I always assumed I wasn’t racist. I mean, most people assume they’re aren’t – right? Apart from those crazy right wingers but I’m not one of them. I mean, are you a racist? I’m guessing you’d say no. Well, I hope you would as I’m assuming my blog isn’t too popular with the extreme right.
When I was a kid (a white kid in a predominantly white area of the UK I should add) it was assumed that racism was on it’s way out. We kind of knew that it had been around, we’d even heard some of the horror stories of the 60s and 70s. I remember being confused, as well as angry, when I found out there was such a thing as apartheid. Racism, as I understood it, was the majority oppressing a minority, so if whites were a minority in South Africa how the hell did they get away with that shit? This was the early 90s in Britain though and things were changing – or so we were told. As I grew older, and indeed wiser, I realised that was bullshit.
I was a teenager in the mid 1990s when I read Linford Christie’s biography*. I read it because I loved running and he was like the best there was. I’m not quite sure what I expected it to be like, I’m pretty sure if it had been all about his diet and training regime I’d have quickly become bored. From memory though, it had very little to do with that. I spotted it on the shelf in the local library and devoured it in one sitting – it blew my mind apart. How could a man, a British man who represented his country be treated so badly because of the colour of his skin? (Sorry for the spoiler alert if you haven’t read it yet). It was a sharp awakening to some of the social injustices that were happening on a daily basis across our country.
A couple of years later, at about 17, I had my first black boyfriend. I still remember when he told me about how his cousins were treated by the police (they lived in Manchester) and how they often had to run from the police when they were out playing football. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This sounded like the kind of thing that happened in another world. I was incensed. Yet, while I sat there shocked at what he said, I could tell that – for him – this was about as shocking as his gran having a cup of tea. Perhaps I wasn’t so wrong when I thought these stories came from another world, they did come from another world, a world right there under my eyes, but one that I had very little idea about. Nowadays I live in a diverse area. Yet I still hear white parents of white kids say they wouldn’t want their kid to go to a certain school because there aren’t many white kids. Sometimes I look down at my son and wonder do they mean there are too many children like him? Kind, caring, intelligent and brown.
You might wonder why a white woman is bringing this up? I mean, I don’t experience racism, I don’t have some secret knowledge of what it’s like to be black (in the UK or anywhere for that matter). There are around two million black people in the UK and I don’t for a second want to try and speak for any of those individuals. However, it seems to me that whilst racism appears to be on the rise – whether that’s following the EU referendum in the UK, or in post-Trump America – the other thing on the rise that no-one seems to mention is the shock of white people that this shit still exists**.
So why are we still shocked? In 2017 with the wealth of diversity across the globe, is it truly possible that people still live in such homogenous communities that they have no idea of what challenges other people face? I guess it is. However, there’s another possibility too; that we don’t want to believe there is racism – instead we want to think it’s rare and infrequent. Yet isn’t our shock just one massive indicator of our white privilege? Not only do we get to live our lives free of experiencing racism, we get to not even think about it. In fact, it’s such an alien concept that even when we hear about it, we are stunned. By living in this bubble not only can we be blissfully unaware of the reality that so many people live with, but we can (presumably) feel safe in the knowledge that nothing much really needs to be done about it. As a good liberal citizen I’d be incensed if it was common but as it’s not, shock and surprise seem to be the appropriate responses on the rare occasions I’m forced to hear about people’s experiences of racism. If I’m feeling really proactive perhaps I’ll share one of those videos or memes about how racism can be dispelled in two minutes. Only the thing is, it CANNOT be dispelled in two minutes. Racism has grown up over centuries, it’s been passed on gradually over generations, it underpins our whole global systems and it is entrenched in our thinking no matter how much we dislike it.
Racism is learnt, slowly and steadily over years. Sometimes you don’t even realise it’s happening. Hell, most of the time you don’t realise it’s happening. I’ve worked in many African countries and the number of people who would consider themselves strongly anti-racist who have made comments of “lazy locals” and joked about “them” sitting under the tree all day is disgusting. Why would someone assume one group of people are “lazy” when they are late, yet when they themselves are late for school pick ups, doctors appointments you name it, it’s perfectly acceptable because it wasn’t their fault. No, they had to change the toddler just as they were about to leave, or there was an awful hold up on the way over, the reasons are never ending.
I’m not claiming to be some holier than-thou person who is living in a post-racial bubble though. As I was thinking about all this I came across an IAT test which assesses racial bias. I took the test. It told me that I have a slight preference for European-Americans (it’s an American test). Now that hurts. I mean it sounds incredibly similar to being told I’m a racist. Only that’s not what it’s saying. It’s telling me what I should already know. That I’m a product of our society. That throughout my life I have absorbed racist stereotypes and I have developed a “slight racial bias”. That doesn’t mean I can carry on happy in the knowledge that it’s not my fault. Not at all. What this test tells me is that I, like most other white people, need to acknowledge that we are products of our society. I need to listen to the stories around me from loved ones, respected ones and strangers, about how they are treated day in day out and I need to think about how my own internal bias might well be part of this problem too. I need to acknowledge that this bias may be affecting how I see people, how I interpret their behaviour and, ultimately, how I treat them. It might be too late to change what created this bias in me, but I sure as hell have control over if I allow it to continue and how I let it influence my behaviour or not. It is only through challenging these assumptions every step of the way that I will ensure I do not pass this on to my own child which for me would be the ultimate failure in motherhood.
*For those of you who don’t know him, Linford Christie was a very successful black British sprinter.