The racism of well-meaning white people

the elephant in the room

Racism is the biggest pile of shit, right? It’s one of the hottest issues out there in the media, and it’s going as strong as it ever has, as far as I can tell. The Liberal press might be all over it, giving it wall-to-wall Ferguson treatment, but white trash commenters are spread right across the Internet, doing their twisted best for hatred.

As a white person I get to define the terms (as usual), so I generally tell the world I am not a racist. Not by my definition. Most racists probably aren’t. White privilege is not for nothing.

But yesterday I well and truly put my foot in it. In true Sakina style, I opened my mouth and my brains fell out. But (as usual) there’s more to it than just an innocent accidental sentence.

What happened?

My publisher finally asked me if I would like an audiobook recording of my novel, and, delighted, I caught up with an actor I worked with 15 years ago, because his voice has a huge range of character. We chatted about the book, and then I dropped my clanger.

“My book’s what you might call ‘whiter-than-white’, so I’m not sure your voice is the most appropriate for my novel (but I really want it to sound great and your voice has got so much depth and quality to it …” – this last bit largely imagined because I was too busy panicking about what I’d just said to notice what was said afterwards).

I noticed that he was annoyed by it, and scampered to cover my tracks, but it got me seriously thinking about what the hell went through my head. It isn’t the first time I’ve apologised to someone for my book having an entirely white cast, and that’s bad enough, but then suggesting that because he is black, his voice might not be the most appropriate ….!

You can tell I’m cringing, right? Well, sure I am, but I’m not self-flagellating in public for nothing. I learned a couple of lessons out of my stupidity, and it turns out they needed saying because the Internet doesn’t already say them enough.

Why say it?

What did I say? Basically I said ‘listeners will be able to tell you’re black and that might not resonate with the characters’. That’s what’s known as a fallacy. I’ve studied linguistics. I know different voice sounds come from language, not race. So what compelled me to say what I did?

I remember thinking it was true as a young kid. Have I retained that non-fact from then, or has it been reiterated in the media?

How or why is not the point, though; I have to take ownership of the facts that first, I had that belief in my head, and second, I’ve never addressed it till now.

So, there are two issues here:

1. Why say my book is ‘whiter-than-white’?

It’s an apology for being white. Apologising for having a white outlook. As if I think no person of colour would ever consider reading it, for that reason. (Why?!) I’m embarrassed by that, but why? Why should my book have included characters of different ethnicities?

At some level I believe writers have a responsibility to reflect the times, to represent more than just the privileged few, say more than the mainstream view, and do more than hide behind the excuse of ‘that’s what it’s like where I live’. My book should have done that, and it didn’t. That doesn’t mean it has no value, but I feel as if it has less than it could have done.

Why didn’t it? Just because some of my best friends are black; just because I’ve been to Carnival a few times, doesn’t mean I understand black culture. I can add nothing that black literature can’t do better, and if I’m not going to be authentic, writing characters of colour with details that are informed by their culture, I’m not going to attempt it. What I write can only be a representation of what I experience. Anything else is arrogance dressed up in imagination.

So not major characters, what about minor ones? True enough, surely I could have come up with someone? Few people of colour live in my town, and I used only my town as a template. I look around and regularly see only one – sometimes two – people of colour here. Or none. This is the great white rural north. I wrote as I saw. The culture I know. Why not? Apart from showing a dearth of imagination, I commit no crime.

2. Why believe the fallacy?

Why state something so stupid to back up a pointless apology for being white? I’m not going to repeat it again here. Waaaay too ashamed.

Honestly, I have no words. Fuck knows. Clearly I saw no problem with any perceived ‘differences’ in voice. This guy is the only one I’ve wanted for my book since I heard my publisher was doing audiobooks. But I’m embarrassed and angry enough at myself to want to share what I learned from it.

The lesson

Consider everything you say and think. Review your views on a regular basis and ask yourself why you think what you do. Hidden prejudices can remain within you, deep inside, no matter how clever, egalitarian, liberal, and culturally competent you believe yourself to be. If you don’t even acknowledge them, you can’t address them.

If you don’t address your own prejudiced views, they might become ingrained. Maybe they’re isolated – just one or two that simply don’t fit with the rest of you. But how do you know if you don’t think critically about them? People don’t start out ignorant; they become it, harbouring and feeding ‘views’ that are unpalatable at best, and which act to perpetuate the already strong position of the white majority.

White privilege is real, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t, and without breaking out of the system and changing it completely, one little white girl saying sorry isn’t going to change that.  Don’t forget, racism is the elephant in the room, because it’s huge and it’s obvious and no one talks about it at the time. But I can’t be the only idiot out there, and everyone’s views matter to someone, so it matters that we consider them more carefully.

Question your motivations, and explore the answers. Are they a fit with your world view? Would you find them acceptable if someone else told you them? If not, ditch them as falsehoods and find new ones. Don’t perpetuate them without thinking. There’s enough persistent crap already.

So this is the essence of the lesson: consider what you believe and what you’re going to say before you say it, because perpetuating bullshit myths, prejudice and privilege, through ignorance, is not acceptable. I learn these lessons so you don’t have to. And you needn’t sit there smugly, calling me a bigot and considering yourself to be more enlightened than me. None of us can escape the bigotry of our world; we can only apply critical thinking to it. Some are better at that on-the-fly than others.

I apologise.

Picture credit to: John Duffy via Flickr on a Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

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