I’ve found social media a pretty difficult place to be the past few weeks. A lot of it is to do with the fact that I feel a lot of guilt, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’d grown complacently sure that my mind was as expanded as it was ever going to get, that I knew all there was to know about institutional racism and its affects. I was wrong.
I’m a little hesitant even writing this. I do not want to dilute or speak over the voices of people of colour; they are who we should be listening to right now.
So, if you want advice on how to do better, go ahead and read what a BAME person has to say on the matter. They’re far more equipped to tell you than I am.
The only thing white people should really be doing at this point is turning the scalpel inwards. But I think a lot of us are feeling a shame that we would sooner bury than reflect on. To varying degrees, all white people enable and participate in racism, and it’s worth sitting with this difficult truth long enough to understand how.
I am racist. I was brought up in a racist environment. And as much as I was shaped by this environment, I also contributed to it. I come from a lot of privilege; I am white, middle class, I went to a private school and to an affluent university in South West England.
The school I went to, perhaps because it placed so much emphasis on academic excellence, was a nasty, competitive place to be. There was a huge amount of judgement about appearance generally, with racism and fatphobia often working their way in to these conversations.
Racial slurs in jokes were commonplace; I grew up both enjoying and employing them. I remember drawing lines in that sand about the types of people I was attracted to on the basis of their ethnicity and skin colour. At my school, people of colour were routinely fetishized because of their skin, that or dismissed as undesirable because of it.
Gradually (extremely gradually) I became more aware of racism and its affects. During university I started to learn (though mostly through the sterile lens of critical theory) about the systemic, institutional racism in this country. I began to stop being outwardly racist, though I still harboured so many harmful stereotypes. I gradually became uncomfortable when other people were racist around me (which they frequently were, in my three years at Exeter, racist incidents among students made the national news more than once) but even then, I barely said a word.
I didn’t (and still don’t) call people out on their own racism even close to enough. I still consider it an option, and this is a problem. There are still many, many things that I am blind to. This is in part because I do not feel racism’s affects, but it is, truthfully, because of a lack interest in wanting to learn more.
And of everything that went down at school, I don’t remember a whole lot. I wasn’t living through it, and as far as I was concerned it didn’t really affect me. Indeed, it is only in the past weeks that the few uncomfortable memories I do have, have floated back.
Yet if you asked any one of my BAME peers they’d no doubt be able to describe their own experience of school in precise, excruciating detail.
We are all accountable for our own words and choices. Yet it is also a fact that the environment I grew up in showed me that a racist was a perfectly acceptable thing to be. Before the eruption over the death of George Floyd, I’d never bothered to really confront the more overt racism that I participated in when I was younger. It was just an uncomfortable reality that I felt I’d grown out of, and that I hoped no one else would remember either.
And I know I’m not the only one. Many of the people that I went to school with around that time are now posting their black squares in solidarity, pledging their support for BLM. And I’m not about to get cynical and angry about this, not least because I’m in damn well no position to. But I understand (as much as I can) why POC feel insulted by it, furious even.
But it is my personal hope that those same people are using this time to reflect on the past, to feel some measure of guilt about the racism they’ve perpetuated. I feel deeply sorry for my own hand in doing so, though I know being sorry means nothing if it does not also mean doing better.
I feel rather weak and ineffectual writing this, and I do worry it’ll come off as some kind of virtual signalling. My hope is really that a white person who grew up like I did might see this, that it might encourage them to confront difficult truths about their past and take the first steps towards change. Because we so desperately need to be receptive to the words of people of colour when they plead with us to do better, when they tell us how far we have to go.
And you can only do that by first asking yourself the question how much of this is inside me?