Let’s Talk About Race

3354122797_e4bcef8d76_bMy 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.

5 Comments

  1. Louise
    13 January 2015 - 18:51 BST

    The examples you give of “white privilege” are questionable at best.

    White people do “think or talk about” their race. On the most part, however, they don’t know what their race signifies, especially not in terms of “white privilege”. Trust me, the people voting for Nigel Farage think about their race, unfortunately they conclude that their race is best. But the race they’re talking about isn’t “white” it is British. They have problems with people who aren’t British, regardless of their skin colour. The immigrants from East Europe, affectionately termed Eastern Europeans nicely vague term which allows us not to bother learning individual countries or towns tend to be white. That does not mean, however, that racist comments or remarks are not directed towards them.

    I won’t list off endless films which feature white villains to prove a point but I will say that “Die Hard” and the “Harry Potter” series are good films in their own right. I will, however, say that if you look at US films the villain is often British or Russian. The various strata of “white people” as you like to term us have our own layers of racial profiling. Racism isn’t quite as simple as the affectionate white and non-white divisions you speak of.

    It isn’t as simple as “white” people having the power; it is Britain, and British people having power, or America and American people having power. The inhabitants of these countries are not all white and I urge you to re-consider the terminology you use when you discuss race because the more you assume all white people are the same and have the same wealth and privilege as one another the less you understand about race.

    “All white, all white, I get the point!”

    However, you do give a brilliant example of White Privilege in your closing paragraphs. Unintentionally, but given the ignorance you display in the rest of the article, this is hardly surprising.

    You write: “The matter rests in the hands of white people”. Does it? Should it? Don’t assume that all white people are ignorant about race, are unwilling to exchange in discussions about it, but also don’t assume that the power to cause significant change lies only in their hands. In doing so you are reinforcing the privilege you claim to understand. Using your terminology: non-white people have voices, they can use them, don’t encourage white people to speak on their behalf because we’ve tried that and it failed miserably.

  2. john
    14 January 2015 - 15:25 BST

    “White privilege is the fact that your race is always the good guy in film and TV”
    Oh boy the German, Russian and British races always get discriminated against in film, you’re absolutely correct.

    “White privilege is the fact that you can assume that people of the relevant sex won’t disregard you because of your race”
    Wow… I don’t even know… It seems like you got turned down by a girl and now you’re angry, but then again this is 1960s Alabama so I guess you’re right.

    “I certainly believe that the best way to convince someone of something is to do it in a calm manner”
    You demonstrated that well with this article

    Alright you might want to consider this. You state correctly that we shouldn’t generalize about races. However you then go on to do so extensively yourself. “white people do not intuitively understand race”, so you wish to combat racism by making broad generalization about an entire race. That hypocrisy is beyond me. Its not that you’re wrong, racism is still an issue, and many people of all races are actively working to end it. As you correctly identify, you need moderates, but articles like yours will more likely alienate people.

  3. Ahad
    14 January 2015 - 21:49 BST

    @Louise- Thank you for your response, here is what I have to say to that:

    1. There is a difference between race and nationality. You have described xenophobia, which is not what I am talking about.
    2. That point hoped more to illustrate that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in media, particularly in lead roles. A large number of films have almost entirely white casts so there are obviously loads of white villains.
    3. I simply thought that in a democratic nation, the balance of power would lie with the largest group (87% UK, 72% US). I can’t be certain but it seems logical, doesn’t it?

    @john-
    Please come back with something coherent.

  4. Louise
    15 January 2015 - 20:45 BST

    @Ahad –

    The terms ‘race’ and ‘xenophobia’ have quite fluid definitions so don’t be quite so quick to label something as xenophobic before considering the larger point. The thing I was trying to convey to you, above anything else, is that ‘white people’ do not all think the same, come from the same place, speak the same languages, or share cultural products. Hence why I used various nationalities as examples of the different opinions and backgrounds people of the same skin colour have. If you’re still having difficulty understanding this, substitute the word ‘white’ for ‘black’ and perhaps you will be confronted with a racist attitude you’re more familiar with.

    I think your last point is genuinely worrying though. The ‘white people’ you speak of in the article aren’t restricted to any geographical region. This is on the internet, you’re reaching a global audience, and ‘white people’ are not the majority.

    Even if they are the majority you seem to be labouring under the impression that minority cultures and voices are lacking in the ability to affect the dominant discourse. I suggest that you take some time to consider the implications of what you are saying. The moment you conclude that the power lies within white hands to grant equality you are advocating white privilege. You are denying the potential that fresh and silenced voices possess. You claim to be advocating change but are waiting for the people who hold the upper hand, who have the power and privilege, to grant it – and that simply isn’t going to happen without other voices, faces, and perspectives demanding it and making it happen.

  5. Ahad
    16 January 2015 - 12:44 BST

    @Louise.

    1. I will maintain that race and nationality are different things, because they are, but I see what you are trying to say. But I think the fact that most white people live in white majority countries means that their experience of race will be similar. If you think I meant that every white person is exactly the same, then please be assured that I did not.

    2. White people are the majority in Western society. This is a conversation about Western society. I am not having a conversation about the internet because it would be impossible to establish a demographic.

    3. I’m confused by your last point. It’s not a conclusion I have come to. The balance of power in a democratic country lies with the people. The most power lies with the largest group of people. No minority can affect change on its own, it needs popular support.

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