“Auntie,” my nephew exclaimed. After giving me a hug he placed his hands on my shoulders and pulled back. He looked me up and down. “You are still.” He looked closer. “You are still.” His eyes fixed on my face. “White.”

It was 1974. I was 19 years old. It had been about two years since I had married my Coast Salish husband and moved to Tsartlip First Nation. We were on a local beach at a canoe race. I hadn’t seen this nephew for a few years. We had been school friends before I married his uncle Carl.

We laughed. “I’m not sure what I had expected,” he said.

Around the same time I was sitting in a community meeting. People were discussing a trailer park (occupied by non indigenous people) that had failed septic systems. Toxic waste was leeching onto the properties down the hill, including where we lived. One angry community leader stood up, he turned and faced me directly and hollered “You white people think your shit doesn’t stink! We need to throw you out.”

So began my journey into whiteness.

Before I moved to the reserve I was not white. In my world, in 1972, on the mainstream side of the ditch, there was no such thing as white. Carl was an Indian. I just was. I had never been a target because of my colour. White had never been a “thing” to point a finger at.

I had learned that I could get into restaurants that turned Carl away. I knew I could get credit, even at 17, that was denied to my much older husband. I knew my cheques would be accepted and his would be rejected even though they were from the same chequebook and the money in the bank came from his wages.

Like many people still, I would never have believed the level of racism I met almost daily, even from people from whom I had least expected it. I saw racism from eye rolls and whispers, to derogatory comments from random strangers, to piercing questions from friends and family. I saw racism in the school system, the justice system, the healthcare system. I couldn’t not see it. It was everywhere.

In 1972, in general, black lives didn’t matter to white people and Indians were second-class citizens. My British grandmother called my husband a “darkie” and a “foreigner”. Even when I explained that it was her voyage across the Atlantic that made her the foreigner she could not comprehend that the Brits did not own the world and that “coloured” people should not be subservient.

When I got married I knew I was marrying an Indian. All my friends knew it, people on the street knew it and Carl knew it. It wasn’t until I moved to Tsartlip that I realized that Carl had married a White. In the part of society that I came from “a White” made no sense, only one side of the union was identified by race or colour.

I had the privilege of just being. But no one, including me at first, thought it was a privilege. That people like me were privileged would have been an absurd idea in the 1970s. The concept that people were underprivileged was well established long before we started thinking about people being privileged.

That night at the community meeting I began to learn about white privilege. It was a scary night for me. I was a young woman and publicly targeted by a large, older, hostile man. However, I remember thinking later that while my home was on the reserve and that I would never leave it no matter how uncomfortable it was for me…and it was…many times…I remember beginning to realize that I could walk across the street, I could walk downtown, I could sit in restaurants, I could travel on the ferries and busses, I could go to school, I could go to the swimming pool, I could order pizza…without being targeted and afraid. That’s when I began to realize that privilege was not about my material possessions it was about my blond hair and blue eyes. They were my ticket to privilege. I have used the word privilege for decades. Not because society saw me as privileged or talked about privilege like we do today, but because just as I experienced racism against my First Nations friends and family everyday so I experienced the special rights, freedoms and especially the immunities granted me because of no goodness of my own.

In 1972 society was truly colour blind but not in the way we think of it these days. Not in the way that our vision could be colour-neutral or colour-equal or that society could treat every one the same without discriminating based on colour.

In 1972 western society had a very particular type of colour blindness. It could see black and brown and red and yellow. Society had 20/20 vision when it came to deciphering every shade of these colours. But in 1972 western society could and/or would not see white. It was truly blind to whiteness. It couldn’t and/or wouldn’t see itself.

It wasn’t until I moved to Tsartlip that I began to see white and it didn’t look good. And when people said to me “You are white” it didn’t feel good. I had no cover. On the reserve side of the ditch my blond hair and blue eyes were triggers. That’s when my stomach began to turn and my heart began to ache with guilt.

So continued my journey into whiteness.

7 thoughts on “White Blind

  1. Thank you Sylvia for your enlightenment. In 1972 I was 20 years old and getting married I never saw a difference in colour until one day walking home for lunch from work and saw three men from India and I was scared. I lived in a small town and never noticed the difference in the colour of people’s skin until that day. I feel ashamed now for feeling that way that day, but too me now the colour of a person does not define them or anyone else. What defines a person to me know is who that person is inside and how they treat other living beings. I hope some day that we will all look past colour and look at the person.

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  2. What a brilliant essay, it does explain so well, those times, these times… My ” moment” happened in the summer of 1991. We had just moved to Shearwater and I was going to the Band Store in Bella Bella for groceries for the first time… I never felt whiter… The Heiltsuk people who would later become my neighbours, friends and family, stopped what they were doing and all turned to stare at, and size up the white lady coming in to their home. It was like one of those western movies when the stranger arrives in town, silence, just the sound of the stranger’s footsteps..
    As time went on, my presence was tolerated, then accepted (I knew this when I got the same charge for the local taxi), and finally embraced as part of the family… My white ‘warts’ and all… The day at a Potlach when one of the Hereditary Chiefs joked and poked fun at our family publicly and my youngest daughter was given blanket and danced with all the young girls…

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  3. Thanks for your insightful reflection. I was honoured to be First Nation support teacher to the secondary students of the Pacheedaht First Nation. It was a position filled with simple joy and challenges. The students were warm, honest and faced many obstacles. I also experienced resentment and anger, as the white teacher. A representation of discrimination and unparalleled loss. I came from south eastern Ontario, where the Indigenous population were not existent to white people. I was nieve to discrimination in my formative years. Education, particularly a UVIC course opened my eyes to repression in our colonial history.
    I value your story. It opens a dialogue of understanding that is so necessary today.

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  4. It’s a wonderfully deep-reaching piece Sylvia from a great story-teller with a great story. Thank you for pushing us further forward with your insight. My moment of first real reflection was teaching on-reserve. I am so thankful for the gentleness with which my learning began. Thankful also for its continuance.

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