Why I am a Racist (and what I am doing about it)
In the Seventies the population of the Sussex coast, where I grew up, was whiter than the chalky facade of the Seven Sisters cliffs. There may have been an Indian or Pakistani (I wouldn't have known there was a difference) corner shop near my Grandparents' place in Brighton and there was a Chinese takeaway in the area by the end of the decade but that was the extent of my exposure to other cultures. The council estate I lived on was made up from, bar one South American family, all white, all British families. That was my normal.
I wasn't brought up to be racist. At least not consciously, not at home.
Before I came along, my mother was one of four white people in a total staff of about twenty-five, working for the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants during the mid Sixties. One of her stories was of being refused service in a pub in central London when she tried to go for an after work drink with a black male colleague. She also told me she was never refused service when she went out with her six foot model friend who had African and Indian parents. And was female. Funny that. She never said "Paki shop", "chinky", "nigger" or any of those words. We didn't watch "Love Thy Neighbour" or, later, Jim Davidson, or any of that genre (partly because she didn't like it but also because we often had spells with no television in the home). I grew up knowing prejudice is wrong.
I did say "Paki shop" and the other words (not in front of my mum though). The other kids said it so I said it. I didn't mean any harm. There weren't even any people who weren't white around to hear it. I didn't think it was wrong if there was no one around to be hurt by it. Except I must have or why didn't I say it at home?
I was 12 when the first black family moved into my town. The girl was a year older than me. She had shiny golden brown skin, deep liquid-brown eyes, dark hair that looked sort of woven and a Nigerian name. I thought she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen. I thought it was accepting and cool of me to follow her and repeatedly ask her to say her name. It wasn't long before she told me to piss off.
I was 17 when I met "Black Ben". He was one of the most unpleasant boys I've ever known but he was part of our friendship group. I really tried to like him, partly to keep the peace in the group but more because he was black so it felt wrong not to. When I eventually told him I couldn't stand him he said, "It's 'cos I'm black, isn't it?". I told him, "No, it's because you're an arsehole." but the truth is had I not tolerated his rudeness in the first place just because he was black he would never have been led to think we were friends.
I grew up, moved away and made friends from all over the world. I really noticed the racism when I lived in France and never considered that I could be part of the problem. I told my white French friends that they were 'raciste sans le savoir" as we were served tea by Arab waiters in the cafes.
Even now, I work with some black people and am intrigued by their physical differences. I still find it hard not to stare. I want to touch their hair (obviously I don't!), I love the way their skin shines. I could never say I don't notice, as some people claim. I see the difference and, having seen so little of it growing up, have always seen it as exotic.
Now this conversation arises, I've been listening. I've posted nothing on social media (till now). No hash tags, no apology, no justifications, but no solidarity either. The truth is, as a life-long people-pleaser who always wants to say the right thing, who thought she knew right from wrong, I just don't know what to say. I know I don't want to be racist. I know there is a mountain of literature and other resources written by people with different ancestral heritage to mine and I've started there.
If you're non white, reading this, I'm not asking you to educate me, I know that's my job and I'm aware that I've left it embarrassingly late. I'm more hoping this reaches others like me, people who don't think they're racist; people who 'don't know what to say.' Maybe we don't know what to say because we need to listen. I do know we need to address it when we see it in our work places, our families and in ourselves.
A reading and film list is a start but is not enough, It is vital to go on the marches and listen to the speakers, to have the difficult conversations, to call out the racism every single time. Uncle Bob is not harmless because he's always been that way, he is propping up a toxic status quo and it's up to us to neutralise that poison until the world becomes a safer place. You can love him as your uncle, have some empathy for his own misguided upbringing and still tell him his views are unacceptable. As someone said to me, empathy and accountability are not mutually exclusive.
Last month, I said "Paki shop" to someone. There was only us two to hear it, she is not racist and she knows I'm 'not racist'. I did it to shock, to be funny. Just last month. This month, I know it was neither edgy nor funny. It was racist. I am racist. I will do better.