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What my dissident dad taught me about privilege

A young woman and her father clash over what it means to fight the powers that be—and correct injustice
Rachel Jansen
Rachel Jansen at her apartment. (Photograph by Jen Osborne)

Let me begin by saying my father is an exceptionally kind person. I know everyone thinks their parents are the exceptions to the standard set, but allow me to explain. My dad was the kind of dad who would let us kids take turns walking their muddy feet up the front of his starched white shirt while we held onto his thumbs. On a recent hiking trip in Scotland, he waited for the most elderly couple on the trip to safely make it around each bend, feigning exhaustion himself.

Born in 1955, my father held Ho Chi Minh, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as icons. He wore his hair long until his late 20s, smoked enough weed for the both of us, and believed whole-heartedly in taxes, free speech and the futility of the Vietnam War. By age 16, he had hitched from his hometown of Port Credit, Ont., to Vancouver and then down into California. Even when our family moved from downtown Toronto to a more cookie-cutter suburban neighbourhood, my father was quick to denounce conformity by being the only father within a 10-block radius to let us have bonfires in our backyard and set up forts in the woods by our house, where he sharpened our sticks to spears to catch bundles of dried leaves. By then he had become a senior partner at an esteemed architecture firm, a corporate title he tried to shake off by wearing Hawaiian shirts to work.

It’s a running family joke that my father inhales his food rather than eating it. The root of the joke, however, is less funny; he was the youngest of a Dutch immigrant family with five kids, and often there wasn’t quite enough food on the table to satiate the growing children’s stomachs. When he was eight, his father, my Paka, was committed to an asylum for paranoid schizophrenia, leaving my Beppe to care for her five children on meagre savings. One had to eat fast if they wanted any chance of seconds. By this point, Dad was working his first paper route, adding his own pennies alongside his siblings’ to the family pot. By the time he was 17, he spent summers driving heavy-duty machinery on the Dempster Highway alongside his two older brothers, because the money was good and easy to save.

An expansive thinker, my dad is the type of person who leans in when you’re talking, who asks follow-up questions, and follow-up questions to those questions. When asked a question, he squints his eyes and tilts his head from side-to-side as though he’s observing a piece of art, trying to blur the edges of each stroke to decode a bigger pattern, to get a new perspective. After a fight between the two of us when we were young, my older sister and I would both separately try to seek our father’s allegiance. Neither of us would be successful because my dad would almost always reply, “There are three sides to every story,” which is second only to his favourite phrase, “English is my second language and I don’t have a first.”

Still, it’s a tale as old as time that children leave the parents who raised them, fed them, read to them, taught them how to clean the boogers from their nose, only to come home with new eyes and criticize the hell out of them.

I flew the coop when I was 18 to study general arts at the University of British Columbia. I took English mostly, sprinkled in with some Spanish, psychology and philosophy courses. I can’t say what it was in particular, whether it was the classes or being so far away from home or just the general cultural milieu, but somewhere along the way the veneer of societal pretences peeled back until I was able to peek at the workings underneath. It became more and more evident that the hierarchies I took to be inherent were actually finely constructed to keep those who were in power at the top. The idea of meritocracy, wherein people actually get what they deserve based on work ethic alone—an ideal of my father’s—seemed nothing more than a pipe dream.

As a woman, I became especially attuned to the ways in which females were portrayed as lesser because of their roles in the home. How were women supposed to climb the corporate ladder, or any ladder, if they were so busy doing the taxing, often thankless, work of looking after the family? And why did we have to climb ladders in order to prove our worth? I’m embarrassed to say it took me so long to come to these epiphanies; I cringe now to think of the ways I reprimanded, even mocked, my mother for complaining of being tired as a stay-at-home mom, for having the gall to say that she worked as hard, if not harder, than my father at times, which, of course, she did.

Rachel Jansen with her father. (Rachel Jansen)

Everything was illuminated for me during that time of un-learning, and on trips home I began to pick up on things I hadn’t noticed before. The way my father waited for dinner to be served, for example. Or how rarely he did his own laundry. Little things like crossing the street without looking, or butting lines in traffic, irritated me. What I once saw as a willful disobedience, a sticking it to The Man, now seemed a display of privilege; he didn’t have to worry about following the rules because he, a well-to-do white man, had never had to worry about them. I became sharp and contrarian in response to just about anything he said. We got into deadlocks often in our conversations, both refusing to acquiesce to the other person’s point on view. He thought I was being too sensitive. I thought he was being too flippant.

We were usually able to find common ground sooner or later. When the Black Lives Matter campaign swept the world and my dad informed me that he, like so many of his kind, believed all lives matter, we had a discussion that could be described at the very least as heated. “We know that white lives matter,” I said to him. “What we don’t know is that Black Lives Matter. If you want all lives to matter, then we need to support black lives first.” It was the same line of logic I used when he bucked against the term feminism. “I’d be happy to use the term humanism when woman are equal to men,” I told him over dinner. After both conversations, he apologized to me the next day, saying he thought about it and decided I might be right after all.

