabinet of men and women in our government, we don’t see it as an issue which needs attention or a solution.
In Canada, we speak of freedom and freedom of expression as a value we hold dear, but we don’t always see it this way when it comes specifically to gender. Why have we progressed in other areas and not this? How can we claim equal opportunity for all, but not women? Or those part of the LGBTQ2 community? What can we do to further the progression of equality for all, not just cis men? These are questions we must ask, and dialectic we must take part in if we want to truly achieve the “Canadian” values of equality, opportunity, and freedom of expression for all.
I chose Russel Pedersen’s “A Day at the Beach” and Trista Miller’s story “Race”, to compare to my own story, “Backhanded Compliments.” These stories both focus on the normative narrative of certain regions in which there is a “dominant”, or “majority” race. While my own story does not reflect the normative narrative that one race is prominent or the majority in certain areas, it does reflect the normative narrative that certain body types are attributed to different races. These can be related in that they operate on the discourse of white privilege and ignorance of white people to it. My own story speaks of the moment that I first felt that my body was ‘racialized’, and truthfully the first time I felt in my life that I had been looked at as a white person, and not just as a person. In my story, I say “My mom accepted the compliment but looked a bit embarrassed. I was confused.”. I truly was confused as to why my mom’s race needed to be included in her compliment. As white people, the narrative is that we are the norm, the race that “blends-in” and doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Pedersen’s story speaks about one group of people dominant in one region. Their story and their lives are the dominant discourse in that area, and so when introduced to something new, weren’t sure how to react or why the newcomers were there. This is similar to my own story, in that until the moment it was pointed out to me, I didn’t know that there was something suggested about my body based on my race. In Pederson’s story, he says “You see, not many nationalities live in my community, so the presence of them intrigued almost everyone on that beach.”. The newcomers became a novelty, and was enough to make the author think for the first time about how someone’s skin could be so different from his own. Miller’s story talks about the first time she ever saw a black person in person, while staying with her grandparents in small-town Saskatchewan. Growing up in a predominantly white community, Miller says she noticed the man’s skin colour right away: “It was when I was watching the dancers that I saw a black man and his wife enter the dance floor.”. She notes that she could hear people talking about them, saying “Really? A black guy? Doesn’t the hiring committee know that everyone who lives here is white?”. This is an example of the normative narrative in their community, that being white is the norm.
Day, K.S. Backhanded Compliment (2017)
Miller, T. Race (2017)
Pedersen, R. A Day at the Beach (2017)
I chose Spencer Giffin’s “Gaijin!” as an example of countering a normative narrative. Spencer’s story illustrates an example of white people being the minority, a narrative that goes against the common discourse in Canada. In Griffin’s story, the young boy is absolutely fascinated by seeing a white man. Griffin says, “He stares at me wide eyed. He has dark hair and is only a few feet tall. Quickly he ducks back out of sight, embarrassed to have been caught.”.
Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” includes examples of everyday white privilege. She says “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”, and “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.” McIntosh also speaks directly to the issue of privilege at hand, that white people feel comforted as the ‘majority’ in North America. McIntosh says, “Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.”. I realize that this too, is my privilege as I write this very response.
Giffin’s story is one that makes the reader feel physically uncomfortable, a feeling which many white people have never had in their lives. A feeling that you are being stared at because of your race, something which would normally allow you to disappear and be unseen. It opens the eyes of those of us who have not had this experience, and puts white people into the shoes of people of every other race in Canada.
Giffin, S. Gaijin! (2017) https://spencergiffin.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/self-story-3-gaijin/
McIntosh, P. White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. (1988).
White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account Of Coming To See
Correspondences Through Work In Women’s Studies.
In looking at how the idea that white identity is connected with structural and systemic racism, we can look at things like colonialism and settlers, as well as the fact that most white Canadians are descendants of these settlers. As such, white Canadians have a general stereotype which they often place upon Indigenous peoples in Canada which is passed down through generations. This generalization comes from years of ignorance and turning a blind eye to the oppression that was, and continues to be in place toward First Nations peoples in Canada. As a personal example, my partner, while in the presence of our friend who is First Nations, said to his great-grandfather on the phone “I’m just here with my Indian friend right now.” I shot him a look, and after he hung up he said to me, “That’s just the way that grandpa is and understands things.” As generational trauma can be passed down, so too can generational ignorance.
As Balkisoon explains in her article, Whiteness is a racial construct. It’s time to take it apart, white people don’t like to use the term “white” because it seethes with dominance, a superiority that even if white people don’t believe in, is deeply embedded in our feeling toward the term. It’s as though by using the term “white” we feel we are labeling ourselves as racist or oppressive. However, not saying “white” is an attempt in and of itself to avoid the feeling of guilt a white person has when saying it. This is not okay. We don’t want to feel apologetic, because we feel we have nothing to apologize for., but the term “white” makes a white person feel apologetic. And while we don’t condone the genocide that was the Residential School system, and didn’t personally claim land which didn’t belong to us, we act every single day as though it didn’t happen. We continue to hold prejudice within ourselves taught to us from birth, one which I didn’t even realize I felt for a long time.
