Yes, You Are A Racist
14th May 2017
Kath’s post is the second part of ‘How to silence a voice’. To read this, CLICK HERE.
Yes, You Are A Racist
I have been pondering on my white privilege for some weeks now after it was drawn to my attention by a thread posted on Facebook.
One of the first things that occurred to me was why I hadn’t thought about this much before? After all, I’m not a racist, am I? I don’t treat people differently because of the colour of their skin, do I? I’ve been discriminated against myself so I would never do that to someone else, would I?
My immediate reaction was that I would shout a resounding ‘No!’ to all of those questions. The reality, found through deep reflection and introspection, is that actually I am a racist, I do treat people differently on the basis of the colour of their skin and I do discriminate. Of course, like the majority of well-meaning white people, I have never intentionally set out to cause harm to people of colour. But then I never stepped up to prevent harm being caused to people of colour either. I didn’t even turn a blind eye. The fact is that I was already made so blind by white privilege that I couldn’t even see how people of colour are treated differently every day. As the saying goes – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good (wo)men do nothing”. If you shut your eyes and allow yourself to be blinded to the treatment of people of colour in our world then you allow evil to flourish. Is that who you are? What you aspire to be?
So, why hadn’t I thought about any of this? As a counsellor I often talk about the metaphorical cupboard in our minds. The place where we keep in boxes all those memories, feelings and emotions that we don’t want in our everyday lives. The traumas, the uncomfortable things, the things we hate about ourselves, the things we have said and done of which we are ashamed or of which we live in fear. We put the lids tightly on those boxes and push them right to the back of our cupboards and we hope the lids never come off.
But then, I thought, perhaps there is another set of boxes, the ones we fill full of beliefs and values, the ones with the lids half off, the ones we dip into many times a day but that are so familiar to us, we don’t actually see them anymore. Like when you drive a well-known and familiar route. You don’t even think about it, you just drive with your mind on what you need to buy from the supermarket later on, a difficult conversation you need to have at work, your mind so occupied you don’t even notice completely new road markings until someone else’s beeping car horn jolts you back into paying conscious attention.
I thought, is my white privilege in one of these half open boxes? Am I dipping in and out of my white privilege box so unconsciously that I can’t even recognise myself doing it? Or is it actually in a box, the lid tightly on, way back in the dark recess of the cupboard because it’s something I don’t want to recognise about myself? Maybe there’s more than one box with different aspects of my attitudes, beliefs and feelings about skin colour and racism in different boxes.
But, you know what? It is my cupboard, these are my boxes and I definitely have a box labelled ‘white privilege’ that I use so often I don’t even register my own behaviour as discriminatory.
Oh, shit. This makes me a horrible, terrible person right? No, this makes me a human being who, having finally recognised what she’s been doing, wants to become fully aware and make meaningful, sustainable changes to her behaviour. Just like you, right?
One of the first issues I struggled with was that believing I should treat all people as though they were white too, is, in itself, as form of discrimination. I held to the idea that if I didn’t ‘see’ skin colour then I couldn’t be discriminatory.
Here’s the thing; if I do not allow myself to see the colour of a person’s skin, then I also shut my eyes to the discrimination they suffer and how they are treated differently. Just because I am not the perpetrator does not mean they don’t suffer. By shutting my eyes to the colour of a person’s skin, I unintentionally discriminate against them because I do not see the million micro-aggressions and differences in how they are treated that happen to them every single day. Every. Single. Day.
If I pretend I can’t see the colour of another person’s skin, then I have also shut my eyes to the colour of my own skin. By failing to see how others discriminate against people of colour, I fail to see how I discriminate in the guise of white privilege.
White privilege is a strange concept when one is actually white. Our sense of superiority around what we deserve because we’re white is so deeply ingrained and instinctive that most of us have no idea just how brainwashed we are with it. So brainwashed that we neither see nor recognise it until it’s pointed out to us.
When my white privilege was pointed out to me, I did the thing that many white people do. I told myself I understood what it’s like to suffer racial discrimination because I’ve been discriminated against for other reasons. Of course I understand, I told myself, haven’t I been discriminated against for being disabled, for being old, for being a woman, for being poor? Haven’t I been treated differently, even attacked in the street, for things I can’t help? Of course I know what it’s like and I don’t discriminate against people of colour because of that.
“Racism is a learned affliction and anything that can be learned can be unlearned” – Jane Elliot
Then the moment of revelation came – supposing I was all these things and a person of colour too – what then? The truth is that although I am discriminated against for being a poor, disabled, old woman, I am a WHITE poor, disabled old woman. That one word, WHITE, the colour of my skin, is what saves me from even worse discrimination than if I were a poor, disabled, old woman of colour. And my ingrained white privilege is what stopped me recognising this as a fact for so long.
When white people become aware of how privileged we are, instead of looking at that from within ourselves, we turn it outwards and onto people of colour. Tell us how you’re discriminated against, we say to them, tell us your stories; explain to us what a micro-aggression looks like.
Just stop and think about that.
What we’re asking is for a traumatised person to relive their trauma by explaining to us how it happened and how they feel about it. Would you ask that of a victim of any other trauma? No. So don’t do it in this context either. It causes harm. Remember that. It causes harm.
You will be told that in order to change your ideas about racism and white privilege, you have to start with yourself. This will be confusing because, in your mind, you’re not a racist. It is also uncomfortable and shocking to have to realise and accept that you are the very thing you despise in others. Being racist is not about being overtly discriminatory towards people of colour, it is simply that you cannot be anything else if you are white and have not dealt with your white privilege attitude in every aspect of your life.
If you’re a decent white human being you will want to put this right. You will be horrified to recognise that you are, in fact, a racist by virtue of doing nothing or because you’ve unintentionally caused harm. Your instinct will be to rush off to ‘fix’ things and make them right.
Fixing things by joining groups, proclaiming your intentions to change, demanding policies and rules to ‘stop this sort of thing happening’ changes nothing.
NOTHING AT ALL.
None of these things make any difference because they are all external to who you are and the set of beliefs you hold about skin colour and discrimination. Informing yourself is only one small part of changing. The biggest and most difficult part is looking within to recognise and acknowledge all the tiny things you take for granted because you’re white, that you never even think about. It ends when you change your behaviour, your beliefs and your attitude to, not only how you treat people of colour, but that you stand up for their rights exactly as you would for your own.
Anything less is just good intentions. And as the saying goes:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
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