Part two? Well, yes, because I wrote a blog about white privilege a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be one of my least popular blog posts, so here I go again because this stuff is important.
Growing up in Sweden in the 70s and 80s, my surroundings were very white, something I thought little about because it seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. In primary school, I had a classmate who was adopted from South America, and in my brother’s year, there was a girl adopted from South Korea, but that was it as far as diversity went. When I started high school, I made friends with a girl from Eritrea and got a first glimpse of what it was like to be black in Sweden in the late ’80s.
When I was nineteen, I moved to the United States to study at a small liberal arts college three hours from Chicago, and that’s where my education in race relations began. While the international students tended to stick together as one big, diverse group, the American students were largely self-segregating based on colour. All teachers were white. I stayed in the United States for seven years, and while my awareness of racism grew over time, I was still oblivious to my white privilege.
For the last 21 years, I’ve lived in London where I married a British-Caribbean man of African and Asian descent and with whom I’m raising two mixed heritage daughters.
As a child in South London, my husband was subjected to racist abuse, verbal as well as physical on a daily basis, and even as an adult he occasionally encounters discrimination because of the colour of his skin. It may seem like little things; as a cab driver passing him by while stopping for a white passenger, a shop keeper hovering over him when he enters a store, and people looking disapprovingly at my husband and me – a black and white couple – when we’re on holiday. But it all adds up, and each instance is symptomatic of a much bigger problem, structural racism.
It has taken me many years and quite a few uncomfortable confrontations with myself to come to understand my white privilege. As Francis E Kendall suggests, “privilege, particularly white or male privilege, is hard to see for those of us who were born with access to power and resources.” As a white person, I have the privilege of seeing myself as an individual, as part of humanity, with no thought to my race, while a person whose skin is not white tends to be regarded as a member of a race.
White privilege, Kendall clarifies, isn’t about how much money we make, how big our house is or how successful we are in life. White privilege is “an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.” That means that based purely on my skin colour, doors will open to me that are not open to people with different skin colour.
Failure to recognise white privilege also stems from our education. Peggy Mackintosh writes in her paper ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’:
“As a white person I realised that I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
The history taught in schools is almost exclusively the history as seen from the dominant group’s perspective, which is why pupils in Britain and the United States rarely learn about their country’s colonial past, the atrocities committed and the history and legacy of slavery.
However much white Europeans like myself would prefer to think that racism is a problem exclusive to the United States, racism exists everywhere. This week, Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and talk show host, called racism the greatest pandemic of all “which, unlike the coronavirus, doesn’t go away if you stay in your house for fourteen days”.
“But I’m not racist!”
How many times have you and I and millions of white people said those words, or thought those words?
In How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X Kendi highlights the problem with being ‘not racist’:
“It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.'”
What about well-meaning white people who claim to ‘not see colour’? Colour blindness, Kendi maintains, is “akin to the notion of being ‘not racist’ – as with the ‘not racist,’ the colourblind individual, by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity.”
A racist, in Kendi’s definition, is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction [my emphasis] or expressing a racist idea.”
An antiracist, in contrast, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
As with so many other things in life, neutrality with respect to race is a myth. Which means we all have to take a stand.
Either we’re racists or antiracists. The choice is ours.
Of course, it’s not enough to assert to ourselves and to others that we’re antiracists. There’s work to be done, to educate ourselves about white privilege, racist structures and policies in our societies. It is not black people’s job to end racism; that responsibility lies squarely with white people.
A non-exhaustive reading list for aspiring antiracists:
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race
Francis E Kendall, ‘Understanding White Privilege’
Ibram X Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist
Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice
Peggy McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack’
Tema Okun, ‘From White Racist To White Anti-Racist: The Lifelong Journey’