I attended Glasgow’s #BlackLivesMatter protest yesterday with the family. Adding to its numbers was literally the least I could do: as a white man, I do practically nothing to counter the engrained bigotry that comes with 43 years of privilege.
This morning I read a blistering account by Elyse Cizek of her own internalised racism and that of her (former) white friends who now pontificate over George Floyd’s murder. The sub-heading is Stand up for what’s right. But first, make sure you look in the mirror long enough to see what’s wrong.
That avoidance of the mirror can be personal and societal. For instance, I had to watch a lot of Westerns recently for a job, and the constant reiterating of hatred for the indigenous American “savages” quickly felt pathological. I saw a culture addressing its recent genocide with, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
That same kind of denial and reinforcement happens here in Scotland when we watch or read horrific depictions of antebellum American Slavery, like Twelve Years a Slave. Feminist Frequency often points out that white Americans like that context for discussing racism because it seems remote—it doesn’t indict them personally. Well, for me it’s not only remote in time, but also in geography. I have to remind myself that while slaves weren’t kept in Scotland, plenty of Scots got rich using them.
(I work in TV, and the area in Glasgow where most of that happens is called Pacific Quay. The postcode is PQ, and indeed that’s how people refer to the BBC Scotland building there: simply as “PQ”. Further along the River Clyde you come to Atlantic Quay, and you see a naming pattern emerge. This to me is a kind of gaslighting to erase that the P used to stand for Plantation.)
I’m going to explore all that, and I’ll post any interesting resources here for future reference, but it’s more important that I look inward, too. I need to come to terms with the ugly, shameful parts of my own history and personality. I’m not going to detail all my acts of racism here—the ones I know about, and the ones I discover when critically appraising my past and current behaviour—unless I feel that such confession might help someone else. (Basically, I’m ashamed, and don’t want this to become a conscience-cleansing exercise. As Elyse Cizek says in her piece, I should be haunted by my transgressions. I don’t want to erase them; I just don’t want to repeat them.)
Here’s one for free, though: I believe that most of my overt acts of racism (and, for that matter, homophobia) stem not from any belief system or opinion, but simple frailty of ego. I observed a power-imbalance around me, and positioned myself vocally on the dominant side. Of course, that thin-skinnedness could well have arisen in the first place through white/ straight privilege, where, to oppressors, equality = persecution. It could be worse that I had no intellectual racist or homophobic leanings, because my behaviour was utterly lacking in principal. Sheer cowardice.
I think that’s what we see when those who are caught being racist insist, “I don’t know what came over me. I’m not like that. That’s not me.” If you’d asked me in high school if white straight males were “better” in any way than other categories of person, I’d have said, “No, of course not.” If you’d asked me if I was racist, I’d have said no and believed it.
(I realise that while I profess no intellectual racism leanings, I certainly have racist attitudes that I don’t acknowledge consciously; it could be as simple as how dangerous I automatically judge an approaching stranger to be. This is just a small, incomplete confession, remember.)
I’d learned by the time I left high school not to behave like this any more, but again I can’t credit that to any enlightenment on my part. My only worthy act was to choose good friends, with whom being racist and homophobic got me nowhere. Social reward, personal benefit, selfish concern made me act better. I’m no hero.
bell hooks says in Feminism for Everybody, that anyone can contribute to patriarchy when they endorse its structure. She gives the example of a mother and child.
Emphasizing male domination makes it easy for women, including feminist thinkers, to ignore the ways women abuse children because we have all been socialized to embrace patriarchal thinking, to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have the right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them.hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody (p. 74). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Characterising patriarchy as the “ethics of domination” hit a nail for me, hard. There is no skin colour, gender or sexuality that could give me more societal power than the ones I have. The question for me is, do I abuse that power to maintain my relative dominance (which is so easy it will happen if I no nothing), or do the hard, morally correct work of increasing equality? Am I weak, or am I strong?
Back to Scotland. Here are some resources I’ve found to help me address the unflattering past of my country, so I don’t kid myself this is someone else’s problem:
Here’s a BBC Bitesize film about Scotland and the slave trade: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/clips/z6kkjxs
BBC Scotland’s series, Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bqvv10
Lisa Williams lecture: Race and the Scottish Enlightenment: