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Deconstructing Privilege
Creating Pathways

Deconstructing Privilege

When did you last see your privilege? If you’re white, you may never have even glimpsed it. But our alumni, faculty and students are finding ways to expose it. Prepare to get uncomfortable.

By Sean Moore

On this October day at a Winnipeg Rotary Club meeting, a white woman in her 70s plays the role of a black woman. She pulls a card from the board game’s deck. It reads, “You took the bus to go to your ‘English as an Additional Language’ class. When people walked past you, they clasped their purses tighter, or glared in your direction. By the time you got to class, you already wanted to go home. Move back two spaces.”

The player remarks that in ethnically diverse Winnipeg, this doesn’t happen. The two younger black women at the table disagree: “Every single day,” they tell her.

Michelle Lam, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education who studies newcomer integration, recounts this story with an academic’s excitement. The conversation is exactly what she was hoping for. It’s why she designed Refugee Journeys, a game styled on Snakes and Ladders where players work their way along a grid, jumping forward, sliding back, or missing turns. It’s part of her thesis to help people empathize with others by revealing privileges and systemic racism.

But can a game really put privilege in check? In feedback questionnaires, players tell Lam they learned how others’ experiences differ from their own, but she wants to know if these revelations change their behaviour in the long term. Her research will question if awakening white players to their own biases will alter their everyday interactions with people in the grocery store or walking down the street.

“I really do want to make some change. I feel it deep in my soul. So when I think of how to make change, rather than think on the individual level—how can I help my kids succeed?— I think, how can I build a better world for my kids?” Michelle Lam

“The discussion part is where the real meat of the game is,” says Lam. “You can’t be aware of your privilege until you genuinely can listen to other people and realize that it’s different. It’s uncomfortable but necessary.”

Indigenous scholar and advocate Verna J. Kirkness [BA/74, BEd/76, MEd/80, LLD/08] agrees. She has dedicated her life to empowering Indigenous people through education and, to her, privilege endures partly because the privileged have yet to really learn about others’ ongoing struggle for equal footing. But she senses a change is underway.

“Non-Indigneous people should be asking what they can do. And many more are starting to ask this. To them I say: Go and educate your circles.”

Lam, who is white, was inspired to study racial privilege after marrying Daniel, a Vietnamese man whose family fled to Canada as refugees in 1979. She has since noticed that her children are treated differently when she accompanies them to the playground or a medical appointment, compared to when her husband does. She confesses that privilege is nice, but not right.

“I really do want to make some change. I feel it deep in my soul. So when I think of how to make change, rather than think on the individual level—how can I help my kids succeed?— I think, how can I build a better world for my kids?”

Her game helps people see what needs changing by having players assume a character—a 33-year-old married Iraqi woman with PTSD and three children, for instance, or a 50-year-old gay man from Ethiopia with lung cancer and a BA in computer technology. Players race to the finish collecting “Integration Experience Cards” that promote or thwart progress. (Example: You answered the phone in English, move ahead two spaces.)


In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a famed feminist scholar now at the Wellesley Centres for Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, wrote a paper likening white privilege to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

A white person has no fewer than 26 points of privilege, according to McIntosh. Men have countless more. They are unaware of most of them, and none of them are earned.

Like Lam’s game, McIntosh’s paper challenges readers to reflect on privileges they may not have considered before. Such as: whites can criticize the government without being labelled an outsider; if white people ask to speak to the person in charge, they’ll likely meet someone of their own race; whites are never asked to speak for all the people of their race; whites can arrange to protect their children from people who may not like them; whites can swear or wear second-hand clothes without people thinking their race lacks morals, is illiterate or poor.

So who gave white people this knapsack? In part, aristocrats in the Middle Ages. They had a series of private laws that only applied to them, such as not having to pay certain taxes. Indeed, “privilege” comes from the Latin privus lex, meaning “private law.”

Today, white privilege allows dangerous ideas to find fertile ground (a U.S. congressman recently wondered in the New York Times how white nationalism and white supremacy are offensive). In such a divisive global climate, and as Canada lumbers towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, questions around race and inequality increasingly arise—questions perhaps best tackled by casting the lens inward. And while McIntosh’s conscious-raising list has been around for 30 years, her ideas are now creeping into popular culture.

First Contact, a three-part TV miniseries, challenged six white Canadians to confront their prejudices of Indigenous people and examine their own privileges. It aired on TVO and APTN and is now being used as a teaching tool in some Canadian classrooms. Desiree Single [BA/96], a television producer at Animiki See Digital Production Inc. in Winnipeg, helped develop the show by adapting it from its original Australian format.

In episode one, the participants—three women, three men—gather in front of an apartment in downtown Winnipeg to meet Michael Redhead Champagne, a local activist from Shamattawa Cree Nation. He asks them about their views of Indigenous people.