In truth, everyone has prejudices within them, but nobody is born prejudiced. It is whether we choose to act or speak on these feelings and thoughts that makes us racist. Especially so as white people, we can’t avoid the term “white”, as it’s an erasure of our past as the descendants of settlers who colonized the land we live on, the great-great ancestors who did act upon their feelings of prejudice. We have to acknowledge this past in an attempt of reconciliation, and we must do better. To erase this past is to not acknowledge the prejudices we feel within ourselves, where they come from and why.
I held her hand as my skates cut through the ice, making patterns behind us we skated around the small-town arena on New Year’s Eve, the rest of the town skating with us. A medley of Queen songs played as we went around and around. The rink was tiny and falling apart. It smelled like fifty years of hockey sweat, but we had spent the past four hours driving to this little town and I was happy to stretch my legs.
She skated circles around me. In her tie-dye sweater, she was a rainbow blur that I couldn’t keep up with, and not just on skates. She showed off for me and her mother made the attempt to do the same, but didn’t seem to balance the same way and fell often. I wondered how a woman who couldn’t even stand on skates could raise a miniature Gordie Howe. Everyone watched Cam, mesmerized by her talent and happy to see someone finally using their rink to it’s potential. It wasn’t until she opened her mouth that people started talking. See, Cam was really good at not looking traditionally female.
In the city, having short hair is no big deal. Heck, being a lesbian is no big deal. But in this tiny Catholic town, it meant something, and the second she asked me to race and her voice came out as a woman’s, people stared. As we held hands and skated around, I heard people whispering: “That’s not a boy?” “A girl could never skate like that!” and the like. I looked at her and she just smiled and shrugged. For her, this was normal. This was a world she had grown up in, small town French-Catholic and extremely strict in their morals. For me, it was ridiculous, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
She told me not to worry about it, but the stares that came from that point on followed us around the arena like our tracks in the ice. I looked around at the people. The women all had skirts on, and I was waiting for one of them to accidently skate over her skirt and trip, but they never did. At first, I was terrified, embarrassed to be the one same-sex couple in the entire town. And then, all of a sudden, I felt proud. I was proud to be with someone that I cared about, proud to express myself and not care about what other people were saying or doing about it.
At that moment, I realized something. No one was talking about me the way they were talking about Cam. No one was talking about us being together, it was all about the fact that she didn’t look like what they wanted her to. No one had ever talked about me that way that I knew of, and I realized that because I was on figure skates, a bit clumsy with waist length hair, I was clearly the more feminine of us two that I gave them nothing to talk about. Her Justin Bieber haircut, hockey skates and pure talent were enough to make them talk. I was something they expected to see, someone they expected to act and look like a ‘female’, and I lived up to those expectations. This was a new feeling, an eye opening one. I realized then at fifteen, that I was already what society would assume as “correct” and “feminine”, simply by being myself.
The mall was such an exciting place to be as a kid. The noise, the people, the shiny new things I was never allowed to touch. Through the bustle my mother held onto my hand with a firm grip, her other hand holding my sister’s the same way. We weaved in and out of the crowd, Olivia tried to wander to the Booster Juice. My mom snatched her back and we kept walking until we reached the store we had come for.
Dresses in all shapes lined the walls. It was November, so browns and reds dominated the scene as women walked around, searching through the racks trying to find their size. My mom was going to a Christmas party and needed something new. My sister and I helped mom pick a few things and she went to the change room, we sat just outside waiting to judge the dresses. She comes out in a few different ones, and even humored us by trying on what we had picked (all of which was awful). She didn’t like any of it.
A salesperson approached us with a cherry red dress in her hand and gave it to my mom. My mom, it should be known, only wore brown, black and grey. She thanked the salesperson and turned the dress down politely. But my sister and I insisted, we were always excited to see her try on something colourful. She went back into the room and came out a minute later in the dress. My sister and I were ecstatic, she looked great! The dress fit her petite figure perfectly and although she didn’t want us to know, we knew she loved it.
She talked it over with the salesperson a bit to see if different colours were available, and before a new dress could be pulled an indigenous woman said to my mom, “That dress is perfect for your white little body, I wish I could fit into something that small.”. My mom accepted the compliment but looked a bit embarrassed. I was confused.
I take after my mom. I’ve always been thin and pale, add in my freckles and blonde hair and you’ve got yourself a certified WASP. My mom did end up buying the dress, but the woman’s compliment stuck in my head forever. Why had she felt the need to point out my mother’s race? It wouldn’t dawn on me until years later that there was a sort of generalization about white women being thin, and even today I don’t understand why the woman said what she did. And although the comment was not made about my body, it really was in that my mother and I share identical looks in every way.
I now know that each race has a stereotypical body type that people think of, and that my mother and I fit the description of “little white girl” perfectly. If you google “white woman” and click images, you’ll know what I mean. As a teenager, I fought vehemently against this and even tried to put on weight to avoid the stereotype. However, at a certain point I gave up. And although this type of racial stereotype isn’t necessarily bad or out of my favor, it’s still a societal construction which must be torn down. My body isn’t thin because I’m white, it’s thin because it’s thin.