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.

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3 Responses

  1. Well, wow. Two of my favourite bloggers in the same place!

    Really, well done setting this up. I don’t know whether I’ll be contributing much, because as I’ve said before I never really know what to say on the subject, as I feel I just don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’ll certainly keep up with the discussions here.

    Good luck with it xx

  2. Hi Debs. Glad you’ll be coming by here! And remember if you live in white dominated, male supremacy (as we all do) then you know enough. It’s just a matter of becoming conscious. And that’s the reason we’re here. — secondwaver

  3. Excellent article Maia. I wonder a lot about the ways racism is different in the UK, about how white supremacy operates here, and about how if there are differences between this system and the US system then maybe we need to alter our response a bit to better challenge it?

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