Warning: This is a long blog post. I’ve tried to cut it down, but honestly I struggled. I guess because this is important, and because in writing this I’ve unpacked so much of my own shit around the issue of discrimination that I want to share in the hope it helps someone else do the same. I can’t promise the words that follow will be perfect because this is something I’m learning more about every day, but that fear of not being perfect has been holding me back for too long already. So here goes…
Early last year I had a conversation with a friend about race – one of the first conversations on that subject I’ve ever had.
I told her I’d been reading a lot about the term “white feminist” and was worried that I was one… after all I’m white, from a predominantly white area and a predominantly white background; and while I had complete respect for women of colour, LGBTQ women, trans people and other marginalised groups, I also had no real idea of how to go about stepping out of the box that I’d found myself in.
In a clear attempt to put my mind at ease she told me this was something she was thinking about too, but wasn’t even sure where to go or what to read. However “the fact that you’re asking the question shows that you’re on your way to intersectional feminism…”
And yes, I may have started that journey. But was I there? No.
Start at your very beginning
Wherever we look right now race is in the news – particularly in North America where the struggles of people of colour are becoming more and more evident (because no matter what those of us safe in our ivory towers might like to think, they’re not new – they were just swept under the carpet before) since the change in government in 2016.
Throughout last year I would watch those videos, see those news stories and hear those speeches, but also not fully get it, because when these posts spoke about white privilege I didn’t understand.
I’m a woman from a working class background in the North of England – it wasn’t exactly the most privileged upbringing, so while I could see how the term might apply in the US or in other places around the world, I just couldn’t quite get my head around it here.
After all, I’m from an area generally considered to be one of the most friendly in the world – no one is ever victimised because of who they are here, right? Wrong.
When I asked the question to another group of friends one told me the story of a mixed race couple she knew – also from the North of England and also working class, who had been spat on in the streets not twenty years ago. It turns out that even here in this cosy, friendly part of the world, there is such a thing as white privilege, and the fact I didn’t know that shows just how bloody privileged I am.
Others in that group pointed me to a million different people, channels and sources of information, all of which I’ve been slowly familiarising myself with in the months since, while I’ve also been going out there and doing my own research.
Yes, that did involve googling things like: “How can I educate myself about intersectionality?” “history of people of colour” and “breaking down racism” because honestly I was ashamed to have to even ask these questions but really wasn't sure where to start.
As part of this journey I recently read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White Women About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and also took part in Rachel Cargle’s Unpacking White Feminism event, both of which left me with one big thought:
OK, I get it.
Well no, actually I don’t fully get it because as a white, able-bodied, cisgender, educated woman who’s family have come mostly from the same 500 mile radius for about the past century and who can (usually) articulate what she wants to say in a way that other people can accept, I will never truly get how it is for people of colour, or indeed anyone who falls into another marginalised group.
Understanding and accepting privilege
I read the book first, and as Reni talked about the history of racism, and of people of colour in the UK and beyond I found myself shaking my head in disbelief that I hadn’t known a lot of these things… As she spoke about the difference between racism and discrimination I understood that while I definitely wasn’t personally prejudice, the fact that I hadn’t taken the time to understand or to even begin to challenge discrimination of all kinds around me meant that I was taking part in racism.
Then Reni went on to talk about white privilege which she defined is “an absence of the consequences of racism.” In the book she explains:
“When I talk about white privilege, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.”
- Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race
There it is! And if the idea of white privilege is something that has always either confused you or completely pissed you off, then I implore you to read that quote again. Actually no, read the whole book, but for right in this moment read the quote.
When someone talks about your white privilege they’re not saying you’ve necessarily had it super easy and have never had to struggle, but they’re saying you struggle less than someone else who might have a similar background to you or similar experiences, but also has darker skin.
As I read the book, making notes and nodding like a dog on a car dashboard, I kept feeling like I got it. But still I didn’t feel like I could fully translate what I was hearing into my own words – into a way that I could share with the white people I know who’d also been confused by the term "white privilege" in the past. Because no matter how open those people might be to listening, unpacking and learning, within England in this lifetime they will never be personally impacted by the unspoken challenges and discrimination of structural racism,
Until she spoke about disability… as you might know my dad became ill a few years back, and now has to use a wheelchair for anything other than the shortest of distances. In the past I’d known that discrimination against disability existed, and obviously thought that was a bad thing – just as I did with any other kind of discrimination. But I didn’t fully get it until someone I loved was in a wheelchair. Until a couple of months back when I took responsibility for pushing my dad through London on a trip to the capital.
I love London; I love the public transport, love the history, love how much there is to do, and could happily potter around the streets of the city for hours and hours on end.
But with a wheelchair? Really bloody difficult. The pavements are uneven, there are a LOT more hills than I expected, people refuse to look where they’re going – and then tut and complain when you clip their ankle or they almost fall over the chair – and when paths and walkways are blocked off for various reasons, those doing the blocking often fail to consider whether it’s possible to navigate a wheelchair around there.
It was challenging, frustrating and absolutely knackering… and it gave me a sudden insight into what it is to be discriminated against; not only by looks and words, but also by the very structure of our society.
