In honour of the brilliant article and subsequent book by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, I wanted to explore why, as a white person myself, I am talking to white people about race.
It is not the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about race. It is not the job of people of colour to fix racism. It is especially exhausting when people of colour are faced with resistance to the idea that racism exists, and to the wide range of denial, fragility and distancing that often happens when many white people encounter discussion of racism. Through my work with the BAMEed Network, I often find myself being challenged by white people about racism or in more amenable situations, asked by white people to help them understand why they find engaging with the concept of racism so difficult. I am on my own journey of understanding, regrettably probably often being clumsy and crass myself, through my own ignorance and learned bias. I will continue on that learning journey forever, of course. Interestingly, much of it involves unlearning. I feel that as a white person, I can work with other white people, where they are open to discussion, in ways that a person of colour might not find appropriate or worthwhile to engage.
The following are some examples of the terms and concepts that many white people find difficult when talking about race and which I have often found myself engaged in discussion about.
The idea of race itself is seen by some as racist
For many white people, the mere mention of the concept of race incites the he-who-must-not-be-named kind of terror you might see at Hogwarts when Harry Potter says ‘Voldemort’ out loud for the first time. There’s a kind of superstition that just saying it out loud is going to result in letting an evil spirit escape from a jar.
Many people believe that talking about race is in itself racist. I believe this may be because the idea of race is perceived as separating people into crude groups based on colour and broadly-defined physical and/or ‘cultural’ characteristics and that this is somehow disrespectful and better ignored in the way a baby ‘hides’ by putting her hands over her eyes. It may also be linked to the idea that grouping people in this way is somehow tantamount to ignoring the personal experience, the individual and the uniqueness of the person. In a way, this is exactly why it is important to acknowledge race and racism, as although there are no clear biological grounds for race, it is absolutely the case that there has been a centuries-long effort to promote the idea of superiority of some so-called races over others. Throughout recent human history, there has been a huge effort to try to ‘prove’ that whiteness is the embodiment of superiority genetically, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of rights to power. This is not just relegated to the past, there are some quite prominent self-appointed education experts whose books, blogs and news items you probably have read, and whose talks you have been to, that are fans of eugenics. I kid you not.
Have you ever asked a white person what their race is? Ironically, most white people don’t acknowledge themselves as belonging to a race. Somehow, white is not a race, it just ‘is’. Angela Saini explores this and more in her fantastically detailed, descriptive and compelling book, Superior. Through these efforts to convince us of the purity of whiteness and the inferiority of Blackness, white people have been able to accept the horrific mass incarceration and genocide that was enacted through colonialism and slavery.
What is important therefore, is that race exists insofar as it is a social construct through which people are discriminated against both explicitly and implicitly, through blatant acts of racist abuse, but also through systemic, institutional, and inherent structures which act to exclude, oppress and limit people of colour. It is important to get to grips with this and accept this as fact to get anywhere when engaging with race and racism.
Saying ‘I don’t see race’
One way to try to distance ourselves as white people from appearing racist, is to say that we don’t see race and that we are ‘colourblind’. Even if the intention is considered to be good by the person uttering this phrase, this actually serves to ignore the very real ways that racism has existed throughout history and how it continues to exist today – both systemically and for individuals in daily interactions. By saying you don’t see race, you are part of the problem rather than being part of a solution. By saying you don’t see colour or race, you are also acting to erase a person of colour’s lived experience and identity. Racism, both the interpersonal kind and the systemic kind, isn’t triggered by the visual cue of someone’s skin colour. Racism is about the social value we assign to people and their actions based on their physical attributes that have over time been ascribed with a number of assumptions. Studies have shown that even actually physically blind people can be racist, drawing on other cues to create an understanding of someone’s racial identity.
Not all white people…
Anyone who has tried to engage with discussion about feminist issues will have probably heard the rebuttal “not all men…” Similarly, white people will often say that other people might do or think these things, but not all white people i.e. not this white person…This is not helpful, but instead comes from a need to distance ourselves from blame or being implicated. A fragile white view of racism is that it is associated with bad people committing racist acts, rather than the tapestry of complex power relations woven over time that it is. As a white person, I am learning to recognise and acknowledge both my own inherent bias and the systemic and institutional racism which surrounds me. Once you start to see it, you can’t unsee it, believe me. And when you truly accept racism as real, you can see it in yourself without needing to be defensive or feel blame. It is learned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It can be unlearned, but first it has to be acknowledged. Again, if the feminism analogy is helpful, as a woman I have to acknowledge my own learned confusion of standards to which I hold myself which are entirely rooted in patriarchal and sexist expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a professional person and so on.
At the last BAMEed conference, one of our speakers said in his opening few sentences, “I don’t like the term white privilege, but I know I have it”. The concept of privilege can trigger such discomfort and gets people tying themselves in knots as it often forces us to acknowledge race, class and gender all at once. White people who might have grown up in underprivileged working class families can become outraged trying to deny that they have enjoyed greater access and privilege than a person of colour, as if it’s some neat spectrum or Top Trumps points system. If you can learn about and accept the roots and pervasive narrative of systemic and institutional racism, you will understand what the concept of white privilege is all about. Of course there is an interplay of gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, and so on, but it can be helpful to think about privilege in terms of a place in a queue. There are many circumstances in life where you as a white person will get a place nearer the front of the queue simply because your whiteness affords you the status of seeming more credible, appearing more ‘fitting’, considered better educated or better spoken to those that grant access to the particular destination you are queuing for. Privilege is about gaining access to things that you may not have earned and that are granted to you based on a series of assumptions. Of course you earned your degree, and you have worked hard, but there are others in the queue that worked just as hard, got a better grade even, and yet you are further up towards the front.
Power to the people
Racism, whiteness and privilege are all about power and who holds this power. There are power relations in all aspects of human interaction and relationships – if you look carefully and honestly you will see that this includes power relations between you and your employers, that exist between you and your students, it’s even there in the relationship you have with your life partner. You can’t solve power imbalance or the anxiety you might feel when power is unfairly wielded over you, by pretending it isn’t there. Nor can you shift that power imbalance with your partner or your employer or the state by just saying you will be nice to each other. It needs to be examined, understood historically and contextually – and acknowledged. It also needs to be addressed head on. This can be through dialogue, it can be through practical measures like policies or laws, but it must be done for the power imbalance to be dismantled and one day for power to be fairly re-distributed.
If you’re interested in joining the BAMEed Network and working with some fantastic colleagues towards a more equitable education sector, you will be warmly welcomed, whatever your background and experience. If you’re interested in reading more about race and racism you might find the ideas below useful. And if you want to talk some more, you know where to find me.
DiAngelo, R (2018) ‘Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story’, (You Tube)
DiAngelo, R (2018), ‘Deconstructing white fragility’ (You Tube)
Eddo-Lodge, R (2017) Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (Guardian article)
Eddo-Lodge, R (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (book)
Hirsch, A (2019) ‘Expecting me to explain racism is exploitative – that’s not my job’, (Guardian article)
Saini, A (2019) Superior : The Return of Race Science (book)
The BAMEed Network resources page
The Royal Society (2015) ‘Understanding Unconscious Bias’ (You Tube)
McIntosh, P (1988) White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack