On Being White And Not Caring About Race or Skin Colour

On not caring about race or the colour of your skin.  Written as one who has not cared because she isn’t a racist.  She believes she isn’t … but.
I find the more I talk with people of ethnic minorities (which I don’t do enough – I find many places I go turn out to be very white middle class or aspiring middle class but talking variations of the old hippy talk) the more I have to care about skin colour and race.
It’s because when I begin to listen I hear the tales of cultural differences that I want to celebrate. And then I hear the tales – the truth – of racism perpetrated against them and the tales of a society that is still pretty institutionally racist. And then I am forced to give up my “I don’t care, I’m not racist” position, and acknowledge my position of privilege in which I can say such things. It’s also a position that for many people stomps on culture that isn’t from the white majority, or just appropriates it.
In the end it’s not enough to say we believe all people are equal and that we don’t care about race. Those things are good. Laudable. But as long as we simply remain aloof we are in some way collaborators with the racism in society. As for me, while raised to have no racist bone in my body I’m still far too aloof and far too much a willing or unseeing or accepting collaborator. Personally I don’t care (or think I don’t) what colour your skin is, or what racial variations you have in your facial features. But I do care. My personal non-racism isn’t enough. Because these things affect you deeply.
As a white woman they affect me too. Being white in the UK changes my life and makes it easier in ways I must recognise. To say to anyone who is affected by prejudice – for race, sex, gender, sexuality, disability, or whatever else – that you just see them as a person isn’t enough. It’s good. But it isn’t enough.
Nobody has ever given me racial abuse. Nobody has ever shouted at me in the street, “Oy, you fuckin’ whitey, sod off back to Sussex.” Nobody has ever black-washed my favourite book when it’s been filmed. I’ve never been more likely to be searched or arrested because of having a white face. Or less likely to be hired for a job. That list could get very long. Anyone who isn’t white could write it better than me.
This. Read this. It’s a congregational reflection given to an all white congregation in a church a few years ago.
It’s from the USA but the message is similar here. In part it notes that talking about personal non-racism – a good thing that we share – misses the point.
Side point arising from the existence of all white congregations in a supposedly desegregated country: The main reason why black churches came into being at a particular time in the UK is that Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 60s and 70s tried to settle in the Church of England and were given such a hard time that they couldn’t stay and went off to form their own churches. Without white racism and the racism that was inherent in an institution many of the black churches wouldn’t be there. And the CofE would be culturally and spiritually richer as a consequence.
I thought of race yesterday. I was back in The King’s Hall in the Armstrong Building of Newcastle University. Last time I was there was for a day conference about Martin Luther King and there we were in a room with its walls filled with portraits of men (and now one woman). All of them white. Because fifty years after MLK was honoured there, equality is still an issue at the top levels of people who get their portrait on the wall. A couple of months later I was in another place. A talk by Laura Bates who wrote Everyday Sexism. Another room surrounded by portraits of white men.
Yesterday I remembered that day and noted that in the audience for the concert of Chinese music I attended there were very few non-white people. Then in a workshop with the Chinese musicians there was only one other white person – and he arrived ten minutes before the end having come for something else in the building that was cancelled due to the current university teaching staff strikes. I’m sure there were reasons but it felt weird to see all the white people come to hear the music and then not be there when they could engage with the people. For free, it didn’t even cost anything. A brilliant freebie opportunity but they missed it. I was glad to meet people of various nationalities. We didn’t discuss racism of course, just music and the pleasure of being together. We were united in our love of music and in our willingness to learn from each other. A time of shared joy.

So yes, I would love to say I don’t care about race or the colour of your skin. Just as I would love to say I don’t care about your sex, your gender, your sexuality, whether you have a learning difficulty, a neurological difference, or you use a wheelchair, or anything else. But I can’t.

I’ll treat you as I find you, and I’ll walk with you as much as my mental health allows me to walk with anyone. And I pledge myself to care that you’re white, black, or any tone of skin. Because, contrary to what my inherited white privilege allows me to say, racism is rife and silence is collaboration. Because if you’re a person of colour in the United Kingdom that affects you. In the end to not care about the effect your skin has on your life is to not care about you. To not care is to become the enemy.

I write because I too have been silent and complicit.  I write because I come to recognise how my personal non-racism falls short of being just.

I as a white woman in the UK must care about race.

I must dare to listen to other racial voices.

And then I must dare to speak out with those voices.  With them.  Not as a white woman standing apart.  But with the ones who are not as privileged as I.

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