Why Insidious Racism is Much Harder to Navigate
You Come to Expect it, But You Can Never Come to Accept It
When I was four, I turned to my mum and asked her when I would turn white, because all the good people on TV were white, and all the villains were black and brown. I considered myself to be a good person, so I thought that I would turn white eventually. My mum still remembers the crestfallen look on my face when she told me the bad news.
Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born into an already written script that tells us what to expect from strangers due to their skin color, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded as white. Blackness, however, is considered the “other” and therefore to be suspected. Those who are coded as a threat in our collective representation of humanity are not white. These messages were so powerful that four-year-old me had already recognized them, watching television, noticing that all the characters who looked like me were criminals at worst, and sassy sidekicks at best.
How can I define white privilege? It’s so difficult to describe an absence. And white privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost, an absence of “less likely to succeed because of my race.” It is an absence of funny looks directed at you because you’re believed to be in the wrong place, an absence of cultural expectations, an absence of violence enacted on your ancestors because of the color of their skin, an absence of a lifetime of subtle marginalization and othering—exclusion from the narrative of being human. Describing and defining this absence means to some extent upsetting the centering of whiteness, and reminding white people that their experience is not the norm for the rest of us. It is, of course, much easier to identify when you don’t have it, and I watch as an outsider to the insularity of whiteness. I coveted whiteness once, but I knew in the back of my mind that conning myself into assimilation would only ever make me a poor imitation of what I would never be.
You might be surprised to learn that it was a white man who first gave white privilege a name. Theodore Allen was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1919. In his adulthood he was active in the trade union movement. Deeply affected by the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, his reading of black writers like W. E. B. Du Bois led him to start exploring what he called “white-skin privilege.” His was an anticapitalist perspective on race in the labor movement. In 1967, riffing on the civil rights movement’s much-used phrase “an injury to one is an injury to all” he wrote “. . . the injury dealt out to the black worker has its counterpart in the privilege of the white worker. To expect the white worker to help wipe out the injury to the Negro is to ask him to oppose his own interests.”
“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.”
To some, the word “privilege” in the context of whiteness invokes images of a life lived in the lap of luxury, enjoying the spoils of the super-rich. 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.
White privilege is one of the reasons why I stopped talking to white people about race. Trying to convince stony faces of disbelief has never appealed to me. The idea of white privilege forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continuing existence. White privilege is dull, grinding complacency. It is par for the course in a world in which drastic race inequality is responded to with a shoulder shrug, considered just the norm.
We could all do with examining how the system unfairly benefits us personally. A few years back, confronted with a four-hour round trip of a commute, I found that the only way to keep costs down and still make it to work was to get the train halfway, and cycle for the rest of the journey. An uncomfortable truth dawned on me as I lugged my bike up and down flights of stairs in commuter-town train stations: the majority of public transport I’d been traveling on was not easily accessible. No ramps, no lifts. Nigh-on impossible to access for parents with buggies, or people using wheelchairs, or people with mobility issues, like a frame or a cane. Before I’d had my own wheels to carry, I’d never noticed this problem. I’d been oblivious to the fact that this lack of accessibility was affecting hundreds of people. And it was only when the issue became close to me that I began to feel infuriated by it.
I have to be honest with myself. When I write as an outsider, I am also an insider in so many ways. I am university-educated, able-bodied, and I speak and write in ways very similar to the ways of those I criticize. I walk and talk like them, and part of that is why I am taken seriously. As I write about shattering perspectives and disrupting faux objectivity, I have to remember that there are factors in my life that bolster my voice above others.
Racism is often confused with prejudice, and is sometimes used interchangeably. It’s another retort wielded against anti-racists, who have to listen to those who wish to undermine the movement muster up outrage about discrimination against white people because they are white. Some black people hold a burning hatred for white people, they will say, and it’s unacceptable. It’s “reverse racism,” they insist. Prejudice is real across communities of color. Years ago, buying myself a lunch of Caribbean food, I was greeted by a smiling owner behind the counter who waited until his white customers had left before confiding in me that he saves the best cuts of meat for “people like us.” Yes, that man was prejudiced. Yes, my lunch was delicious. No, the owner of the cafe couldn’t possibly affect the life chances of his white customers with his feelings against them. All he could affect in any terms was their lunch.
