Me and White Supremacy – a reflection

IssueFebruary 2021
Feature by Emily Johns

I am white.

My earliest memories of being conscious of race and racism are from when I was 10 years old. 

I remember standing in the school hall and some boys taunting Stephen, calling him a ‘black and white minstrel’. I didn’t know Stephen well and I had never heard of a minstrel show but from the words I worked out that one his parents was black and the other was white and because of this he was being teased. [The Black and White Minstrel Show was a musical variety show, which was peak-time BBC TV from 1958 – 1978, in which white performers ‘blacked-up’ their faces while singing and dancing – ed.]

I also got that this was beyond teasing, that it was something bad, that Stephen was being hurt in a way that I couldn’t be hurt, I was safe from it. And I could feel I was a co-opted inactive witness, and I was uncomfortable around Stephen’s distress.

I remember sitting with my friend Minaxi on the high wall at the end of her garden. It was April 1975, I had come back from staying with my Grandpa in Barbados, and we were looking down at the boys who were shouting ‘Pakis’ at us. 

I can remember my agitation. It still rises. I wanted to tell them that, actually I was white. 

“I felt ashamed that my feelings were making me a traitor to my friend.”

I felt confused because I could see my tan was so deep that I was the same colour as Minaxi, but I knew I wasn’t really the boys’ target because I believed they had made a mistake. I felt ashamed that my feelings were making me a traitor to my friend because I wasn’t experiencing what I imagined she was experiencing. 

I wanted the boys to know I was white because it was important for me to be seen in the identity that I saw myself and also I sensed that it was safer not to be identified as a ‘Paki’. 

A gap was opening between me and my friend. We sat on the wall together and shouted at the boys. 

I am working my way through Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad and it is helping me with this problem: it’s all very well seeing racism out there, at the bottom of the wall, across the hall, but how can I notice and pull out from myself the racism that my culture placed inside me. The agitation and shame that I first experienced as a child obviously didn’t stop there, but how I deal with my emotions around race was and will be important in shaping my actions.

I am part of this

Now I am a grown-up, I have a partner who is Asian, and we have a son who has one parent Asian and one parent white. As a young person, I read the books that good people read who want to understand: James Baldwin, Samuel Selvon, Steve Biko. Now, as an older person, I’ve read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Akala, Reni Eddo-Lodge, but still I feel the panic of responsibility, witness and failure. 

However, taking on the challenge this book with an unattractive title offers has altered my viewpoint from one of observing other people’s experience of racism to observing my own thoughts and actions and how I am part of the puzzle, part of this construct. 

If it is partly about me, then I can do something! Phew! So, I open the book and start and it is slow and painful and uncomfortable torture, like beginning an emotional yoga. Sometimes it makes my brain hurt, sometimes I groan and creep towards it moaning: ‘boring, don’t want to’.

It was originally written as a 28-day Instagram challenge to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world. It uses the, new to me, acronym ‘BIPOC’ for black, indigenous, and other people of colour. And it uses the term ‘white supremacy’ (right there on the cover) for the system of beliefs that white people should be dominant over other races. Although we may instantly think that phrase refers to fringe, horrid neo-nazis, the beliefs underpin the structures of the mainstream society occupied by the ‘good’ people.

“I open the book and start and it is slow and painful and uncomfortable torture.”

Just reading this book would be fine. Layla Saad writes clearly, carefully, straightforwardly. There is no complex language, no MA-speak, she is not trying to impress, she communicates ideas as a good teacher would, logically, paced and kindly. 

I could nip through this book in a day or two. But it is the doing the work where the slow painful stretching takes place. I am invited to respond to a series of prompts and to write a journal. 

Each chapter is taking me days of introspection. I am trying to delve beneath the conscious thoughts and ideas of my present self to get at insubstantial memories of a past that shapes my responses and to pin down and observe fleeting feelings. 

What do I notice, what do I feel, how honest am I willing to be, how do I put those glimpses of my interior into words. I fish up bad thoughts of a good person and lay them on paper and see that they are all particles of the smog of racism that I have breathed in and that I exhale.

I write down: ‘I have noticed how white silence is beneficial to me rather than just harmful to BIPOC.’

I write down a stream of consciousness: … ‘I can remember adults saying they were colour blind. I associate it with their internationalism, that they said they were “citizens of the world”. There were bad concepts such as nation states, borders, racism and adults wanted to distance themselves and be part of a world where those things didn’t exist’..... ‘Our school is in good multicultural inner London...’ ‘I notice that it is painful to give up my attachment to racist things of my childhood because they are part of a nostalgic identity, such as...’

And what to do with the shame? No one needs to read this, just me. We used to call it consciousness-raising. I am remembering asking my friend Davina ‘What’s that?’ as she was pinning a sign about it to the girls-school noticeboard when we were 16. 

Not noticed before

It rises in my consciousness that I can only remember one black girl at my inner London secondary school, we shared a room on our Latin school trip. I really think that she was the only black pupil in my year. And now my mind roams around my academic world, I am trying to see down past corridors... 

Me and White Supremacy is a consciousness-raising book, a journey, an opportunity to descend with a kind and stern guide into your own memories and observe your inner landscape and the cultural forces that shaped it. 

Only now does it hit me: my nursery school teachers were white, all my infant school teachers were white, my junior school teachers, my secondary school teachers, my university lecturers in geography, archaeology and anthropology, my university lecturers in fine art, all of them were white. 

What hits me is that I am noticing something I hadn’t noticed before. 

Nobody else can see this experience that I am looking at, but the guide book works for every person’s travel destination if they want to go there. 

