November 3, 2017 Editor

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race

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For years, racism has been defined by the violence of far-right extremists, but a more insidious kind of prejudice can be found where many least expect it – at the heart of respectable society

Tuesday 30 May 2017 (Last modified on Wednesday 31 May 2017 )

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WN: The piece highlighted below is riveting and powerful. It complements another brilliant piece, “White Fragility“. Two women of different colour give witness to a reality horribly rampant, devastating and entrenched in our world. And yes: in our world of respectability, religious or secular, it is invariably present – and ubiquitously throughout human history as well.

excerpts:

On 22 February 2014, I published a post on my blog. I titled it “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race”. It read: “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.

“This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.

“At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are “different” in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.

“They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.

“The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings. Even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening. It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further.

“That’s the emotional disconnect. It’s not really surprising, because they’ve never known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own. Watching [the documentary] The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah, I saw people of colour break down in tears as they struggled to convince a defiant white man that his words were enforcing and perpetuating a white racist standard on them. All the while he stared obliviously, completely confused by this pain, at best trivialising it, at worst ridiculing it.

“I’ve written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?

“I can no longer have this conversation, because we’re often coming at it from completely different places. I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists. Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.

“Not to mention that entering into conversation with defiant white people is a frankly dangerous task for me. As the hackles rise and the defiance grows, I have to tread incredibly carefully, because if I express frustration, anger or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their presubscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety. It’s very likely that they’ll then paint me as a bully or an abuser. It’s also likely that their white friends will rally round them, rewrite history and make lies the truth. Trying to engage with them and navigate their racism is not worth that.

“Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences. It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisals, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life. It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never-questioned entitlement, I suppose.

“I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself trying to get this message across, while also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism, lest they character-assassinate me.

“So I’m no longer talking to white people about race. I don’t have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries. I can halt the entitlement they feel towards me and I’ll start that by stopping the conversation. The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo. I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it and, frankly, don’t deserve it.”

After I pressed publish, the blogpost took on a life of its own. Years later, I still meet new people, in different countries and different situations, who tell me that they have read it. In 2014, as the post was being linked to all over the internet, I braced myself for the usual slew of racist comments. But the response was so markedly different that it surprised me.


Neville and Doreen Lawrence at the press conference following the 1999 Macpherson inquiry report into their son Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The Macpherson report was published in February 1999. It concluded that the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence “was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers”. This institutional racism, the report explained, is “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Most importantly, the report described institutional racism as a form of collective behaviour, a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo, and a consensus often excused and ignored by authorities. Among its many recommendations, the report suggested that the police force boost its black representation, and that all officers be trained in racism awareness and cultural diversity.

Kent police’s deputy chief constable Bob Ayling spoke to the BBC’s Newsnight programme that month, calling the Met’s original investigation into Lawrence’s death “seriously flawed”. Another key witness had come forward, Ayling revealed, but his testimony had been dismissed. Three phone calls had been made to the police by a woman who was believed to be close to one of the suspects, but her statements were not adequately followed up.

A review of forensic evidence eventually led to a new trial of those suspected of murdering Stephen Lawrence. On 4 January 2012, 19 years after Lawrence’s death, two out of the five suspected men were finally found guilty and sentenced for his murder. When Gary Dobson and David Norris killed Lawrence, they were teenagers. By the time they were jailed, they were adult men, in their mid- to late 30s. While Stephen Lawrence’s life ended at 18, theirs had continued, unhindered, in part aided by the police.

Both men received life sentences. When passing the sentence, Mr Justice Treacy described the crime as a “murder which scarred the conscience of the nation”. It was a monumental day for Britain, and long overdue. Many were left wondering how the police had failed so catastrophically, and why justice took so long to come.

In the same year I decided to no longer talk to white people about race, the British social attitudes survey recorded a significant increase in the number of people who were happy to admit their own racism. The sharpest rise, according to a Guardian report, was among “white, professional men between the ages of 35 and 64, highly educated and earning a lot of money”.

This is what structural racism looks like. It is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias. It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically affect people’s life chances. These highly educated, high-earning white men are very likely to be in positions that influence others’ lives – teaching, prosecuting, examining college applicants and hiring staff. They are almost certainly the kind of people who set workplace cultures.

They are unlikely to boast about their politics with colleagues or acquaintances because of the social stigma attached to holding racist views. Their racism is covert. It doesn’t reveal itself in spitting at strangers in the street. Instead, it lies in an apologetic smile while telling a non-white employee that they didn’t get the promotion. It manifests itself in a CV tossed in the bin because the applicant has a foreign-sounding name. Racism is woven into the fabric of our world. This demands a collective redefinition of what it means to be racist and what we must do to end it.

