Fearing people of colour

One of the reasons it is so hard for a white person to get started on any discourse about race is that we are afraid.

Not just generically afraid that we might say something stupid and get called a racist, or that we might discover to our dismay that we actually are racist – although we are afraid of that too.

But we are specifically afraid –

No, *I* have been specifically afraid – of how women of colour will react to my words. What am I afraid of? That someone will physically reach through my screen and literally do violence to me? No. But someone might be mean to me. Someone might see my raw and exposed defects and use them against me, to beat me over the head and make me feel bad. Someone might get angry with me. Not just “someone”. A person of colour. A woman of colour.

We even went so far as to put a seemingly light-hearted note in our comment policy asking people of colour to be gentle with us (and with our commentariat) – because we so feared what rage they might otherwise express and how difficult that would make it for us to do what we need to do here.

I thank Dark Daughta (here, here) for pointing out this mistake. Oh, and guess what? She didn’t rage at us, she didn’t beat us over the head. Because she isn’t the dark monster that we are so afraid to unleash – she is a decent, wise human being.

Why are we so afraid of women of colour? Because we know that for too long white has oppressed black, we know that for too long our race has deserved the rage of other races. There is a reason that some point to examples of countries where black people have lashed out against former white rulers as evidence that we should be afraid. And, based on the long-held view – imposed and created and perpetuated by white supremacy and white supremacists – that people of the same race should stick together, looking after their own, this is a perfectly reasonable attitude to take. If black people have been oppressed by white people – and if black people should stick together and look after their own just as white people have always done – why wouldn’t they take any opportunity to get back at the oppressors?

Well, that view is wrong. That view is one of the many that we here on white noise want to recognise and abandon. The idea that people of colour are just itching to take pot shots at us white folks is harmful and mistaken. If we are open, if we listen, if we are honest, if we are in good faith, then we will not face anger.

There is no reason to be afraid.

White oppression of non-white people and white non-acceptance of non-white people has made it difficult for people of colour to trust us. But we have no cause to distrust people of colour. What have they ever done to earn distrust?

It’s time to put away fear, take courage, and put the next foot forward.

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What is institutional racism?

The first time I ever heard the expression “institutional racism” was in connection with the Stephen Lawrence report back in 1999.

(You can read the report in full here, the chapter on racism is here.)

At the time, the expression struck me as pretty stupid. How can an institution be racist? Institutions aren’t racist, people are. If we are saying that the people who set up the institution, that the people who now operate it and act within it are racist that’s one thing. But people are often at pains to point out that (apart from “a few bad apples”, cough) the individual police officers are not being accused of racism, only the force as a whole. But “the force” does not have a mind of its own. It is something that people set up, to structure how people will act to achieve objectives defined by people.

Here is how the inquiry report explained its use of the concept of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

(The report itself goes into quite some detail about what the phrase denotes, and what various academics and others understand by the term.)

In the context of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the collective failures identified included the refusal of the investigating officers to appreciate the relevance of the victims’ race – they would not accept that the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a racist murder, refused even to take the possibility seriously, and rejected the idea that the murder was purely a racist attack even during the inquiry six years later. The police force also sidelined and failed to take seriously the evidence of the key witness, Duwayne Brooks, who was also attacked – he named the five suspects but the police did not arrest them until two weeks later when it was too late because evidence had been destroyed, alibis had been concocted, witnesses intimidated. Mrs Lawrence (Stephen’s mother) repeatedly described the behaviour of the police officers generally as “patronising”, and believed that they acted this way because she was black (see here).

I could talk now about whether every single police officer who held unwitting prejudices, acted on racial stereotypes or who allowed their own ignorance or thoughtlessness to get in the way of carrying out their very important public functions properly and fairly is in fact “racist”, as opposed to merely being part of an institutionally racist institution… would there be any point? It was hard enough getting the Met to accept that they were guilty of institutional racism, never mind getting them accept that a huge proportion of their officers were individually (albeit unwittingly) racist. Does the distinction between calling it institutional and calling it individual make a difference anyway, as long as the police respond appropriately with training, changes to policies and practices, and whatever else it takes?

