I am writing this particularly for all those who, like me, are “white” and therefore automatically racist.
Is your response to that, “But I’m not racist”?
I also liked to think I wasn’t racist – and I certainly don’t want to be a racist. I am appalled by and ashamed of the consequences of racism around the world, mostly caused by us British through building ‘our empire’ and running the horrific Atlantic slave trade. But all the programmes I have watched and listened to, and the books and social media I’ve read over the past year, have helped me see how and why I, and all white people, are racist. We may not be consciously or obviously racist but we are all somewhere along the racism spectrum. Racism is not the same as being racially prejudiced. If things are going to change for black people, we all need to accept this truth in order to tackle the problems. Even my mixed race nephew, who is brown rather than ‘black’, has publicly admitted to some racist tendencies and thoughts whilst also being on the receiving end of racial prejudice because of his colour.
A few days ago, I fell badly in the garden and injured my right arm which is a problem for me. You see, I’m right-handed – as are most people. But it suddenly hit me that there is an analogy here with racial bias. As I have struggled to cope with very limited use of my right hand, I’ve had time to reflect on this.
My right hand is dominant. It’s how I was born. My brain is ‘wired’ that way. I automatically use my right hand, without ever stopping to think, for writing, whipping up cream, drawing, drinking from a cup, sewing, brushing my hair, cutting out a star shape, cleaning my teeth, eating my yoghurt, putting in a screw.
It’s true I sometimes let my left hand help me, with things like driving, rolling out pastry, taking the top off a bottle, eating a roast dinner, typing, taking photos. My camera, like some other tools and equipment, is actually designed for right-handed people. If I have a choice, I will use my right hand every time. Life revolves around right-handedness.
I suppose I show a degree of ambidexterity when I use both my hands together. But interestingly, ambidextrous literally means “right handed with both hands”. It’s still my right hand which is more dexterous and dominant. It sets the standard and expects the left to be the same!
There are a few, less savoury, tasks I leave to my left hand, such as in the toilet. In fact, in many cultures around the world, toilet activities are assigned to the left hand while the right hand is kept uncontaminated for eating, especially important if you don’t have cutlery.
The right dominance affects our legs as well. Unless you are a professional footballer who has trained rigorously for years, right-handed people will naturally kick a ball with their right foot. And we talk about putting the “best foot forward” while soldiers always set off marching in unison with the right foot. Even those who prefer their left foot have to set off with their right.
I have a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter who are left-handed – that’s how they were born and it became apparent whilst still babies. They are at a significant disadvantage – and always have been, trying to live in a world dominated by right-handed people. Writing is perhaps the most obvious way in which left-handers really struggle. In the past, children were constantly punished at school for using their left hands and were forced to write with their right hands, causing so much damage, holding them back, and making them feel inferior and failures. The design and process of writing “joined-up” letters is based on right-handedness. Writing from left to right is easy – I can see and check what I’ve written as I go along. We don’t even stop to think about how our way of life and expectations discriminate against left-handers. Being right-handed is normal – the right way, the best way, the superior way!
Can you see where I’m going with this? No analogy is perfect but as I continue, perhaps you can make the connection between right-handedness and being white, while black people are treated and considered to be more like our inferior and less valued left hand. As white people, we’ve even succeeded, subconsciously at least, in convincing ourselves of our superiority and making most black people believe it too. An educated African bishop told me with absolute conviction and certainty that black brains are not as well developed as white brains. And white people have certainly treated black people as though this were true.
We can take the comparison of right- and left-handedness even further when we consider the deep prejudice and inequality which is highlighted in our language. The meanings we have assigned to the words that come from the original Latin for left and right are very revealing – sinister and dexterous respectively. There are similar differences in the words we get from French for left and right: gauche and adroit. So, linguistically at least, the left is linked with darkness, menace, threat, malevolence, evil, inelegance, awkwardness, ineptness – all fearful or negative words. If we’re honest, can we say we have never had any of these feelings or thoughts about walking through predominantly black neighbourhoods or about Africa or black people, even if only with a frisson of fear or disquiet or extra caution? Why is it that black people are stopped and searched far more often than white people? There is no evidence that they carry more dangerous weapons or drugs than white people, but white people have inbuilt unconscious negative bias towards black people just as our brains have the same bias against our left hands, with all the connotations of sinister.
