If you missed it, racism has been a hot topic recently in British politics. It should have been hotter for longer but at least it’s here, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. The debate should have started with the Windrush Scandal, still notoriously under-reported despite being a monumental f*** up by the current Conservative government, but it didn’t.
It could even have started with the Grenfell Tower fire, where most of the residents were black and brown in an otherwise affluent, white constituency. But it didn’t.
Instead, this recent debate began with accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party and then followed to the opposite side of that political pond, to accusations of Islamophobia aimed at Boris Johnson, who this week deemed that Muslim women who wear a burka look like “bank-robbers” and “letterboxes”.
In a move that is no doubt calculated, the former Foreign Secretary, notorious for his previous slew of racist remarks, has refused to budge or apologise for the comments he made in his article, citing the classic “free speech” argument, the bastion of all racist remarks. See: my previous article.
But, in amongst this debate of whether or not Boris was racist (he was, and I will get into that later if you need convincing), there was one Twitter exchange that particularly caught my eye.
Never one to be quiet on such issues, Tottenham MP David Lammy, tweeted the following, in response to Twitter user Michael Heaver who claimed that Brits are with Boris on this one:
This was the tweet that launched a thousand tweets, mostly angry tweets attacking Lammy for “being racist” by pointing out that Mr. Heaver is white and therefore not the best placed to define racism.
Now, in the world of the internet, it should not be surprising that Lammy elicited so much hate. Inevitably on Twitter, when you express a strong view that isn’t something like, “Puppies are amazing, don’t @ me”, you’re almost certain to be met with an equal and opposite force of negativity. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Twitter.
But while I was not surprised, I was deeply saddened and disenchanted by the false, uninformed or simply disingenuous arguments people used to try and invalidate what David Lammy has said. And while I personally wouldn’t have phrased the tweet quite as inflammatorily as he did (after all, you’re never going to convince someone talking like that), I do believe the sentiment of what he said stands to reason. And, I’m going to try and explain why.
You see, these tweets are not just random tweets by individuals (even though they are). They’re a microcosm of every conversation about race in England and anywhere else in the Western World. Like tiles in a bathroom, they all follow a certain path and pattern that once you process, you know will repeat. They are the conditioned and often parroted responses we get from (oh, no, I’m going to say it) white men when they’re told that they don’t understand racism. It’s only by pointing out the cracks in these tiles, or just their sheer garish ugliness, that we can try and work towards replacing them.
And no, it wasn’t racist to say “white men”.
That issue right there is probably the best and only place to start. Because if you disagree with Lammy, it’s likely because you believe the following: “Why is it racist for me to call someone a black man, but it’s not racist for a non-white person to say a white man is ___. They are both equally racist.”
Now, while I loathe to go to the dictionary to back up an argument, it is once again the only way we can begin to unpack why the above statement is not correct.
The key of what defines racism is not the pointing out of one’s skin colour. This is a common misconception people seem to have and that is why often you will hear people say, “I don’t see race.” While I have no doubt that the intentions of people who say this are good and that they do not want racism to exist, this statement does not help.
Unless you are literally blind, you do see race. There is nothing wrong in seeing race. Our difference should be celebrated. Racism is not about that. Racism is about power dynamics. It is about the belief that one set of people are subhuman – i.e. less deserving of being treated as humans than others. In a different world, this could easily have manifested in black people colonising the world with the explicit philosophy that white people are dumb and savage and incapable of self-governance and thus deserve to be ruled over and brutalised because they have not earned the privileges of humanity that come with blackness. But that is not what happened. And while countries of predominantly coloured people have invaded and conquered countries of predominantly white people, it is only in our current version of history that white people, mostly Europeans, have colonised and enslaved millions upon millions of coloured people explicitly because of the colour of their skin. Explicitly because they deserved it. It is this doctrine that formed the basis of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
Therefore, any conversation about racism must exist in this context. It is in this specific world we live in that white people – as a collective, I don’t mean you, the person reading this – have power. The wealthiest, healthiest and most powerful countries in the world are all mostly white and it is not as an accident or a coincidence but a direct consequence of the above mentioned. That doesn’t discredit any achievements these countries made, it is simply an acknowledgement of reality. And when you understand this context, you understand that this international power dynamic manifests itself on an individual scale, particularly within these predominantly white countries. However much we may want to will ourselves into being a “post-racial” society, we still live in the aftermath of the relationship between the colonised and the colonisers. The slaves and the masters. Remember that it is within living memory that the British Empire, Apartheid and American Segregation all existed.
