It’s difficult to know exactly when I figured it out.
I was pretty much reading by the time I was three. I mean, I take absolutley no credit for that. I was three, I didn’t know what I was doing. But my mum made sure I was literate by the time I went to school, had access to books, visited the library often, and we spent many hours reading together. I am thankful for that.
I remember progressing through books at a rapid rate, so by the time I was in primary school, I had already fucked off Janet and John and Topsy and sodding Tim and their inane trips to the zoo or wherever. I’d moved on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then to the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and all that crap. I had read a lot of books by the time I was ten. And you know what I never saw in any of them? … a black character that wasn’t a fucking golliwog.
The world I had read about was white. Even the imaginary worlds I had read about were white. The one I could see with my own two eyes was pretty damn snowy too. My memory is probably a bit fuzzy, but the first black characters I actually remember from my television screen were Lando Calrisian (double-crossing scoundrel), B.A. Baracas (big, strong, not so bright), Bill Cosby (less said the better), and Winston Zedmore (the one with ‘street smarts’ helping three white scientists). That’s about it until we get to the 1990s really.
I mean there were some other people of colour, but mostly they were being arrested on The Bill or owning corner shops. Maybe there was someone in Grange Hill, I don’t really remember. It all seemed pretty white though, you know, because it was.
Everything we digested was was white. We watched Dallas and Dynasty, we watched Cheers and Rosanne… the sodding Golden Girls for christ’s sake! Streethawk, Knight Rider, Happy Days, The Dukes of…. never mind, Cagney and Lacey, Doogie bloody Howser M.D., My Two frikkin’ Dads, Blossom, Heartbreak High, Baywatch… Byker Grove! Hell, even into the 90s and naughties, we watched nine whole series’ before any of the ‘Friends’ even bumped into a black person.
It might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m honestly not… much. I watched all of those programmes and
they were all some of them were great. And besides, if I wanted to see black people on TV, there was always Desmond’s… and Andi Peters… and those Comic Relief videos.
I grew up in a world where 99% of the characters in books, film, and TV were white. The main characters anyway. The ones who saved the day, had the bright ideas, got the guy/girl. People who looked like me were funny, athletic, helpful secondary characters, or the bad/dumb/poor people who needed saving by Sandra Bullock or Michell Pfeiffer or Bono. Has it gotten any better? Well it has and it hasn’t… I’m looking at you, Green Book.
Growing up in the North East was a fairly white experience, too. There were a couple of other people of colour in my school. Literally a couple. And the black role models that were around were basketball players. So I guess we can add athletes to the list of things black people could be in my version of the Matrix. Or should I say our version.
Because that’s what was happening. Without anyone really noticing, we were all, constructing our collective matrix, being socialised into a way of thinking where white was the standard (heroic/smart/attractive/good), and anything else was… well not that. And yes you can point to examples where that’s not the case, but don’t you think the fact that you can pinpoint specific Will Smith-based examples might mean something?
Maybe you are (or you know) the sort of person who pushes back at the idea of even just a little bit more representation. You have to ask yourself at some point, what is the big problem? What’s the issue with having more black people or people from other minoritised groups on your television set, and in your books?
Why is it that you think the inclusion of a black character, or even making entirely fictional characters anything other than white (and straight and cisgender, while we’re here), is PC nonsense? Why do you see it as some sort of attack? Why does having more representation for people of colour have to mean the erasure of whiteness? Would you be more comfortable if your world was just white and straight, and cisgender? Why is it that you feel that way?
Really, what is an acceptable level of diversity for you to digest? Because if you think there should be some sort of quota, then that’s a fucking irony and a half, innit!?
Anyway, I digress. Look, you might think that you were raised not to see colour, to treat everyone the same, and to generally be a lovely, fluffy, absolute delight of a human being (and, dear reader, you probably are), but that doesn’t mean that your view of the world wasn’t shaped by your experience of it. It’s impossible for it not to have been.
I’ve written about the idea of a collective cognitive caucasity before. Basically, the notion that ALL of us have been socialised in such a way that whiteness dominates our thinking. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Well it is, but it’s not yours. You don’t need to feel bad, or guilty, or even sad… well actually, maybe you should feel sad, because it is quite sad when you think about it.
