My decision to write this article comes from my responsibility, as someone who considers herself anti-racist, to reach out to the people that I am surrounded by in my predominantly-white social, academic, and working spaces.
Racism is a difficult topic to navigate, but my position as a white person is something I must engage with. White people need to work to undo the work of centuries of systemic racism. We can begin to do this by privileging black voices (within and aside from conversations about race), while also using our own platform to advocate for anti-racism. Most importantly, we need to be open to being corrected, and therefore to learning and improving. Don’t allow my voice to be the only one you hear on this topic. If your thought is stimulated by this article, seek out black and other minority ethnic voices, activists and writers to listen to in the future.
In the shattering wake of George Floyd’s murder back in May, I engaged friends and family in conversations about the need for anti-racism in Britain, and was struck by one person’s reply. They stated, “Racism makes absolutely no sense. There’s no logic in it. I can’t comment on Americans as they’re a completely separate nation, but the British are certainly more tolerant of other races and cultures than we were 40-50 years ago.” While other responses to my messages were overwhelmingly positive and proactive, this one interaction has stuck with me. What makes white Brits so unwilling to engage with conversations about the racism happening right now in this country? While I’m not suggesting that this person spoke with malice or ill intent, their response so perfectly characterises the limitations of white conversations about racism in Britain.
This response, by claiming that Britain is “more tolerant” of race than in the past, fails to acknowledge the racism that exists today. While it may be true that many British people are in fact more tolerant (or at least hide their racism better) than 40-50 years ago, the truth is that our overarching socioeconomic system still overwhelmingly rewards whiteness. In creating temporal distancing, this idea communicates a commonly-held belief that we live in a post-racial society. These sentiments, while often well-intentioned, ignore the lived experiences of racial minorities living in Britain today.
This idea of “tolerance” can also be harmful, as it suggests a sense of simply putting up with marginalised groups, as if their presence on our soil is nothing but a slight inconvenience. Until we accept our complicity in systemic racism, we should not be quick to congratulate ourselves of our supposed tolerance.
Racism may appear to make “no sense” to those who are in a position to ignore it, but it has historically made a lot of sense for those who have generated and maintained power in a racialised world, at the expense of others. We can acknowledge the progress we’ve made in the last half-century while also acknowledging injustice and pushing for change in the present; if we congratulate ourselves too readily, we become complacent. I hope this article not only addresses the problems with how white people talk about race in the UK, but helps to gesture towards how we might begin to rectify this as we envision a better future.
I have seen these methods of distancing operate in four ways:
Historical: “I’ve never owned a slave and they’ve never been a slave, why are we still having this conversation?” “It’s been 200 years… they need to get over it.”
Geographical: “Have you seen the police brutality in the US? I’m so glad it’s not like that over here.”
Emotional: “Those EDL protestors are disgusting, I’m so glad I don’t know anyone like that.”
Colour-blindness: “I just don’t see colour,” “race doesn’t have any meaning to me,” “I treat everyone the same,” “focusing on race only divides us.”
When these methods of distancing combine, a gulf opens up between the white psyche and productive conversations about British racism.
Historical distancing is often used in conversations about race to completely shut down debate and invalidate claims of contemporary racism. This attitude insinuates that any instance of racism now is simply trivial compared to slavery, or that the person of colour is “dwelling on the past” and should just “move on.” Yewande Adeniran, in an article for gal-dem magazine, writes, “Removing the distance between recent history and our present day is incredibly important. Most of our experiences, especially those of a traumatic nature, have a correlation to – or are a result of – a past event.” For example, blackface is offensive because of the traumatic history associated with its use, a history which continues to inform the present. People who deny its offensiveness are most likely ignorant, or in denial of this history. If we remove this historical distance in our discussions about race, and accept that the past continues to exert effects on people living today, we may be able to begin addressing and repairing this generational trauma.
Geographical and historical distancing intersect when we consider Britain’s historical relationship with the US. Contemporary methods of geographical distancing form a reflection of British abolitionist sentiment during the Atlantic slave trade; there is a recognition of injustice overseas, and a moral positioning in relation to this. However, this moral positioning on what is seen as an overseas issue can obscure the acknowledgement of injustice at home. British abolitionists capitalised on the cult of sensibility (which emphasised being in touch with ones emotions and sympathies) to agitate through literature and poetry for the anti-slavery cause, but many of them still held the entrenched racialist beliefs that the people they were campaigning for were at the least, inherently different, and at the worst, biologically inferior, than themselves.
What’s more, these figures, and the people they married, worked, and socialised with, profited from enslaved colonies long after the abolition of the slave trade itself; Britain and its people were, and still are, complicit in the economic structures and social attitudes that slavery instigated. For example, the money that the UK borrowed to compensate slave owners upon the abolition of slavery (£17bn in modern money) wasn’t paid off until 2015. Living British citizens have helped, through their taxes, to pay off slave owners for their loss of human property. This demonstrates the continuing influence of history on the present; there is no clear-cut line between “then” and “now,” or between “there” and “here.” Attitudes, beliefs, and legislation trickle down, camouflaged and veiled, but still there.
Today, geographical distancing still exerts effects on racial attitudes in Britain. While we see the US as a “completely separate country,” our legacy of colonisation and slavery binds our histories together. Not only this but, as DiAngelo states, “the United States is a global power, and through movies and mass media, corporate culture, advertising, US-owned manufacturing, military presence, historical colonial relations, missionary work, and other means, white supremacy is circulated globally” (29). To avoid geographical distancing, we must acknowledge this intertwined history, the contemporary cultural power of the US, and the racial attitudes grown and fostered in Britain itself.
