Racism is something I’ve been afraid to write about. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of colour, to experience racism. I’m sitting here, with my white privilege, writing about something that maybe I’ve no business writing about.
If you asked me or pretty much any white person I know if they are racist they would likely reply with ‘No, of course not!’. But is that really the truth? Is it possible that we’re sometimes unintentionally racist? You see, I don’t treat black people any differently than I do white people. I am not overtly prejudiced towards anyone but, as author Jodi Picoult recently wrote,
‘Racism is more than just discrimination based on skin colour.’
I have an advantage in society merely because I was born with white skin. The benefits I experience because I am white exist because someone else, a person of colour, doesn’t experience them.
I am extraordinarily lucky to have an amazingly patient best friend. She is funny, understanding, intelligent and helpful. She is also a black woman. While we often have conversations about run of the mill things that close friends talk about (music, tv shows, etc.), she also gives me the freedom to ask questions about her life and how it differs to mine because she is a person of colour. She knows that my intention is never to offend, even if I unintentionally do, but to learn and attempt to reduce my levels of ignorance. She tells me about life back home in Zimbabwe, about cultural differences and traditions and about her experiences of life as a black woman in Ireland. It isn’t my place to tell you about all of those experiences but I will share one that we experienced together.
As teenagers we looked very different to each other- short and tall, long hair and short hair, black skin and white skin. This last difference wasn’t something that I particularly thought about. She was just my friend, I didn’t think of her as my black friend. However, one day while we were out shopping a total stranger shouted derogatory comments at us from across the street. They shouted at us because we were different but together, they shouted at us because my friend has black skin while I have white and apparently there was something wrong with us spending time together. At the time we rolled our eyes and laughed it off and for the most part, I forgot about it. But I doubt my friend did. I had the privilege of forgetting because that wasn’t a regular occurence in my life and, because I so easily forgot about it I did a disservice to my friend.
Because of white privilege I can watch a tv show or a movie and face no difficulty in finding someone who looks like me. Because of white privilege I could go in to a toy shop and find a book for my nephew with characters that he can immediately recognise as looking like him. Because of white privilege I can leave my house without fear of having slurs and verbal abuse shouted at me. Because of white privilege I can go about my day without worrying that I will be physically attacked because of the colour of my skin.
I can’t change the fact that I am white but I can call attention to it, to the privilege I receive because of it, to the disadvantages others face because white privilege exists. The job of an ally isn’t to wave a magic wand and make everything better, that just isn’t possible but what allies can do is recognise that it’s possible to be unintentionally racist, to be oblivious to the difficulties people of colour face even when they’re trying to do the most mundane, every day things. We can recognise that we have a privilege because we are white and realise that because of that it’s likely that someone else suffers. We can start conversations, we can call out a racist remark, we can make an effort to educate ourselves, we can use our white privilege to really listen and pay attention to what is happening in the lives of people of colour and then encourage other white people to do the same.
I’m only beginning to really understand and become more aware of racism as a tangible thing, as something more than a concept. I have no doubt that I have much, MUCH, more to learn and that I will still make mistakes and sometimes offend (please politely call me out so I can educate myself!). And, even then, I will never really know the struggle faced by people of colour but I will do my best to understand, and I sincerely hope that in these times where more and more people are willing to come forward and own up to their ignorance, that they will too.
On a final note, I want to apologise to my friend for taking so long to reach this point, for so easily moving on from those hurtful words all those years ago and to say thank you, thank you, thank you – for constantly educating me, for having the patience of a saint when I ask you to explain something for the fifth time, for not being offended when I, no doubt, say something unintentionally offensive. I’m sorry, thank you, I love you.