“Privilege also means the privilege of writing the history you choose to tell.” Cary Miller

Dallas, a 26-year-old lobster fisherman from Keswick, N.B., responds with another question: “Why are they given all this money—free housing or education or programs or things like that—and they are not doing anything with it?”

Through two more episodes, capturing a 28-day journey with stops in Nunavut, Alberta and British Columbia, viewers experience a shift in attitude—by some. Two older men in the group (a truck driver and a civil servant) admit the trip didn’t change their opinions. But Dallas says he was transformed.

“I came in here thinking [Indigenous people] were given everything, from their housing to their schooling, you know, to all these perks,” he says in the final episode. “But the little perks they do have are insubstantial to the cons that they’ve been dealing with.”

Dallas makes a promise to challenge those who think as he once did. “I can be a lot more than I was 28 days ago,” he says in a final scene.

Critics say the show makes Indigenous people relive historic traumas for white people’s sake. Champagne somewhat agreed, posting on social media that he feels “the frustration of needing to perform in front of outsiders just to prove the point that Indigenous people are people too.” But he liked how the show positions Indigenous people as the heroes.

Single, a white woman who has worked in television for nearly 20 years, suspected the older participants would protect their own world views. Dallas’s reaction also didn’t surprise her. “When you spend time with people and actually hear their truth…how can that not touch you?”

The producers sought participants who were unafraid to express genuine emotions and opinions, Single says. “You have to crack open prejudices,” she says. “You have to crack open those misconceptions and have an open, honest dialogue about them. That was the purpose of this.”

Cary Miller

Cary Miller


So why are whites so unconscious of their everyday privilege?

Cary Miller, the head of the University of Manitoba’s department of Native studies and a scholar of treaties and sovereignty, says white privilege is tied to how we tell our stories.

Reconciliation, defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between [Indigenous] and non-[Indigenous] peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”

To Miller, an Anishinaabe woman, this will require us to re-visit and re-learn history—to know about treaties and their mutual obligations, as well as federal policies like Residential Schools that forced Indigenous people to give up their cultures and assimilate.

“Privilege also means the privilege of writing the history you choose to tell, and allowing the unpleasant memories to be forgotten,” she says.

To explain, Miller cites the book White Fragility by sociologist Robin DiAngelo. When we talk about struggles and triumphs of other groups, DiAngelo writes, we must always ask: in relation to whom? Because by doing this, we begin to see the systems that benefit white people.

An example from popular culture involves Jackie Robinson, the first black professional baseball player. The common story implies he was the first black athlete of exceptional ability, but really, he was the first black athlete whom whites allowed to play in the big leagues, DiAngelo says. Framing it this way reveals a glimpse of the structural racism that non-whites contend with on a daily basis.

If you’re white and this makes you feel a bit awkward or defensive, you’re not alone.

Even university students, sponges for new ideas, react with “various forms of hostility and resistance,” when confronting their own privilege, according to a 2005 paper by University of Illinois professor Jennifer Logue. That’s because it’s jarring to hear. What do you mean I benefited from a system? I worked hard my whole life to get here. You told me as much in my orientation to this school!

And even when privileged people admit that systems disadvantage others, they struggle to recognize that the same systems benefit them, says Shamus Khan, chair of Columbia University’s department of sociology, in his 2011 book Privilege. These denials protect privilege from being acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

White people argue against their privilege so often that scholars have invented terms to capture the phenomenon. Alice McIntyre, an education professor at Hellenic College in Massachusetts, called it “White Talk.” White Talk is like a psychological immune response, allowing us to evade issues of race by reframing conversations. It puts white people as the centre of attention, not systemic issues.

Examples of White Talk include: “Nobody cares about race;” “I’m the least racist person you have ever met;” “All lives matter.” And a common one—“My family arrived in this country with nothing”—is used by more than just whites.

Iloradanon Efimoff, a PhD student in the U of M’s psychology department, has begun studying ways to make people less racist, and she hears White Talk often.

Efimoff’s father is Haida and her mother is white… which allows her to be what her family calls, “an undercover Indian.”

Efimoff’s father is Haida and her mother is white. Unlike her younger sister, she looks Caucasian, which allows her to be what her family calls, “an undercover Indian.” She overhears people’s unfiltered conversations, which she doubts they would have if they knew she was Indigenous. She hears White Talk in taxis and restaurants, she says. A turning point for her came in her undergrad political science class at Douglas College in B.C. A fellow student said his parents arrived from India with nothing and built a prosperous life, while Indigenous people receive government handouts and do little else.

