Debra Allcock Tyler: White people can claim to be anti-racist only when they understand how they perpetuate racism

Being forced to recognise our privilege is uncomfortable, but unless we suck it up nothing will change

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

White people are suddenly acutely aware of the colour of our skin. We are white people who have been advantaged all our lives because we are white, but we say we never noticed. Many of us pottered along blindly, oblivious to our privilege. Now we are being forced to notice. We are white.

We’re being forced to confront the fact that people with our colour skin have done – and are doing – horrible, awful things to people who have different colour skin. It’s shocking, shameful, embarrassing. For many of us, the colour of our skin is something that is making us feel uncomfortable or bad for the first time in our lives.

There are mutterings about being unfairly labelled by what other white people did. “We’re innocent. We didn’t do that shit. We didn’t enslave people. It’s in the past. We should all move on. We don’t knowingly do anything racist. We have black friends. This cannot be about us.”

Basically, we don’t like feeling bad about ourselves. We don’t want to face the shocking and frightening fact that some of our heroes were, and are, racist. We’re having our comfortable perception of ourselves and our history turned completely upside down.

Inevitably some of us are not dealing with it, but instead are focusing on things that aren’t about our complicity with the system. We divert conversations about racism into diatribes about vandals or rioters or statues. We deliberately misunderstand white advantage by pointing out our own personal hardships. We seek out examples of (usually rich) black people who say that other black people need to get over it, or who support white folk’s interpretation of events.

We convince ourselves that, for us, it’s not about colour. We assert that we don’t “see” colour. But saying things like that makes us look stupid, because it is stupid. Of course colour shouldn’t matter: but it does. White people do see colour, we just don’t see white.

For many, accepting our whiteness, and the privilege that structural racism affords us, is unfamiliar territory. And when faced with the unfamiliar lots of us are acting as one does when in shock. Denial first. Then anger.

But at some point white people are just going to have to suck it up and accept the fact that, even though we didn’t choose it, this is the racially charged system we were born into, which not only advantages us but also actively disadvantages others. We can claim to be anti-racist only when we accept that racism exists, stop trying to deflect responsibility for it and instead own it and understand our part in perpetuating it. Then it might change.

If you don’t like the feeling that you’re being judged negatively because of the colour of your skin, remember that is how black people feel almost all the time. And be grateful that the Black Lives Matter movement is about equality and not revenge.

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