Going beyond checking my privilege – how I confused my ‘principles’ for empathy

This week I finally read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.  I thought I ‘knew enough’ about colonialism, slavery and the history of People of Colour in the UK.  I thought I ‘knew enough’ about the reasons for institutional racism. I was so looking forward to reading the book, but felt that it would simply affirm my awareness of the nature of white privilege.  I though that ‘knowing enough’ about white privilege was suffice to make my world view and actions completely anti-racist.  I thought that, being a woman from working class heritage, my privilege might not be as ‘bad’ as that of others, that white privilege was some kind of spectrum. I thought that ‘being sorry’ somehow absolved me of complicity, that I deserved some kind of grace.

Since reading the book I’ve realised that my thought process was simply an extension of the white denial and defensiveness about racism which Reni Eddo-Lodge relates in the book.  Before reading, I was simply telling myself that I was less racist than a lot of people. I argued with other white people when they said ‘I don’t see colour’ and would come away feeling frustrated yet worthy (perhaps this is an example of the kind of ‘performative anti-racism’ which white people can ignorantly engage in). I though that a bit of superficial insight was all I required. And, oh God, did it make me feel better about myself!  However, the data and descriptions of institutional racism from the 18th century onward are not just a wake up call but a screaming siren for white people in the UK (and this was written even before the Grenfell tragedy and Windrush scandal).  I feel shame that any of it came as a shock. I had a grasp of the idea that history was whitewashed, but I suppose the luxury of white privilege meant that I didn’t need to think about what it meant in the present.  

So often I’ve heard white people say that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, that we can only solve racism by forming positive relationships, that it won’t do any good to pore over the pain of the slave trade, etc, etc.  Yet when it comes to white deaths during two World Wars we are told to ‘never forget’ (apart from the Carribean and Indian soldiers who fought for Britain – we seem to have no problem forgetting them whatsoever). The book outlines examples of white people being outraged about the casting of black actors, for example, in the stage play of Harry Potter or various historical dramas, saying that these depictions were ‘inaccurate’.  Yet few seem to have been as outraged about the eradication of our white colonialism from our history books, cultural life and education system. We only notice absence when the absence is white. This means that white people tend to overlook the damage of institutional racismand confuse anti-racism with ‘cultural awareness‘.  Eddo-Lodge describes how the concept of multiculturalism has been used for decades to dilute anti-racism, diverting the focus away from social and economic power structures which advantage white people at the expense of People of Colour.  Instead we think about ant-racism in a reductive way, that it is about how we all ‘get along’.

After reading this, I went to a large popular bookstore to source further literature on colonialism and the history of racism in the UK. Scarily, there were ten times more books about myths and legends in the UK nations.  This is probably quite telling. We do love mythology – our most popular myth is that colour ‘doesn’t matter’ and that racism isn’t much of a problem anymore, that we have become a ‘multicultural society’ and that is enough. The social studies curriculum across the UK incorporates the history and impact of racism in the USA at the expense of our own, deliberately allowing white children to indulge in this fantasy that racism doesn’t exist here. This makes us white people feel a lot more comfortable with ourselves. Misguided and ignorant claims, although arguably well-meaning, that ‘everyone is the same’ and that we ‘just don’t see colour’ deny the experiences of People of Colour. It is tantamount to pretending that everyone is white.  

Even with all this, it wasn’t the racism within social, political and economic structures that really got under my white skin.  Eddo-Lodge points out that, after all, structures are made up of people – people in schools, people in workplaces, people in communities, people in churches, people in colleges and universities.  What made me realise my awareness of white privilege was seriously flawed was her description of the frustration, exhaustion and hurt which she experiences whenever she tries to speak to white people about personal experiences of racism.  Whether in everyday interactions or within feminist activism, white people would become defensive and shut her down. This might be a sense of indignation that they are being called out as racist, which was never the case. She simply had a desire to discuss occasions where institutional racism or people’s attitudes affected her life, for example, when attending job interviews. Rather than trying to empathise, white people are so worried about being implicated in racism that we shut down and try to protect our own self-image.  Sometimes people out and out refused to believe her and, either explicitly or implicitly, denied that racism was a factor in her life or that it even existed. White people often interrupt, wait to say something rather than listen, in desperation to prove that they personally are not racist and that People of Colour shouldn’t worry about racism too much.  One example she gives is a workshop at a feminism conference about beauty standards. The participants were asked to discuss what stood out about the photos in magazines on display. Eddo-Lodge pointed out that all of the women featured were white. Another woman quickly interjected with ‘but they also all have long hair’.

We can have all the righton political beliefs in the world, believe in social justice, understand the nuances of white privilege.  But without empathy and a commitment to listening to the experiences of People of Colour, this is absolutely meaningless. I don’t think I have ever reflected on how tired and empty it would make a person feel, having to deal with the psychological consequences of these interactions day upon day – the impact on work life, social life, studies.    It is not just about ‘political solidarity’, it is about having a thought for the emotional load white people are forcing others to carry.

An example from my own personal interactions is when a British-Zimbabwean  friend told me about a situation that happened just after she had started university.  She was out with a group of new friends and one of their boyfriends made a racist remark.  She politely made her excuses and left. One friend went after her and, despite it being absolutely clear why she had upped and left, asked with faux puzzlement, ‘oh are you leaving?’.  Not one friend left the bar with her and the situation was overlooked thereafter. She then went on to tell me about a conversation she had with one of the women a few years later. My immediate, indignant response was ‘Oh my God, you stayed friends with them?!’.  It never occurred to me to think why, having just started university, she might not wish to isolate herself from the new friends she had made in halls. I didn’t consider that she might worry about being stereotyped, or seen as overreacting by white people should she show her true emotions. Instead, I burdened her with taking responsibility for the racism which happened to her. Surely this is a perfect example of basking in the luxury of my white privilege – had gone away satisfied with sufficiently proving my disgust at racism.  Why didn’t I go away reflecting on what kind of friend I really was?

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