In my early twenties I had a brief relationship with a working class South Yorkshire lass. She was quite exotic to me as I was to her – my life experience of class being more inner city multicultural but culturally unaccustomed to the ethnic and class homogeneity found in the massive and sprawling council estates of suburban Sheffield.
We clashed politically, on both race and class. In one drunken argument she lost her temper and informed me that the reason I didn’t understand her point of view was because “You’re Southern, you’re middle class, and a you’re a twat”. I think this made me laugh at the time, and certainly still does now. She didn’t have any awareness of race politics, as I didn’t really understand the internal politics of the white working class. She could have thrown in ‘man’ as a fourth element in the equation (Twat aside they are were all objectively true) but not ‘white’ as this context my whiteness didn’t distinguish me from her, but a whole load of other things did.
I’ve thought about this three pronged insult when considering my identity ever since. The exploration of identity forms the foundations of good dialogue work. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve put together an identity map – listing my ingredients or filling in my identity card – with the purpose of sharing and considering those aspects of self that may underpin views which might then feel vulnerable or defensive when criticised.
Identity is not solely what we like to see ourselves as, but what defines us in wider society. The unavoidable blocks of identity both built on who we think we are and how we are viewed by the outside world. Overtime I’ve felt less and less inclined to mention English or Britishness as these are fairly abstract and as a white man I’m not obliged to embrace them to prove my allegiance to anything – society wrongly assumes that as given. I do mention, conversely, both Southern and Northern. Southern because it’s the way I’m seen in the North, and Northern – after spending half my life within its abstract borders, the way I sometimes feel in the South. Unlike my Northern identity I have a Bristolian affinity, but not a Southern one. The Southern, as seen in the unforgettable line of attack from an ex girlfriend, is one only seen from the outside. Like the latter, I mention white and middle class because they matter so much in terms in how I’m seen and advantaged in life.
In dialogue just as we may be upset by conversations that touch on self identity we may also be affected by those that touch on how we are seen, especially if we don’t want to admit or embrace the pros or cons of those perceptions in making up who we are. Being Southern is a minor grievance in how I’m perceived up North, but being white and middle class is a colossal factor in how I’m perceived, treated and accepted more generally. Being middle class has influenced my expectations in life, my start, my security and so on. The reason why I choose to embrace these elements in my identity chart are not pride and attachment but awareness of their huge importance in terms of consequent privileges. To omit them would be a sign of both guilt and a lack of acceptance. An identity of non-identity which can be emotive and defensive.
I like to think this acceptance protects me from being misguidedly threatened by ideas of “reverse racism”. When a university BME student organises a meeting and bars white people from attending, I feel no injustice and understand the necessity. When someone types #killallwhitemen into Twitter, I feel no personal threat or discomfort, and when if ever my race is used as a form of abuse, I put it in context and move on. Context, as always, is everything.
Education, guilt and understanding:
The roots of any awareness or ignorance are to be found in background and experience. As seen with my clash over identity with an ex, my experiences have provided both.
Those men I read in comment threads, usually the Telegraph, who may claim white men are the most discriminated group in modern society, who feel a seemingly genuinely felt grievance at the idea minorities now have the upper hand and reverse racism not only exists, but is rife – those men may consider my background more of a burden, something to fear rather than the privilege and strength I see it as. In genuine cases of injustice, we can’t think our way out unless we delude ourselves. In this case there is little point in inventing grievances that don’t exist, and much to be gained by relieving ourselves of them. It’s not self flagellation it’s reality.
When I was at Primary school I had the rare experience of being taught about the slave trade in all it’s gory detail. Not only this but I was taught about it while sat in a classroom with fellow pupils descended from those same slaves, and a growing awareness that I was descended from the people who perhaps owned those slaves if not benefited from the trade in some way. This in Bristol, a City more than significantly built on its wealth.
We visited the Georgian House in Clifton on a school trip – with emphasis on the trade wealth of the family that once lived there – in order to emphasis this very immediate geographical relevance. As I looked at diagrams of slave ships among my 9 and 10 year old friends of colour, the true horror of the idea of slavery made its mark on me and bore the seeds of my anti-racism. (Like the holocaust forms the foundation of anti-fascism, the Slave Trade does the same for antiracism. It is both the contextual cause and exemplar of the potential deep inhumanity of racial prejudice).
Generally there was little race division at my primary with a few exceptions. Once a girl wouldn’t let me join in a game because I was “too white”. “But your mum’s white”, I thought, “is that what you think of her?”. Of course she didn’t, she just identified, in the context of the playground and at that moment, with the kids that weren’t, as she wasn’t. But even then – and this is born out by an account of that event I wrote in class – I put it in context and moved on. I could see even then I wasn’t really a victim here, not in the great scheme of things. I can see vast swathes of the population horrified by this account, but I consider the concomitant social and historical education I got at that time a huge benefit, one that’s profoundly affected the rest of my life.
And the key thing that worries people is guilt – and the idea that negates this guilt is irrelevance. The past having nothing to do with us now. I knew, via the education of an amazing teacher, that it has everything to do with us now. This gives me an awareness that transcends guilt. Allows me to carry white privilege as a part of my identity, to understand the reality of racism and to share a form an historical affinity and connection with my fellow human beings. Awareness doesn’t have to mean guilt and fear of guilt may lead us away from our ability to be aware.
Such education, if we are truly a nation committed to both a holistic understanding of British history and to tackling racism, should be on the curriculum across the board. Not least in schools with diverse intakes, but also beyond. Certain demographics may well feel we would be punishing their children, privileging BMEs and undermining the white majority with guilt ridden stories of the past when in fact we would be nourishing them. Understanding white privilege is about knowing who we are and where we are, a level of self knowledge and societal understanding that can only ever be positive.
Race and Class:
But what of my limitations? What of the cultural contexts I wasn’t exposed to in my youth? I should also be aware that my own personal sense of privilege should not be fostered on to all others. While I may feel irritated by the self pity of other white males, or indeed females, on the race issue, I need to ensure my class identity or at least specific financial and cultural capital, is also kept in check as well. Just as we benefit from one understanding we should seek out others. Since my relationship with the wordsmith Sheffield lass I have spent many years working with young people from the white working class estates of Bradford and Keighley, as well as those that live as minorities within the large South Asian communities.
Keeping with the Primary school theme, I remember once walking past one in a fairly central area of Bradford. Unlike the diversity of mine there was just one white kid in the playground. This young boy was pinned up against the fence by the other kids, all South Asian, who were chanting “gora gora gora gora” (white boy) at the top of their voices. The teacher looked on disinterested.
The question arises – could this, in the debates about the impossibility of reverse racism, be described as racist? I don’t know the background of the young boy in question, but going by my awareness of some of the Bradfordian white families that still live in inner city Bradford, it could well be poor, if not impoverished. And where this is the case, the privileges of whiteness, and maleness may mean much less. If economic power cannot stretch beyond your streets, your world is defined by your streets. If we take the old if imperfect equation of prejudice plus power, where was his power? And where was the power of those pinning him against the school fence? Can we really turn to him and tell him it’s impossible for him to experience racism, or ask him to put his disadvantage in a wider context if he only has this one context to call on? There are other examples I could bring up where we should be able to acknowledge the racism without drawing a false equivalence with racism in society as a whole.
So when I sometimes take umbrage at those that say reverse racism is impossible it is with this example, and others like it, in mind. Not because I can identify with the boy in the playground because of his being white, but because I can’t identify with him in terms of class. It’s not my experience it’s his. Just as I can’t experience the racism experienced by BME groups on the basis of my race, but can be aware of its meaning.
Context is everything – both big and small.