It takes me not to my usual viewpoint where I customarily eat the sandwiches and hardly bother to look around because it is so familiar, but to a new lookout and I see down there what it means to completely belong to academia by ‘virtue’ of my whiteness. By the privilege of my whiteness.

It’s an opportunity to descend with a kind and stern guide into your own memories and observe your inner landscape.

How uncomfortable that word ‘privilege’ is. There were eras and occasions when it meant that you were fortunate, graced, lucky, blessed; something good had been bestowed on you. 

But now the word is laden with responsibility, guilt, unavoidable blame for being on the benefiting side of inequality. How inexplicable that a good person should have to be privileged! 

Maybe I should run around feeling uncomfortable and bad, but that changes nothing for anybody. So what if I tried to hold my own bad feelings in suspension for a while and look at this privilege business? 

The first day’s work of Me and White Supremacy is ‘You and White Privilege’. 

The chapter has a form that is repeated throughout the book: three pages in large print on ‘What is white privilege’. It is a term created in 1988 by women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh, who wrote: ‘I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I am “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank cheques.’ 

Layla Saad presents the idea that although science has proven that race is a social concept not a biological difference, the belief in the social construct plays out at a subconscious level that affects our thoughts and behaviours. 

She writes about her own experience of this construct as a black Muslim child; then explains how although you may be marginalised or oppressed in your gender, class, sexuality and so on, you can still hold white privilege. And then to the crux of the book: ‘You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you do not understand.’  

Cro-Magnon artists

‘Cro-Magnon artists painting woolly mammoths in Font-de-Gaume, a cave in south-west France’, by Charles R Knight c1920. Images like this popularised the idea that ‘Cro-Magnons’, the first modern humans in Europe, looked like modern white Europeans. In fact, for the first 30,000 years or so of their time in Europe, modern humans had broader and shorter faces with bigger ridges above their eyes – and dark skin. source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain) 

I belong anywhere

The chapter ends, like each of the subsequent chapters, with a list of questions which are reflective journalling prompts. It is all about thinking and writing it down. And there is something transformative about writing (says I, who moans and resists writing anything at all), it nails down slippery thoughts that would prefer to remain unobserved, and makes them visible. 

So Layla asked in what ways I hold white privilege and I began to notice these things: I feel I completely belong in my street, in my town, in my country whereas my partner has not had that feeling. 

I could visit Hungary and probably pass safely as a tourist but I fear for my son visiting his ancestors’ home because he doesn’t have the privilege of whiteness. I know most certainly my skin colour protects me. Perhaps it is a privilege not to be feared for, not to have someone dancing around, invisibly protective, to be free of those entanglements? 

I have been able travel across borders without being ‘visible’ even in countries where everyone else is black. I have had a feeling of a bubble around me that allows me to belong anywhere in the world. 

As a child, I read books about adventurers and explorers and they were all white: Eric Newby, Alexandra David-Néel, Thor Heyerdahl, Dervla Murphy... so the world comfortably belonged to me. People in history books looked like me, even prehistoric people, so I don’t have to wonder where my history is. People in children’s books looked like me, my imagination was peopled by people who look like me.

When I stayed in a pub in the Yorkshire moors with my partner, the publican only addressed me. I don’t have to experience being blanked. The publican looked me in the face because she thought I belonged there. I don’t evoke discomfort for white publicans. 

I have been protected from immigration queues, from the anxiety of being pulled out, of being refused. I have been protected from ‘Stop and Search’ on a race basis, and when I was stopped and searched, I was indignant but not scared. I know that I am protected by my whiteness from hurt by police; I am protected from racist attacks, from being asked ‘Where do you come from?’ when it means ‘you don’t come from here’. It protects me from being feared by other white people.

Ah, those are blessings. And I have them. 

“You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you do not understand.”

Interestingly, this process of noticing the individual elements of my privilege as parts of my life story, as the fabric of my past, allowed me to step away from experiencing privilege as paralysing guilt (I later discover in the book that this anxiety has been termed ‘white fragility’). 

Roll on next question: ‘In what ways have you wielded your white privilege over BIPOC that have done harm (whether intentional or not)?’. 

Oh no, it’s true! I, the only white child, won second prize, a fantastic prize, in an Easter bonnet competition in Barbados, with my hat that I made from a cardboard box and tissue paper. 

I clearly remember how stunned everyone was that I had turned up in their village square and that they had felt obliged to give gifts to me, and how horribly selfconscious I was because I could see I had displaced the other little girls with their stunning milliner-made bonnets.

And so the memories continue and are guided through the chapters on ‘You and tone policing’, ‘White silence’, ‘White superiority’, ‘White exceptionalism’, ‘Colour blindness’, ‘Stereotypes’, ‘you and anti-blackness against black men’... to ‘losing your privilege’. 

Losing my privilege is going to be the hardest bit, because it is about excising my attachments to my cultural past. Not so much cutting out the memories but peeling my clinging fingers away from the affection, the blithely pleasurable obliviousness to the white supremacist presumptions. 

I was going to get Asterix books for my nephew’s birthday, and my brother said: ‘No, Asterix is racist’. So, first, I mocked him: ‘What, racist against Romans? What do you mean racist? It’s anti-imperialist!’ Inside, I was weeping.... ‘Noooo, please. Tintin, OK, take away Tintin, but not Asterix!’ 

I googled: ‘Is Asterix racist?’, ‘Yes’ said Google, ‘the slaves are black Africans, they are signifying slaves, when everyone knows Roman slaves were all colours’. Ah, I studied Latin and yet the obliviousness lurks! 

Losing my privilege will be about deciding to give up my the place in the centre, and then doing it.

This book is helping me. It is hard. Thank you for this, Layla Saad.