A Teensy Bit Racist
I work in the arts, and most of my friends are involved in the creative industries, where we pride ourselves on being liberal, inclusive and open minded. Loudly.
We write reports to the Arts Council about our fabulous diversity statistics. We tweet about injustice on the internet. We know about white privilege and colourism and all of the isms and phobias on the Afropunk t-shirt. We’re now too woke for Afropunk.
Most importantly, we’ve all read Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the quintessential book about the dynamics of structural racism in the UK by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Before the book was released and became a best-selling cultural phenomenon - rare is the tube journey without at least one person reading it - I shared Reni’s desire to not talk about race with white people. To understand why, please read the book, or the essay which inspired it.
Currently, my stance is closer to why I’m no longer talking to white people about race unless they’ve read Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
I have nothing to say on the subject of structural racism and how it functions that hasn’t been said more eloquently than Reni and many, many other writers.
I’m interested in what “doing the work” of dismantling racism means in the context of our personal lives, in our immediate circles.
Especially inside of our lovely liberal artsy bubble, where even the suggestion something or someone might be a teensy bit racist or racially insensitive is seen as a level 10 character assassination. It makes reflection, especially self-reflection, incredibly difficult.
The first question I’m asked is often an anxious “what should I do?”. Which is interesting, because if you google “how to fight racism” or “how to be an ally” pages and pages of brilliant articles and videos come up.
I’d like to assume then, that perhaps this question isn’t born out of laziness, but fear of the unknown. If you’ve never done something before it can be daunting.
There comes a point when most parents ask their children to start helping to keep the house clean. They quickly realise that their child has no idea what needs to be done, they apparently can’t see it when the bathtub is filthy, they’ve only just realised how boring cleaning is (and how much more fun life was before they had such responsibilities), and they have no idea how to do it. FFS.
That same tooth-grinding sense of annoyance and frustration a parent feels is how many of us feel when someone asks us what they should do about dismantling structural racism.
There is no one who can talk you through the specifics of how to do anti-racism work in your life or in your work, and there is no way to stick your head above the parapet safely or to guarantee you won’t screw up.
Part of this work is about educating yourself, listening to what’s being said, trying your best, being prepared to get it wrong and to apologise if you do.
A really obvious place to start is by cleaning your own house first.
If you want to dismantle systemic racism, start with you. Look at the power dynamics in your own life and relationships; are there inequalities between you and your family, your partner, your friends, your flatmates?
We all have different, complex relationships with power and privilege. The ‘you’ in the list below is not necessarily speaking only to white people, but all people who have access to white (and other forms of) privilege and power. ‘They’ represents the people in your life with less privilege and power than you, particularly those in ethnic minority groups.
See if you can answer all of the questions below honestly. Imagine how the other people in your life would answer these questions about you. If you live in a culturally diverse area and you don’t have a diverse friendship circle, these (by no means exhaustive) questions might help you start to understand why:
Do you know what kind of privileges you have and understand how they function? Do you know how this differs from the privileges the other people in your life do/ don’t have?
How does that privilege affect the power dynamic between you and the other people in your life? How do you think that makes them feel?
Do you educate yourself on/ take an interest in how those around you experience discrimination, and the impact it has on their lives? Do you try to do that work yourself, or do you ask other people to do the work of teaching you?
Do you recognise that thinking about race is not something they get to opt in or out of when it gets difficult or tiring? That the discomfort you feel is something they have always lived with?
Do you understand the enduring discriminatory stereotypes, tropes and politics which inform the way they are perceived and treated in certain spaces by certain people, and you are not?
What are you able to say/ do/ wear/ eat/ get away with that they can’t? Who or what is a threat to their safety and not a threat to yours?
Do you know about your physical differences? Their nutritional needs, health risks, and the potentially deadly discrimination they may face from doctors or other healthcare providers?
Do you notice and question both internally and verbally whether the actions and responses of others towards them might be thinly disguised racism?
Do you ask them to ‘prove it’ when they feel they have experienced racism? Do you brush off the pain it causes them because you don’t know what to say?
Do you listen and empathise rather than challenge and minimise their experience because it makes you uncomfortable?
Do you try to get them to make you feel better, or express themselves in a way that makes you feel more comfortable when you have challenging conversations about race? Even though that conversation may be hurting them?
