Viewpoint

Harry Rakowski: Arguments over Anne Frank’s ‘white privilege’ reveal the absurdity of our discourse

It has become all too easy to adopt a victim mentality and blame only others for the hardships of life
A journalist takes the audio tour of the renovated Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. The museum is built around the secret annex hidden in an Amsterdam canal-side house where teenage Jewish diarist Anne Frank hid from Nazi occupiers during World War II is expanding to better tell Anne's tragic story to the growing number of visitors. Peter Dejong/AP Photo.

A recent Twitter thread circulating broadly remarkably suggests that Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who famously chronicled her terrifying two-year experience as a child hidden from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during the Second World War, was somehow the beneficiary of white privilege. Anne ultimately was captured and sent to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp where she died a short time before the camp was liberated. She was yet another victim of the Nazi goal to exterminate all Jews.

The Twitter narrative that her experience could somehow be equated with privilege of any kind is so insulting that it is hard to believe that it is not a sick joke. It is argued that she must have had privilege by definition because she was white and her father was not poor. The truth is rather she had the privilege to die a lonely painful death.

I am a child of Holocaust survivors, a mother who survived the horrors and the death march of Auschwitz and a father who also somehow survived Buchenwald. Very few family members survived the brutal atrocities of the war. I am alive only because the infamous Dr. Mengele couldn’t draw blood from my mother and thus rejected her for sterilization experiments. Yet my family and those that perished would still be considered as having a history of white privilege simply because of their skin colour. Indeed the fact is that “white” Jews have faced centuries of religious racism, oppression, restrictions to work and pray, crusades, pogroms, and finally the Holocaust.

The concept of privilege benefitting white people has been postulated for decades. Peggy McIntosh, an American academic, wrote a paper in 1988 about white privilege and male privilege and detailed many instances where being white and/or male conveyed an undeserved and unearned advantage.1White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack https://psychology.umbc.edu/files/2016/10/White-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf While the concept is worth a dialogue, the Twitter dialogue about Anne Frank grossly distorts the concept.

Discrimination and trauma aren’t limited to people of colour. The Russian atrocities in Ukraine are mainly being committed against white people. Should we also consider that despite their suffering, they also have white privilege? The same would be said of the millions of innocents killed by Stalin in the Second World War.

The world is a dangerous place full of good, but also much evil. Slavery and the subjugation of people of colour are a stain on our history. Racism and persecution based on skin colour, while improving, still persists and is intolerable. I fully accept that I don’t know what it is like to be afraid of being targeted by the police and others because of skin colour. I do understand, as many others do not, the historic persecution of Jews. Irving Abella and Harold Troper in their book None Is Too Many2None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 https://utorontopress.com/9781487516529/none-is-too-many/ describe in chilling detail the horrible story of how enlightened Canada, a country of immigrants who, because of anti-semitism, denied aid and entry to Jewish refugees. Most of them were forced to return to Europe and perished in the war.3“​On 7 June 1939, 907 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied entry to Canada. The ship returned its passengers to safe harbour in four European countries. Sadly, 254 of its passengers later perished in the Holocaust.” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ms-st-louis

It is a mockery of common sense to believe that while certain white people can suffer great injustice and even extermination, they somehow can still be considered to have benefited from white privilege.

Discrimination in any form is abhorrent and contrary to the values of most Canadians and Americans. It can be based on colour, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. All of it is wrong and needs universal condemnation. A shooting at a church, mosque, or synagogue needs to be equally condemned by people of all religions.

There is a great deal of privilege in the world, most of which isn’t restricted to whiteness. There is an established hierarchy in most societies that tries to retain control and resists change. It isn’t simply about whiteness, rather it is more about class and status in most societies.

The caste system in India, a social hierarchy that has existed for over 3,000 years, categorizes people into different levels of respect and opportunity.4What is India’s caste system? https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 Brahmins are priests and to be revered. Kshatriyas are rulers and warriors, Vaishyas are skilled workers, Shudras are unskilled workers, and Dalits are untouchables, relegated to the lowest opportunity. While social discrimination has lessened, it still influences opportunities including whom you are allowed to marry.

Communist China, despite promoting equality for all, has a highly structured, elitist hierarchy that determines opportunity and wealth based on membership in the Communist Party.

Saudi Arabia, another non-white country has a rigid hierarchy based on social stature, religion, and gender.

Many African countries have societal hierarchies, somewhat similar to a caste system, based on social groupings, inherited opportunities, and language that determines occupation, wealth, and social status.

The fact that inequality is widespread doesn’t mean that we have to accept the status quo. Privilege, white or otherwise, reflects inequality of opportunity and undeserved benefit. Centuries of experience have taught us that while the playing field can be greatly levelled by education, drive, hard work, and intelligence, some will have to strive harder than others. It is, however, all too easy to adopt a victim mentality and only blame others rather than explore how your own skills and effort can improve your life.

Warren Buffett is one of the world’s richest men with a net worth of about $100 billion. His fortune wasn’t inherited. It came from hard work, entrepreneurship, and a strong belief in the value of investing. He is recognized as having a very high level of integrity, ingenuity, and practical intelligence. He plans on donating 99 percent of his fortune to charity. Is his privilege in society due to him being white, or just being smarter than most other people? A lot of privilege is simply earned.

For those who focus only on being behind because of the privilege of others, rather than also due to their own failings, there is an important lesson yet to be learned. If you can’t find compassion for others that have suffered, why would you expect that others will find compassion for your suffering? If you really believe that Anne Frank and the many others who suffered greatly at the hands of those who are evil died with white privilege, then I can only feel tremendous sadness for your ignorance. You will never recognize nor take full advantage of the opportunities that you have. You will not find the allies that could help you achieve your potential and your goals.

Privilege sometimes gives some unscrupulous people the licence to do some things that they don’t deserve to do and that we abhor. Russian oligarchs have a licence to steal. Saudi Princes have a licence to kill without recrimination. Sadly we have to also accept that twits can have a licence to tweet since free speech isn’t free of ignorance and disgust.

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