Here I’m going to go back to that Clare Xanthos article I mentioned the other day, because she puts this nicely. She says, after citing a few statistics on race disadvantage:

… most British policy reports and newspapers simply identify “institutional racism” as the culprit for these discrimination statistics, whilst overlooking the reality that behind the shadowy concept of institutional racism are individual acts of hidden racism.

If institutional racism is really a mask for individual racism on a grand scale, isn’t it important that we recognise and expose that fact? If institutional racism merely means that a lot of people are racist together, reinforcing and perpetuating one another’s racism, doesn’t it matter all the more that we identify that fact?

We are all shaped, whether consciously or not, by the institutions within which we act – the family, the school, the workplace… society and all its components. Is it right to criticise the individuals, or only the institutions? I don’t want to go blaming otherwise well-meaning people for being unwittingly racist or sexist or anything-else-ist because I know that the context means a lot and I believe that people who are unaware of that context cannot be expected to break away from it singlehandedly, cannot be blamed for believing what they are taught. Equally, I know that if I use labels like “racist” for individuals who consider themselves well-meaning and perhaps even progressive and enlightened, many of them would take it has blaming, shaming, a guilt trip, unfair, whatever. That isn’t where I want to go.

But on the other hand, I do not believe that the fact of conditioning removes our personal responsibility for what we do as a result.

If a person is taught to believe that men are from Mars and women from Venus, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that early indoctrination. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a marriage counsellor. Equally, if a person is taught or conditioned to consider brown people as potentially suspect until proven otherwise, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that conditioning. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a police officer.

Does it help if we call these people sexists or racists and “accuse” them of having unexamined privilege? Is it better to be pragmatic and bring people along, or to speak unpalatable truths and drive them away?

Either way, it seems that where we have got to is that “institutional racism” is an expression used by pragmatists when faced with an otherwise well-meaning institution that is riddled with unexamined, unwitting individual racism. And it is an approach that might even work. This BBC article gives the transcript of a discussion within the 1999 inquiry where the Met were trying to say that the term “institutional racism” was not appropriate; this 2003 Guardian article provides a contrast in which the Met is owning its ongoing institutional racism, talking about what it is doing to mitigate the problem, and committing to do more.

So maybe pragmatism works.

Why am I, a white person, standing against racism?

I had a plan for today’s post, but it will have to wait because I have some important listening to do, and then I have a question to ask myself.

In “White Women and Self-Obsession“, Allecto of Gorgon Poisons writes about white feminists “who have proposed self-flagellation as their method of combating racism”. She says “it shocks me silly to see these women who should bloody well know better all race to stomp other women into the mud to get points for working on their white privilege”. And then she says: “‘Working’ on white-privilege by promoting guilt, self-flagellation, self-obsession, misdirection (blaming other white women) etc is doing shit all for the rights of people of colour.”

First let me admit that the background to this post of Allecto’s is hazy to me. I cannot possibly and don’t even try to keep up with the whole of the feminist blogosphere, so I guess I missed the blame/shame game being played out (complete with self-flagellation scoreboard) in some unpleasant blog war: I certainly don’t think I’ve seen it, although I have noticed a few white feminist bloggers start to examine white privilege of late which on the whole I think is a good thing*. Anyway. I don’t want to get into that – because it isn’t the point. The point is to listen to what Allecto is saying about what (some) white women do that is not productive, not helpful. I hope that we at white noise will be able to learn from her insights.

(* See also – “The Difference Between Self-Examination and Beating Oneself Up” by justicewalks on her blog, My Perspective.)

Now let me say that I am not interested in self-flagellation or guilt or blame. I am at least as self-obsessed as anyone else, perhaps more than some, but I don’t get my kicks from looking about for ways to feel bad or to make others feel bad. That doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally go down that road, or seem to, by mistake: but with Allecto’s warning ringing in my ears perhaps I will make that mistake less often and cross out self-indulgence in favour of constructive consciousness-raising.

