This will be part of what I hope to be a series of posts about racism. Recent debates around the lack of diversity in the knitting and crafting communities in general on Instagram have really brought to the fore thoughts I have always had about race. Since reading Reni Eddo Lodge’s book and engaging with the work of Robin DiAngelo, both of whom gave voice to a lot of what I could never articulate, I have decided to no longer remain silent. However, my voice comes with caveats: it is not up to people of colour (POC) to educate the white majority about racism. We are not here for your use. Our voices, are not here for your edification and vindication. Your education into anti-racism is not our burden to bear. However, many POC do bear the burden of anti-racism education, but the work is exhausting (Eddo-Lodge, 2017). This work is in addition to everything else POC have to endure: having to explain every little minutiae of our existence; fighting for social space in a hostile world; justifying why we should have a seat at the table every single day; being at the table but never being seen; always, always having to work smarter and harder than our white peers. The sheer existence of a POC is exhausting. We should not have to bear the burden of your education too. My voice is for me alone; if you take something from it as a POC, then I am glad to have helped. If it is educating to the white majority, then I’m equally glad. But this is not my reason for writing, nor will it ever be.
Let me start by narrating stories, from my own perspective, from my past. I worked, as a teacher, in a very white, middle-class area. I taught English, Literature and Media Studies to 11-18-year-olds. I wore, and still do wear, a headscarf. I prayed on the school premises and I was the only Muslim member of staff in the building. The few Muslim students who did attend the school would smile and nod at me, even the ones I had no direct contact with. Suddenly, they had an adult who was ‘like them’ and they were no longer a voiceless minority.
Obviously, I encountered racism, from the Year 8 girl running past my classroom shouting “Ali Baba” and a group of Year 11 boys asking me if I had a “chocolate muffin” (a reference to my private parts) and finally to the parents at Parents’ Evening who often insinuated that a head-scarved Muslim woman, clearly foreign, could not teach English. Having top marks through school, college and then attending a prestigious university did not help me at all: I was still, and always would be, an alien. (I was not the only teacher of colour; there was black female Science teacher who left a year after I arrived; I cannot speak for her and talk about the racism she encountered – that is her story).
What stands out now from the whole experience was how it was all dealt with: on two different occasions, two white children (in different classes) verbally attacked me for being Muslim and Asian. They tried to humiliate me, they spoke to me in mock Pakistani accents, one threw something at me in full view of a class. When things were reported, the school response was dire: both were moved into other groups – with white teachers – and it was hoped the issue would go away. In mediations, both teenagers said on separate occasions that I was not English enough to teach them: she’s a Pakistani though, why should we learn English from a Pakistani? I do not blame these children; after all, they are products of society: the boy’s father was openly aggressive to me at Parents’ Evening while the boy sat, smirking. He said that his child was not progressing because, being Asian, I did not know how to teach English; if I did, his son would have made progress. When I approached a senior manager about it, they ushered him into another room and I never saw either of them again – the senior manager apologised, helpfully holding my elbow: “I’m sorry you had to hear that,” but never was the issue of racism openly addressed. The situation with the girl was the same: move her out of the class, then you don’t have to teach or deal with her. Either way, it was brushed under the carpet and never addressed until it was brought up later – but that is a tale for a different day.
Fast-forward to teaching in very racially-mixed school; different environment, different issues and the racism was more covert. And acceptable. Even when it was not covert, it was acceptable. And sometimes, I helped it happen. When teachers would remark, “these black kids” or “these Asian kids”, I would often sit there and say nothing, my silence reeking of complicity. Once, a middle manager had a run-in with some unpleasant boys and she came to a staff meeting riled.
“Why are black boys so rude?” she exclaimed. “And if they’re going to be so rude why do they have to come to our school?”
Silence. Everyone did shift uncomfortably in their seats, myself included, and a few members of staff tried not to make eye contact with me. Wretched and mute, I did not speak up. I did not challenge her. Because I knew from past experience what would happen. Every time I had previously spoken about race, I was mocked and the eye-rolling would begin: “Ah, here, she is, with her race card.” Eventually I joined in with the derision, internalising their white fragility and silencing myself with ridicule. “Look at me, with my race card, let me pull it out of my pocket.” Writing these words now, I feel a deep sense of shame. And guilt. I did not challenge anything, I did not attempt to change the conversation about race for the betterment of students of colour, for the black students, the Muslim students, the immigrants and children of immigrants: the aliens.
