You know those things you do even though you’re not sure they’re a good idea? This post is one of those. If you’re tired of hearing yet another white person talking about #BlackLivesMatter, don’t read on. This post is about my (white) thoughts, my (privileged) experiences, my fragility. It’s another white person making BLM all about them. If that’s not something you need right now, I totally get that.
So why am I writing this post, given my own ambivalence towards it, and the volatility of the subject? I’m doing it because the thing that has changed my understanding of this topic has been the first hand stories, heartbreaking and brutally honest, poured out, wept over, cursed and sworn at. Reading other people’s stories has helped me see what is really happening, hidden from my own viewpoint most of the time. I am writing this with the hope that my honesty can equal that of those other writers, that I can follow in their footsteps and lay down my tiny brick along this new way we are forging together.
I am not trying to speak for others, though the experience and stories of others has become a part of mine too, and will shape my own narrative. I am also going to try really hard not to whitesplain anything. And I’m pretty likely to get that wrong sometimes. If you have a better way to say these things, please share it. This is a learning piece for me; I do not understand this topic well. I am not familiar, or comfortable, with much of this language. But I want to learn, and I hope that, at least, will count for a little.
Going to Africa
A question frequently asked about privilege is “Have you ever been the only one who looks like you in a public space?” If you are black, Asian or minority ethnic in a white-majority country, you are often the only person who looks like you in a room, and this can feel threatening. My own answer to this question is also yes. I have been alone in that way. This first became true when I spent several months in Kenya. This was also what made me very aware of my own skin for the first time (I was in my 20s, so there’s privilege straight away). But this way round, I did not feel threatened. I felt uncomfortable in my white skin maybe twice in three months, when walking through unfamiliar villages, or crossing the Likoni ferry. Most of the time, when I was uncomfortable, it was because I was treated far, far too well, by people who knew nothing about me but the colour of my skin.
I went to the home of a colleague one afternoon, to help him with a piece of writing he had to do. As we were working, his very new wife came in, looked at me, and said “It’s true then.” I was ready for all sorts of accusations – who wouldn’t be, after that? Instead she said “They said I would be nothing. But here I am, married, and a white person is drinking tea in my house.” That’s what it took to have made it, in her mind. That comment was joined by others. We were called angels by children trying to touch out skirts. I was informed that in the queue to enter Heaven, rightly, the white people would go first. When just looking at me made a child cry (well, I have that reaction in plenty of other places too, but this was more extreme than normal) everyone hastened to make sure I was not upset by this. Even when asked how it could be possible to drink with noses as long as ours (possibly the best question I have ever been asked in my life 😂), it was asked with curiosity, shyness, and no judgement.
Living in Birmingham
Several years later, in a new phase of life, we lived in Birmingham and we learned A Lot. We were there, living in a vicarage, when Fox News (wrongly, clearly), pointed to Birmingham as somewhere that white people, and Christians, feared to go. Oops. We lived in an area where most middle class people, of any ethnicity, came in and did charity work during the day, then left at night before it got rough. There were stabbings in the park just beyond our back fence. We frequently found used needles and used condoms on our walk, just up the side of the church, to worship on a Sunday morning. I was mistaken for the local prostitute (she was also white, I’m told, and neither of us covered our hair). I took my children to an event of 200 people and we were the only ones there who looked like us. There were mutters, sideways looks, and a circle of space around us as if our whiteness might be catching. There were times in this stage of my life that I was treated differently, and treated as less than I had been before, based solely on the colour of my skin and the visibility of my hair. There were times, at this stage of my life, that I felt afraid.
And yet. I could get out of this place, go to church, go to Meeting, shop in the reinvigorated city centre, or visit the other side of town, and find plenty of other people who looked and thought and spoke like me. When the police knocked on our door (which they did quite a lot), it was to check we were OK, not check up on what we’d been doing. When The Paleontologist started school, she was one of only two white kids in the whole school, sure; but there were a lot more adults who looked like her around than there were who looked like the other children, so she never lacked understanding from her teachers or positive role models.
My life as a teacher
Time moved on again, as it has a habit of doing. We moved to a new parish and a new life, which for me meant becoming a teacher. Once again, I find myself the only person of my skin colour in a room. But I’m the one at the front, the one with the power in this room. I do not feel afraid. I find myself hearing my students’ stories and their jokes, laughing with them as they bash their weaves and, rolling their eyes, explain “it’s an African thing”. Laugh as though I’ve been there, as though I’ve also felt the need to cover the hair I was born with with something artificial and itchy to fit in with others’ expectations, just because I’ve been there so often when it’s happened that it’s started to feel like my story too. I enjoy the surprise when I say I’ve eaten ugali; I include pictures and names that look and sound like the students in the room; I celebrate Black History Month and try to ignore the knowledge that I am whitesplaining this to at least half the students in the room, as I speak about histories that have gone unwritten and wrongs that have gone unrighted, and I pick very carefully who I will make eye contact with as I’m talking. I tell students that they should give me the name they want to be called, not the one they think will be easy for me to say; but I don’t say this to everyone, and not everyone laughs. I teach about prejudice and am horrified when a student describes being asked not to work with particular patients as “criticism”, not the racism it is; and then I talk down a complaint made by the same student against me, justifying to myself that I am not talking her down because she’s black, but because she’s just really, really annoying. (This is honestly true. I’ve only lost my temper in front of a whole class once, and it was because this student deliberately destroyed an activity planned to benefit the whole community. That doesn’t change the fact that, after telling her she should speak out against injustice, I then silenced her, and won, to protect my own reputation.)
I am not saying this to say “Look at what I’ve done, look how good I am”. Neither am I saying it to rend my clothes and say how bad I am. I’ve done some things I’m proud of and some things I’m not. I’ve done some things I would change if I could, and others I would leave just as they are. We are all complex, more than our skin colour, more than what others make us or want us to be. This situation is more than a hashtag, more than a headline, more than slogans that can be shouted in a crowd. I have no answers. But I pray that, as in worship, sharing our stories can show us our darkness and bring us to new life. We all need to own our darkness. We all need new life. And we all need to get there together.