“I didn’t have the voice I have now so I just sat there shaking with anger,” Efimoff says. “But there was a black man in the class, from the States, who said, ‘Your parents didn’t have nothing when they came to Canada—they had their culture. Indigenous and black people don’t have their culture. They don’t know who they are. Your family wasn’t explicitly abused because of their race for generations.’ And a switch flipped. Now I knew how to word my thoughts to make my case, because I heard [White Talk] so many times.”

Efimoff came to the U of M last year after being awarded the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the federal government, recognizing her exceptional academic and leadership record. Her research, which is in the preliminary stages, aims to diminish racist attitudes by tweaking how people think.

Over the next few years, she will survey hundreds of undergraduate students at the U of M to explore how they use basic psychological frameworks to make sense of the world, in the hopes of finding ways to deconstruct them.

Two such frameworks that interest her: “in-group bias,” where people prefer their own group to outsiders, and “justification theory,” where people legitimize and defend the status quo of social systems, sometimes unconsciously, even if it doesn’t benefit them.

As a social psychologist, Efimoff says it’s unexplored territory to see if undergraduate students can be led to change their frameworks and become less racist.

“This isn’t going to solve racism in Canada but it is potentially going to do some good,” she says.

Iloradanon Efimoff

Iloradanon Efimoff


Who is responsible for enlightening white people? Is it white people’s job to educate whites? Whites shouldn’t shirk this duty out of fear of being politically incorrect. And burdening others with it is a privileged thing to do, Joe Curnow says.

“It’s awkward, but it’s our responsibility,” she says. Curnow is a white professor in the U of M’s Faculty of Education who grew up in Colorado and now studies race, activism and privilege.

“Communities of colour argue that white people need to get their house in order—and that structural racism isn’t a problem created by black or Indigenous communities. It is a problem within the white community and white people need to accept responsibility for doing education and repair work, accountable to, and in relationship with, black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities,” she says. “We have to hold ourselves and our families responsible for the harm we are often doing through our everyday acts of white supremacy that we don’t have to see, because we have that invisible knapsack.”

So, can white people teach others about Indigenous issues?

Yes. A former head of the U of M’s department of Native studies was a German white woman named Renate Eigenbrod, who studied decolonization in relation to Indigenous literature. When she died in 2014, professor Emma LaRocque [MA/80, PhD/99], a Métis woman and the longest serving department member, praised Eigenbrod as an “enthusiastic supporter of Aboriginal peoples and culture.” Today, two of the department’s eight faculty members are non-Indigenous, and many of its sessional instructors are non-Indigenous.

“I have no issue of any professor of any colour teaching in Native studies—as long as they aren’t being racist,” LaRocque says. “I see all cultures as dynamic and Indigenous cultures were dynamic long before Europeans set foot here. We have to have honest conversations and you can’t have that if you’re teaching according to our colours. That is not enlightened.”

The department head agrees with LaRocque, and both scholars also caution against a recent push to quickly “Indigenize” courses, a trend that oversimplifies cultural histories and mistakenly lumps differing ones together. It also ignores the fact that “sophisticated Indigenous knowledge, histories, theories and methodologies can’t be picked up quickly off the side of one’s desk,” Miller says.

Karen Favell [BA/92] is guiding the next generation of teachers on this. An Ojibway instructor in the Faculty of Education, who also studies reconciliation through art, she shows students how to share Indigenous cultures in their own classrooms.

To avoid appropriation, Favell says Elders—the knowledge keepers—must be the ones to lead, and students must abandon colonial mindsets.

For instance, in developing a lesson plan on smudging, Favell’s students sometimes say they’d teach about its significance and history and then invite an Elder to perform a smudging ceremony. But by doing this, they provided a colonial version of the activity instead of an Indigenous one.

“It’s the Elder’s information to share, not theirs to take,” Favell says. “In their mind they’re thinking they’re educating students. I’m not saying there’s malice. I’m saying there’s a difference in your worldview and the Elder’s worldview, and why does yours always supersede ours?”

Emma LaRocque

Emma LaRocque


LaRocque, a professor in the department of Native studies, researches Indigenous-white relations. She grew up in a Cree/Michif-speaking community in Alberta and is now a scholar, author and poet.

To her, the problem is colonial privilege. In her book, When the Other is Me, she reports on the first-recorded instance in Canada: in 1612 Jesuit missionary Pierre Biard wrote that Indigenous people “roam through, rather than occupy” their land. This misrepresentation multiplied and let grow a dehumanizing mindset, which fed a “civ/sav ideology” as LaRocque termed it. It means settlers viewed themselves as civilized and others as savages, letting settlers justify unequal relationships.

