The other day I was in a bookshop spending much more money than I’d originally intended, and I arrived at the till with my little pile of books, which I placed on the counter. The (white male) proprietor picked up Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and waved it at me.
“Have you read this?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“You should” he told me. “Everyone should.”
So I added it to my pile, brought it home, and moved it to the top of my reading list.
I have an odd relationship with race. I’m Roma, an ethnic minority (and one lots of people really don’t have a problem telling you their racist views about), but being Romani isn’t the kind of thing that’s obvious when a person first meets you, unless you’re still living in the traditional manner and they happen upon you standing next to your caravan. Although I’m technically a member of an ethnic minority, I don’t wear my race on my skin, so I have all the privileges associated with appearing white.
I grew up in a number of racially diverse areas. As a kid, most of my friends were Indian or North African. Racism wasn’t something I noticed: kids were picked on at school for all sorts of reasons, but as far as I knew none of them were picked on because of their race. One was bullied because he was adopted; one because she was the only person in the school who lived in a house, meaning she was posh and therefore fair game; one because he drooled when he talked. What I’m saying is, kids are little assholes, but the ones I grew up with weren’t assholes because of the colour of other people’s skin or the languages they spoke at home.
When I was twelve we moved to England, where I discovered racism and classism. I went to a good secondary school, as opposed to the fairly shitty primary schools I’d attended. In my secondary school, the vast majority of the kids were white. A lot of them had grown up in the local area and hadn’t had much exposure to anyone who didn’t look like them. There was also quite a strong divide between the council flat dwellers and the kids whose houses were set back from the country roads by long gravel driveways.
My mother is in a Christian cult, and so was I until I was old enough to leave home and slough it off. We joined the French congregation, both of us preferring not to speak English, and there I met many African people whose first language was also French. As I got to know them, I realised they spoke much more about race than my black friends at primary school had. Race was A Thing here, evidently. Initially I was confused: I tried to understand how someone having a different skin colour or cultural background could possibly be a problem.
“Some people just don’t like people who are different from them” one of my friends explained patiently.
“But you’re not different from them” I replied.
In my mind, my friend Josiane from the Congo had had a different upbringing from me, sure; but so had all these rich white kids I’d recently met in England. Josiane’s childhood didn’t sound any more different from mine than theirs was. No two people I’d ever met had had identical upbringings, and since we’d spent most of my childhood moving around, I’d met a lot of people.
As I progressed through high school I became more aware of issues around race, not least because I noticed I was hiding the fact that I was Romani, which I’d never tried to hide in Scotland. Admittedly it’s much harder to hide that kind of thing when you’re walking to school from a caravan site each morning, but still.
In the rich white south of England I made a conscious decision to hide my ethnic background because I felt it would put me at a disadvantage among my peers. Other people couldn’t hide their ethnic backgrounds (and of course none of us should feel we have to), and I started to notice things about race I’d never noticed before. In other words, I started to notice both overt and covert racism.
It’s a topic I’ve thought about quite a bit over the years, but since it’s not one of my academic research interests and it rarely impacts me directly, it’s not something I’ve devoted a huge amount of time to. But Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book sounded like exactly the kind of thing that would bring issues of race to the forefront of my mind again and make me reflect on my own actions and the actions of those around me. I believe that’s never a bad thing.
One of the most important messages of the book is that racism isn’t about a bunch of people being assholes about someone else’s racial identity. That’s a far too simplistic way of looking at it. Sure, we have the EDL and Britain First and the people who are overtly racist as soon as they’re given any kind of platform, but they’re not really the crux of the problem. Instead they’re representative of something much deeper within society.
“We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”
And here’s the thing: I grew up in areas with a high level of diversity. I was used to seeing people of all races and cultural backgrounds around me, and to thinking of them all as equally capable of doing the same things as me, my mother, and other people who looked like us.
But my mother and I lived in a tent, and then on a caravan site, and then in a succession of shitty council flats where you had to step over piles of drug paraphernalia on your way home from school. While it was hard to pull myself out of that upbringing, it would have been even harder if I didn’t look white. As Eddo-Lodge puts it:
“When I talk about white privilege, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.”
She’s right: I didn’t. I noticed the things that negatively impacted my life: my accent, which I changed when I moved to London at 17 so it didn’t betray my council estate upbringing; my family’s lack of money; at times, my age. But it’s hard to notice when something’s positively impacting you, because you can’t say for certain whether things would have turned out differently. You can, however, look at studies and trends and draw conclusions from those.
Would my first full-time employer have taken a chance on 18-year-old, inexperienced me if I’d been black? Maybe; but the data say probably not. Would the head of my academic research team have taken my ideas seriously and offered me a fast-track route through uni if I’d looked like I was of a different ethnic background from the rest of the team? Maybe; but the data say probably not. When I lost all my money at 25 and had to busk to make rent, would as many people have given me money and helped me out and been nice to me if my skin had been darker? Maybe; but the data say probably not.
“White privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism.”
This is by far the best definition of the term I’ve ever read. I’ve tried to have conversations about white privilege before, and it almost always devolves into the other person getting all defensive: they’re not racist, they’re not from a privileged background, they’ve had it hard too.
Sure, but that’s not what it’s about. If you’re white, or if like me you look white even though you’re technically not, you will have white privilege to some degree. You will have experienced an absence of the negative consequences of racism. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you don’t deserve nice things. It just means you probably haven’t experienced the effects of discrimination on the grounds of race.
It was also very interesting to read about the history of slavery in Britain, something I knew shamefully little about. I think a lot of British people associate slavery with the USA, but it was prevalent here too. I wish I’d been taught about that in school.
So, I agree with the bookshop owner who encouraged me to read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race: it’s a very important book and one we all should read. If you read it and don’t learn anything new, I would be very surprised.