In light of Allecto’s anger, I have to ask myself what I am doing, and why. If not out of that very negative kind of self-obsession, why do I care about opposing racism and working towards the end of white privilege?

Racism hurts everyone. It does not hurt white people as directly or as severely as it hurts people of colour, nothing like. But it does hurt us. It hurts us in our souls, in our integrity, and by cutting us off from people who might otherwise have had something valuable and meaningful to contribute to our lives, understanding and happiness. So I want to help raise consciousness among white people (including myself) about our privilege, about racism. Consciousness is not action, but it is a precondition for action. There can be no action without consciousness.

And, I have about 3 billion sisters out there. The vast majority of them think (or more accurately would, if pressed to give an opinion) that they have nothing in common with me and that I cannot even begin to comprehend their lived experience. They are right. Having the same body parts isn’t much, when it comes to things we might have in common. But – even without more than femaleness to share – there can still be a bond, there can be solidarity, there can be love. But there cannot be any bond where there is not trust: and there cannot be trust where there is inequality and oppression.

And, on a more personal level – as someone who cares deeply about justice and equality for women in the face of male privilege, I could not have self-respect if I left my own white privilege unexamined, if I did not care also about justice and equality for women of colour in the face of white privilege. (Of course, I have other privileges too – straight(ish) / able-bodied / middle-class / well-educated, to name just the obvious ones. My own circumstances just happen to make race issues more urgent, more relevant, more personal for me.)

So I don’t see this as fighting someone else’s battle.

This is my battle. For me: my integrity, my self-respect, and my chance (perhaps) to connect with a whole bunch of women for whom my inadvertent privileged behaviours might otherwise have been too hurtful and offensive for friendship. Yes: I want to become a better human being not just in the hope that other human beings I may come across in life may benefit, but in the certain knowledge that I and my daughter will benefit. That isn’t self-obsession, it is self-love.

I’m giving the final word to justicewalks:

Setting oneself free, and finding women who are willing to help one set herself free, is not self punishment. If it is painful, it is only because we have grown used to our bonds, and the air feels sharp against raw, shackle-bruised flesh, newly exposed to light and air.

Certainly not a game

Maia and I are putting a great deal of thought and energy into this project, and we welcome, as we said, discussions with feminists who are interested in moving toward truth and understanding, and toward justice. I hope and believe that’s what we’re all looking for.

We all read the same feminist blogs; we are listening to what is being said. 

We hope for honest and productive discussions, and we know they won’t be easy. Understood.

Poor visibility

One of the many reasons for my getting involved in the white noise project is that I am from the UK. Here, racism and white privilege happen in a very different cultural and historical context – not isolated from the rest of the world, but certainly different. And one of the things that I would like to explore is how white privilege works in Britain.

Some people will tell you that the UK is a more open society than many others, that race is less of an issue here than in other places – specifically, that it is less of an issue here than in the USA. After all, “we never had slavery” (coughs). I want to explore how far that is truth, and how far only impression. I want to examine the ways in which the experiences of people of colour may differ here, and to find ways of dealing with white privilege and racism that will work in a specifically British context.

Starting with the first question: is British “tolerance” myth or reality?

The sheer amount of extreme racist hate crime that I hear about in the USA just seems unthinkable here. Perhaps I am being naive about that. But certainly the idea of college boys tossing nooses around the place and expecting that they will be able to brazen it out as “just a joke” (see this Times article from last October and this College Racism Roundup on Vox ex Machina) is sickening to any right-thinking person – but in Britain it is more than shocking because nobody thinks that such a thing might ever happen here. We’re too “tolerant”, right?

Clare Xanthos said in this article here:

In the UK, there is an ideology of assimilation, where there is the utmost pressure to blend into the white mainstream; there is an emphasis on not noticing difference, a “we’re all the same” ethos. It could also be argued that as far as the majority of British whites are concerned, racism is a thing that happened in “the olden days.” For the most part, the British media portray the UK as a place where blacks and whites live and work, side by side in harmony; in British soap operas, blacks integrate with whites in predominantly white settings with remarkably little reference to race.

