About six months ago, I challenged the racism of a high profile white feminist. The following months I had a crash course of how racism works. The general feminist consensus about my challenge was that I was in the wrong. Though the white feminists who defended her rarely engaged with my actual points about what she had said, they accused me of academic elitism, of being divisive, of pushing a feminism that was not populist. They went to great lengths to explain away the racist remark with context. White feminism continued to stagnate in its white impunity.
I was devastated that a movement that I felt at home in was punishing me for calling for an analysis beyond gender. I learnt that these were women who were only capable of analysing structural inequality insofar as it disadvantaged themselves- no more, no less. I learnt who my allies were. I noted that white feminists started creating a hierarchy between white, cis women’s feminism and ‘identity politics’- the former was good, the latter was bad.
Then I watched as trans women experience the same monstering. Most importantly, I saw the people engaging in this behaviour getting rewarded with success and tea and sympathy, and I saw those who challenged them become sanctioned and demonised. The expulsion of their power was incredible. They used all of their resources to discredit me and my arguments in the national press, and after all this time there’s been no hint of any apology for the racist remark in question. I don’t need to waste my time drawing parallels between these incidents and white male reactions to white feminism; I think you can make the link.
People sometimes ask me why my political involvement is not wider than identity politics. I’m often not allowed to get past the broken record of defending my right to exist in a political movement without experiencing racism or sexism. I don’t think I want to keep doing that for much longer.
Recently I got into a conversation with a friend’s partner about racism. I spoke to her honestly about my most recent experiences. It was going well and she was telling me about the troubles she faced as the youngest and only woman in her workplace- working twice as hard to prove herself as competent to her employers. We were getting along; we found we had common ground. I told her about a recent experience of being passed over for a job I’d interviewed for and finding out through mutual friends that the job had gone to a white woman my age with almost identical experience to me. I had felt the slap in the face of structural racism, the kind of thing you only hear about in statistics of the disparity of black unemployment, whilst never hearing from the people affected.
Then she said ‘You don’t know if that was racism. How do you know it wasn’t something else?” She told me about her anger and fear after being accused of racism by an Algerian man (she’s French). She said how angry it made her feel, that black people can use racism accusations to stop white people talking, that maybe the man should have considered that people didn’t like him because he didn’t behave well. She said she had felt intimidated because he was a man, she said she thought he might get aggressive. I was naive, we had resonated beforehand so I had good faith in her humanity, I thought she might be able to accept the structural conditions that allow a situation like this one to happen. So I tried to encourage her to consider the suspicion and anger of a person who has suffered racism their entire lives. I thought I might be able to persuade her to think outside of herself and question the structural, but then every sentence she said sounded like every word I’ve ever heard from people defending white supremacy. It’s like they all learn the lines from the same sheet.
My boyfriend stopped the conversation abruptly. When we’d left the room he said ‘I can’t believe how fucked up that exchange was becoming.’ And I was surprised that he’d picked up her downward steer so quickly, and I was disappointed in myself for not noticing sooner or just not being smart enough to avoiding the conversation all together.
Then I considered the social implications of the logical outcome of that exchange (where the consensus would be that I am wrong, because that’s how white supremacy maintains itself). If I’d argued with her I would put myself at risk of no longer being welcome in my boyfriend’s house share because I would have created an atmosphere and I would be considered a reverse racist, an angry, unreasonable troublemaker, maybe even a violence sympathiser. I don’t get to see my boyfriend as much as I’d like due to clashing working hours, so risking this kind of social exclusion did not seem worth it.
White supremacy manifests itself in everyone and no one. Everyone is complicit, but no one wants to take on responsibility. Challenging it can have real social implications. Because it’s a many headed hydra you can’t be too careful about the white people you trust when it comes to discussing race and racism. You don’t have the privilege of approaching conversations about racism with the assumption that other participants will be on the same plane as you. Raising racism in a conversation is like flicking a switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person you’ve just met, or a person you’ve always felt safe and comfortable with. The defensive indignance and the wilful denial of the structural is almost identical in all of the arguments falling from their mouths. ‘Maybe they brought it on themselves’, ‘but this isn’t my fault, so I’m not quite sure why you’re pinpointing me’. You’re not too sure when a conversation about race and racism will turn into one where you were scared for your physical safety or social position.
White privilege is manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelopes everything we know, like a snowy day. It’s brutal & oppressive, bullying you into not speaking up for fear of losing your loved ones or job or flat. It scares you into silencing yourself; you don’t get the privilege of speaking honestly about your feelings without extensively assessing the consequences. You spent a lot of time biting your tongue so hard it might fall off.
Challenging it can have drastic implications on your quality of life. You might lose out on job offers when because you’ve spoken openly and honestly about your experiences and perception of racism online. White privilege is deviously, throat stranglingly clever, because it owns the companies that recruits you, owns the industries you want to enter, so you if you need money to live, you’re forced to appease its needs. It eases you into letting your guard down with white people, assured that you’ll be taken seriously, but simultaneously not being surprised when a conversation Others you against your white peers. White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far right extremists, because you know where you stand with them, the boundaries are clear.
But the insidious stuff is harder. You come to expect it, but you never come to accept it. You learn to be careful about your battles, because if you raise every note you come across in the mood music of racism, people would consider you to be angry for no reason at all. A trouble maker, not worth taking seriously, an angry black woman obsessed with race.
Being on the receiving end of white supremacy means feeling shamed and backed into a corner for speaking up, scared because you know speaking up night negatively impact your income, impede your career, or restrict your access to your loved ones. This is why the privilege and power of racist discrimination does not go both ways. There are unique forms of discrimination that are backed up by entitlement, assertion and most importantly, supported by a structural power strong enough to scare you into complying with the demands of the status quo. When I talk about racism, people take my criticisms as all out disgust, and ask me why I hate white people. I don’t hate white people but I do hate racism, I do hate white supremacy, and too often, the two conflate.