TW: The content and discussion in this blog will engage with the pulling apart of my racist thought process' growing up. Some of this writing may be emotionally challenging to engage with. I have done my best to write something that reflects upon my own conditioning, mistakes and emphatically challenges these belief systems. I believe this piece is only useful to read and digest for a white person who is looking to unravel their own prejudice and racism. My journey to unravel these systems has not ended, nor will it ever end.
It's black history month right now in North America. A month that we didn't learn about at my school (a pretty much exclusively white school). A month that celebrates the incredible legacy of black people; their achievements, their countless contributions and addresses their true history which has been whitewashed to fit a very specific narrative.
It would be all to easy to pretend that growing up, I was an avid supporter of Black lives and an active ally. Oh yes, as a child I would have told you that I passionately opposed racism- and on a surface level, I did. I knew from school and from films that racism was a disgusting form of violence and oppression. I knew that bald, foaming at the mouth fascists still lingered around the corners of the world and I was baffled at their very existence. I wanted everyone to be treated equally. Little did I know, how entrenched some bizarre and often shameful beliefs with regards to race, were secretly lodged in my own mind.
If you are white, then you will know in that painful space in your chest, exactly what I mean. It would be all too easy to avoid writing this post, but sometimes we have to shine a light on our own uncomfortable bullshit in order to help others do the same. So fellow white person, let us begin.
I was taught from a very young age by my dad, that everyone should be treated equally. Some people would be different to me, but everyone is special in their own way. I don't actually remembering seeing any different people to me in real life for a long time. Only on a few tv shows- but the seed was planted in my head nonetheless.
My first and middle school classes were pretty much all white. In fact, I think they were 100% white. My only memory of any inclusion was meeting a basketball player who came into our first school to give a talk and take photographs. I had no idea who he was, but I was in awe of this giant black man, taking up space and being so friendly to a bunch of white kids who were all running around giggling at his heels. I must have been around 8 years old.
High school finally introduced me to a handful of people who weren't white. This was when micro moments of aggression toward non-white communities and specifically black people became part of the school lingo. Using the N word was forbidden but I heard kids rapping it or shouting it in the yard as a laugh. There was a mixed race lad in my year who was taunted about his 'blackness' quite a lot. He was part of what we termed the 'Chav' group and he ended up turning this racism around and using it humorously as a weapon for self-defence. I knew what the lads were saying to him was wounding him, I could read it screaming in his body language very clearly, but he wouldn't show any sign of letting the twats get to him. In English lessons, we looked at the Half-Caste poem and analysed it, with no real understanding of what it truly meant. It was a task to do, not a pain to feel. That really is a good summary of what whiteness is like, when examining racism. But anyway, let me continue.
Cut to a few months later and in church, our minister announced that the Ugandan Pearl of Africa choir were touring England to raise money for their orphanage, and our congregation would be the first to accommodate them. My mam volunteered to host two girls and so we met M and R. Now this was the first time I can recall, ever having black people in our home. Which is ridiculous at 13 years old, but there it is. Initially there felt like a real power imbalance. We were 'doing them a favour' and I felt nervous around their blackness- almost as if I would mention it out loúd and destroy any hope of a friendship. The unspoken differences between us all.
These two girls shook up my life. First things first, my mam bought bacon and sausages for breakfast because R didn't like bran flakes, (we'd been telling my mam that bran flakes were shit for years, but she only caved when it came to these two. I was fuming.) We were taken out to TK Maxx to help look for winter coats. The lasses were FREEZING and who can blame them. It was a blistering Northern winter and they'd just arrived from the comfort of the actual sunshine. I longed to get to know M and R better, but initially they were rarely in, because they were working all hours of the day. These two phenomenal girls along with a choir of other orphaned young people, toured to various venues across the North East, performing to raise as much money as possible, before moving their way down the country, until eventually they would arrive in the South of England. I still get an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, when I think about their schedule and I guess I'll never know what they truly thought of the whole tour. I reckon they were exhausted 90% of the time.
I will never forget watching their first concert. As soon as the choir opened their mouths, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Good God. I had never heard or felt so much love surrounding me before in all of my life. They worked as a collective to move, to sing, to connect joyfully. I was grinning so hard through the show, my jaw ached and goosebumps prickled over my skin. They were alive and present and more powerful than any other humans on the whole fucking planet. In that moment, I realised that this choir knew what connection and love truly was. That much was clear to me. And I really didn't.
R and M changed my perception. You can only get to know your prejudices and structural racism when you are confronted with it head on and are willing to listen to the painful truth (externally or internally) about how much shit you've believed and taken part in as a white person. I still had/have so much to learn, but they helped me address a conditioned thought planted in my head. The notion that black people weren't as intelligent as white people. Ha! That bullshit was obliterated on day one. Once I had the time to talk to her, M wiped the floor with any other person I knew. Her passion for development was infectious, she was diligent in her pursuit of education, brighter than the sun and asked so many questions about my experiences in England that I felt embarrassed at how lazy I had been in pursuing my own dreams. She was the first person I spoke to about Queer people in Uganda as she opened her mind to our tolerance of couples in the UK. I loved her wholeheartedly and would watch her perform amongst the choir, with my heart pounding and my palms sweating. Turns out she was in her early twenties and wanting an opportunity to develop herself further. Too fucking right. She deserved more than 99% of the people that were begrudgingly heading off to uni at my high school.
