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Let’s Talk About Whiteness: The Politics Of White Skin

I am very aware that the people who take the time to read this will be the ones who already agree with me. I don’t want this to be the case. If you’ve seen the title of this and thought, ‘What is this about?’ Please indulge your curiosities, and message me afterwards, and we can discuss it further. I don’t want my writing to exist in an echo chamber. I want to try to get across to white people why we must change. Why we must outgrow our histories. I hope you’ll take the time to grow with me. I hope this helps explain why we need it. – Madeleine

You will, by now, be aware that multiple protests occurred across the world as a result of the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, three weeks ago in Minneapolis. All fifty states of the USA and eighteen countries around the world protested in the streets; this was the biggest civil rights movement in history. Despite the threat of COVID-19 and the equally terrifying threat of police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets into huge crowds of peaceful protestors in the USA, people marched. In fact, they are still marching. Today in London, a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest was overtaken by white nationalists, screaming, shouting, and intentionally aggressing the police. They were not violated by police; they were not murdered as black people have been by police for years on end. Our whiteness could not be more of an urgent conversation.

Whatever your reaction to these protests; whether they’re ‘wrong’ or ‘right’; they were necessary. Protests can be prevented very easily by the government and its services, like the police, treating its citizens fairly. And fair, the treatment is not. Black people make up 3% of the UK’s population, and 8% of deaths in police custody here. Black people in the UK are four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. COVID-19 deaths have been twice as high in England’s most deprived areas. Many of these deprived areas are largely made up of black and brown citizens. This isn’t a mistake. Black Lives Matter is a relatively new political movement; the UK’s ghettoisation and systematic negligence and violence against black people is not a new concept.

The Blank Slate

“Your whiteness doesn’t give you the permission to step away from all this.”

So if you’re white, and you’re observing these movements from whatever political seat you sit in, I want you to know that your whiteness is political. It just is. You can’t run from that any more. I don’t mean political as in, ‘You’re white and you vote Conservative.’ No, by ‘political’ I mean that whiteness is full of statements. That being white is meaningful in our society; that it does not give you a get out of jail free card in the race conversation. Your whiteness doesn’t give you the permission to step away from ‘all this’. Many white people feel that their race is a blank slate, that it’s the ‘default’ setting of racial existence. Many of us act as if race and racial conversations don’t apply to us, because we’re white, and therefore not racially charged. That being non white has meaning, but whiteness does not.

This is, perhaps, why so many white people argue with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’. A counter-hashtag, #AllLivesMatter, has circulated many times, to try to invalidate the BLM movement. Let me be clear: Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that white people don’t have hard lives. It doesn’t mean we don’t suffer; all humans are subject to suffering, and our forms of suffering are complex, real, and totally valid. What we mean, though, by saying black lives matter, rather than the suggested alternative of all lives matter, is quite simply this: imagine you’re walking down the street with a friend, and your friend falls down and breaks his leg. He screams, ‘Help! My leg! It’s broken!’ You look him in the face, upset, and reply, ‘But what about my leg?’

The History of Whiteness

In the news this week, we saw that Bristol protestors had physically pulled down, rolled down the road, and thrown into the river the statue of Edward Colston that sat in the city centre. Colston was a very successful slave trader; Bristol, a city built on the wealth of slavery as much of our country was, was the UK’s slave port in the 18th Century. Petitions had been circulated for years to have Colston removed from the square; they had been ignored. We had had enough. After Colston’s removal, other slave traders who had been immortalised around the country were also removed; in Surrey Quays, Robert Milligan was removed by the council a few days after Colston. Boris Johnson condemned these actions, claiming that the UK is ‘not a racist country’ and that ‘we cannot erase our history.’ I wonder if any German politicians have used this argument to contest removal of Adolf Hitler’s memorabilia. I suspect not.

Whether you agree with the pulling down of these statues or not, these actions have raised Britain’s painful history to the fore. Activists are pushing for our colonial history to be compulsory in the school curriculum, while others are upset that it’s been brought up at all. Britain’s slave trade accumulated the wealth that established us as a super power in the world; our strong standing in the world economy today only exists because of slavery. Britain and Portugal combined made up 70% of Europe’s slave trade between the 17th and 19th centuries. The transatlantic slave trade shipped captured African people across the Atlantic ocean to the southern parts of America and the Caribbean, in order for them to be enslaved in harvesting materials which then were sold around the world. Between 1640 and 1807 some 3.1 million enslaved people were transported from Africa. It is estimated that around one fifth of African people captured died on the journey across the Atlantic; so many dead bodies were hauled overboard that during this time the migration of sharks altered so that they could feed on the corpses. The horrors of the slave trade were vast, long lasting and unthinkably violent.  

