It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here, and that’s because things have been pretty busy – I’ve finished a job, had a civil partnership, been on holiday, moved house, celebrated family weddings, and enjoyed the glorious glimpse of heaven that is Greenbelt festival. Every so often, I’ve had a quick glance at the news – then promptly turned it off again. Too scary. Too depressing. Too rage-inducing. And while the world at large seems to be going up in smoke, my small corner of it remains pretty calm. Life, for me, is as good as it’s ever been, and probably better.
Why? Why can I relax in the safety of my home and the apparent security of future plans, even while the political world and the natural world are battling it out to cause the most destruction?
Two words: white privilege.
It’s something I’ve been blind to for most of my life, and I want to try this exercise if only to show me how little of it I’m still seeing. Before we start, a pre-empting of the comments: getting to grips with the privilege I have as a white British person is not about:
a) denying the ways in which I don’t have privilege. I’m a woman, a queer woman, a bisexual queer woman. But being white makes those disadvantages much easier to handle than if I were a queer woman of colour;
b) denying the positive influence of other factors in my life, like hard work and supportive friends and family. But being white is like having the wind at my back, making those other factors so much more effective than they might otherwise have been;
c) denying the difficult and painful circumstances, big and small, that make my life far from perfect. Of course every individual has really tough stuff to face at times. But being white means I am always benefiting from a society that works in my favour, even when my personal life isn’t so great.
With that said, here’s the very beginnings of an exploration into my white privilege:
Let’s start with my name. Without seeing me, both my first name and my surname mean I’m assumed to be white. That’s because I live in a culture where white is considered the default – unless you have a name that is, for instance, Arabic or African-Carribean. My name meant that from the moment my parents applied for a nursery place, I’ve started in new contexts with a clean slate: with no race-based assumptions or stereotypes laid over me before I even arrived. My teachers would not have presumed to know anything about my behaviour or my personality before they met me; a privilege which children with names that don’t sound white aren’t afforded. And when I did arrive, people weren’t surprised at my name and my face belonging to the same person. No one struggled to pronounce it. It didn’t stick out on the register. In fact, I barely noticed I had my name. White privilege is often not noticing.
During my education, I was encouraged to achieve my full potential, and no one put limits around it. I had every possibility open to me, because every role model I was given looked like me. From athletes to academics, every achievement was something that white people could do. Of course, I didn’t notice that there were platforms and brochures and posters full of white faces. White privilege is often not noticing. In particular though, I was encouraged to apply for Oxford University, and I had enough confidence to do it. After all, there were people in my social circles who had studied there and the websites were full of enthusiastic faces like mine. I could see myself there. No one told me I’d have to grow a thick skin. No one warned me I’d be the only person of my race in my college, or year group. And no one ever suggested that I’d only got in because of my race. No one questioned my right to be there.
I didn’t notice I was white in Oxford because no one ever asked me to represent all white people. I was never asked to be in a photoshoot for the prospectus, I was never used as a token ‘other’ on a panel, and I was never required to educate others about racism or diversity. No one looked to me for the ‘white person’s experience of Oxford’. People of my race were already very well represented in absolutely every sphere of academic and social life. I was therefore free to be entirely myself, representing no one but me (and Jesus, naturally…).
Coming from a state-school background, and a middle-middle class family, I sometimes felt I had to up my class game to fit in. Rightly or wrongly, I sometimes found myself at fancy dinners and among distinguished guests polishing up my accent and adapting my vocabulary and exaggerating my experiences, to be considered one of them. The thing is, it was easy. Everyone bought it. No one found my accent a surprise, or cast suspicion over my inflated credentials. Because I looked the part, it was easy to fake.
When it came to looking for work, there were again no limits on what people thought I might apply for, excepting my subject choices and skills. But as I threw around ideas and options, no one told me “I haven’t seen a white [career name] before”. It wasn’t hard to find friends, mentors, professional people whose experiences I could relate to and were happy to take me under their wing and give me a chance, because they could see their younger selves in me. I didn’t have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. I didn’t have to worry about being paid less because of the colour of my skin. And when I frequently made mistakes, I was never made to feel that I was letting my whole race down.
I’ve always felt relatively safe, both as a child and now that I live on my own – even during my years in the depths of South London and the outer estates of Sunderland. That’s because I’ve never worried that my family or I could be victim of a racially motivated attack. I’ve never had to stay calm in the face of unprovoked aggression, knowing that in any altercation I’d be disproportionately blamed. I’ve not have to laugh off racist “banter” for fear of the repercussions if I challenge it. In fact, although I’m sure I’ve sat in groups where such “banter” has gone unchallenged, I’ve quickly forgotten it. Because white privilege is not being affected.
Once, I had to talk to the police about a particularly nasty incident. As an innocent person, it didn’t occur to me that they’d be anything other than kind, supportive and fair. That’s because I haven’t been stopped and searched, or watched people of my race suffer undue suspicion, excessive force, brutality and death at their hands. When my little brother grows up, I won’t worry about him suffering that treatment either. My family and I are white, so we are considered innocent until proven guilty.
With my mind freed from such serious concerns, I can use my energy on trying to be a little more beautiful. I don’t pay too much attention to it, partly because I already have the main feature that society tells me is beautiful: white skin. But when I do choose to browse make up sections, I find products geared towards my skin tone. I find shades called “nude” that match my naked body, and “flesh-coloured” tights that are the colour of my flesh. Hair products that line the shelves are made for my kind of hair, and the models I see plastered on TV screens and billboards aren’t all that different from me, behind all the airbrushing and lighting and products! People didn’t swipe straight past me on dating apps because of my race, and never have I heard someone tell me they’d never be attracted to someone with my colour skin. Society makes me feel ugly in many ways, but not this one.
What have I missed? For every instance of my white privilege that I’m starting to notice, there’s bound to be 100 more that I still don’t see.
What do I do in response? What do we, white people who benefit from systemic racism, change about our daily lives to counter it? I’m working on that. I’m trying to listen to those who are already speaking so eloquently about the need for white people to step up and tackle racism. But for now, the very least I can do is try to open my eyes.