“Colonial privilege is more than about economics or resources, it is an attitude,” she says. “This is why even the poorest white person can have ‘white privilege’ in the sense of racist attitudes. ‘White privilege’ is systemic because its foundation is colonial and centrally racist—and colonial racism is much more profound than one or two white people discovering they have privileges.”

It requires shifts in power structures to expel it. Progress has been slow, but when she began teaching at the U of M 40 years ago, very few Indigenous students sat in her classrooms. Today, they form the majority in her department.

“I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see young Native students take their place in a huge university, and I think basically they are ready to change the system. Or they’re trying to change the system,” she says.

“I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see young Native students take their place in a huge university.”
Emma LaRocque

“We need to think a lot more about this white privilege business. Go after the foundation and then, hopefully, the resources in a society will become more equitably shared. The U of M, like most universities, has mostly white administrators. If a non-white person came in and took an administrative position, does that mean that a white person’s privilege was lost? And does it mean any Native person would now be privileged? Why do we see it in terms of either/or?”

Verna Kirkness views Indigenous advancement with optimism and frustration.

She is the namesake of a science and engineering program that began at the University of Manitoba in 2009 and now runs across the country, providing Indigenous schoolchildren with a campus experience.

As a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education in the early ʼ80s, fed up with schools neglecting Indigenous history and culture, she and her colleagues pressed for a compulsory course on Indigenous people. It took the university 20 years to change, and many universities today still have yet to, she says.

“I have seen a lot of change and I have been part of a lot of change,” she says, “but it does seem that [Indigenous people] have to do all the work. We’re the ones, in the total context, working so hard in the area of reconciliation. It’s not 50-50.”


White people need to get more involved. To clarify, neither “slacktivism” nor “performative allyship” is desired. These are doing easy things, like retweeting a hashtag or going to a Pow Wow, but then abandoning the cause by, say, not writing your member of Parliament.

And white people assuming the role of hero is also not desired. Conversation and education are, as well as pointing the spotlight, without stepping into the spotlight.

“Much more can be done to make changes,” says LaRocque. “Society can do so much more. But as individuals, we can all work within our spheres of influence. Educate your fellow whites, your children, your co-workers—then perhaps we can begin to have genuine reconciliation and we won’t need a revolution.”

For Kirkness, a self-described optimist, such conversations matter. They help shift philosophies and policies, she says.

“You have to look at it as a possibility that something good will come from something, otherwise we wouldn’t do anything,” she says.

“Maybe this article will start a dialogue among alumni and their children. We have to stop and think, is this the end of the conversation, or is this the beginning of it?”

3 comments on “Deconstructing Privilege

  1. John Barclay-Morton

    I am not convinced that this is an issue of race, rather than class. When we look at what the term “privilege” refers to, it almost always seems to indicate some aspect of socio-economic advantage. Undeniably, this does tend to assert itself on behalf of those who have European ancestry — but not exclusively so; and indeed, I think the true test of this comes not with the assumption of such privilege but rather the experience of having it evaporate — when and if positions are taken up which run counter to the interests of those who are economically dominant. Ask anyone who has embraced environmental activism on a long term basis how well their privilege has held up, and you will quickly find that the criminalization of dissent does not grant much in the way of privilege to any particular race or creed.

  2. Janyce Elser-Ethier

    How do we separate race & socio-economic class?
    I am a white-skinned Canadian – born women, who grew up in a female headed, single parent family, with one inadequate income. I grew up a member of the underclass working poor in an inner-city project in Canada’s capital city, & yet, when it came to certain assumptions of privilege, I was still better off than my neighbour, whose family situation mirrored my own except that her family members were Indigenous.
    I am not saying that this disproves the point you’ve introduced, only that issues having to do with privilege by, in & for those of the dominant culture are too complex to attribute to one cause.
    I have spent decades learning about white privilege & feel that I am only now truly learning.

  3. L.A. Harris

    This article just, in many more words, told white folks to stop defining the experiences of others in ways that make those same white people feel more comfortable at the expense of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) people.

    No, it’s actually race.

    Believe the people who live the experience. I am black and hold an advanced professional degree. Money is not a problem I have. I experience racism almost daily. I am followed in stores and asked for ID when none of the other (white) people around me are. I’ve been mistreated by healthcare professionals. As a younger woman I was accosted on the street; when I called for help, the police nearby laughed and did not assist. I experience racism in my profession. When I bought my last house, the mailman told me that I must be the new renter – even though the sold sign was still on the lawn. I’ve been handed dirty dishes at events because it was assumed I was waitstaff despite my business attire. All. In. Winnipeg. Where I’ve lived most of my adult life and where I was born.

    Socio-economics may confer or reduce privilege, but socio-economic privilege does not act as a substitute for racism. White privilege (as opposed to other forms of privilege) is about the benefits conferred by whiteness. Period.

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