Today is the UNESCO International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and I have been considering my role in this process. I find it easy to say “I am privileged”. But “I am racist”? That’s harder – yet, for me, it’s the next step.
Privilege isn’t an absolute, because not everyone who is privileged has the same kind or level of privilege. Privilege can be bestowed (or withheld) by factors such as skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, health, age, religion, and socio-economic status. Many people have privilege in some areas and not in others. For example, a white bisexual man with mental health problems is privileged by his skin colour and gender, disadvantaged by his sexual orientation and health. However, this is way more complicated than 2 x privilege + 2 x disadvantage = 0.
I’m beginning to think racism may not be an absolute either. Evidently I’m not the only one, as I found a racism calculator online. I wouldn’t recommend it. The calculator is made up of 15 yes/no/don’t know questions, some of which are ambiguous. For example: “Do you believe in race stereotypes?” Yes, in that I believe race stereotypes exist; no, in that I don’t believe race stereotypes are truthful or useful. Or, “Do you consider all people are equal, no matter their gender or race?” Yes, in principle; I believe all people are of equal worth and should be treated with equal fairness. No, in reality; a child is not equal to an adult, or a disabled person to an able-bodied person, and these factors intersect with gender and race (and religion, and socio-economic status, and sexual orientation, and so on) to contribute to the inequalities that exist in our world.
The eminent international social cognition project, Project Implicit, has a race test which seems to me to be more useful than the racism calculator. I’ve just re-taken the test (the first time was around five years ago) and my data ‘suggest a moderate automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans’. This gives me some clue as to how racist I am, as the ‘automatic preference’ may be described as ‘no preference’, ‘slight’, ‘moderate’, or ‘strong’.
There is a privilege calculator online too, a much more sophisticated instrument than the race calculator with 100 statements about individual experience which seem fairly unambiguous. Examples include: ‘I am white’ and ‘I am heterosexual’. You tick the ones that apply to you and end up with an overall score and explanatory statement. I’m no expert in devising these kinds of instruments, but it seems to me that a racism calculator along these lines would be more useful. It could include statements such as:
- I am white
- Everyone in my family is white
- I heard racial slurs as a child
- I used racial slurs as a child
- As a child, I did not have black dolls/action men/equivalent
- As a child, I did not read children’s books by people of colour
- As a child, I had no friends of colour
- As a child, my family had no friends of colour
- As a child, my neighbourhood did not include people of colour
- I had no schoolteachers of colour
- I have heard racial slurs as an adult
- I have used racial slurs as an adult
- I don’t watch films or television dramas featuring people of colour
- I don’t listen to music made by people of colour
- I don’t read books written by people of colour
- I don’t have friends of colour
- I have not had an intimate relationship with a person of colour
- My neighbourhood now does not include people of colour
- I have not donated money or time to an organisation primarily benefiting people of colour
- I do not challenge racist statements made by other white people
And so on. That is 20 questions, off the top of my head, no doubt influenced by my own experience. For what it’s worth, I would tick 12 of those 20 questions.
So why does this even matter? In my view, to challenge our own racism we need to break it down. This is not to minimise the nature or impact of racism, or to enable people to say ‘I’m only a little bit racist so that’s OK’. It is to help us figure out what we can tackle, and how, in the lifelong project of combating our own racism.
Most of us white people don’t want to be racist, do we? Maybe younger white people really aren’t racist. But I’m in my 50s, and I remember using racial slurs as a child, in the context of a playground game; I remember family members using racial slurs, to describe a colour or people who were tight with money. I don’t remember using, or hearing anyone use, racial slurs directed at actual people when I was a child (though it seems likely that this is a fault of my memory or of my childish comprehension, given how many of those I’ve heard as an adult). I could, then, argue that these childhood experiences represent a kind of innocuous racism, because it was ‘only’ a game or ‘only’ an analogy. But there is no innocuous racism. Racism is not ‘only’ anything. Racism is pervasive, it runs through our lives and our society like heroin through veins. And it is these kinds of childhood experiences of being racist that build implicit preferences and so contribute to my current rating of ‘a moderate automatic preference’ for white people over people of colour.
So, I am racist. Really quite racist. Not the worst kind of racist – I’m no white supremacist – but I am racist. Racist enough to need to do something about it. And actually I’ve known this for a long time. Around 30 years ago I read two excellent books by Peter Fryer: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984 – 2nd edn 2010) and Black People in the British Empire (1988), which opened my eyes to some aspects of racism. Ten or so years later I was glued to the television series White Tribe by Darcus Howe. I have always read books by authors of colour. I’m looking forward to seeing Black Panther – and I’ve just read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s insightful book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.
