Can a leopard change their spots? (Or pulling out the racist marrow in our bones.)
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Before I begin I want to mention the writers whose work has enabled me to become aware of the racism that is an integral, and often unknown part of my identity.
Resmaa Menakem and his book, My Grandmother's Hands.
Ibram X Kendi and his book, How to be an Antiracist.
Lovette Jallow and her book Främling i Vita Rum which is only available in Swedish at this moment in time.
So, to begin. I want to be as honest, uncomfortable and open as possible here. I am still and always will be, trying to grow and develop and this is not the end, only the start of dismantling the threads of identity that create and form me. I hope together we can collectively start to identify the stories that shape and control us including those that we may not even want to acknowledge are there.
A few months ago we chose the subject of racism as our discussion in the VIS group (Virtual Ideas Salon) that I set up at the start of the pandemic. To be honest, I was incredibly anxious about 'holding' the group when discussing such a potentially emotive subject. Also the members of the group are 99% white and that felt somehow 'wrong.' I suggested that we all choose books to read on the subject before meeting and then share what we had found out that was new, as well as share how our views may have changed or been challenged.
I already had Lovette Jallow's book and additionally bought Ibram X Kendi's but here is the thing ... I pride myself on being pretty well read. My husband and I collectively have over a 1000 books, both fiction and non-fiction. However, though we do have books written by writers of colour, they form a tiny percentage and we had none on the subject of racism, white body supremacy or colonialism/colonial narratives. It was a sudden shock of realisation to me - I, who talk about deconstructing our narratives and becoming aware of the stories that shape and form us, had totally side-stepped and ignored the impact of racist tropes and stories that I was fed as a child, which absolutely have to inform my beliefs and attitudes. Of course the reason for this is because I am white - it did not even occur to me that those were things that I should read up on or educate myself about. I believed myself to be anti-racist, believed myself to be a little more 'educated' than the general populous when it came to 'African History' and 'systems of oppression.' - I mean I had lived in Ghana for six years, could speak Twi, of course I was not racist. Such smugness, such privilege Sigh.
I started reading. Suddenly the threads started untangling and making themselves known to me. They were ugly threads in my identity and ignorant threads and so started my work on becoming aware of what I carry and where it comes from. I was brought up in a very racist community and many of my relatives held openly racist opinions, some using the word, P-ki to describe people from Pakistan as well as W-g to describe black people. I felt I was 'better' than them because I had black friends and did not hold onto those ideas. Yet I cannot deny that I bought into many of the stories of white body supremacy. As a white woman born in the 60's it would be impossible not to. These showed up in my admiration for those 'Homesteaders' who conquered the 'Wild West' (read immigrants/refugees who displaced and massacred the local people,) the story of how we (the British) 'civilised' certain countries (read took took the land, took gold and minerals, sold the people and left Christianity and a railway system,) or having deep down in my subconscious those terrible images of the early cartoons of African people with bones through their noses eating a white 'explorer' (read brutal invader.) If I cannot acknowledge that they are there and become aware of them, then they have power and can control and inform my thoughts and behaviour. In the same way that I believe that we have to deconstruct and become aware of the words our parents and teachers used to describe us, in order to have agency over our narrative and life; so we have to start to deconstruct and become aware of the stories we were shown and told about people of colour. I think back to the comedy shows of the 70's, the sexualisation and exoticising of the black, female body, the sexualisation of black men; the list goes on and on and on and I consumed these without question as a child and teenager. Now I have to regurgitate them and find out what is there. It is not pretty.
When I started looking into the impact of intergenerational trauma on bodies of colour, especially Native Americans, Inuit and the Aboriginal people of Australia, I had not linked the stories I held into the equation. It helped me understand 'them,' not myself or my role in perpetuating the damage by holding onto the toxic stories that I had been fed. It was 'them' that needed help, not me. I needed no work, I was going to be a white saviour, helping spread the word about the system of oppression. Any change we want to make as white people in challenging the systems that exist, has to come first through our acknowledgement of what we carry. It is only when we are aware of it that we can name it and control it. Ibram X. Kendi, in his TED talk says:
"And so I think we should be very clear about whether we're expressing racist ideas, about whether we're supporting racist policies, and admit when we are, because to be anti-racist is to admit when we expressed a racist idea, is to say, "You know what?When I was doing that in Central Park,I was indeed being racist.But I'm going to change.I'm going to strive to be anti-racist."And to be racist is to constantly deny the racial inequities that pervade American society, to constantly deny the racist ideas that pervade American minds.And so I want to built a just and equitable society, and the only way we're going to even begin that process is if we admit our racism and start building an anti-racist world.
With all of this comes the knowledge that educating myself does not really help people of colour who daily are treated differently because of the colour of their skin and the systems of oppression that exist to keep them within a certain narrative. I need to be active, I need to do. I suppose this blog is the first step in doing something..... I hope that the people who read it, especially those who are 'colour blind, start to question and unpick some of their beliefs and start to realise that race as a concept did not exist until the 1500's and is a social construct. To realise the historic language that was used to describe people of colour, impacts still on how we relate to them today - 'pioneers' v 'immigrants/refugees,' savages v conquerors. That cultural appropriation stems from white body supremacy. That many of the stories we loved reading as children, many of the movies, many of the shows we watched had racist features, either through mis-representation or non representation of people of colour. That the curriculums we were taught at school were the same. We need to start unpicking what lies deep inside our beliefs and use what we find as a call into action.
So I am calling. I hope you can listen. I hope you can hear.
On a final note - if you are reading this I would love to know how you found out about it - it would be comforting for me to know how this tiny voice reached you so I can be grateful to those who helped. Thank you.