Which is why when I showed him my “Smash the Patriarchy” plate in my apartment in Vancouver some months later, I thought he might get a kick out of my millennial version of idealism. After all, this is the man who taught me to rail against hegemony, to step outside the flow of normalcy. This was the man whose final thesis in school was that all history was a story.

But my father only looked blankly at the plate and said, “The patriarchy is just a rule in the way the world works. Like a stop sign.”

I don’t think I knew what disappointment, true disappointment, felt like until that moment. It felt like 100 jellyfish stings. It felt like someone pushed me over and then told me I’d asked for it. It felt terrible. My body reacted before my mouth could; heat was already climbing my face, my hands shook. “A stop sign?” I asked.

Yes, he nodded.

“You think the patriarchy works like a stop sign?”

He nodded again, but perhaps seeing the changes in my demeanour, more hesitantly this time.

“Have you ever walked with keys between your knuckles at night? Have you ever had your body grabbed in public? Have you ever been paid less than your co-workers because of your gender?” My dad looked at me dumbfounded, his eyes wide. I knew I should probably let him take in what was happening, how the conversation went from the floral plate I had mounted on the wall to here, but I couldn’t stop. “Have you ever been given a date rape drug? Have you ever worried about a partner hurting you or been hurt by a partner?” I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes. “Do you still think the patriarchy is like a stop sign?”

When he mumbled something like “yes,” I took off down the hall and into my room, slamming the door.

On the other side of it, I could feel my parents’ shock in their silence. Even as a child, I had not been one prone to outbursts. Eventually I heard my mother usher my father out the door, and with a soft click of the lock they were gone.

Meanwhile, I was doubled over cross-legged on my bed, crying. I know it sounds dramatic, it felt dramatic, but what had just taken place was more than what had just taken place; it was the confirmation of a suspicion I’d had ever since I’d peeked behind society’s screen. That suspicion was this: even if everyone who was oppressed understood that their lack of power wasn’t their fault, it wouldn’t matter because those who held the power couldn’t ever understand how much they held. After all, how do you make someone see something that has been invisible to them their whole lives? As I said off the top, my dad is a kind man, a smart man. He was not being stubbornly obtuse or intentionally hurtful. It’s just that, to him, the patriarchy is another benign system to manage chaos, like a stop sign. This is the horrifying paradox of privilege: the more you have of it, the less you are able to see of what you have.

I was still crying on my bed when I heard a light knock on the door of my apartment. I opened it and my mother walked in, gave me a hug and led me by the elbow to my couch. She dried my tears will her thumb. “You have to understand,” she said. “Your father wants to believe you’re the privileged one.”

I paused. Of course, in many ways I am the privileged one. Like my father, I am a cisgendered, heteronormative, white person; a confluence of factors that grants us both unjust advantages. And because of my father, I never had to compete for food on the table; I didn’t have to hold down a job before I went to middle school and I was encouraged to pursue not one, but two, degrees. He had worked tirelessly to ensure my sister and I didn’t face the same hardships, and, thanks to him and my mother, we didn’t. We faced different ones. I had thought that having experienced hardships as a child, my dad might empathize more with women’s plights. But in some ways, my father’s own struggles early on had actively reinforced his belief that he was exempted from those other modes of oppression; he could not possibly be the oppressor or complicit in an oppressive system, because he himself had been oppressed. He had tricked the system in one of its elements, class, and therefore couldn’t fathom that there were other elements in which his complicity made the lives of those around him more difficult. Plus, he was a hippy, a vanguard, someone who fought against the powers that be, not helped enable them. That he would unintentionally be part of a system that endangered his daughters was anathema to him, so much so that it probably added to his vehement dismissal of the power of the patriarchy. Because to acknowledge its power was to acknowledge his daughters’ powerlessness over it. This complicated the simple paradox I’d come to terms with just an hour earlier. Nothing was as simple as I kept trying to make it seem.

I didn’t speak to my dad again until the following day. We were awkward around each other, barely making eye contact until he made a dad joke and I laughed and both our shoulders eased down. I think we were both so weary of another fight that neither mentioned what had transpired the night before, and that’s something I regret because I wish I had told him something then, something I realized after our fight. I wish I had told him that I am who I am now not in spite of him but because of him. Growing up, I witnessed him questioning the nature of power in our world, fighting its injustices in the ways that he could, and giving us girls the tools to do the same. All I’m doing is trying to carry that work forward. I hope one day he can see that. And that, when my own children inevitably confront me with ideological beliefs that seem unfathomable, I can remember it.