That sounds like a terrible, short-sighted example I know, but the comparison opened my eyes hugely, meaning that when I then listened to Rachel's lecture, I suddenly understood her words with a greater depth of experience. When she spoke of the frequent comment that "All lives matter" for example and commented that to respond to "Black lives matter" with that statement suggests the idea that everyone in the USA is similarly situated with regards to police treatment. And we know for a fact that that's not true.
But that’s how it is here in the West – our society is swayed towards the white, the able-bodied, the straight, the cisgender, the Christian (or at least something akin to that), the educated and so on and so forth.
As I look at it now I almost see discrimination as some sort of shitty points based system… heterosexual, white, able-bodied, cisgender, strong, fit, educated, mentally “healthy”, prosperous Christian man? Full marks!
But for every one of those boxes (and the many others that I haven’t included here) that you don’t tick, there’s something that you can – and undoubtedly will in some way – be discriminated against. And while some of that discrimination may not creep in until someone knows you (how many stories are there of professional sportsmen who are fully part of the gang until someone learns that they’re gay?), other boxes will be ticked before you’ve even opened your mouth. Before you’ve even been born.
How we get to grips with prejudice
And yes, those prejudices rear their heads through the despicable personal prejudices and attacks that we – hopefully – all condemn, but it also comes in the more insidious thinly veiled way that it’s oh-so-easy to pretend, and even believe, doesn’t exist until it affects us directly.
While you might not be using the n word, or any other derogatory term, it’s not enough to just be “not racist” any more than it is to be “not sexist”, or “not homophobic”. This drive for change, for equality, must be for all people, otherwise it’s not about equality and is based on bullshit.
And that means we all have to do our bit – starting with educating ourselves about the things we don’t know. As I’ve already said, I can’t recommend Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race highly enough, and not only did I love Rachel Cargle’s talk last week, but I also love her social media feed, check out @1thatgotawayy on Instagram for starters, but of course this isn’t just about learning what’s going on now, it’s about learning about the past as well as the future.
Then it’s about using our voices – whether that’s when talking to your friends over the dinner table, writing a blog or marching in the streets. The journey towards equality is not a one size fits all battle because we all have different skills, strengths and ways of communicating.
And similarly challenging discrimination doesn’t mean you must actively shout about a cause during every second of every single day. But it does mean not being afraid to have the conversations when they’re needed or when you can.
Having the conversations
I say that as someone who has been afraid for the longest time to do just that; partly because I didn’t feel qualified and partly because I honestly believed that by talking about race I was being racist.
But let’s be honest here – it’s the not having those conversations that causes problems because it allows that insidious structural racism to continue without challenge! And because it means that we’re still basing our ideas of what someone who is different to us needs, wants and feels on a baseless and likely prejudiced viewpoint.
For example, I would hate to be a Muslim community leader in the UK around December, because every year it seems that statements have to be released on the fact that no, the group of people that they personally represent do not all hate Christmas and have not demanded en masse that all twinkly lights be re-named “festive decorations”. Actually, that decision has more than likely come from a very senior person somewhere in the local council who - and I apologise for the assumption here - may well be white and/or Christian, but is too terrified to ask local people of other faiths how they feel about Christmas, or about how city centre decorations could better honour the traditions of all religions, so would prefer to just steer clear of those conversations and cut out anything potentially offensive at all. Isn’t that fear of offending someone rather than actually starting a conversation to ask how we can best serve the needs of all people the real “political correctness gone mad”?!
Because we're not just talking about race here, we're talking about religious beliefs, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, body shape and many many other things. We need to be having those conversations; we need to be learning about people different to ourselves; and then we need to be working to change the world for the benefit of not only the person in the mirror, but people who are different to that person too.
Getting those conversations started
I’m not going to quote Martin Luther King here because it would be disrespectfully twee but yes, when I think of the future I do see and hope for societies where people are respected and honoured for precisely who they are and what they bring to the table; where they get exactly the same opportunities as every other person regardless of how they look, where they came from, who they love or what they believe; and where we are all on an equal footing in terms of power.
But let’s not beat around the bush – we’re not there yet. In fact, we’re nowhere near. So let’s start learning and doing what we need to be able to not only speak for ourselves and fight our own corner, but to be an ally for people who are different to us and join them in the fight for real equality. And not just individually but institutionally too.
We will screw up – all of us, I know that I’m still not really educated enough to write a blog post on race and that I’ve undoubtedly said many things over the last 2,000 words (yeesh – this is a long post. Sorry) which are not worded as well as they could be, and I not only welcome feedback on that but also apologise for any offence caused where that is the case. But I’ve reached a point where I’d rather screw up and have to apologise and correct myself than not try at all.
This road towards equality of all people in all ways is – unfortunately – a new one for us all, and so of course we’ll try, fall and say the wrong things along the way. But let’s prepare to apologise, to be educated, and to lick the wounds that come with realising we don’t know everything.
And through all of that let’s keep learning, keep trying, and keep talking. Because honestly? It’s the only way things are going to change.