Last year, I received a call from a former colleague. I won’t call her a friend. I was somewhat surprised when I saw her name pop up on my phone, as she hadn’t called me for a good couple of years. Nevertheless, I answered and after some cursory smalltalk and a bit of “this is awkward but…” she got to the point quickly. She had pulled together a team as part of a proposal to deliver some work for a government department. Proposal done, a review of the team highlighted that it was not diverse enough. Yes, there was gender diversity, but no obvious ethnic or racial diversity. This was a problem, since the government department had made it clear that one of its key criteria for assessing proposals was the diversity of the delivery team. Enter me and my fantastically African-sounding name and Blackness. One of the few employment-related times when my name worked in my favour. She asked if I would mind sending her my bio so that she could add it to the proposal (and increase their chances of winning the work).
I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to scream at her. How dare she! She hadn’t even tried to pretend. However, as a freelancer sometimes reliant on work coming in from her company, I swallowed my hurt, updated my bio and sent it across. I’m not sure if they ever actually won the work or not. To be honest, I don’t care. I have mentally kicked myself ever since that day as I can’t believe I allowed myself to become complicit in the deception. I will make it my life’s mission to ensure that my daughters are never placed in that position. At what point does it shift from asking a favour of a friend to a racist system that has allowed white people the freedom to value the financial advancement of their employer over the emotional wellbeing of Black people?
I have written previously about people who refuse point blank to pronounce my name correctly, despite me clearly spelling it out for them. I guess they feel that it’s just not that important to get my name right. Maybe they feel that I have a chip on my shoulder because I have made a big deal about them continually getting my name wrong. At what point does it shift from general laziness or even rudeness to a racist system that has allowed white people the freedom to casually mispronounce certain foreign names and then feel outraged and attacked when asked to pronounce the names correctly?
I have also written about both of my birth stories. Each was horrendous. Nearly 12 years ago, before we knew that Black women in the UK are 5 times more likely to die during childbirth than our white counterparts, both my child and I almost died. I wasn’t listened to and, as a consequence, almost paid the ultimate price. Two and a half years later, again, I wasn’t listened to, and, guess what? The same thing happened! At what point does it shift from mere coincidence to a racist system that has perpetuated the myth among newly-qualified doctors that Black people have a higher pain threshold and are subsequently exaggerating when complaining about pain, and, therefore, allowed the health system in this country the freedom to casually ignore the pain and suffering of Black women?
So, when we talk about ‘white privilege’, we are not saying that every white person has access to the best education, the highest paying jobs, the most interesting and lucrative opportunities. We are saying that white people are not targeted and do not have opportunities taken from them simply because of their skin colour. We are not saying that white people do not struggle or face deprivation or that bad things don’t happen to white people. We are saying that some white people will face struggle or deprivation and bad things will happen to them, but it won’t be because of their skin colour. Their skin colour is not a barrier and, most of the time, they don’t even have to think about it. The whole system in the UK, literally everything, is built around them, their needs, their wants and their advancement, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. However, when it comes at the expense of Black and brown people, it becomes a problem.
At this point, someone in the back usually shouts, “Tell that to the white girls who were targeted by the Pakistani grooming gangs in Rochdale!” and I deep sigh. Even touching upon this topic fills me with dread, as the two issues should never be conflated, but remember: it’s not my rebuttal. The child sex abuse rings in Rochdale and Newcastle and Manchester and elsewhere were and are completely abhorrent, and no right-minded person could ever deny that. While it is true that the victims of the gangs were mainly white girls, and some might argue that their whiteness was a contributory factor in their abuse, thankfully, most white girls will not have been groomed into a child sex ring. In fact, and again thankfully, only a tiny percentage will have fallen victim to these deplorable grooming gangs. On the other hand, most, if not all, Black people currently living outside of Sub-Saharan Africa will have fallen foul of ‘white privilege’ at some point in their lives and it will have affected them in some tangible way… racism, particularly as it pertains to Black people, is systemic.
People say that the UK is a tolerant country and that there is way less racism here than in the US. I say that racism is just as rampant here. For the most part, it’s well hidden behind strained smiles, good intentions and “misunderstandings”, that is until an opportunity arises for white people to publicly justify their disdain for Black people (see responses of some to the deaths in police custody of unarmed, previously convicted criminals, the tearing down of historical statues celebrating murderous slavers response, over-zealous police response to the Brixton street party goers and their reaction, BLM UK pro-Palestine tweet etc – none of these things should stop anyone believing that Black lives matter, but all of them do). Despite the often covert nature of the racism, believe me, the effect and the impact is just as strong.
However, there have been some beacons of hope. For example, I have a number of white friends who are teachers. I have been buoyed as many of them have shared that they are now more consciously embedding Black history and culture into their lesson plans. One has talked about building a scheme of work around it for her GCSE students. Other white friends in other spheres, among which are publishing and environmental activism, have also sought to challenge themselves around their privilege and address inequalities in the most tangible ways that they can. This past weekend, we saw the first Black Pound Day and it was a roaring success! I never thought I would live to see such a groundswell of support for Black-owned business in the UK. Business owners who have hidden behind beautifully curated and painstakingly whitewashed Instagram feeds, because they have been afraid that the knowledge of their Blackness would affect sales, came out. The day was embraced by Black, brown and white people. Long may it continue! I know how far we have to go, but I see these efforts and I smile.
PS. While you’re here, can you please sign the petition to bring the police officers who took selfies over the murdered bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to justice? Thank you. http://chng.it/h89bbXJrwb