In 2015, a London School of Economics report called for gender quotas in all senior public and private positions. When a survey in the same year showed that less than 20% of senior managers in the City of London were female, women in the financial sector began calling for quotas to tackle the problem. Similarly, in a 2013 survey, more than half of women working in construction – many of whom were employed by companies in which women accounted for just 10% of the workforce – supported the idea of quotas.

But when it comes to race, the language is much less definitive. Instead of quotas – the progress of which can be easily statistically measured – the solutions posed are vague. In 2015, the head of Ofsted suggested that a programme of positive discrimination be applied to teaching recruitment, stressing that the ethnic mix of teachers in a given school should reflect that of its pupils. When he was head of the Greater Manchester police, Sir Peter Fahy called for a change in equality legislation so that police constabularies could use positive discrimination when hiring black police officers – he was sure to let it be known that it wasn’t about “targets”. The problem is that when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.

Positive discrimination initiatives are often vehemently opposed. Whenever I am invited to speak in panel discussions about race and representation, issues of meritocracy and quotas tend to be high on the audiences’ agenda. The main questions asked are: do quotas mean that women and people of colour are receiving special treatment denied to others, and shouldn’t we just judge candidates on merit alone? The prevailing view is that majority-white leaders in any industry have got there through sheer hard work alone.

At the core of such opposition is the belief that positive discrimination just isn’t fair – that whiteness isn’t, in and of itself, a leg-up in the world. But, if it isn’t, how do you explain the glut of middle-aged white men clogging the upper echelons of most professions? We do not live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that simple hard work is enough to elevate everyone to success is an exercise in wilful ignorance.

Opposing positive discrimination based on the fear of not getting the right people for the right jobs inadvertently reveals what you think talent looks like, the kind of person you think it resides within. If the current system worked correctly and hiring practices were genuinely successful, our workplaces would appear very different from how they do now.

There was once a time when even I thought that efforts to increase black representation were suspicious. I didn’t understand why there was a need for them. I could never understand why, when I was growing up, my mum told me to work twice as hard as my white counterparts. As far as I was concerned, we were all the same. When she forwarded me an application form for a diversity scheme at a national newspaper while I was at university, I felt angry, indignant and ashamed. At first I resisted applying for it at all. I felt that if I was going to compete with my white peers, I wanted to do it on a level playing field. After some cajoling on her part, though, I applied, got through to the interview stage, and eventually landed the internship.

At the time, internship schemes looking for black and minority ethnic participants seemed unfair to me, but once I got through the door, I realised why they were necessary: any black people I saw were far more likely to be doing the catering or cleaning than setting the news agenda.

My blackness has been politicised against my will, because racism has given it meaning. This is a situation I didn’t choose, but I don’t want it wilfully ignored in an effort to instil some sort of precarious, false harmony. And, though many are happy to console themselves with a doctrine of colour-blindness, the huge differences in life chances between white and non-white people prove that while it may be preached by our institutions, it is not being practised.

Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy. In 2014, I interviewed the black feminist academic Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw, who elaborated on the politics of colourblindness. “It’s this idea that, to eliminate race, you have to eliminate all discourse, including efforts to acknowledge racial structures and hierarchies and address them,” she said. “It’s those cosmopolitan-thinking, 21st-century, ‘not trying to carry the burdens of the past and you shouldn’t either’ [people].

“There are people who consider themselves left, progressive and very critical, who have convinced themselves that the only way to get beyond race is to stop talking about race. By taking this stance, they align themselves with the post-racial liberals and self-styled colour-blind conservatives.”

Colour-blindness is a childish, stunted analysis of racism. It starts and ends at “discriminating against a person because of the colour of their skin is bad”, without any accounting for the ways structural power works in these exchanges. This definition of racism is often used to silence people of colour when we attempt to articulate the racism we face. When we point this out, we are accused of being racist against white people, and the avoidance of accountability continues.

The reality is that, in material terms, we are nowhere near equal. This state of play is violently unjust. The difference that people of colour are all vaguely aware of from childhood is not benign. It is fraught with racism, racist stereotyping and, for women, racialised misogyny.

It is nigh-on impossible for children of colour to educate ourselves out of racist stereotyping, though if we accumulate enough individual wealth, we can pretend that we are no longer affected by it.

Not seeing race does little to dismantle racist structures or improve the lives of people of colour. In order to do so, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is affected by negative stereotyping of theirs, and on whom power and privilege is bestowed – not just because of their race, but also their class and gender. Seeing race is essential to changing the system.

Main image by Ben the Illustrator

This is an edited extract from Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury Circus on 1 June.

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Please click on: Whites and Racism

  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.
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Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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