Thursday, April 12, 2018

I'm white and privileged! What should I do about it?


I'm white and privileged! I am white, and I am privileged because I am white.

There you are. I said it.  I feel like I should be at an AA meeting...”my name is Sarah and I am white and privileged”. Clearly it's not a secret that I am white -you've only got to look at me to see how 'white' I am. And when I open my mouth, that Southern Counties English accent (used to live in Salisbury, England) still summons up images of thatched cottages and Pimms on the lawn...or so I've been told. I was 16 years old before I spoke to a 'black' person, and that was only because I had gone to the East End of London for a week to do some volunteer church outreach work. Before that time, the nearest I had got to a person of colour was when reading Enid Blyton's golliwog stories.  

I am not sorry about who I am, nor that I am white. I am who I am, and I am proud of the family I have descended from. So why is it, as I write this, I feel an unease in my gut; I'm almost embarrassed to admit to being white. I know how privileged I am when I watch the persecution of the Rohingya people, or bombing of Syria on TV.  But what does white privilege mean in the Australian context, and especially in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

I have only recently become aware of the idea of white privilege, which is a theory that explains the inherent privilege and advantages that white people have over non-white people because of skin colour. Having lived in New Zealand for nearly 20 years, I have been fully conversant with cultural safety which somehow was always tied up with the Treaty of Waitangi, and did not have a deep, personal  impact on me.  But it was recently since I moved to Australia that I have been challenged about white privilege at a workshop facilitated by the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, and how it feeds into my attitudes and beliefs about the world.

What white privilege means in reality, has been especially driven home to me on two recent occasions.
Close the gap!
The first occasion was when I met a wonderful Aboriginal woman who I immediately felt a real connection to. Although she was ten years younger than me, we found we had many similarities and shared experiences, and we become friends very quickly. It is not often I make those sorts of deep relationships because usually I am a bit of an introvert. What dawned on me and saddened me greatly, was that despite the age difference between us, she was likely to die the same time as me because Aboriginal women have a life expectancy of nearly 10 years less than non-Aboriginal women

Institutional racism 
The second occasion was when I was supporting an Aboriginal family receiving healthcare in a hospital. The family described the care they received and the attitudes displayed by staff, which seemed to me to be sub-standard to say the least. But when I arrived, it appeared to both myself and the family that attitudes changed, communication improved, and the care provided was much more in line with what I would expect.  It is my perception that me being there made a difference to the attitudes of staff and care provided, and I sincerely believe it was because I was a white woman.   

Nursing and midwifery Codes of Practice
So, maybe acknowledging our whiteness SHOULD be embedded into the Codes of Practice - we should acknowledge that  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are likely to die younger than us; more likely to be incarcerated, die of suicide, diabetes and heart disease than non- Aboriginal people. And maybe that is why there is such push back over the new nursing and midwifery Codes of Practice - because we know in our hearts that we're privileged, but we're not doing anything about it!

It is time us whities stop being snowflakes and acknowledge the universal truth that being white does give us an inherent advantage over non-white people.

There's nothing wrong with being white. What is very wrong is being white, knowing how that plays out especially in healthcare, and doing nothing to redress the inequity that our privilege fosters and promotes.