It is why the President of the most powerful country in the world can brand a bunch of brown countries as “shithole countries” without any actual understanding of where these places are, let alone what their current socio-political status is. It is why he can follow that up by stating that America would be better having more immigrants from Norway, for some mysterious reason… Because the idea that white is good, and brown is bad does not need fact – it it’s ‘just a feeling’.
‘Just a feeling’ that Africa is a “shithole” continent that wouldn’t survive without Western aid, even though 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are from Africa (and none from Europe). 
Just a feeling that Asians are benefit scroungers, even though 3 of the top 5 entries for richest people in the UK, according to the Sunday Times, were born in India (and none in the UK).
This ‘feeling’ is also what justifies a lot of explicitly racist rhetoric, such as another Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, claiming that burkas are a tool to hide “bruises”, insinuating that all Muslim women are the subject of domestic abuse. This, of course, conveniently forgetting that 1 in 4 women in the UK are the subject of domestic abuse at some point in their lives and, last I checked, 1 in 4 women in the UK were not Muslim. That is when we know that people like Johnson and Dorries do not care for about the ease of life Muslim women or indeed how “liberal and progressive” we are, having repeatedly voted against gay rights. If she cared about the rights of women, she’d be attacking men for being violent abusers the same way she seems intent on attack Islam for being some sort of force of evil. But, she doesn’t. Because this isn’t about ‘fairness’ or ‘tolerance’, but about taking any chance to attack anything “foreign” under the guise of liberalness.
That is why Boris’ remarks are racist. Because they are nothing to do with equality and everything to do with race. It is why he seems to have no problem with nuns, Jehovah’s witnesses or Amish people – who all have similarly “oppressive” practices – but can’t seem to tolerate brown women covering their bodies for whatever reason. There is such irony in Boris claiming that Muslim women are not given the free will to choose to wear or not wear burkas, so, to fight for their free will he is going to… force them to not wear it.
Going back to the issue with Lammy, then, it is all this context that we must remember when looking at our original premise: “Why is it not the same for you to point out that I am white?” Because whiteness is not the subject of fear. It is not the subject of inferiority and it is not the subject of oppression. It has never been. Blackness is. Someone’s whiteness has never been used to treat them as subhuman so calling someone white, even pejoratively, does not invoke the same context as using someone’s blackness as an insult, which has historically been a a legal means of denying an entire creed of people their human rights and subsequently as a means of reminding someone that they are less deserving of humanity.
The best comparison – and one that is a lot less contentious – is with wealth. In stark contrast to racial privilege (or most other forms of privilege), class privilege is something that most people understand. So, think about the following exchange: Two panelists are arguing in a live TV debate, let’s say Question Time. One says to the other, “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a rich, private school kid and don’t know what life is like for poor people and the struggles we face. Your opinion on this is invalid.” Nothing said here would be particularly out of line or hasn’t been said before against, say, politicians. Now think about how this would go down: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a poor, public school kid. You don’t know what it’s like to have money so how would you know what to do with it? Your opinion on this is invalid”. It’s clear there that there is a difference here. This would not stand. Their line of argument is the same, but the situation and our response would not be the same. That is because we recognise that wealth is a privilege and a lack of wealth is a hindrance to success. If you’re poor, you can still become powerful and successful, there’s just more barriers in your way. And if you’re rich, you will still face struggles and hurdles on your way to potential success, which is never guaranteed, but you have a distinct head-start. Yet, when it comes to race, we do not apply the same rules. Probably because most people in the Western World don’t believe racism exists anymore in any way beyond the potential to drop the n-bomb. That’s also where we’re wrong.