So far, so self-congratulatory. But there is also a great deal that I haven’t done. Far more, in fact, than what I have done. I don’t need to do much, because I’m white, which means that racism doesn’t visibly and audibly affect me in my day-to-day life. My own racism is invisible and inaudible to me unless I make a considerable effort to see and hear it. But it does affect others.
Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I had just done some shopping in a supermarket in south-east London and was pushing my trolley out through the exit doors. Four young men came round the corner towards me, bouncy, loud, high-fiving. Slightly startled, I clutched my handbag to my chest. They passed me, two on each side, and I saw their faces. They looked so hurt. In my mind, I reacted as I did because they were active loud young men. I think they saw a racist reaction because I am white and they were black. Implicit preferences are known to predict behaviour, so my Project Implicit result suggests that they are right, not me.
I studied psychology for my first degree and I am well aware that we do not know ourselves as well as we like to think. The more I reflect on those young men, the more I realise they taught me a valuable lesson. They helped me to see my racism. I am so sorry that I hurt them in the process. Perhaps you’re feeling the impulse to leap to my defence in the comments. No need – I know it wasn’t intentional and that is the whole point. For sure I am not intentionally racist, but that doesn’t mean I am not racist. I am racist. Not very racist – but not a little bit racist, either.
So here’s how racist I am: I am moderately racist. After a considerable amount of thought, and some investigation, that seems to fit. It’s a bit like being moderately privileged (I scored 49 out of 100 on that test). It explains why I sometimes feel anxious when I’m introduced to new people of colour, in case I say or do something to offend them – because, you know, however much I don’t want to, I really might. I don’t feel the same anxiety when I’m introduced to new white people and that’s part of my privilege. But while I can’t do much about my level of privilege, I believe I can confront and change the level of my own racism. I’ve been working on this, over the last couple of years, in various ways such as: reading more work by writers of colour, reading and writing about Indigenous research methods and ethics, and initiating conversations about racism with other white people. I still have a very, very long way to go. I doubt I will ever reach a point when I can safely conclude that I am not racist. But I think that younger people may, and I hope that the work I am doing now, minute in scope though it is, will form a tiny part of the foundation on which future generations will build a better, fairer world.
I wish there were more humans like you, Helen, who reflect honestly rather than deflect.
This was such an edifying post. I remember feeling that hurt you speak of on behalf of my son who spent vacations with his father who lives in Florida. He was in his teens at the time, and very clean-cut, friendly and goodhearted. (He’s still friendly and goodhearted, but he sports dreadlocks now which some people probably associate with fierceness.) Anyway, he was riding his bicycle along the path in his father’s gated community and cheerfully greeted an older white woman in the typical island way: “Good morning!” as he approached her. Rich said the woman started and looked so terrified that he felt sorry for her. He kept on riding because he thought she’d probably faint or scream if he stopped to speak to her. I felt so very hurt for him. I think that fear lies at the bottom of many of our negative reactions. I say “our” because we all react to perceived threats in one way or another. I react that way to young men my knee-jerk reaction perceives as “ruffians”, and not because of any racial identity some of them might share with me. (I would be foolish to ignore self-protective impulses, given the state of crime in my country.)
Awareness, self-interrogation–we all need them. I identify as black, despite my mixed heritage (with apologies to my non-black progenitors), because that is the way the world perceives me. And in my very cosmopolitan country where most of the major races are well represented, I have grown up hearing racist epithets against one group or another, and I too have been guilty of thinking them and using them. As I grow in self-awareness I try to pull myself up short when I find myself doing this, and to speak up when I hear others doing it.
We’re all in this humanity thing together, and we are not each other’s enemies. While we fight among ourselves the true enemies of humanity are getting away with literal murder.
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Thank you, Liane, for your thoughtful comment. I guess you’re right that we all need awareness and self-interrogation. Surely that means the time for deflecting is past. I also agree that we’re all in this together. Developing awareness and self-interrogation seems to be a lifelong project. I know I have a long way to go; I guess humanity as a whole does too. On the plus side, we are making progress in some areas; there’s no room for complacency, but it is heartening to see improvements, albeit slow and partial ones.
This might merit the mark of ‘outrageous honesty’. Thanks for the wonderful and enlightening write-up.
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Thank you for ‘outrageous honesty’ – I’ll take that!
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I think if your only issue is implicit biases and they came from the social constructs of racial bias you can learn about common implicit bias and examine your own behaviour. Use what you know to identify your biases. Then work against them. Interact with pic as equals and don’t get hung up on their skin colour. It’s going to help your world view and if you offended them you can apologise. You can help pic too.
I believe you CAN reach the point where you honestly say to yourself you’re not racist. I believe in you.
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Catherine, thank you for your kind comment, it means a lot. I will keep trying.