Do you get defensive and try to justify yourself or prove them wrong when they try to explain something about race you either don’t understand, don’t agree with, or perhaps wish wasn’t true?
Do you take an open-minded, respectful interest in their cultural interests which may be different to yours?
Do you recognise the dynamics of discrimination in the way some art and culture is regarded as inferior to others? Have you reflected on how this may have informed your ‘tastes’ or idea of ‘quality’? Are you willing to challenge and reevaluate your tastes?
Do you know about the ways they are expected to change their behaviour to fit in with society? Do you encourage them to be their whole selves, and not code-switch, translate or tone it down for you?
Do you shame or other them, perhaps unknowingly, by; mocking their tastes or interests; judging them for feeling discomfort in situations you find comfortable; laughing at people who embrace their cultural heritage/ don’t have the same ideals/ background as you for being ‘weird’ or ‘not classy’ or ‘ignorant’; by sharing their private information publicly, which some may judge with prejudice; expressing negativity about certain physical characteristics in favour of Western body ideals; or by offering unwarranted sympathy ‘Oh you’re from Rwanda? Sorry’ etc etc?
Do you reflect on how their culture and history is unlikely to be taught honestly at school (if it’s taught at all)? That people like them are rarely represented on film or television in a positive light, and that they do not often see examples of themselves in positions of power, or as an example of beauty. Do you think about how that would feel?
Do you ensure you spend time together in spaces where you both feel safe, comfortable, accepted, and they will not be in the vast minority?
Do you spend time in places where you are in the minority, hold less cultural power than usual, and don’t know the social codes? If not, are you aware that you may be avoiding being in these spaces? Have you fabricated justifications such as a lack of interest in order to avoid them?
Do you understand that they spend most of their time in spaces which do not reflect them culturally, in which they hold little power, and have to adapt themselves constantly to fit in - and how exhausting that is?
Do you offer to travel to meet them as much as you ask them to come to you, taking in to consideration travel time, cost and inconvenience? Even, or perhaps especially, when you have a nicer house?
Do you notice the opportunities and financial benefits which come your way because of your family and friendship circles? Do you notice that similar benefits don’t come to others around you who don’t have those circles?
How does money factor in to your relationship? Do you have greater financial prospects because of your privilege, such as an inheritance, family support, a good education, no educational debt, social connections? If you were in their shoes, how would you feel about your ability to catch up? Do you feel fairness always looks like a 50/50 split?
Do you monitor the ‘little’ favours they do for you and ensure you’re giving back favours of equivalent value?
If you live in the same house, do you do an equal amount of domestic work? Would they agree? Have they fallen in to the role of being your unpaid cook/ cleaner?
Do you know about the economic disparities they face, such as the gender and racial wage gap, the generational racial wealth divide, the likelihood they will be promoted more slowly, find it harder to get a job, and be expected to do perform extra unpaid labour and ‘caretaker’ roles at work?
Do you try to protect the people close to you from the effects of discrimination, even when the person discriminating against them is also close to you?
Do you have challenging conversations about power, privilege and race with people in your orbit who don’t understand those things?
Do you use your privilege to support them? For example; if they’re interested, offering to help them learn a skill they may not have like swimming or skiing (or investing!), taking an active interest in their career development, or sharing your networks?
It’s easy to forget that even though you’re really close to someone, they’re not experiencing the world in the same way you are.
In small ways which accumulate over time, you might be unwittingly contributing to the imbalance caused by structural racism which negatively impacts them, whilst enriching yourself further.
We need to start being honest with ourselves. We can’t allow the stories we tell about ourselves - that we’re nice, we’re working class, we don’t see race, we read The Guardian and we loved Get Out etc etc to stop us from interrogating what we’re really doing in our own lives.
It’s far easier to point the finger at the obvious targets when it comes to racism and loudly express our outrage, than to look in the mirror and ask “what about me?”. It might be small, it might be subtle, but it adds up.
Often, when I hear people discussing the need for greater diversity in the workplace, it sounds like someone trying to get away with building a house without laying any foundations. We simply can’t achieve more diverse, inclusive workplaces or industries unless we do better in our personal relationships.
Racism is not a theoretical problem. No French textbook can fully prepare you for haggling with a fishmonger in Marseille, and no book about race is a substitute for having real, meaningful, and functional friendships with people of other races.
It starts with what you do every day.
What other questions should be on the list? Leave a comment below.