Why dwell on these two stories from my past when I could have picked anything else? Because they illustrate beautifully that racism is not an event, it is a system (DiAngelo, 2018). The former shows that when there was an opportunity to address the issue of racism amongst students and parents, it was largely ignored, not even creating a ripple. Why? Because the system is designed to maintain the status quo; the racism is not contained in the word “Paki”, but in the system that allows such a word to go by unchallenged, unquestioned and ignored. Even when challenged and students punished for open racism (the girl from the first story was given a sanction), the event was treated as a stand-alone racist incident rather than part of a system; it is easier and more comforting to think of racism as hate speech than to address systemic issues. We would like to believe that because fewer people shout “Paki” in the street anymore, there is less racism; when in reality, the opposite is true.
The second story demonstrates how effectively white people shut down any conversation about race: mockery and ridicule is just one of the many powerful tools of white fragility. The racism was overt when the staff member commented on the rudeness of black boys, but the racism was in the system and not just contained in one event. Her racism was protected because she was white and in a position of power but, ultimately, the racism is in the silence, the seat-shifting silence, the lack of challenge, the subtle system of muzzling that took place daily and covertly, so I always felt that any conversation about race was ‘playing the race card’. Truly, I never viewed any of the colleagues in the room as ‘racist’ (and I still do not see them as such) but their silence as privileged white women, when they could have spoken up just maintained the well-established system of not challenging those in authority – especially when they are the same as us – when it comes to racism. As white women, clearly in a more powerful position than me, they could have challenged it – no matter what the politics in the department at the time. Whiteness does not equate to racism, nor is white privilege the same as racism, but it is exactly that: a colour privilege that POC do not have; a position of power; the sheer act of whiteness is a power in itself. The fact that neither they nor I said and did anything other than shift uncomfortably suggests complicity – just writing that down fills me with more shame than I can handle, shame that I will always carry with me.
In both cases, there were overtly ‘racist’ incidents; what is comfortably referred to as ‘hate speech’, the kind of racism that white liberals/progressives can label and distance themselves from. We cannot be racist because we do not say these things, is the narrative. However, in both cases, it was not the racist language that is interesting, but the reaction to the incidents: sweep it under the carpet, move along now, there is nothing to see here. Silence. Always silence. And it is this deafening silence that screams to POC: It is not that there is racism in the system, it is that racism is the system.
Once again, it is not that there is racism in the system, it is that the racism is the system. The system is not racist, the system is racism.
Narrating these stories, even in the factual way that I have attempted to is difficult and dangerous. I know that ex-colleagues may read them and be upset with me since they might recognise the incidents. So much so that I feel the need to say I did and do have happy memories of working with many of these colleagues, some of whom are good friends – note how I feel I have to say this to avoid censure. I am acutely aware of the perils of potential employers seeing this and deciding against employing me. I realise I may lose friends over this, friends who would be horrified at my descriptions of a system of white privilege and racism that they have, however unwittingly, upheld and benefited from. White liberals/progressives cannot stand the thought that anything they may have said or done could be construed as systemic racism and the defences will come up (DiAngleo, 2018). These are all risks I am now willing to take.
I have never spoken openly about race with any of my white friends for fear of backlash, because I knew it may (would) be construed as an attack, but not now. I am older and I am a mother. I see the world for what it is: my girls live in a world that will always be hostile to them because they will never be English enough, assimilated enough, white enough. And I need to prepare them for this.
They cannot be allowed to go into the world naively believing, like I did, that if they work hard, get a good degree and a good job, they will be treated fairly – the same as white counterparts, because they never will be. They will need schooling in racism and they will need to be able to navigate such a system – a system that is racism. Despite the fear I feel right now in just typing and pressing ‘publish’, I need to speak and write to make up for my silent complicity all those years, a complicity that burdened me with guilt and shame, the scars of which I still bear today.
DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race.
If you want a place to start learning about white fragility, listen to this talk by Robin DiAngelo.