British Columbia·First Person

We all have privilege to some degree. What we do with it matters

As a brown Muslim woman, I have been the butt of racist jokes and microagressions. But I also go unseen in other situations — like when another group is targeted, writes Taslim Jaffer.

The word 'privilege' got me thinking about the times even I — a brown Muslim woman — have held it

The popularity of the buzzword 'privilege' has got me thinking about the many times I have held privilege and what I did with it, writes Taslim Jaffer. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

This First person column is the experience of Taslim Jaffer, a first-generation immigrant who lives in Surrey, B.C. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was at the cashier when my mundane shopping experience turned into a rather disconcerting exchange.

"How long is your promo on for?" I asked the clerk behind the till.

"For as long as the WuFlu virus is around," he said, ringing in my sale.

"The what?" I asked. His voice was low and muffled behind his mask.

"The China virus," he said loudly, handing me my bag.

And there it was: a freeze-frame moment in which I had a choice to mull over. I could let the racist language slide or I could speak up. 

Am I personally impacted by the words "China virus?" No. I am not Chinese, nor am I ever mistaken for someone who is. Nobody is going to yell at me to go back to my country and take my virus with me. They won't beat me up on the bus or give me death stares. Someone can say "China virus" in conversation with me but not be talking about me. 

I could leave that store with my purchase and my privilege in hand. But if I did, someone else would come up empty handed and I would be a contributor to that. 

I told the clerk that calling it the "China virus" had repercussions for people who are of Chinese descent. He argued that's where the virus came from. The exchange lasted a few more minutes but didn't really go anywhere; he was unable to see how racializing a virus could be harmful to a group of people.

From the onset of the pandemic, we saw a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across North America. Here in my home city of Vancouver, Chinatown was defaced with anti-Chinese messages and a 92-year-old Asian man was physically and verbally assaulted at a convenience store. According to the Vancouver police, anti-Asian hate crimes were up by 878 per cent

Lion statues of Vancouver’s Chinatown Millennium Gate covered in orange tape after being defaced for the second time in the matter of weeks on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The question for the rest of us who are not the target of that injustice is: What do we do about it? If we aren't asking ourselves that question or taking action, we are hiding behind our privilege.

Privilege, especially white privilege, has become a bit of a buzzword over the past few years and, to be honest, I'm glad of it. The popularity of this phrase got me thinking about the many times I have held privilege and what I did with it. Not everyone likes to think about this because if we admit we have privilege, we confirm that systemic racism exists — that we live, work and play within institutions that hold biases and a hierarchy system. 

And if we confirm that this is true, then we must begin the work of dismantling it, giving up the cushy place where we sit, mulling over (or even turning away from) the choice of letting things slide or speaking up. 

As a brown Muslim woman, I have been the butt of jokes, the target of overtly racist comments and on the receiving end of microaggressions that prick like tiny needles but nonetheless leave scars. 

As a brown Muslim woman, I have been the butt of racist jokes and microagressions. But I also go unseen in other situations — like when another group is targeted, writes Taslim Jaffer. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But I also go unseen in other situations. Like when I am fair enough to escape colourism or when my Muslim identity isn't obvious because I don't wear a hijab. Or, like in the case with the clerk casually referring to the "China virus," I am not the racial group being targeted. 

In those circumstances, I am privileged enough to decide to say something or not. 

Most of us fall on different parts of the privilege spectrum depending on the scenario we find ourselves in, whether we are white or people of colour. If we are serious about other buzzwords like diversity, inclusion, equality and justice, and if we really believe Black lives matter and Indigenous rights matter, then we need to look critically at the power we hold in our hands to effect change and demand of ourselves that we do something about it. 

"Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are," Benjamin Franklin said. Let's be outraged and make the better choice to speak up. 


Do you have a strong opinion that could change how people think about an issue? Are you a visual storyteller or photographer who can offer insight into a personal story or a community? We want to hear from you. CBC Vancouver is looking for British Columbians who want to write 500-600-word opinion, photo essays and first person stories. Send us a pitch at bcvoices@cbc.ca and we'll be in touch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taslim Jaffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C., with a special interest in culture, identity and home. She is currently working on her debut collection of essays on the same themes.

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