A black friend of mine recently posted an article to a local feminist group by John Metta about his increasing reluctance to speak to white people about race because it makes them feel uncomfortable. He talks about a white Aunt of his whose immediate response is to come to her own defence – racism is not her fault, she isn’t racist, she didn’t/doesn’t do these things. The conversation stops, silenced by her discomfort.
As a white person, I’m also familiar with this response. I first read Peggy McIntosh’s powerful article about white privilege when I was completing my counselling training. It was not comfortable reading. I grew up in the shadow of the death of Stephen Lawrence, in a white family headed up by a racist patriarch. I lived in a predominantly white area of South-East London, a BNP stronghold, a bastion of whiteness created when white working class Londoners fled from the inner city to escape the tide of immigration. I did not like what I saw around me and I tried to stand up for what I believed in.
I honestly thought that black people didn’t go to pubs until my eyes were opened by my Asian friend who told me she didn’t feel safe in any of our locals. Until she told me this I had been blind to the everyday racism that she was subject to in our community. Her family owned a shop in an area that routinely referred to it as the ‘paki shop’ and her parents were subjected to daily abuse which at times escalated into violence. I was horrified but I didn’t know how to fix it or help her so I tried my best. I stood up to my father and challenged his racist views and I attempted to stick up for my friends whenever I became aware of their ill-treatment at the hands of others. I considered myself resolutely not racist.
And then I read McIntosh’s article and experienced some of the discomfort of Metta’s Aunt. I was studying systemic therapy so I was beginning to understand how reality is socially constructed and I gradually started to develop a more nuanced understanding of prejudice. My white tutor sat in our all white training group and told us that everyone is racist. I had read the article and although I wasn’t yet ready to think of myself as racist it had shifted something in me. Then I saw how everyone else reacted. I was shocked by the anger and denial of my fellow students. “What me? No, I can’t be racist, I’m Irish”, the basic theme being “No, not us, we’re the good guys”. We did a bullshit exercise where we were encouraged to talk about our own prejudice and in an attempt to encourage some authenticity, I talked about how I had realised that if I am walking down the road at night on my own, I am more scared of an approaching black man than a white man. Silence. Nobody said anything. Now I was the racist in the group. As the discussion went on, nobody wanted to go anywhere near racism or sexism and it seemed like the only prejudice anybody was willing to admit was that they had a thing against ‘benefit scroungers’ – the acceptable face of prejudice in Britain today. Nobody wanted to think about how and why we were an all-white group studying on a Masters programme.
The realisation that I had internalised the racist views of my father (and society) shocked me. I did not and do not like the fact that while I consciously strive to fight injustice and prejudice around me, I have some deeply held racist beliefs and views. Any white people sitting out there who think they do not, then I would urge you to take this online test and see for yourself. I did not like admitting that I too, one of the good guys, am racist. It hurt and it made me feel guilty and uncomfortable with my privilege and whiteness. I am pretty sure however that the pain is nothing compared to the pain of living with the very real impact of racism on a daily basis.
I had another conversation recently when someone told me that their white friend couldn’t be racist because they had mixed race children. I explained that I thought everyone was racist and that as we live in a structurally racist society, it was impossible not to be. Since that day in class I have realised that I have a whole host of prejudices that I am now trying to deconstruct and unpick, including internalised misogyny and homophobia. I talk to my black friends about race because otherwise I would be blind to their experiences. Racism does not affect me and for this I am truly privileged. It would be easy to live in my little bubble and think that it is a thing of the past because I do not have to face it every day in my lived experience. McIntosh’s article helped me realise that I can’t see racism in the same way that men often can’t see sexism. I try to understand my own experiences as a woman under patriarchy and imagine what it is to be subject to the multiple oppressions of race and class as well.
So, John Metta, thank you for writing that article, and please don’t stop talking to white people about race. White people need to hear about how it feels to be black in a racist world if anything is ever going to change. We need to keep having those awkward conversations and face the idea that we can not step outside the culture within which we live. When studies still demonstrate how young black children internalise societal norms about race and my black male friend admits to me that he is also scared of other black men, then how arrogant would it be to assume that anyone is immune to the toxic culture that surrounds us. I can no more step outside our racist culture than I can step outside patriarchy. I still don’t have the answer but I think the first step may have been the day my tutor told me we are all racist.