I condemn racism, but I don’t know what it feels like. I don’t mean what it feels like to be a racist, to have experienced the circumstances — nurture over nature, always — that might turn a human into one, though I don’t know much about that either. What I mean is I don’t know what it feels like to be subjected to racism. I truly have no idea.
I’m white, in case that wasn’t clear, so first off I’d like to get my white privilege out of the way. Or, in other words, exercise my white privilege.
Writing this piece is exercising my white privilege. It’s me taking my white privilege out for a walk. Privilege needs the exercise, or else it gets restless, like a yapping dog. So I comment on something I’ve never experienced, something I don’t have a direct understanding of, other than through what I’ve seen happen to others and what I’ve read in books or on the internet. That’s my white privilege.
If I want to know what it’s like to experience racism, I have to use my imagination. I have to step into someone else’s shoes, and when I’m done, I step back into my own comfortable footwear. My box-fresh, white privilege.
But surely, if I reach all the way down to the bottom of the barrel and scrape hard enough, there must be something I can dig up to understand what discrimination feels like?
Well, there was that one time when I might’ve gotten a taste of being treated differently because of my skin colour. Although, was it because of my skin colour? Was it unrelated? I can’t be sure. The uncertainty alone: blinding white privilege.
Here’s what happened — one anecdote to describe the sum total of my experience of being discriminated against (maybe — not sure) because of the colour of my skin. Me and my partner (white) were on a reasonably-priced, one-week holiday in the Caribbean. We were staying in a shabby rental apartment, where the improperly-wired cooker threatened to electrocute us every time we touched it. There was nothing to do in our accommodation, so, unlike many holidaymakers who never step out of their all-inclusive compound, we went off exploring. We soon discovered that every inch of the coastline was privately owned. Not a single public stretch of sand. We sneaked through some bushes to gain access to a hotel’s private beach, hoping no one would notice we didn’t belong there. This was easy, because we’re white. The heat was punishing and we could only hack it for about 30 mins, enough for me to sustain the worst sunburn of my life — this close to the equator, my pasty skin tone was definitely not in my favour, and the sun made its feelings towards me perfectly clear.
Latitude-based discrimination aside, the incident I’m referring to happened the following day. Beach time was ruled out, so we boarded a bus at random, to see where it might take us. From the moment we stepped onto that rickety bus and for the rest of the day, we were the only white faces in our immediate vicinity. The bus drove us deep into the island, and at some point we alighted in a village. We had no idea where we were. Walking around, we happened upon a roadside stall selling shredded coconut. We took our place amongst the handful of locals waiting to be served. We waited. We waited some more. We waited and waited as locals came and went, me and my partner standing there, white and sweating, ignored by the stall tender as if we were invisible. After a while, we didn’t really feel like eating coconut anymore, but we stood our ground anyway, to make a point: we would not be leaving without being acknowledged, or without our coconut. This was a brand new and very confusing feeling. Eventually, another customer took pity and told the stall tender to serve us. We got our shredded coconut and left. A little while later, as we wandered around with our large bag of uneaten coconut, we passed a little restaurant where locals were tucking into huge portions of food. We sat down and ordered. We were served tiny portions. Nothing like the bulging plates everyone else was enjoying. We ate the food and left, feeling annoyed and slightly less sated than — in an ideal world — we would’ve liked.
That’s it. That’s my experience of discrimination. Being ignored whilst trying to make a purchase, and having to make-do with a small portion of food for one meal only. Was it about my skin colour? Or was it about being a clueless tourist encroaching into one of the last tourist-free spots on an island otherwise overrun by tourists? I guess I’ll never know.
Whatever it was, it didn’t feel very nice, but I didn’t fear for my life. I didn’t suffer pain or humiliation. I don’t really know discrimination. I just had to wait a little longer for my coconut.
My grandfather was a Jew. He spent his teenage years escaping from the Nazis. At age 16, he joined the French Resistance, and shortly before his eighteenth birthday was captured by the French militia. They spent two weeks torturing him. If it’s true that most Nazis were just following orders, then my grandfather’s torturers were probably just following orders given by Nazis who themselves were just following orders. Tortured by proxy, by proxy. Orders trickling down the chain of command like rusty water, to be carried out by men who might be racists, or sadists, or both, or just a bunch of regular guys doing racism/sadism because, whatever, it’s a job, you gotta put food on the table. Either way, the end result is the same: a teenager was tortured, George Floyd is dead, thousands of protestors were tear-gassed and beaten senseless because some people discriminate and others follow orders.
After his torture, my grandfather was sentenced to death. On the morning of his execution, in a stroke of luck, if you can call it luck, a Nazi officer rounding up prisoners picked him out to be sent off to Buchenwald concentration camp. My grandfather spent months enduring the kind of stuff no one should endure. Then the war ended. Years later my mother was born. Years later I was born — male, white, straight, middle-class. Someone has to hit the jackpot sooner or later.
