The Basics – White Privilege
In what ways do I hold white privilege?
In many ways. If I am at a meeting, especially of senior leaders, then most of them will share my gender and ethnicity. When I see role models in the media many of them will be white. If I apply for a job or bid for work it is highly likely that those selecting will be from my ethnic groups. Since childhood to be white was to be ‘the norm’.
Growing up in the 60s in the rural home counties any skin colour but white was seen as a rarity. I had to choose whether to be racist or anti-racist. Arthur Ashe or Buster Mottram? National Front or Anti Nazi League and Rock against Racism? It was not a choice my black school mates had.
When I go through Peggy Macintosh’s list of the items that structure white privilege in a day to day and very practical way – yes they all apply. All the time. And they work differently in different contexts and at different times. Even when I lived in a rural village in The Gambia in sub-saharan Africa my white privilege was still with me.
The fact that I can afford to take my own skin colour for granted is an enormous white privilege. It was never a source of worry or fear. Or pride for that matter. I could safely ignore it. However by ignoring my skin colour I was also blinded to the power of whiteness. To my own white power.
I thought white power was a ridiculous, white supremacists’ chant rather than something that directly and unfairly benefitted me.
What negative experiences has white privilege protected me from throughout my life?
I have always had easy access to the culture of my own ethnic group. Even when I lived in sub-saharan Africa, while I physically did not see many white people in the village I could easily tune the radio to access my own culture. So I never felt that my culture was denied or absent in my life. It was always the dominant culture. The successful culture. It has only been in recent years that China has emerged as a global power to seriously threaten the dominance of Caucasians.
I was in The Gambia for just over a year, and for much of that time it was quite difficult to meet another white person. There were a couple of Peace Corps in the village and generally The Gambia was full of ex-pats, but generally I lived and socialised with Gambians; Mandinka, Wolof, Jola, Serahule and Fula. And I learned that Gambia is the shape it is because of the way Africa was divided post war, largely using rulers and compasses, ands how the imposition of borders in the Sahara had made apparently made very little difference to the day to day life in tribal West Africa. I remember walking one day up to the border with Senegal. Just sand. But even here my whiteness protected me from some of the racism that black Africans from other countries received from Gambians. I remember one teacher had walked from Cameroon to the The Gambia to take up a teaching post and he got a hard time because he was not of the Gambia or from one of the local tribes. I was protected from all that because of my association with power and money that came with my skin colour.
I don’t think I have ever been discriminated against unfairly because of my ethnicity – again even in West Africa to be white was seen to bestow power; education and access to networks and resources.
I have never been subjected to violence because of my skin colour. For my politics and football allegiances yes – but never skin colour.
In what ways have I wielded my white privilege over black, indigenous and people of colour?
I find this question hard to answer. I know I have often been invited to speak with BAME networks and feel guilty when I am the white man at the front of the room teaching the BAME networks about power and empowerment. I always feel conflicted in this work as historical power structures are re-created. I have always tried to name it and to talk about it – but even my choice to do that is an exercise in white privilege.
I don't like the acronym BAME but don't know what else might work. Layla F Saad uses BIPOC meaning Black, indigenous and people of colour but again that does not feel appropriate for me to use. Getting used to the inadequacy of words, their clumsiness and the vulnerability they bestow on the user who as at the edge is another thing that those of with white privilege, using our first language to explore our concepts of race, perhaps don't experience that often.
In political processes I have always supported the candidates who most closely fit with my political beliefs rather than perhaps vote for the person or party most likely to pursue racial justice. I wold NEVER vote or someone who was overtly racist – but I perhaps have never gone deeply enough into the record of politicians on anti-racism.
I have competed with BAME people for jobs and tenders without ever really considering the privileges I enjoy in that competition.
What have I learned about my white privilege that makes me uncomfortable?
I think the thing that makes me most uncomfortable about it is that it is slippery, evasive, structural as well as personal and difficult for me to see. Whiteness is like an invisible superpower. I feel like a fish coming to terms with water.
I was involved to small degree back in the late 70s and early 80s with movements like Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. However I realise now that while that was helpful in uncovering and combatting overt racism it did little to explore and reveal the more subtle and structural racism that patterns our society. That pattern me. It was as simple as ‘good white people and their black allies’ against the ‘bad white people’.
Whenever I try to work in a way that I hope is ‘anti-racist’ it feels like an expression of privilege and hubris. Even writing as honestly as I can about the reflections prompted by the book I have this nagging sense of doubt. Doubting my own intentions in this exercise of privilege.
Who am I to think I can help? Especially uninvited…
But then who would I be to do nothing?