What can mothers do?

Throughout patriarchy, men have petted and patronised wives and mothers, claiming that our power as queens of the hearth and heart gave us all the say we needed over the doings of men… We’ve heard that so many times, haven’t we?

Not only did this totally hide the reality for women who were not married, it was clearly false (even married women often had very little say over anything of important) and in any event it completely missed the point because it offered the wrong kind of power. The dignity of being treated as full human beings in our own right cannot be compared with the derivative “power” that comes with docile and submissive loyalty as an adjunct of Man. However, like many powerful myths, there is a grain of truth.

If not as wives, then certainly as mothers – especially as feminist mothers living the examined life – we really do have a kind of power. We really can influence our children either towards or away from repeating the harmful patterns of their fathers.

What can mothers do?

I’d like to throw this post open now, and hear what mothers and daughters have got to say about it. Let’s think about ways that we or our own parents have subtly (or not so subtly) perpetuated divisions, prejudices and stereotypes. Let’s think about ways that we can do better, ways that we can move on and help our children to break free of those mistakes. Let’s help each other to do right by the next generation.

I’ll start. Then it’s your turn.

[Dark Daughta, I’m going to stay on this.]

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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.