One of the most saddening things in the wake of the George Floyd killing has been to hear white people lecturing the Black community in their time of grief and trauma because they believe race to be “a non-issue.” A well-known Christian leader in the USA, a FB-friend of mine, wrote in his berating of Black Americans, “There is no race problem in the USA.”
At one level it as a classic case of, “If it isn’t a problem for me then it isn’t a problem.” At another it is a deliberate refusal to listen to the different experience of their friends and neighbours of colour. For some it may be a case of simply never having had to think about race.
It is saddening to realise that among my friends and neighbours there is such a lack of awareness, care or compassion towards their neighbours of colour whose lives are so impacted by race issues.
My extended family in America are Americans with African heritage. They are (all but one) leaving for other countries after more than a generation in the USA because they feel fearful and insecure in a country where not only the experience of police, but the experience of the justice system, education and even the healthcare system, carries such a demeaning and violent track record towards people of colour. It is entirely possible – even probable – that their white neighbours may not even have registered that issues of race would be so serious for my family that they would have needed to reach the decision to emigrate.
Just last week I was coaching a client in the USA – a highly educated, business-woman. She has a rare, chronic and complicated health problem. Her doctors in North Carolina are supervising her treatment plan. However, initially, her local doctors had repeatedly refused to investigate for the correct diagnosis. They told her, “You people…” you’ve guessed it, she is an African American, “…don’t know how to eat properly or look after yourselves.” To obtain the correct diagnosis she had to travel to an adjacent state – one that is willing to listen to and take seriously patients who are not white.
Only when she returned to her home state with the signature of a white doctor in the adjacent state on paperwork she could show to the white doctors in her own state did she get an agreement for her to be given the required treatment.
Her white neighbours, going to the same hospitals and seeing the same doctors, would have no reason to pick up on the racism of the medical system they are happily accessing. They would only be telling the truth if they were to tell their African American neighbour, “I have never seen or heard anything racist from our lovely doctors!” They would be totally unaware of their white privilege within the healthcare system. Their experiences is only of “our lovely doctors.”
I grew up in Britain and over a four decade period experienced a degree of racism. They were experiences I had largely forgotten about and moved on from until I married and had a family. My wife and kids all have darker skin than I do and as a father I have been re-confronted with our different-ness within an Australian context at a time when government ministers have been promoting policies and making statements fomenting negative attitudes from white Australians towards Australians who look like they may be “from somewhere.”
Even with the deliberate heightening of xenophobia by senior politicians – particularly in Australia and the USA – even with the steady stream of video evidence of KKK lynchings perpetrated in the uniform of law enforcement, white Australians and white Americans may be genuinely unaware of any privilege they carry in 2020 because of the colour of their skin. I can answer out of the experience of my own family. It goes like this…
- If you have never been spat on, verbally abused, or had rocks thrown at you because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If there are no parts of your home-town that you have to avoid because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had to worry that you will be passed over for a job because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you don’t routinely have people refusing to speak to you in your professional capacity because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had people questioning your competence to speak for your organisation because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you don’t routinely have people sitting in your workplace addressing your PA instead of speaking to you because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had people questioning your right to free speech in your country of citizenship because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had to worry about the physical safety of your spouse or your children being out in public because of the colour of their skin, that is your privilege.
- If your kids have not been made to feel ugly and unwelcome in their school because of the colour of their skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never been refused service by a salon of fully qualified hairdressers / barbers because they have nobody willing or able to cut “your kind of hair,” that’s your privilege.
- If you have never had medical practitioners ask if you are capable of reading a form because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had a medical practitioner ask if you are acquainted with basic hygiene, because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
- If you have never had a medical specialist refuse to examine your body or your child’s body because of the colour of your skin, then that is your privilege.
- If you have never had to relocate geographically because of the colour of your skin, then that is your privilege.
- If you have never had senior politicians identify you as a threat to the physical safety of your neighbours because of the colour of your skin, that is your privilege.
This is not in any way to deny that white people can be disfranchised or discriminated against for other reasons, it is simply to highlight some the kinds of inequality of treatment people of colour experience. These are not the worst kinds by a long shot. Our family has never had to suffer the seizing of property, police brutality, threats of lynching, bombing of our affluent communities, deprivation of finance, or denial of justice that other people of colour have to live with. These are simply the issues we have experienced in my own Australian family – some of these on a weekly basis.
In what passes for public conversation on these issues, when a person wishes to express support for or solidarity with Black Americans in their struggle what they have said is often spun to mean something seemingly indefensible eg they must be endorsing the Marxism of the “Black Lives Matter” organisation or they must be endorsing rioting and looting, or they must be uninterested in violence against non-blacks or violence by blacks, so on and so forth. I understand that these ripostes are a debating tool and I can read it that way. But as to a conversation to build shared understanding, they are deflections.
A commonplace example in the mainstream conversation can be seen in how people deflect from the sentiment that “black lives matter” by spinning it to mean that “only black lives matter” and therefore needing to be countered with a correction vis “All lives matter.”
We need a better public conversation about the problems. It is saddening and exasperating to realise how difficult some find it to talk about these particular issues, (“No, let’s talk about a different issue!”) and what a lack of will there is in some quarters to do so – even among friends.
For further reflection…
Richard Rothstein giving some context to today’s injustices.