Our history in Britain is dripping with blood. We cannot change this now. Yet we deny it often; the very fact that slave traders such as Cecil Rhodes, who stands, tipping his hat to onlookers, inside Oriel College Oxford, are still standing proves our inability to admit that slavery is a stain on our history. Belgium’s Leopold II, who committed genocide in the Congo Free State, killing over 10 million people in his reign of just over fifty years. His statues in Belgium have been soaked in red paint by protestors and vandalised as they beg the state to remove him as a hero of Belgian history. White history is not kind, or is it valiant; it stinks of murder in the pursuit of empire and capital. Not only is our history a stain on humanity in all ways, our history is not in an alternate universe called The Past. Like all countries, the United Kingdom’s history is what we enact in the present. History is taught to us as a phenomenon which no longer is happening, because it already happened. In actual fact, history breathes its complexities right into our day to day lives.

“History is taught to us as a phenomenon which no longer is happening, because it already happened. In actual fact, history breathes its complexities right into our day to day lives.”

Today, in 2020, we feed upon the spoils of the slave trade. As white people, we cannot grasp the pain felt by black communities who live and work within structures, both physical and economic, built on the enslaved backs of their ancestors. Reparations were paid to slave-owning families who lost money when slavery was abolished; these reparations were only paid off fully in 2015. This means that our taxes have been used to fund apology money for white families whose ‘assets’, black human beings, were taken away from them. No reparations have been paid to black families. That is white people’s problem. That is a direct upholding of a system that was designed to privilege white people and keep black people at the bottom of the heap. Stacking the odds against black people economically, socially and educationally has kept white people in power. It is our problem. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are not acting fast enough to balance the scales.

How Do We Uphold Our Whiteness?

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Franklin Leonard

As children, the explorers, inventors and saviours we learn about at school are white. Christopher Columbus, who “found” America and brought civilisation there. Winston Churchill, who saved us from the evil Nazis. David Livingstone, who “found” the Zambezi river and discovered all there was to see in Southern Africa. Yet of course, of course, these people were not the “discoverers.” You cannot discover a place where people already live. And indeed, Winston Churchill did lead us through the war against fascism, but he also believed that whites were the superior race who were doing Africans a favour by overthrowing, colonising and enslaving them. Winston Churchill also exploited Bengal to the point where four million people there starved to death. Winston Churchill also set up concentration camps in Kenya in the 1950s. Winston Churchill was genocidal. Christopher Columbus, too, murdered huge numbers of Native American people who had built their society on that land. Those details were conveniently left out of our education. It is not that we shouldn’t be taught about these people at all, but that we are not told the truth about them. All these people who built our country’s wealth also slaughtered, also enslaved, also dehumanised. We are not taught this. White saviours and heroes remain saviours and heroes, and so our whiteness remains a positive, apolitical factor of our identity. We are never asked to examine ourselves. We are never asked to question what whiteness means.

So yes, we do not think enough about our whiteness. Every day, people of colour are forced to think, to consider, to weigh up the downsides of, and live with the oppression of their skin colour. How people might perceive their anger, how people might perceive their clothing, how they might be judged, how they might be violated. We never think about ours, and we should. As white people, we enjoy our privileges without considering the fact that our whiteness has played an enormous part in it. If you have family money it is probably down to your whiteness. If you have never run from the police even if you were doing something wrong, or if you weren’t, that’s your whiteness too. If you have always known you would be believed when you reported a crime in your area or your household, that’s whiteness speaking. Many white people claim not to ‘see colour’; this is a defence mechanism which translates simply to, ‘I pretend not to see yours, because I don’t wish to be faced with my own.’

Dismantling the systems that uphold us does not mean taking away our rights. Franklin Leonard famously said that ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ As white people, demanding the rights of those marginalised doesn’t take anything away from us. Oh, wait. Yes it does. It takes away our supremacy. This is part of the very important conversation to have with ourselves. Racism is not just the murder of George Floyd. It is not just kneeling upon a neck. Racism is in our education, it is in the way we judge people, it is present in absolutely all of us – even those committed to stamping it out. The quicker we recognise that racism is a part of us as white people, the easier it is to admit that yes, I have work to do. Yes, I have prejudice. Yes, I am committed to ending the supremacy I have become accustomed to.

“Many white people claim not to ‘see colour’; this is a defence mechanism which translates simply to, ‘I pretend not to see yours, because I don’t wish to be faced with my own.'”

Being honest about the fact that our whiteness is a political mechanism does not mean we should hate ourselves. I’ve seen that rhetoric thrown around a lot. ‘Why should I feel guilty for being white?’ ‘It’s not my fault I’m white.’ Indeed, both of those statements are true; white guilt is unhelpful and often offloaded onto black people as a means of catharsis. What you can do, though, is start talking about your whiteness. As Sonya Renee Taylor said, ‘White people need to be talking about whiteness. Stop talking about how hard black people are suffering as if it’s happening in a vacuum. Like black people are suffering because of some amorphous blob we call the system.’ White people are the system. We created chattel slavery, and instead of tearing down our institutions which were built upon it and renouncing its economic privileges, we have upheld them. To acknowledge our history, which we cannot change, we must enact change in the present. Because we are our history. It stains us, it lives and breathes in us. Everything we know and enjoy as white people is propped up by the blood, sweat and tears of black suffering. It is our responsibility to ensure that it ends now.

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