R was initially very quiet and I took her to be ungrateful at first (classic powerplay in my own mind). Actually, she was flippin exhausted and later I would learn, fairly homesick and so I attempted to make her laugh with stupid clown faces whenever I could. We watched high school musical together while she laughed at my singing. She was shy and had a huge heart, but didn't want anyone to know. She quite liked being a mysterious moody teenager and who could blame her? I was a miserable twat everyday too! We'd catch each other's eyes sometimes at concerts and she'd look away so as not to laugh. Plus she thought my dancing was hilarious and who can blame her? It was like Theresa May but with less grace.
There were boys there too. Boys that myself and my friend were into. There was a particular boy who I really liked, but I was worried. Someone told me that his mother had died from HIV. I was heartbroken because I really liked him and he was so grateful, so humble, so unbelievably compassionate to everyone. I couldn't get over it. Truthfully, a part of me became paranoid that if I kissed him, like I really wanted to, I would get HIV and then have to live with debilitating illness, so I avoided acting on my impulses. This my friend, is called sheer ignorance and I shudder thinking about it now. He deserved so much better. He was so much better.
And as I left school, left white middle class suburbia, I started to let my white glasses fall off and see the world properly. A year out around Newcastle and eventually life in Manchester was a breath of fresh air I was craving. I met the most phenomenal humans who weren't white and as my brain started to open up more and more, I learnt to listen. A mate told me a story of how she had been spat on as a child and told to go home. Another friend told me that he had struggled to get work because people didn't think he was trustworthy. Another friend shared that she'd had her hair called crazy and touched numerous times by strangers. There were hundreds of stories. Each one, so painful for these people to retell.
Now you can say 'I don't see colour' all you want, but you do darlin'. You do see colour. The system we live in sees colour. We as white people invented these barriers so we could justify stealing people's lives, their resources, their ancestry and their stories to make profit. Yet we want to imagine that now in 2020, all of the problems have been solved and everything is equal. It isn't.
The whole system is corrupt.
And guess what? I was part of the system. I am part of the system. It is perhaps the worst part of all of this inquiry into racism for a white person. Even if you are a decent person and do your best to smile at people and stand up for others. You have to accept you are part of the problem because of your inherent bias and privilege. And we really don't want to do that. We feel a great shame in being vulnerable in the acknowledgement of our own racism. In a remarkable blog before she published her book 'Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race', author Reni Eddo-Lodge references her attempts to express herself to white people-
'You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals like they can no longer hear us.'
She's right. I've seen it in my family, with friends and with myself. It's there when my white mates tell me that people should be employed as artists for their talent and not their skin colour. Which is all well and good, but then why are you assuming that the real talent always lies with white people? Why do you get angry when someone who is BAME has an opportunity and you don't get the same one? Why do you ignore the fact that movie posters are covered with all white men and one white woman in a red dress with no representation for anyone else? Why do you flinch when a black man sits next to you on public transport? Who did you assume was foreign because of their skin colour, only to find out they are from the same city as you?
These all ring true to me and it can feel depressing and embarrassing. It isn't all hopeless though. We can do the work on ourselves everyday to be the best allies that we can be. If as a white person, anything I have written resonates with you or you feel guilty and uncomfortable, then that is awesome. It means you know that something isn't right and you can address that. Remember that no amount of suffering we feel in this space, can equate to the internalised loathing and shame that black people suffer daily. Their trauma cause by oppression and a system that breeds hatred needs healing and we can start creating a better environment and world for them to do so. It may hurt for us initially, but that pain is the dismantling of the white supremacist ego. It will make your life better in more ways than you can imagine.
I've written a list of brilliant content that you could start on, to open your eyes and mind. From there, you will branch off into more avenues I'm sure. These authors are five billion times more articulate than I am and also have been subject to things I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race- Reni Eddo-Lodge
White Identity Politics- Ashley E. Jardina
White Fragility- Robin DiAngelo
Mena Fombo- No. You cannot touch my hair! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLQzz75yE5A
Queenie- Candice Carty-Williams
White Like me- Tim Wise (written by a White dude, but well worth a read.)
My mates who aren't white deserve accolades for putting up with the things that they do. Black excellence is everywhere. Musicians, athletes, authors, scientists. Black people are at the top of every field, yet experience harassment, violence and are often met with silence when speaking out about their experiences. I think what we can do, is fill that silence with a listening ear, with a hand stretched out. With a space of love and empathy.
Don't live your life in a white bubble pretending that the world is equal and you got where you are because of sheer graft alone. It isn't like that, we get a little help by being white every day. Look around you. Is there anyone who isn't white in your workplace? Start opening your awareness to where the power lies. Use your platform and your voice to assist in whatever way you can. Use your privilege to lift others to the space that they deserve to be. Spend your money on Black art, on Black Queer artist performances, on Black supporting events or charities.
It's a reminder for me as much as it is for you.