I don’t have any objective research to hand that will tell me clearly whether the scale of racist hate crime really is greater in the USA, but I can certainly tell you that Britain is not “tolerant” of racial difference. We’re just too polite, on the whole, to say so in public: the famous British manners. So we pretend it isn’t there, the elephant in the room. We watch television where the black people act just like white people and the white people don’t even notice that there is a difference in skin-colour – and we never ask whether life is really like that.

As a result, racism is less visible here. There are fewer people ready to admit that racism even happens – at least, if it does happen then it’s inadvertant, incidental, institutional. Outside the BNP, there aren’t really any British racists left. Not proper ones. The real problem that people of colour face here is not white privilege and it is certainly not racism. We name it instead as poverty, as xenophobia, as misunderstanding.

Well, perhaps there is a grain of truth in some of these stories. But meanwhile light-skinned people are still forming snap judgements about darker-skinned people based entirely on their skin, their funny clothes, or their foreign-sounding name. There is an unspoken collusion between white people to maintain white privilege, to let people of colour get into the club only if they play by the (white) club rules.

Clare Xanthos again:

Whites may have racist emotional reactions to blacks, and then personalize their racism by attributing their unease to some factor other than race, often blaming the black individual for some personal failing. Whites also often systematically misinterpret blacks’ behavior in negative terms. Thus while they might regard an outspoken white person as an “extrovert,” they may perhaps label a similar black individual as “aggressive”; while a white patient may be diagnosed with depression, a black presenting objectively similar symptoms might be diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is also noticeable that in employment situations, blacks are expected to be upbeat and bouncy continuously, or face criticism, whereas whites for the most part, are allowed to be themselves.

Is it better to be stop harping on about racism and hope it goes away? If we just keep quiet about why race matters, will our children grow up thinking that it doesn’t in fact matter at all? Xanthos says not, and I agree. Not only is this the stuff of fantasyland, the silence is harmful in itself, because it allows racism to continue unchecked – adding insult to injury by preventing the victims from naming their oppression.

And that’s another reason why I am so happy about the white noise project. It gives me a chance, at last, to stop pretending that race is not an issue in my country. It gives me a chance to escape into a place where mentioning race is not taboo. How liberating. How refreshing. How satisfying. How nice.

Welcome to white noise!

First, BIG thanks to Maia for the idea of this blog as a place where white radical feminists can talk about our white privilege and its implications (oppression and racism). As radical feminists, we are in a great position to do this work, since race privilege/race oppression fits neatly into the corresponding template of sex privilege/sex oppression that we strive so fiercely to suvbert and usurp. There are many white-privileged feminists who have paved the way for us, but we haven’t been attending to them, in a focused way, as we have needed to. Hence, this space.

When women of color have a problem with Gloria Steinem’s recent op-ed, which white feminists are praising, it highlights the huge divide among us, among feminists. Though this divide has been largely invisible to white women, no highlighting is needed for women of color, because they say they have been experiencing it almost every time they interact with us–white feminists. This (I think) is why some have started identifying as womanists, and not feminists.

I hope that we will be able to come to a more accurate understanding of what’s happening among us, and in the larger world, too, insofar as our privilege goes–and its flip side, oppression. Understanding should lead to action. We already understand how power works; we can support each other as we move toward justice.

So, let’s talk!

Introducing white noise

Secondwaver and I (Maia) decided to set up this site a couple of days ago, and all of a sudden – here it is!

We’re hoping to make this a discussion space and a place where feminist writers or bloggers from all over the world can share their thoughts and experiences. Please, get in touch if you feel that you have some suggestions, ideas, writing or anything else to offer. There is a contact form on the About page if you wish to contact us privately.

Meanwhile, watch this space. Real blogging will start soon!