So, this is the bit where I say that, although I’ve never experienced discrimination, it is nonetheless a part of identity. This is the bit where I say that I’m a better person, a person more attuned to the struggles of black people — and anyone else being discriminated against — because of what my grandfather went through, because from an early age I was aware of his past, and when I was old enough I spent hours discussing it with him, so if there’s anything helpful I can squeeze out of my ramblings, it’s the advice to tell your kids about what’s happening right now, even — especially— if it doesn’t affect them, because giving them a head start on figuring these things out would help to ensure that the next generation knows, even without having experienced it, that discrimination is a stain on our world, which would be a definite plus, given how useless humanity has repeatedly proven itself to be at stepping up to the plate before it’s too late.
That was the bit. And I meant it, but I also know how hollow it sounds. Because apart from having been afforded, by means of my lineage, a slightly heightened awareness of oppression, apart from possibly being a fraction quicker than the average person at Finding Waldo if Waldo is a fascist in a crowded field, how else do I contribute towards making the world a better place? Good question.
Like millions of others, I wake up in the morning, check my phone, and absorb the latest videos, each one of them vying to be the most disturbing thing I’ve even seen. For a lot of white people, this is the extent of our exposure to racism: pictures of cats and dogs and banana bread interspersed with shaky footage of police brutality. We have the luxury of curating our exposure — as little as possible for some, a little too much for others, but all of us always in control of the dosage we self-administer— then we climb out of bed and get on with the rest of our day, feeling anger, numbness and impotence all rolled into one.
I don’t want to lump all white people into the same basket. Some are true activists. Some really make a difference. Some make it their life’s work. But most of us, most of the time, don’t make a sound, and every once in a while, when the systemic racism so easy to ignore flares up in the news cycle, we get a bit mad, we throw our voices into the fray, we perform for the cameras, we say ‘black lives matter’, then the whole thing dies down in our social feeds, and whatever it was that shocked us to our core for a couple of weeks is scrolled away to make room for the next bite-sized outrage.
There’s a lot to be outraged about in this world. Selective concern and selective apathy are standard coping mechanisms. It’s why meaningful change moves like a sloth. The modus operandi of the vast majority is to wait until they consider themselves victims before speaking out. How often does anyone make a drastic life change before breaking point, before the heart attack, the stroke, the cancer diagnosis? We sit and wait until it affects us — anything before that is just ‘stuff that happens to other people’. Only when the shit hits our fan do we get up and go. This is the mentality certain undeserving leaders of our world — let’s just call them what they are: white supremacists — have exploited over the last few years, why they have been so successful. They manipulated an urgent narrative of white people as victims, as the ones under immediate threat, and lo and behold, did the white victims rise and make their voices heard. Boy did they put their vote where their mouth is.
We’re quick to put things we don’t like behind us, to turn them into history. We use time to distance ourselves from trauma, the same way the subconscious represses hurtful memories. It’s a trick of course, because, as any therapist will tell you, they never really go away. They linger, they simmer, until eventually they boil over again.
I know one thing for sure: World War II seems like it happened long ago, but it didn’t. It seems like its events played out in a world far removed from our own, but they didn’t. How do I put this into perspective? As with most things, I measure it against my own life. I’m 39 years old; my body doesn’t feel so young anymore, but my mind feels like high school finished only a moment ago, and the moment before that I was playing with toy dinosaurs on my bedroom floor. So there you go, 39 years is nothing: blink and you’ll miss it. With this established, if I subtract 39 years from the year of my birth, where do I land? 1941. There it is: the number of years I’ve lived on this planet are all that separates my cozy world from an utterly alien time where a country’s ruling political party had made the oppression and extermination of an entire people their official policy. Doesn’t seem so far removed anymore, now that the illusion of time has been shattered. The mass slaughter of Jews was yesterday. Slavery was last week. Black men murdered by police in broad daylight is right now, every minute.
Black people live in a world where their culture is defined as ‘black culture’, while white culture is just ‘culture’. The system is overwhelmingly skewed against them, just as it’s always been, except in a manner more insidious, less overt, apart from the increasingly frequent occasions when an officer of the law gets caught on camera crushing the life out of a black man as if it were just a requirement of the job.
I’m upset. Anyone with a shred of empathy would be. And I’m not optimistic. I don’t believe the world will get better before it gets a hell of a lot worse. But I’m not upset like a black person. I’m upset like a white person — selectively, temporarily. So excuse me while I exercise a little white privilege here and say — while it still sounds relevant — that black lives matter. They really do! Because next week, my white brothers and I might become preoccupied with the ozone layer, the rainforest, the melting ice caps, the plight of the Emperor Penguin in the Antarctic. We’ll see how it goes, what tickles our fancy, what pops up in our feeds. That’s our privilege.