White Blind

“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.

Thanks COVID

My gratitude figures

About one week after I was struck by the nasty virus I discovered that I could neither taste nor smell. Little did I know then that the loss of my senses would be my greatest lesson of COVID.

Tex, my husband, and I were some of the first people in our region to be COVID 19 positive. It was mid March and very scary. No one knew much about the virus in those early days and what they thought they knew changed almost daily. Tex was deathly ill, but apparently not ill enough to be hospitalized. We were supposed to wait until his lips turned blue before we took him in. As we were told by medical people “They really don’t want him in the hospital.” So I, his disgustingly sick wife, became his nurse.

Neither one of us was particularly concerned with my tasteless, smell-less condition but it was very odd. One day I enjoyed a Dilly Bar our grandson left on the front stair, but the Dilly Bar I had the next day had absolutely no taste. One day I could smell the lilies my daughter delivered. The next day they had no scent whatsoever.

A few days after my realization Tex read an article in the New York Times about Italy, the first of what would be many, regarding COVID patients reporting a loss of taste and smell. I felt strangely legitimized—I was now part of the worldwide COVID-club. I also felt uncomfortably vulnerable. What would strike next?

The good news is that I have fully recovered. Except for my sense of taste and smell. Both senses are returning in fits and starts. Some days I can smell and taste certain things. Some days I can smell certain things but cannot taste anything. Some days the opposite is true. Some days I have only three senses and I have no access whatsoever to the other two. Some days I can smell things that aren’t there. A total head-trip.

Now I depend on the smoke alarm to tell me the toast is burning. I check with Tex whether the sauce tastes right or if the omelette is salted enough. Some days I can eat a lemon without wincing or a jalapeno without gagging. In short, I can no longer depend on my own assessment of many situations.

This sharp interruption of my faculties has brought with it a couple of light bulb moments. To start, I’ve spent my life consciously sharpening my discernment skills and by the time I reached 65 I thought I could pretty much figure out what is going on most of the time (hints of arrogance and privilege, I know). But now I can’t. The house could burn down and I could swear there was no smoke.

This condition of not knowing, of not knowing what I don’t know, and of needing to ask others to tell me what I don’t know, has been a significant lesson for me. I can no longer assume I’ve got things right. It has also got me thinking. This is not a new or novel condition. Not knowing is as much part of the human condition as knowing.

Every one of us don’t know a lot of things. Every one of us thinks we know things we actually don’t know. And, without asking, none of us can know what things we don’t know.

Imagine a world where people deeply understood these aspects of their human condition? We would check our assumptions first before we criticized. We would not be so strident with our loosely concocted theories and opinions. We would ask before we tell and listen before we speak. And we would respect that life is a head-trip for everyone, not just for the crazies out there, but it’s also a head-trip for the crazies inside ourselves.

My COVID lesson has been about being humble. It’s an old fashioned word but it’s a word worth thinking about. Humble means lowering your estimation of yourself. It’s contrary to everything society has been promoting for the past few decades. But, to me, humble doesn’t mean feeling bad about myself. It means my issues, my opinions, my ideas, my traumas, my worth, my interpretations, my importance…it simply means I am no more important than anyone else. It has something to do with the equitable, fair, just, caring world we are trying to build–together.

Humble means that just because we can’t smell the smoke doesn’t mean the house isn’t burning down. It means we should check with someone before we add another jalapeno to the sauce. Just because we can’t taste it doesn’t mean it’s not blistering hot.

We don’t always got it right my friends.

Thanks COVID for the reminder.

Welcome to my website

Almost 50 years ago this was my first house. It used to have a front door and a white picket fence

Breaking News. Sylvia Olsen has a website. Thank-you Emily Olsen, my wonderful daughter-in-law, for creating this work of art. The website is a new beginning for me. I’m having déjà vu. It’s like the first time I drove my first, very-own car, a 1959 Anglia my father bought for me for $75. Or like when Carl bought our first house, when I was 17 years old. The first day I walked into that little white cottage with the white picket fence it felt like the world had begun again. And here I am once more, at 65, and another first. I have a new place of my own. It’s a very modern sort of place. It’s virtual and my concrete mind thinks it’s magical. In this space I get to create myself, examine the self I create and share my life, work and stories with you. What a wonderful gift!

When I get something new I have dreams, plans and aspirations for how it will change my life. Most of the time the new thing has a life of its own and the thing-and-I usually end up with quite a different relationship than I had imaged. But what I hope most for this new place is to invite you in so we can visit and we can get to know each other. I’m not sure how I will get to know you but I’m looking forward to finding out.

The keys for my cars have always been at the front door in case you need to borrow the car. My mind has always been open to hear your stories and ideas; ready for a good conversation. My houses have always had an open door and this space is no different. Something interesting will always be on the table.

Welcome to my new home. I look forward to having a wonderful time with you.