I’ve just finished reading Reni Eddo-Logde’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.* As a result I feel I need to update some of what I’ve recently written. Eddo-Lodge does an excellent job of articulating how ‘whiteness’ can – possibly should – be viewed as an ideological structure similar to patriarchy. She argues that being white conveys all sorts of advantages, some subtle, some obvious while not being white results in equal and opposite disadvantages, and, because being white comes along with all this good stuff, white people, wittingly or otherwise, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Whether through naivety or wilful ignorance, I’d come to think of racism as unpleasant, antiquated, outmoded vestige of a less civilized past, a bit like public executions, or small pox, but the book makes a powerful case that what Eddo-Lodge calls ‘structural racism’ still exerts a powerful and pernicious effect on anyone who isn’t white. The definition of racism in the book is ‘prejudice plus power’. She readily admits black people can be prejudiced, but argues that the only power a black person can over a white person is strictly limited. Certainly it’s impossible for black people to systematically adversely effect the life chances of white people. This is clearly true.
The problem is, that for me and other white people, the effects of our whiteness is invisible. There’s an assumption of whiteness in society that means we only tend to notice our skin colour when someone who isn’t white is in our immediate vicinity. Because it’s very easy for white people to cocoon themselves in whiteness, it can be very hard to see how structural racism might operate for those who don’t share our advantages. The book makes clear that white people can be disadvantaged in all sorts of ways: we can live in poverty and be discriminated against on grounds of gender, physical ability, sexuality or any other of an almost infinite variety of factors. But nonetheless, our whiteness still makes our lives easier.
Like most white people I know, the idea of using racial slurs or actively discriminating against any individual because of what colour their skin happens to be is so bizarre and abhorrent that It’s hard to understand the motivations of those that don’t share my sensibilities. But this isn’t enough. Without ever explicitly saying so, Eddo-Lodge suggests that unless we are actively anti-racist, we’re helping to prop up the political structures that unfairly advantage those who are white and disadvantages those who aren’t. This is the argument that being white means you are a de facto racist until proven otherwise.
Predictably, I found myself bristling at this, but Eddo-Lodge does an expert job of anticipating and countering all my objections. She sees my defensiveness as evidence of my racism. There’s a paradox that unless you admit that being white makes you a racist, you’re a racist; the only salvation is accepting your racism. The case she makes the continued existence and power of racism is compelling and hard to ignore, and I found my accepting the racism inherent in our political and cultural structures. While I want to believe that I’ve earned everything I’ve achieved through my own merits, it’s undoubtedly true that my ride through life has been made easier by virtue of my skin colour.
While the were aspects of the book I’ve not accepted, I can understand how defending myself against charges of racism has helped to perpetuate the structures of ideological whiteness. I find myself feeling more than a bit embarrassed about writing this paragraph:
At the time of writing, there’s a group of people on Twitter calling me a racist for writing this blog post. This feels pretty awful. The violence of such a term is hard to quantify, but it’s left me feeling shaky and anxious. Some of the comments are so hateful that reading them feels a bit like being beaten up in my own home.
This was a disingenuous and thoughtless thing to say. Yes, being called a racist is pretty shitty, and yes, some of the people doing the name calling behaved contemptibly, but I can see that my hurt feelings were, in large part, the product of being confronted with having a layer of the privilege I usually take for granted stripped away. I can see how expressing myself in this way is offensive. That said, the points I was clumsily trying to make still stand; in fact, having read Eddo-Lodge’s book, it seems even more obvious that people of colour experience systematic discrimination which must adversely effect their educational outcomes.
So what’s the point of all this? First, I want to apologise for my ignorance and commit to doing more to be actively anti-racist. This won’t be easy and I’m sure I’ll find it easy to forget this commitment. All this has, however, helped me appreciate a comment Dylan Wiliam left on my blog which contained Robin Richardson’s “Memorandum to Oppressors”. I think it’s worth reproducing here:
A relationship, interaction or social system is oppressive if it involves gains, benefits and advantages for some, at the cost of losses, frustrations and harm for others. Oppressors are individuals, groups or classes who have more than their fair share of gains. The oppressed are those who have more than their fair share of losses. The archetypal oppressor lives in the northern hemisphere; is middle-class; is white; is male; has a senior position in a hierarchical institution.