We were short-changed in our learning about the world. Think about the history that you were taught at school. Why didn’t we learn about Churchill being a massive racist? Surely it would have been okay to learn that about him too? Why do we all know William Wilberforce’s name, but were taught nothing of Britain’s role in the slave trade in the first place?
Why do we know that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, but aren’t really told about him being a shit navigator with a penchant for slavery. Why do we know who Thomas Edison is, but not Lewis Latimer? Why did we learn about Florence Nightingale, but not Mary Seacole? Why did we learn about ancient Greece and Rome, but nothing of Benin or Ghana?
Side note: why is it a problem to teach history from multiple perspectives or to teach the full extent of what ‘Empire’ really meant? Why can’t we see historical figures as fully fleshed out, real-life characters, instead of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs draped in Union Jacks and covered in Carling-flavoured nostalgia and piss? I hope this is changing.
And what did we learn about Africa in school? Mud huts? Grass skirts? Spears? Slaves? All reinforced by what you saw and heard in the media. I mean the fact that there are people who still think Africa is a country tells you all you need to know. Maybe someone came to your school with a fucking drum once. Ooooh, drumming, great!
Hell even Jesus is somehow white. Every film, every picture you ever saw. Everybody running around the Middle East, all white as a hell, AND WE NEVER EVEN BLINKED AT IT! Everyone was like, “oh yeah, everyone white (not you, Judas), cool, cool, cool.”
The point I’m making is that all of this, everything that we have absorbed, has shaped our world view. All of it. And if you think it didn’t, you’re just plain wrong. Here’s a thought experiment. Picture the following people in your mind (answers at the botttom of the page)…
- A NASA scientist
- A neruosurgeon
- A university professor
- A toilet attendant in a nightclub
Bear in mind that reading what you’ve read so far might well have primed your answers, but what did you instinctively come up with?
When we talk about white superiority, white supremacy, people automatically recoil in horror and think of the KKK and Donald Trump, and Nazis and stuff. “How dare you accuse me of being a White Supremacist… you’re racist and I’m not listening to you any more!”
“…if you want to be anti-racist, you have to accept that we’ve all been socialised to believe in ideas about the superiority of whiteness”
But white supremacy is just an idea right? An idea with consequences, absolutely, but still just an idea – the idea that white people are superior and should be dominant over other ‘races’, which sounds extreme, I know (because it totally is).
But what if I told you that that idea is somewhere in all of our heads because of everything that we’ve ever been exposed to? We might not express it, we might not even consciously think it, but it’s there.
It’s the idea that whiteness is standard, and not-white is “different” or “other” or “lesser.” And that idea is reinforced every-goddamned-where.
I swear I was at least 35 years old before I realsised that plasters are supposed to be “flesh”coloured. I had no idea, I just thought that’s what colour plasters were. But it turns out that plasters are a symbol of a world that’s set up for whiteness. Who knew!?
So look, I know it’s tough to swallow, but if you want to be anti-racist, you have to accept that we’ve all been socialised to believe in ideas about the superiority of whiteness. That acceptance comes first – it has to. Maybe you want to push back about that, I get it. Maybe you don’t believe it applies to you. It’s okay, I get that too.
But you have to know that it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means that like everyone else, you’re a product of your environment. Only when you accept that, can you start to deconstruct the notions that have shaped the way you see things. What does make you a bad person is claiming you’re not racist, then stubbornly refusing to actually do anything, because of your own hurt feelings.
So have a think. I urge you. Think about the films, TV, books, news, education that you experienced – and still experience. Think about all of that and how it shapes the way you see the world. See if you can notice all of that and how it influences what you think about things. Who’s a ‘protester’ and who’s a ‘rioter’? Who’s a ‘thug’ and who’s a ‘kid’? Who’s a ‘terrorist’ and who’s a ‘troubled lone wolf’? Who’s a threat and who isn’t?
Who belongs in your space and who doesn’t? And why do you think it your space to begin with?
Thought experiment answers: Admit it, I was pretty close wasn’t I?
- NASA Scientist: White dude, maybe a tie, probably glasses, maybe a short-sleeved white shirt.
- Neurosurgeon: White dude, maybe a tie, probably glasses, maybe scrubs, but maybe a suit.
- University Lecturer: White dude, maybe a tie, probably glasses, maybe a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches?
- Toilet attendant in a nightclub: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