Confronting racism: what not to do

I’ve just finished reading Every Light in The House Burning, by Andrea Levy* and the scene from which the excerpt below is taken really struck me.

[* Which is excellent in so many different ways – I will definitely be reading more of Levy very soon! My further comments here.]

To give you some background, the book is based in London with this scene taking place in, I guess, the 1970s. The narrator Angela is the young est daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and the scene follows an incident at Sunday school where a white boy, Michael, has said some nasty, racist things about Angela and the only other black girl there, Ada. This is the reaction of the vicar when the incident is reported to him.

“Now, Miss Thompson has been telling me some very distressing things,” the vicar began. My heart began to thump.
“She has told me that someone has been calling names. We don’t have people calling names in the house of God. Come out to the front…” I waited for Michael’s name to be called. Now, I thought, God will show him how wrong he is, how bad he is to hate difference. But the vicar said, “Ada and Angela.”
At first I didn’t move, I thought he’d made a mistake.
“Come on out to the front,” the vicar said, beckoning us. Sonia pushed me and I stood up and walked to the front. So did Ada, slowly. The vicar put his arm around me and Ada. Ada held her head firmly on her chest. I looked up around me and saw Michael grinning. Then I dropped my head too.
“Now Ada and Angela and their families are coloured, but that does make them any different to you or me. We are all God’s children and in the sight of God, everyone is equal. Now we will sing the chorus together.” The vicar held on tight to me so I couldn’t’ go back to my seat. Then he began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.”
And everyone joined in…
When the chorus was finished the vicar patted us each on the head. Then he let us go.

Look at what the vicar is doing.

  • He is focussing not on the wrongdoer, Michael, but on the wronged, Ada and Angela – thereby increasing their embarrassment and ordeal and letting him go unnamed and unshamed.
  • He hugs the black girls pointedly, and against their will, using them to prove his own non-racist credentials.
  • Then he erases their difference by pretending that they are “no different to you or me” – colourblindness.
  • Finally, he gives the two girls a pat on the head, as if he is their benefactor, and sends them on his way – patronising.

The result – Angela and Ada were excruciated, Michael was grinning.

It just seems to me that this is such a useful demonstration of what white people do wrong when it comes to addressing racism.

The perpetrator is not named; difference is highlighted, but only so that we can better erase it and not so that we can make an effort to accept it or understand what it means; we try and befriend people of colour to use as shields, as incontrovertible evidence of our own good intent; and then we expect cookies.

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12 Responses

  1. Interesting. Does the narrator or author seem to understand the problems in the vicar’s actions? Or is the reader, if white, likely to understand what’s going on? I know you understand, but you’re currently in the thick of the subject, so you’re more aware than the average white reader would be. Just wondering about the point of view in the novel.

  2. Interesting question.

    Levy clearly gets it. The narrator does not analyse or spell it out in the way I have done, but I can’t imagine that “Angela” doesn’t get it, and certainly even as a child she knew that what the vicar should have done was to call Michael up and tell him off, instead of calling her and Ada up and doing an embarrassing hug-the-black-kids song and dance routine.

    As for the average white reader – I don’t think Levy is writing specifically for a white audience, writing to make points or convert anyone. I think she is assuming that if you don’t get it you won’t get it.

    (Having said that it *is* very clear that the vicar’s way of dealing with Michael’s racism makes Ada and Angela feel worse, not better, and that it leaves no impression at all on Michael. So you don’t have to be an expert to spot that the vicar has acted ineffectively (at best) and to start thinking about what would have been better e.g. calling Michael up to the front and telling him (and everyone else) that his behaviour was wrong and would not be tolerated.)

  3. I must read this book. I loved her first, Small Country. One for the booklist perhaps?

  4. Ignore that last comment, I’m an idiot! It’s on the booklist AND I got the name wrong…duh!

  5. Erika, my reading of the article is that the journalist is “othering” the African women. For example, look at this excerpt:

    “As they paint each other’s bodies and make bold decisions about their outfits(all without the aid of mirrors), it seems that the only thing that motivates them is the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off to other members of the tribe.”

    So in my opinion, the article and photos here are quite disrespectful. Not to say that respectful treatments are impossible, but this is NOT it.

    What do you think about it??

  6. Hello you two

    I read that article too
    And this one (Telegraph)

    The images are undeniably striking and inspiring.

    But I did feel distinctly uncomfortable with the way those images are being used, touted as a “primitive” version of Western fashion and making the women and men pictures into exotica, rather than people, suggesting that “they” dress themselves up “for no apparent reason” (in 12 research trips the photographer couldn’t have asked or found out what moves these people to dress up like this? whether it is actually, rather than only apparently, a whim or whether there is some deeper cultural significance or what?)

    And some of the articles / comments seemed to be including the *people* in their amazement at how stunning “nature” can be, with the inference that the people in the pictures are “part of nature” in a way that we, the readers, are not.

    As SW says, I guess it all comes down to Othering.

  7. Yes, I felt a little uncomfortable with the comments following this article. It struck me as white middle class English people talking about how beautiful these people were in the same way male artists always go on about women, hoe beautiful they are etc

  8. That’s a good parallel, Erika.

    Maia, I loved the photos, too. But without a respectful narrative, I felt like a voyeur, unfortunately.

  9. “But without a respectful narrative, I felt like a voyeur”

    Bingo. That’s how I felt too.

  10. I have a question that occurred to me after I read this post.. And that is: when there’s any case of racism (nonviolent, violent, sexually violent, etc.), should we identify the victim at all? Why or why not? My own personal answer is that we shouldn’t unless we absolutely need to (though I have no idea in what situation that would occur – perhaps wrongful imprisonment?) not only to battle shaming tactics, as mentioned above, and their effects – but because, just as rape is a crime against all women that helps to collectively keep us (politically, physically, etc.) incapacitated, is racism (of all stripes) a crime against all nonwhites that keeps them collectively (politically, physically, etc.) incapacitated?

    (And I’m new to the site, so hoi thar!)

  11. Hello there Reverence Lily – welcome 🙂

    In the UK there are laws to prevent victims from being named in certain cases (rape and child abuse are prime cases). That is more about protecting the victim from further trauma and/or encouraging the victim to report the crime without fear of their own name being dragged through the media rather than about focussing on the wrongdoing.

    I am interested in your idea that in responding to hate crimes the victims should not be in the picture * at all*.

    Clearly it is wrong to put the focus on the victim, and making the victim entirely anonymous / invisible takes that to its logical conclusion.

    A couple of provisos, though.

    One is that sometimes it wouldn’t make sense – you couldn’t discuss a racist attack on a public figure without naming the person, for example. The other is that taking the focus away from the victim in order to shine a light on the wrongdoing should not be done in a way that silences or ignores the victim. The voice and perspective of the person attacked is important because listening to that voice may be what is needed for effective change, and also because having some form of access to the victim’s perspective is the only way for many people to experience empathy, without which it is all too easy for the object of the attack to become just that – an object, a non-person.

    Hmm. Thought-provoking.

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