I particularly love this (not-fully-screenshotted but you get the gist) cartoon that was tweeted at Lammy because it so perfectly encapsulates the opposite of what it’s meant to. It’s obviously meant to show how racism can affect white people too, yet what it demonstrates again is the fundamental lack of understanding of racism that many (not all) white people have. Pointing out that someone is not in the best position to understand racism by virtue of being white (a cultural phenomenon that does not make a comment on the biological or historical capability of white people) is not the same as being the victim of racism (being treated as subhuman because of biological beliefs based around the colour of your skin) or institutional racism (the subtle remnants of the above thinking which still affect perceptions, opportunities and treatment of non-white people). Apparently, to be subjected to hundreds of years of brutalisation, genocide, abuse, slavery, exploitation, dehumanisation and then all its present day aftermaths and incarnations is now the same as the injured feelings of being told, “You’re white, you wouldn’t get it.” That is peak obliviousness and peak irony.
So many commenters seemed so quick to point out that actually they have a great understanding of racism… while simultaneously displaying their ignorance of what racism is and claiming that it’s a myth. If they knew what racism is (and indeed if they knew their history), they wouldn’t be making the points they were.
Again, to compare (though no comparison is quite adequate in this case), imagine a woman saying to a man: “You don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman” and the man replying, “How do you know that? You’re being sexist by assuming I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman”.
Now, it is perfectly possible for men to understand sexism just as well as a woman can. Similarly, it is possible for a white person to understand racism just as well as a black or brown person. But, whiteness is a barrier to understanding racism in the same way that being male is a barrier to understanding sexism. By default, whiteness removes you from the experiences of coloured people, thus making it a lot harder to understand what they mean when they point to certain things that you simply have never experienced. You have to overcome this barrier to reach that understanding, and that means accepting your privilege.
When you are the beneficiary of a particular system, you are actively a part of it until you are not. To be white and not actively acknowledge racism is to actively work to perpetuate it, however passively you may do it. Because to either deny or be oblivious to racism is to posit that it doesn’t exist and that you do not benefit from any sort of privilege… both of which are untrue. It is only when you understand and acknowledge that racism exists and that, as a consequence, white privilege exists, and adapt your behaviour accordingly, can you actually claim to be against racism.
Again, a metaphor: One house in a neighbourhood is burning. You don’t call the fire department and have them spray every house with water because all houses are of equal importance. You get them to turn the water on the one house that needs it the most because you recognise that this house is in trouble, compared to the others. Your mere passive, non-discriminatory existence is not going to fix any particular problem if it already exists. Homelessness will not be solved by saying “Well, I don’t mistreat homeless people so it’s all good”. If we never tried to help homeless people and address the causes of homelessness, it would never be fixed. The same applies to racism.
Of course, you will want fact, so let’s talk fact. Racism manifests itself at all points of a black person’s life. In school, they are likely to be expelled more, marked down by their teachers for the same answers as their white counterparts, less frequently accepted into Russel Group universities (despite a greater proportion of them being at sixth form/college), and more likely to be given a grade less than 2:2 (by university lecturers who are 70% white male – remember, a default barrier to understanding racism). Along the way, they’re also more likely to be stopped and searched, twice as likely to be charged with drug possession (despite all studies showing drug use to be similar across race lines or slightly higher amongst white people), up to 5 times more likely to be charged with an offence rather than cautioned or warned (like their white counterparts would) and more likely to be put on the National DNA database. In the job sphere, they’re more likely to have their application rejected simply for having a ‘non-white’ name, despite having an identical CV to a successful white applicant. And, if they should make it to old age after of lifetime of being treated like an idiot and a criminal, they are more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital under the compulsory powers of the Mental Health Act (i.e. against their will), more likely to be seen as ‘an aggressive’ patient, more likely to receive a higher dose of anti-psychotic medicine than their white counterparts and yet less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. These are just some of the many ways in which a dark complexion can make your life harder in England (and yes, this is all in England, something people seem reluctant to believe since racism is an American thing, obviously, and never takes place in these shores). And these are all findings from studies sanctioned by the government, not some leftie-liberal, pro-black, white-hating think tank, though the government itself seems set on not doing anything with these findings.
