I’ve seen several posts shared over recent days, written by white people who want to stress that they have never seen systemic racism in their workplaces; the occasional explicitly racist individual—bad apples—yes, but not systemic racism. And I believe them. Not that there is no systemic racism, but that they don’t see it. That we don’t see it. That we don’t see what it costs people of colour to inhabit spaces shaped by whiteness, default spaces seen by whites as neutral.
There have been moments that stand out for me, when my white privilege has been made visible. At the time, they have been deeply uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I am thankful for them. I need more of them in my life. This has nothing to do with self-flagellation, and everything to do with being awoken and invited into a deeper experience of life as a human being.
A story. Back when my wife and I were engaged, she worked in an Anglican cathedral bookshop. It is hard to imagine a whiter space, nor a more English one. I used to meet her there, arriving ahead of the end of her shift, in order to browse the shelves. On one occasion, a Rastafarian came into the shop, like me, looking around. I watched him, and a smile broke out on my face. I smiled because his presence was a joy to me, a delight. His very being in that space made it more colourful, in every sense but in particular in the sense of God’s creative handiwork. Watching him was as watching God breathe life into the room. Smiling was both a prayer of praise to God and a reaching out to another human being who bore God’s likeness.
He did not see it that way. In fact, he confronted me, wanted to know why I was watching him, why I was grimacing at his being in that space? Did I feel that he did not belong there, as I did, as people like me did?
I was shocked. That, by the way, is white privilege right there. It had not crossed my mind that this proud (I mean that entirely in a positive sense) man should be bone tired of white people watching him, keeping an eye on him, in case he stole something, in case he turned threatening.
I was offended. That, by the way, is white privilege. I had just experienced prejudice. And yes, it was prejudice; but it was not reverse racism. Prejudice is forming a conclusion ahead of all of the facts; racism is prejudice plus power. In this case, his prejudice was founded on countless previous experiences, encounters with white people; more than reasonable odds. But in that space, and however I felt, I had the power. I was the one who, taking offence at prejudice, could have accused him of causing a scene, of being ungrateful, of demonstrating the very reason why some white people are explicitly racist and why it is just so damn hard for those of us who aren’t. I was the one who could shut that space down to him in a way he could not shut it down for me.
I was confused, as to why a black man—someone used to prejudice—would be guilty of prejudice. That, by the way, is white privilege. An ignorance—not wilful, but lazy; questions I had never had to ask, let alone wrestle with.
I was hurt. That, by the way, is white privilege, exposed. Over sensitive. Myself cast as victim. I am neither an explicit racist nor a bleeding-heart liberal nor a right-on Leftie; but I have been, largely unconsciously, shaped by white privilege (among other privileges) my whole life.
We talked, and it was okay. But I was left shaken. Which, as I said, was deeply uncomfortable at the time, but necessary. Absolutely necessary. My experience in no way whatsoever equates to his; but, it did make my white privilege visible to me.
It is about me, about what I needed to learn, and need to re-learn again and again and again. But—the paradox of all true learning—it wasn’t and isn’t primarily about me. I move closer to who I am when I am dethroned from the centre of my life. No-one needs my approval—and only when I understand that does my affirmation truly build the other person up. No-one owes me a debt of gratitude—and only when I understand that is it safe for me to receive gratitude when it is freely-given. And no-one needs my awkward smile, but that’s another matter.
There have been other such moments I could tell you about, and perhaps sometime I will. This is not a class we graduate from, though our sight can become clearer or more clouded.
If you are white—and if you have read this far—I wonder how you reacted to this re-telling? Honestly. But, please, respectfully.
If you are black, please forgive me my ongoing mis-steps, as I try not to shed my skin but to see you more clearly, and with a clean heart.