• Ibiyemi Balogun

Still on the topic of racism - Let's talk about privilege....

During this time of racial injustice at the forefront of all our minds, I decided to write this for my white/non-black friends and colleagues who have been asking how they can support. I am especially talking to people that have been saying “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you”. My first thought usually is well “me neither”.…..your brain has a way of protecting you when you’ve experienced or witnessed trauma or injustice or else it would explode! which is precisely why your black friends are exhausted. So, although I’m not expecting you to take on my trauma, I am asking you to put yourself in my shoes, to examine your own privilege, question it, unlearn and re-learn new ways of living.

I will be walking you through my privilege and simultaneous experiences with racism. Disclaimer, because I am telling my story it is going to feature some people from my life, please note I am not “calling you out” I LOVE YOU! we have ALL made mistakes including myself, but I committed to growth. One thing that COVID19 and quarantining for almost 12 weeks has taught me is to look within, confront those feelings, admit when I’m wrong and where I’ve betrayed myself and looking for ways to actively “do better”.

So here we go! Growing up in Nigeria, I never experienced racism, I was the privileged one in that society, one of the 1% (well more like 0.01% if you know about Nigerian demographics). I went to great international schools, lived in beautiful gated communities, got driven around in luxury cars. I also had access to travel because I am a dual citizen (British & Nigerian) so my passport allowed me to explore the world…I had and have BUCKETS LOADS of (privilege), but I always was grateful and also questioned why I got to go to great schools while the beggar on the street couldn’t even feed themselves?? I was able to recognize my (privilege) but I was still very far removed from the situation because that was the way of life.

My first interaction with racism was on one of our many travels(privilege). You see although I was privileged, the world always reminds me of my blackness. It was the year 2000 on a trip to South Africa, I would have been 8. I was in a public washroom washing my hands and 2 white children looked at themselves and then looked at me weirdly; the older one then proceeded to hit the younger one on the arm for taking off her watch and leaving it so close to me as if to say I would take it…..I remember thinking “well that was weird” but I carried on with my day, I don’t think I even told my parents about it, maybe I should have. Other than that, I went on to live a relatively sheltered life in Lagos until I moved to Canada.

I moved to Canada at 16 and went to “Canada’s oldest all-girls boarding school” in the heart of forest hill with annual tuition close to what the average Canadian makes in a year (more privilege). I remember them mentioning that 100% of their students graduate and go on to university as a recruitment point for why I should want to attend. I remember thinking “that was weird”, why is that a big deal? Afterall everyone in my graduating class in my international school in Nigeria moved on to great futures(privilege). It wasn’t until I went to UofT Scarborough and mentored “at-risk” high school kids in the Scarborough area that I realized why students graduating from high school and going to university was such an achievement (recognizing privilege).

Backing up to my experience in this prestigious school, I was on 1 of 12 black girls in the entire junior, middle and high school of about 1000+ girls but it was fine because I was in boarding school with other girls from about 50-60 different nationalities (privilege). However, going to daytime classes was a different story because I was not surrounded by my diverse community. I endured white teachers over-compensating for me because they assumed, I was this “starving African child” that got a scholarship and made it out. I had white girls make assumptions about me - one from Calgary asked me if I was excited to get on a “jet plane” to head home for the holidays as if to say flying was this brand new thing…..(in my head, I’m like “I’ve been flying and traveling since I was 5 months old”). Of course, there were the typical jokes about whether I lived in a hut, had pet lions, ate with forks, or even wore shoes the list goes on... BUT still in all my (privilege) plus that Nigerian pride, I was like “oh they can’t be talking about me” I should have recognized that as a defence mechanism but I didn’t. I graduated and moved to Scarborough where I attended UofT(privilege).

University was the BIGGEST wake-up call to my privilege because I was living in Scarborough. I remember constantly - unknowingly making “insensitive remarks” to my black brothers and sisters. I truly didn’t identify with their experiences. People would always call me “spoiled”, “rich”, “princess” or “entitled” BUT I always saw myself as grateful, genuine, hardworking, and resilient – yes, I had nice things but to me, my life wasn’t always rosy. As a result of this, it was hard for me to accept my own privilege because people always pointed it out from a negative angle, so I felt an enormous amount of guilt in my friend group.

What was crazy though, was the minute I stepped off campus into Scarborough, my skin was still black so I would experience racism. People following me around in stores at the mall, calling me names and assuming shit about me but for me, it was always STILL “well that was weird” …. (guys it’s been a long life of NOT knowing). Just because I was “privileged” in my group of friends doesn’t mean I didn’t still experience weird jokes from my non-black friends. They often joked about my hair, my food, and my accent when I got off the phone with my parents. In ALL those instances, how do you stand up for yourself? Well you don’t, you laugh with them because it’s too hard to think that they are laughing at you. In the spirit of transparency, I also did that to them because that was the way we learned to relate to each other. However, what I’ve since learned is that laughing at yourself over and over again is SOOO problematic because you start to internalize and diminish your culture to fit in because after all, you are now in Canada you have to assimilate.

As God will have it, somewhere around my 3rd /4th year, I found my voice and I started to share my culture, music, food and stopped straightening my hair to bring people in and they embraced it (Afro beats always creates bridges haha), however by then a lot of damage had already occurred. In that time, I also learned that I don’t have to be ashamed or feel guilty about my privilege because I largely didn’t create it, I was born into that family. I was listening to a black stand-up comedian Amanda Seales, and she says that there are 2 types of white people – “white people” and “people who happen to be white”. The difference is, one group can recognize that the world is set up of systems to favors you and is oppressive to others BUT that you didn’t do anything special to be born into it. The other group has believed that lie that they are ACTUALLY superior to people of color simply because of the whiteness of their skin. Who are you going to be? Are you going to question your language like “well I worked for it, they just need to try harder”? Are you going to conform to “us vs them” thinking? Or are you going to come from a place of empathy? and recognize that you did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to be born white. Do you recognize that your skin color just DOESN’T arouse suspicion and the way mine does? Are you going to recognize that the world gives you the “benefit of a doubt” while black people everywhere have to PROVE themselves in every aspect of their life?

You are responsible for recognizing your own privilege, educating yourself, and being committed to change like I have recently. We ALL have privileges, some more than others and it is our responsibility to use it wisely to help people that are have less than you. On that NOTE, please DO NOT burden your black friends to educate you - think critically, consume black made content because for so long other people have defined our narrative and you have bought into it. When you have specific questions that have been thought through then you can bring them to your black friends. As I have shared my experiences and my privileges, I encourage you to think about yours and change the narrative. Dismantling systemic racism starts with first acknowledging it, renewing your mind, and then speaking up and demanding for the systems to break down.

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