And yet, even when you point these things out, there are some people who still will play the whataboutery game.
The above is another argument I’ve seen used recently to try and deny the existence of racism. The “actually, poor white kids have it bad too.” Except, there’s a fundamental flaw in the logic of this argument that Twitter user JimmyMelt so nicely serves up for us, that racism somehow can’t exist if underprivileged white people exist. But Jimmy makes two mistakes in their assertion. The first incorrect assumption is that racism and class inequality can’t exist simultaneously, when in fact they most certainly do and any analysis of racism cannot be done without understanding how closely it ties in with class-dynamics. Why would people being racist stop people from also mistreating poor people? Is there only a finite amount of injustice to go around?
The second is that, for the group they stated – that is “poor white kids” – somehow whiteness is the source of disadvantage. What Jimmy was so close to figuring out is that the key word is actually the previous one, “poor”. It is the economic status of these children that is disadvantaging them, not their race. And of course it would, that is what wealth was designed for – to privilege you over other people.
Class, like race, can act as a barrier to success. If Jimmy had simply followed their own logic all the way through, they would have realised the following: “White kids are the norm. Poor kids have comparatively bad results. A disproportionate number of poor kids are non-white. Non-white kids have comparatively bad results. But non-white kids with money are performing as well as, if not better than, the white kids. I wonder if race and class are somehow having an effect on the education of our children and if that manifests itself in society as a whole? Hmm….”
The inability to see this, probably has something to do with the phenomenon called, “The working class of the mind”, which was a term coined when a recent survey found that 60% of Brits regard themselves as working class, despite only 25% actually working in ‘working class’ jobs. Britain as a country seems to pride itself on being ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type people who all face struggles and work hard for every penny they earn, when in reality, they are generally in a much more privileged position than they realise. And while undoubtedly almost everyone works hard for what they do and what they earn, there is a clear, systematic and cultural refusal on the part of Brits to acknowledge this privilege.
It seems everyone wants to claim to be persecuted and to be at the bottom of the barrel, even if that’s not even slightly true. In reality, acknowledging your privilege is not an acknowledgement that your life is easy or that things were handed to you on a plate, but that there are certain advantages you face over someone else for a reason that isn’t fair. And this is a fluid system – you can privileged in some ways and underprivileged in others and being on either side of that equation doesn’t make you lesser in any way. You might be the subject of sexism but the beneficiary of racism. You might be the beneficiary of a homophobic society but disadvantaged by your economic status. And in all of those scenarios, you can still be a strong, capable, brilliant individual, regardless.
The truth is, everyone struggles in their own way, and empathising with, understanding or acknowledging someone else’s struggle which you don’t face does not make you weak, but rather shows a bravery of character. And while I’ve taken a lot of time to slate the people in Lammy’s replies, I also want to take the time to give kudos to user JJHoppard who, to put it succinctly, “gets it”.
I salute you, Joe. Yours is an attitude we should all aspire to have – acknowledge where we are privileged and shut up and listen when someone on the negative end of that privilege is trying to explain their experiences to you.
Because if there’s one thing that this whole issue has demonstrated, it’s that people like Boris couldn’t give a flying toss about the actual liberties of Muslim women (who the government refuses to let into this country when they’re fleeing from actual war and persecution because they’re all from shithole countries and want to steal our welfare, of course). But, instead, that people like him just want to start cultural wars and accentuate divides in order to gain cheap popularity. And he’s doing it because he’s a rich, privileged white man who has absolutely no clue or concern about what Muslim people’s lives are like, or anyone whose name isn’t Boris Johnson, for that matter. So let’s all be a little less like Boris and try understand our privilege and the many ways in which they manifest and start by trying to understand what it really means to be racist, because this isn’t it.
 pp. 66-71, Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ (2017)