White privilege is the advantage white people hold in broader (majority white) societies that validates our physical appearance, beliefs and social systems as the norm. White privilege allows white people to move through numerous spaces and situations without question of our motives due to the privilege of our outward appearance. Not only our appearance, but also our names do not disadvantage us at borders, in job applications, in positions of authority or daily life. The privilege of social mobility and access to opportunity comes from no personal merit, but from the norms founded embedded in a Eurocentric social environment that are active in perpetuating white privilege.
The counterpoint to white privilege is the many ways in which those who do not appear to fit into these ideas of ‘whiteness’ are marginalized. People that are subject to assumptions of their abilities based on their appearances are ‘Othered‘, shifted into the peripheries and excluded from easily moving in spaces in our society.
I am an Other that confuses those who do not perceive their privilege. I hold tandem identities in non-Muslim spaces. I have not lost my white privilege: my hijab does not disguise my light eyes, pale freckled skin or pattern of speech. My whiteness is not hidden, but the Othered standing that Muslim women hold in Canada blurs my identity in many spaces.
Outside of Muslim spaces I am seen as a Muslim woman first and a white person second. After my conversion in March of this year, and shortly afterwards when I chose to wear the hijab, I began to notice how I was treated as an Other. Before wearing the hijab, I would come home everyday after school and greet my Greek Orthodox Christian neighbours from my driveway while they sat on their porch, where we would exchange stories, jokes and ask about each other’s days. The 60 year-old retired ‘man of the house’ would ask about my day at school and encourage me to continue studying. After wearing hijab these conversations abruptly ended. At first I would ignore their attempts to avert their eyes from me and greet them as I always did. But after receiving many strained and short greetings I stopped putting forward the effort – it has become clear to me that my neighbours have no interest in talking to a Muslim woman. Now, every time I walk up my driveway and see them sitting outside, I walk past as quickly as I can and try not to think about how angry I feel that they have chosen to ignore my existence simply because of my appearance.
Besides this experience, I have not so quickly lost any personal relationships as a consequence of wearing the hijab, but some connections have begun to fade. For the most part I have filled my social circles with people who are aware of the misinformed perceptions of Muslim women. I recall meeting with a friend of mine for lunch for the first time after I started wearing hijab. After many jokes were exchanged between the two of us about being an odd pair (he is Jewish), he made a comment that has really stuck with me. It was something along the lines of: “You are going to see who your real friends are. There are a lot of people who might be accepting of Muslims but will feel uncomfortable about hanging out with a hijabi.”
I am an Other that confuses those who do not perceive their privilege. I hold tandem identities in non-Muslim spaces. I have not lost my white privilege.
At the time I laughed it off and assured him that there wasn’t anyone in my personal life that would have a problem with it. However, sadly his statement rang true. I have noticed a recurring pattern in people around me who are uncomfortable with my choice. This may not apply to my close friends, but is often apparent with acquaintances and people I have engaged with in the past who have now become distant from me.
These are people who would normally engage me in long conversation and infrequently invite me to social events. Now, when I do engage acquaintances at school or attend larger social events, my Muslim identity has become the elephant in the room. When I feel really uncomfortable, my sense of humour has led me to form a habit of breaking the ice by making a joke about my hijab or making a point of joining a conversation about people’s alcohol preferences. My awkward jokes get a few chuckles, but for the most part I receive wide-eyed looks from people unsure of how to respond. It is as if they are suddenly unaware that I am a recent convert who has lived 22 years of my life as a white girl from a small city in Ontario.
While non-white hijabis experience this same Otherness, Canadian society has a quiet acceptance of their decision to wear hijab. I am an anomaly to white folks that disrupts their misinformed perception of the hijab as a cultural practice instead of a religious observance. My motives for conversion are frequently questioned: I am often prodded with questions by mostly white non-Muslims in hopes of them receiving an answer that I practice Islam for a reason beyond my love for the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the Qur’an. Muslims ask about my reasons for conversion, not with the nuance of questioning my “real” motives for conversion, but to understand what drew me to the faith that we both practice.
Amongst Muslims my white privilege is ever-present. In Muslim spaces my whiteness, and the privilege that comes along with it, remains. My identity as a Muslim does not change my experiences of privilege. In discussions about the treatment of Muslims in Canadian society, myself and Muslims I engage with are aware of the privilege I had in that I spent my youth free from any cultural or religious stigma. I did not grow up the target of Islamophobic comments, violence, harassment or social exclusion due to people’s perceptions of my expression of faith. While my privilege is real within the Muslim community this does not take away from other Muslim’s perception of me as a Muslim.
I am a sister in Islam, and a member of a vastly diverse religious community.