The meanings of these words engender feelings which operate at a subconscious level. This makes them so much harder to deal with. We have to bring them to the surface, into the open, and be honest before we can do anything about them. This takes courage, time and commitment. “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” (Tom McCallum).
Conversely, the words dexterous and adroit, derived from the right, are all positive, conjuring up ideas like skilfulness, agility, capability, adeptness, masterfulness, competence.
Recognising this unconscious bias as white people, like our bias towards our right hands, is our starting point. Just as the Latin words for left and right have spawned such contrasting meanings, so have the words black and white. White is linked with purity, light and radiance while black is the colour of darkness, evil, night, fear and danger. And what about the added link between right (being on the right-hand side) and being right, as in correct?
Roger and I often notice and comment to each other when we see someone who is left-handed – they are out of the ordinary, not the norm! They have been disadvantaged and have struggled throughout life although they are basically no different from right-handed people and don’t deserve to be discriminated against. Likewise, I am often surprised (but don’t usually comment) when, in the UK, I see a black family on the beach or hiking through the countryside, or a black person as a journalist on television, as a violinist playing classical music, a teacher, a landscape gardener or as a priest in the Church. But why am I surprised? It’s because I don’t expect to see them there. People of colour are generally poorer, more disadvantaged socially and educationally, and have fewer opportunities. There are many niches where black people are rarely seen because of being systemically disadvantaged in our culture and society.
Where do we expect to see black people? Perhaps in an inner city park, a street corner in a deprived area, working in underground stations, living in a high rise block of flats, as cleaners and porters, or waiting at the Job Centre? But why? Like our non-dominant hand, people of colour haven’t had the same choices and privileges as white people generally have and they’ve had to fight against discrimination. Now that the use of my right hand is limited, I am realising just how much my left hand can do – when I give it the opportunity! And it is quickly learning to become as skilful as my right hand – it’s never before been allowed to practice.
Scientifically, there is no such thing as race. Neither is there any physical difference between my right and left arms: they are identical – apart from being mirror images of each other. It is my brain which is deeply biased towards the right side of my body and treats my right and left hands differently without stopping to think. It assigns all the important tasks to my right hand. Likewise, white society (and that’s all of us who are white – we can’t hide or blame the group as a whole rather than us as individuals) is deeply biased and more privileged. Without even stopping to think, “society” treats black people differently. Race is purely a social construct, not a biological one, but it is nevertheless deeply rooted and ingrained, hidden in the collective subconscious for hundreds of years.
My brain isn’t bad and doesn’t have any malice towards my left hand nor does it have any prejudices against my left hand– it just prefers working with my right hand! This powerful bias is also true of most white people. Racism isn’t about being malicious towards black people or deliberately depriving them of opportunities. By claiming racism is only about deliberate intentions to treat black people unfairly, we all too easily deny or excuse our personal racism which is inextricably bound up with being white and with the systemic racism of our society and culture.
Even though, as white people, we may have personally experienced disadvantage and prejudice for various reasons (such as poverty, being a woman, or having a disability), it is not the same as the prejudice experienced by black people although it may give us some understanding. Black people similarly experience all these disadvantages in addition to being black. Even if we have black people in our family (which is increasingly the case), that still doesn’t mean we have personally overcome the deep unconscious bias of racism.
I have come to realise that, even with the best intentions, we cannot avoid being racist if we are white.
But that is no excuse for allowing the status quo to continue unchallenged and unchanged as it is not a biological construct. We have to start by deliberately working at becoming more aware of our personal and societal racial biases and admitting to our unconscious racist tendencies displayed in our apparently innocuous thoughts, words and reactions in our daily lives.
Until my right hand was incapacitated, I thought very little about what my left hand could do – if only given the chance. I am learning how to encourage it and let it take over, to value it and realise how much I depend on it. Will I continue to give it equal chances, or will I slip back into my old ways once my right arm is better? Will I let my right hand take control again and have all the privileges?
