My cultural identity has always been an area of slight confusion, and not just for me. I was born in Karachi, but my family has lived in Budapest, Dubai and London (the latter since April 2004). As is common for the children of immigrants, I seem to disagree with my parents (and the odd drunken stranger insisting that I go back to where I came from) over where I’m “from”.
Ultimately, it means that I am very interested in the role race plays in a person’s life, and it means that I have tried to engage with the topic by educating myself and by talking to others about it. Unfortunately though, discussion between white people, even well-meaning, liberal ones, and people of other races is too often derailed and unsuccessful, but that’s no one’s fault.
It is important to note that white people do not intuitively understand race and racial issues. To them, ‘race’ is mostly just a concept, whereas it is a large part of life for people of other races. It would be wrong to blame white people for not understanding race. They rarely fall victims of race discrimination and are never properly taught about it at school. They neither have the personal experience nor the external education to comprehend such a complex issue. But that isn’t an excuse for continued ignorance.
Hopefully this article will help point out some of the issues we have in discussions about race.
White people get defensive. A friend recently admitted that he was afraid to talk about the issue altogether, he felt as though discussion of race too often led to ‘reverse racism’, and that he would be shouted at if he dared to engage.
This illustrates a common misunderstanding which is easily cleared up by the introduction of an important concept: white privilege. Simply put, white privilege is the name for all the societal privileges (not the same thing as legal privileges) that only white people have. I think it’s fairly obvious that it is advantageous to be white in our society, but let me give you some examples.
White privilege is being annoyed by the longer lines at airport security, but not being afraid that you will be discriminated against while trying to pass through. White privilege is the fact that your race is always the good guy in film and TV. White privilege is the fact that you can assume that people of the relevant sex won’t disregard you because of your race. Not having to think or talk about your own race used to be one of these privileges, but I’m afraid it’s becoming one that white people can no longer enjoy.
So-called ‘reverse racism’ is just a minor example of the contents of a long list of things every non-white person thinks or worries about on a regular basis. Race is now a determinant of life and identity that cannot be ignored. The worry of being shouted at is a more complicated issue. I certainly believe that the best way to convince someone of something is to do it in a calm manner and, by extension, that every non-white person should argue their case accordingly. But I cannot say that I blame any of them for getting angry.
The fact of the matter is that white people committed atrocities against every other race, which enabled them to establish a global system where whiteness is valued and ‘The White Man’ can flourish at the expense of other men. While these things happened in the past, they still affect the lives of non-white people in our society. For better or for worse, these acts of violence have imprinted on the collective memory of their victims. In other words, it still shapes their identity and perspective.
What is important for a white person to understand when faced with this anger is that it is only directed at them personally if they make it so. Non-white people do not blame every last white person for what their ancestors committed, or for what some white people continue to do. Because they know far better than white people how it feels to be marginalised for something you cannot control. Being reasonably angry at the past and seeking change differs from blaming contemporary whites.
However, it is important to note what is in the control of white people, and that is pretty much everything. Oppression may have been eradicated in the rule of the law, but it still permeates our society. Non-white people are desperate for equality, but their fate is in the hands of a group that perhaps lacks the motivation to help them: regular white people. Martin Luther King spoke of the ‘white moderate’ who says ‘“I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods”’ being the ‘greatest stumbling block’ on the ‘stride towards freedom’.
In reality, the truth of his claim lies in the fact that the white moderate holds the balance of power.
At their worst, white moderates in this country enable people like Nigel Farage, but the potential they have to enable change is unrivalled. This is why so often discussions about race get heated. It is frustrating to see someone claim to support you, only to realise that they are inadvertently holding you down; and it is hard to sympathise with someone complaining about just a small dose of what it is like to be maligned for your race.
Ultimately, some non-white people beg for help and others demand change, but I don’t believe it should be important how they ask. What is important is what they want: equality. The matter rests in the hands of white people, but the truth is it isn’t easy. It doesn’t necessarily require education on the history of racial oppression, but it does mean an active change to the way you think and interact with people when talking about race. It requires some knowledge of how your race affects others.
The proliferation of good ideas (i.e. racial equality) in a society requires regular, constructive discussion. The better people understand each other and each other’s context, the better the discussion, which in turn leads to good ideas being spread. If more white people are able to engage properly in discussion about race, that will only speed up the march.