This is the difference between racism and prejudice. There is an unattributed definition of racism that defines it as prejudice plus power. Those disadvantaged by racism can certainly be cruel, vindictive and prejudiced. Everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people. Are black people overrepresented in the places and spaces where prejudice could really take effect? The answer is almost always no.
A few years ago I got into a conversation with a friend’s white, French girlfriend about racism. I spoke to her honestly about my experiences. It was going well, and she was telling me about the troubles she faced as the youngest and only woman in her workplace, often having to work twice as hard to prove herself as competent to her employers. We were getting along, and we found we had common ground. I told her about an experience of being passed over for a job I’d interviewed for and finding out through mutual friends that the job had gone to a white woman my age with almost identical experience to me. I had felt the slap in the face of structural racism, the kind of thing you only hear about in statistics of the disparity of black unemployment, but never hear from the people affected.
“White privilege manifests itself in everyone and no one. Everyone is complicit, but no one wants to take on responsibility.”
Then she said, “You don’t know if that was racism. How do you know it wasn’t something else?” She told me about her anger and fear after being accused of racism by an Algerian man. She said how angry it made her feel, that people can use accusations of racism to stop white people talking, that maybe the man should have considered that people didn’t like him because he didn’t behave very well. She said she had felt intimidated because he was a man, she said she thought he might get aggressive.
I was naive. We had resonated beforehand, so I had good faith in her humanity, I thought she might be able to accept the structural conditions that allowed a situation like this one to happen. So I tried to encourage her to consider the suspicion and anger of a person who has suffered racism their entire lives. I thought I might be able to persuade her to think outside of herself and question the wider context, but then every sentence she said sounded like every word I’ve ever heard from people defending whiteness. It’s like they all learn the lines from the same sheet.
Then I considered the social implications of the logical outcome of our exchange, where the consensus would be that I am wrong, because that’s how the white status quo maintains itself. If I’d argued with her, I would put myself at risk of no longer being welcome in that particular houseshare, because I would have “created an atmosphere.” I would be considered a “reverse racist,” an angry, unreasonable troublemaker, maybe even a violence sympathizer. This kind of social exclusion did not seem worth it. So I said nothing.
White privilege manifests itself in everyone and no one. Everyone is complicit, but no one wants to take on responsibility. Challenging it can have real social implications. Because it’s a many-headed hydra, you have to be careful about the white people you trust when it comes to discussing race and racism. You don’t have the privilege of approaching conversations about racism with the assumption that the other participants will be on the same plane as you. Raising racism in a conversation is like flicking a switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person you’ve just met, or a person you’ve always felt safe and comfortable with. You’re never sure when a conversation about race and racism will turn into one where you were scared for your physical safety or social position.
White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day. It’s brutal and oppressive, bullying you into not speaking up for fear of losing your loved ones, or job, or flat. It scares you into silencing yourself: you don’t get the privilege of speaking honestly about your feelings without extensively assessing the consequences. I have spent a lot of time biting my tongue so hard it might fall off.
And of course, challenging it can have implications on your quality of life. You might lose out on job offers because you’ve spoken openly and honestly about your experiences and perception of racism online. Interviewing for an admin job a few years ago, I was confronted by a potential colleague about something I’d tweeted about race. Considering it was such a low-ranking position, I didn’t think such an intervention was necessary. White privilege is deviously, throat-stranglingly clever, because it owns the companies that recruit you, owns the industries you want to enter, so you if you need money to live you’re forced to appease its needs (I locked my Twitter account after that incident, and didn’t let any conversations go beyond small talk in all other jobs). It eases you into letting your guard down with white people, assured that you’ll be taken seriously, but simultaneously not being surprised when a conversation highlights your difference against your white peers. White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.
The insidious stuff is much harder. You come to expect it, but you can never come to accept it. You learn to be careful about your battles, because otherwise people would consider you to be angry for no reason at all. A troublemaker, not worth taking seriously, an angry black woman obsessed with race.
From Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright 2017 by Reni Eddo-Lodge.