In 2017 a transgender model, Munroe Bergdorf, got sacked by L’Oréal for writing a Facebook post about the Charlottesville riots. She’d said that society is built on white supremacy, so unless white people are taking action to put a stop to the system which benefits them, they are complicit in racism. In fact, she didn’t just say they were complicit, she said that their inactivity makes them racist.
Surely, there is no doubt that white privilege exists. And it’s easier to say that than to say that racism is widespread because the precise intentions behind a person’s actions can be difficult to interpret – naivety, ignorance or experience can all play a role. Equally, the line between culture and race is a blurred one (i.e. two people of the same race but with different cultural characteristics might find that they are treated differently).
While racial privilege should be the top priority, we should be fighting all forms of privilege
But what should a white person do about their white privilege? I am white and middle class with some working class influences (let’s say). Born 1982 to liberal atheist parents, I went to fairly mixed schools. My friends were of families that valued education and therefore you could say, culturally lower-middle class, even if not materially. Two childhood experiences stand out to me as ways that I was dealing with race and perhaps mishandling my white privilege.
- Aged about 9, I wrote a page in my diary about the boys I fancied at school. It included the line ‘…if I had to fancy a black boy, it would be…’ I clearly had absorbed very set (Arian, to be honest) ideas of beauty and although I had liked this other boy enough to include him, there was something significantly unfamiliar about him that he didn’t make it onto the main list.
- In 1997, aged 14, I was chatting in the playground with two friends, one of Afro-Caribbean background and one Indian. We usually had another (white) friend in the group but she wasn’t in. As we stood on the playing field one break time, I decided to remark ‘We’re like an advert for this school.’ I felt quite embarrassed afterwards. I remember that I had to explain my point because it wasn’t clear: that we represented the main racial groups. Upon reflection, I realised that if I was trying to be cool about race and if it really didn’t mean anything to me, I would never have noticed or thought about it in the first place. There would have been nothing for me to remark upon.
Now as an adult, I conclude that the same approach should be taken to white privilege as for all forms of privilege: you simply need to remember that compared to others, you have it a bit easy. You need to maintain a bit of solemnity on the topic, out of respectfulness towards people who did not have the same privilege – but not guilt or apology. A child born with privilege cannot be blamed. It is just a fact about them and their existence.
Munroe Bergdorf was right – we should all be fighting against privilege. And while racial privilege should be the top priority, we should be fighting all forms of privilege. We can subscribe to charities; join or vote for political parties which stand up for our values; lobby against injustice; don’t give our children selective education; avoid private health care; don’t make income from property.
As for Bergdorf’s assertion that being a passive white person equates to racism: surely, if she really thinks about the full scope of society in the UK, and what people’s priorities are and how their lives operate day-to-day, it’s simply not in their experience to think on that level. I suppose we’re talking about education here… Even if they hold slightly bigoted or nationalistic views, there is sometimes a tremendous force of logic at play; if we’d grown up them, might we have learnt to see things the same way? It’s about culture and identity and social sphere. We have to be realistic about what is possible. Although there is a great deal of sense and truth in what she says, not all passive white people can be considered complicit in racism. Her position is intellectually elitist.
Trying to get people to change is really hard but we should be careful that our activism does not become a dialogue with ourselves and alienating to the masses. Take people who care about the environment… There’s a risk that they club together and talk about the environment to other people who care about the environment. And then if they meet some average Joe Bloggs who doesn’t give a hoot, there is an unsurmountable gulf between them. The environmentalist is exasperated by Joe Bloggs’ ignorance and neither can see where the other is coming from. Obviously, racism is not at all the same as anti-environmentalism, but finding a way to listen to where other people are coming from is hugely informative. If we can appreciate that there is some degree of human nature and logic at play, it will help us to be smarter still in our fight.