No-one I know wants to be called a racist. Do you?
All my White friends would be horrified by the accusation. We would all sign up to a ‘progressive’ set of values that would say diversity is ‘a good thing’ and racial discrimination is a ‘bad thing’. We are all horrified by the killing of George Floyd and think the perpetrators should be punished for their crime. And I don’t think any of my White friends would look at me and describe me as a racist – probably the opposite.
In her 2019 book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo suggests that the working definition of a racist in most people’s minds after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s would run something like this:
“A racist is someone who has a conscious dislike of people based on race and is intentionally mean to them”.
On the basis of this definition, I am not a racist and neither are my White friends. And yet…
I can’t see what I can’t see
The problem is, as DiAngelo quoting J. Kehaulani Kauanui, points out – “racism is not an event (like the death of George Floyd), it’s a system” into which I was born, have grown up in and that has benefitted me enormously.
As a White person growing up in the UK, I see the world from the perspective of my ‘hilltop’. That hilltop is made up of all kinds of influences and experiences over the 60 years of my life, some conscious influences, many unconscious. It’s been like the air I breathe – something I take for granted, something that I can’t see, containing, for me, what it takes to sustain life. Culture is like that. We can’t see what we can’t see, but we breath it in, live in it, benefit from it, every day, without thinking.
The cultural air I’ve been breathing for 60 years has included the Black & White Minstrel Show, Golliwogs on Jam Jars and Little Black Sambo books at school. It has been growing up sublimally taking in images of people with White skin in all walks of life, in every advert, in every TV drama, in every movie.
Teachers, bosses, authority figures, schoolmates, all with White skin, White worldviews, telling Whitewashed histories of our nation’s past, standing on their own White hilltops, sublimally breathing in and breathing out messages of White supremacy. I didn’t need to search hard for role models – they were in the air I breathed. I never even thought about it or identified as White. I was simply ‘normal’.
It’s not that I didn’t encounter Black people. It’s hard to grow up in the poorer areas of South and East London and not encounter other cultures. But, aged 12-13, as I began to notice girls, I remember lamenting that there were few White girls of my age to go out with in my church (where did I get the idea I couldn’t date a Black girl?).
So I was comfortable, breathing my White cultural air. But what if the collective outbreath of my White culture was creating a polluting cloud for others who were not White? What if it contained a deadly infection that, while I remained asymptomatic, could literally take their breath away?
But it was easy to treat the occasional death of a Black man in custody, or over-hearing a racist slur spoken to a Black person, as isolated, unfortunate incidents and settle back into my comfortable White life, preferring not to see them for what they were – the tip of the iceberg. How many of us who are White have been shocked at the number of stories that have surfaced recently from Black friends we have known for many years, that start to give us a sense of what’s below the waterline?
“Can’t you see we’re choking?!”
Perhaps in George Floyd’s death, and in his last words, many Black people have found the words to express what they, their parents, their grandparents and their great grandparents (who may well have been slaves) have felt all their lives: “I can’t breathe!” “Can’t you see we’re choking?!”
Perhaps they can’t bear any longer the sight of heroes of the British Empire lofted high on plinths and columns, feted for bringing wealth to the UK and building hospitals and schools, yet all paid for by the proceeds of state-sanctioned human trafficking.
Is it any surprise that when some descendants of slaves are able to struggle through to a place of public and state recognition in their profession, that they are a little reluctant to be recognised by having something called the ‘Order of the British Empire’ (OBE) pinned to their chest?*
A new definition
As DiAngelo (a White woman) says: “I may not want it, I haven’t chosen it, but I’m in it”. I’m a part of, and a player in, a racist system. It’s not about our intention. It is about the fact that my hilltop (and our culture) contains views, biases and assumptions that creates a collective White culture that favours me over my Black brothers and sisters. Our collective White hilltops perpetuate a system and an atmosphere in which they struggle to breathe, while I disproportionately benefit. In these terms, as part of a racist culture, I am unwittingly a racist.
It is time for us all to challenge and dismantle the constraints and images and glass ceilings that stifle the aspirations of Black people in this country. For a while it will be uncomfortable, painful even, for White people like me, if we really listen, and start to sense what it might be like to ‘walk in another’s moccasins’.
But I dream of a future where we will all be able to breathe more easily, un-constricted by our histories, but learning from them, bringing and celebrating the best of who we are and all we can be.
As Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said: “Until we are all free, no-one is free”.
Maybe then we can make both America and Britain ‘Great’ – not ‘again’, but perhaps, ‘Great’, in reality, for the first time?
Adrian is the Founding Director of Deeper Leaders, a collective of experienced consultants dedicated to developing deeper leaders of organisations and communities. He previously wrote ‘The Silence of the Leaders’.
References and further reading
- * Benjamin Zephaniah refuses his OBE – Guardian article 2003
- White Fragility book launch lecture by Robin DiAngelo
- The Abolition Project
- Want to make the UK less racist? 20 positive ways to bring about lasting change – by Kehinde Andrews