Whether you are an oppressor or not depends on your location in an oppressive structure, not on your intention or wish. The question is what are you doing to transform the structure, not whether you wish to be an oppressor.
1 Seek confrontation and opposition
Over and over you get things wrong. You are deformed and blinkered by your location and experience. You cannot trust yourself, not your eyesight, not your judgement. Seek out people who have very different location and experience—that is, the oppressed—and heed their critiques, criticism and challenges.
2 Flattery and chance
Day in and day out, people flatter you. For you control goods and goodies which they desire. The consequence of this flattery is that you suppose with pride that you are in your present position through your own merit and achievement. But no, you are where you are through chance, not choice. You live in a society in which people with certain attributes (gender, race, class, nation) get rewarded and flattered.
3 Don’t divide and rule
There is a diversity of interests, concerns and priorities amongst the oppressed, and many are prevented—for example by the mass media and by the educational system—from knowing the dimension and contours of their oppression. You must not take, let alone seek, advantage from this diversity and lack of awareness.
4 Selfishness and self-interest
All human beings defend their self-interest, yes of course, and all in this do things which are morally wrong. But only oppressors have the power to define which wrong actions are crimes. Also oppressors have the power to define the signs, symbols and conventions of courtesy and considerateness. In consequence of this dual power, oppressors typically think they are morally superior to the oppressed. They are not. Never forget this.
5 Positive action
Regardless of any formal equal opportunities policies which may be around, you should be engaging continually in positive discrimination. Do everything you can to distribute power, influence, resources and goods to or towards the oppressed. You will often have to do this covertly rather than openly: so be it.
Everyone peppers their discourse and conversation with bibliographical footnotes—references to people from they have learnt, and/or people who are big names. Make sure that you yourself, in your footnotes and references, give credit only to the oppressed. This means—amongst other things—that you should indeed reckon to have your mind nurtured only or mainly by the oppressed.
7 The climate of oppressor opinion
Transformation of the system will come, if it comes at all, from the oppressed. You yourself have only a small part to play. But one thing you can do, and should do, is criticise, cajole, badger, pester, speak out, in the forums, informal as well as formal, of the oppressor. But watch out: don’t let them dress you in the cap and bells of a court jester, or the stiff righteous collar of a prig.
As long as you stay where you are it is possible that you will work, whether you wish to or intend to or not, against the interests of the oppressed. For example, and in particular, you are part of the velvet glove round the oppressor’s iron fist; you may be containing resistance, buying time for the oppressor, that’s all. One consequence of this is that you have no right or reason to expect gratitude, sympathy or trust from the oppressed.
Look at your possessions, your personal time, your personal space and mobility: you are very comfortable, and very corrupt. You cannot completely change your lifestyle as long as you stay in your location. But you can keep it modest and frugal; you can share it; you can treat it lightly; and you can—and you must—risk it.
10 Words and platforms
The essential educational task is to equip the oppressed with words—the ABC, the first two Rs, Shakespeare and all that. Part of the essential political task is to provide them with platforms—a hearing in the places and spaces where a rule is to listen (words + platforms = communicative competence). Often you yourself should be silent, or at least your memoranda should be unmemorable. But sometimes you may speak, you may use both words and platforms. Choose them, choose them with care.
There’s no doubt I have enjoyed more than my fair share of gains and it’s very hard to accept that this is at the expense of other’s losses. Being silent is especially hard for me. Forcing myself to ‘listen’ to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s point of view without being able to ague back was an object lesson in vulnerability and humility. I’m sure there are points I haven’t yet understood and others I haven’t done justice to, but I feel richer for having given her a fair hearing and, I hope, changed by the experience.
Finally, I feel it necessary to reiterate that environmental differences caused by structural racism – structures implicitly endorsed by schools and teachers – are resulting in people of colour (as well as other minority groups) being educationally disadvantaged. The sooner we all acknowledge and work against this, the better.
* Hat tip to Jeffrey Boakye for the recommendation.