While race-fuelled police brutality in the US are certainly more commonly reported, and rests upon a more geographically immediate history, we must address our own complicity in racial injustice in order to move forwards. Books such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and Brit(ish), communicate the specificity of racism in the UK, and work to undo this sense of geographical distancing that so often characterises British conversations about race.
Emotional distancing forms an aversive reaction to violent racist acts. However, in doing so, it can ignore the more insidious racism that occurs in the everyday. By only talking about violent and spectacular acts of racism as racism, we create a distance between these and our own unavoidable complicity as white people within a systemically racist society. While we must condemn these acts, we must also question the structures that allow them to become so extreme.
Something that helped me understand this was a pyramid diagram of white supremacy. At the bottom are more commonly “accepted” forms of racism: not challenging racist jokes, denials of racism, cultural appropriation, “all lives matter,” denials of white privilege. Although these instances may seem trivial to white people, the pyramid illustrates that they are a vital part of the overall structure. At the top of the pyramid are more overt and socially unacceptable forms of racism: violent attacks, racial slurs, police brutality, lynching. If we reduce racism to only these very visible instances, we refuse to acknowledge the underlying structures that allow them to occur. In this pyramid, every block relies on the ones below it to hold it up. If we shy away from challenging racist jokes, if we centre our own feelings and guilt when someone calls out our subconscious racism or white privilege, we reinforce white solidarity and therefore help to maintain the dominance of white supremacy.
By creating this sense of historical, geographical, and emotional distance, we are able to put ourselves at a remove from conversations about race, and thus avoid accepting responsibility. In doing this, we also remove our ability to promote change. Robin DiAngelo states that “we can’t challenge our racial filters if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them” (47). As soon as we remove this distance, and practice being uncomfortable with our position within this system, we can begin to challenge it.
A common sentiment used in conversations about race, which consequently distances the speaker from racial issues, is that of “not seeing” race. In an effort to identify as non-racist, many white people proclaim that they do not see skin colour, that everyone is the same, and that they treat people based only on the way they act.
Yet, people of colour in Britain live a racialised existence, and experience discrimination daily; the dominant nature of whiteness allows us to remain largely ignorant of this. Many believe that the key to ending racism is simply to stop seeing race. DiAngelo states that claims of colour-blindness “exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo” (78).
While the intentions of this attitude are not malicious, they inevitably exert negative effects on people of colour. When we refuse to acknowledge someone’s race, we refuse to validate a significant part of someone’s experience in the world. We refuse to engage with their culture, and with the discrimination that informs their lived existence. We discourage them from speaking up about this, as we refuse to acknowledge even its possibility. In doing so, we maintain white dominance.
This myth of colour-blindness is also evident in the belief that we live in a meritocracy: that people occupy the positions (high or low) that they do because of the work (or lack of) that they have put in. There is a sense that everyone in a functioning society occupies a place that they “deserve” to be in. It denies that any of the (largely) white, middle class men in management positions got there because they had a leg up on account of their race, gender, or the economic status of their families. No one is suggesting that successful people haven’t worked hard, just that they have also received often unnoticed handouts from a society which privileges their identities.
Afua Hirsch offers a clarifying analysis of what it is like to experience an assertion of colour-blindness as a person of colour: "By someone who will tell you: ‘I don’t see race.’ The intention is a rejection of racism. That’s fine, rejecting racism is standard, rejecting racism is what we should all expect. But claiming ‘not to see’ only serves to further delegitimise the experiences of those of us who are faced with the reality, and baggage, of our racial difference every day. It operates powerfully against a sense of belonging in this country. In my case, the combination of experiencing race, while being encouraged to ignore race, created a pressure to downplay the experience, or risk being disliked, seen as paranoid, a troublemaker, or simply raining on the post-racial parade." (124)
Hirsch demonstrates how colour-blindness, however well-intentioned, undermines conversations about race and feeds into the idea of a “post-racial” society. In order to undo this belief, we must engage with our own position as a racial group, and the privilege that this grants us, especially when this privilege is used to avoid confronting race altogether. If we acknowledge our different experiences, we can begin to think critically about the system that constructs them, and in doing so we can re-legitimise voices that have previously been silenced by it.
If you came across this article because you operate in one of the white spaces (digital or physical) that I also occupy, good. I hope that you stop listening to me at this point, and start now seeking out black and ethnic minority voices. Being brought up in a dominantly white society means that white feelings of defensiveness and guilt are inevitable when confronting racism. It is up to us to decide what we do with these feelings. Will we hide them away, bury them, store them for another time that never comes? Or will we engage with them, use them as an opportunity to learn and do better in the present, while pushing for a better future for all? The path to an anti-racist society will not be perfect, it will be littered with mistakes and misunderstandings, but we must confront these to instigate change.
You can admit that you’re part of the problem and still be part of the solution. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, admitting you’re part of the problem becomes the beginning of the solution. In the hope of achieving what this piece of writing set out to do, I leave you with these two quotes from Reni Eddo-Lodge:
“Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent.” (xvii)
“We have to hope for and envision something before agitating for it, rather than blithely giving up, citing reality, and accepting the way things are. After all, utopian ideals are as ideological as the political foundations of the world we’re currently living in.” (182-3)
Adeniran, Yewande. “Rebel music: celebrating the UK’s inclusive soundsystems.” Gal-dem Magazine, 30th August 2020. gal-dem.com/uk-inclusive-soundsystem-community/
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Penguin: Allen Lane, 2018.
Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Hirsch, Afua. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Vintage, 2018.
Zaidi, Afroze Fatima. “Dear Priti Patel: your parents aren’t the only immigrants that deserve compassion.” The Canary, 5th September 2020. www.thecanary.co/opinion/2020/09/05/dear-priti-patel-your-parents-arent-the-only-immigrants-that-deserve-compassion.