I titled this article “The least racist is still racist”, a statement which challenged me when I first saw it on a placard being held at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London in May 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by the police in the USA. I have since looked it up on the internet and found that it comes from the lyrics of “Black”, a song by Dave the rapper, which was written three months earlier. A black British man (born in England in 1998 to Nigerian parents), he was invited to perform this song at the Brit Awards on 18th February 2020. For that event, he added an extra verse which contained the words:
“It is racist, whether or not it feels racist….
They say: “you should be grateful we’re the least racist”
I say: “the least racist is still racist”.
Dave’s whole song is worth reading with an open heart and mind, as well as watching on YouTube (see below).
Finally, I am reminded of the Taoism Taijitu symbol of Yin and Yang. Whilst not a perfect analogy, it has similarities for me with my right and left hands as well as the whole issue of racism.In ancient Taoist philosophy, yin and yang show a balance between two different elements with a portion of the opposite element in each section. Together, they represent complete wholeness. Yin and yang are also seen as the starting point for change. When something is whole, it’s unchanging and complete. But when you split the whole into two halves, it upsets the equilibrium of wholeness. Both halves struggle as they seek a new balance with each other and unite.
So if you are white, please join with me for the sake of racial justice and equality, for the healing of divisions and the healing of black people who are hurting so deeply. This hasn’t been an easy article to write. It is hard admitting to being on the racist spectrum. Help me continue to reflect on my place, our role, in a predominantly white society where white supremacy, solidarity, privilege and assumed superiority dominate, oppress and damage people of colour. We white people are ALL racist. Let’s reflect honestly and help each other become more aware. Please don’t ignore this and let the opportunity we now have slip away again. I look forward to hearing from you – please write in the Comment Box below (you will need to scroll down to the very bottom of this page, below any other Comments, to find it) so that we can take this conversation further and facilitate change. We can’t change society on our own but it starts with recognising our own place and role in society.
“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.”
An important book which I would urge all white people to read is “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism” by Robin DiAngelo. Written by a white woman, it is very revealing.
The lyrics of “Black” by Dave the rapper (born in England to Nigerian parents)
To watch the performance, with graphics, go to YouTube.
Look, black is beautiful, black is excellent
Black is pain, black is joy, black is evident
It’s workin’ twice as hard as the people you know you’re better than
‘Cause you need to do double what they do so you can level them
Black is so much deeper than just African-American
Our heritage been severed, you never got to experiment
With family trees, ’cause they teach you ’bout famine and greed
And show you pictures of our fam on their knees
Tell us we used to be barbaric, we had actual queens
Black is watchin’ child soldiers gettin’ killed by other children
Feelin’ sick, like, “Oh shit, this could have happened to me”
Your mummy watchin’ tellin’ stories ’bout your dad and your niece
The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice
A kid dies, the blacker the killer, the sweeter the news
And if he’s white you give him a chance, he’s ill and confused
If he’s black he’s probably armed, you see him and shoot
Look, black is growin’ up around the barbershop
Mummy sayin’, “Stay away from trouble, you’re in yard a lot”
Studying for ages, appreciatin’ the chance you got
‘Cause black is in your blood, and you ain’t even got the heart to stop
Black is steppin’ in for your mother because your father’s gone
And standin’ by your children when you haven’t proven karma wrong
Black is doin’ all of the above then goin’ corner shoppin’
Tryna help a lady cross the road to have her walkin’ off
Black is growin’ up around your family and makin’ it
Then being forced to leave the place you love because there’s hate in it
People say you fake the shit, never stayed to change the shit
But black is bein’ jealous, you’d be dead if you had stayed in it
Black is strugglin’ to find your history or trace the shit
You don’t know the truth about your race ’cause they erasin’ it
Black has got a sour fuckin’ flavour, here’s a taste of it
But black is all I know, there ain’t a thing that I would change in it
Look, black ain’t just a single fuckin’ colour, man there’s shades to it
Her hair’s straight and thick but mine’s got waves in it
Black is not divisive, they been lyin’ and I hate the shit
Black has never been a competition, we don’t make this shit
Black is deadly
Black is when you’re freezin’ in your home and you can’t get sleep but never feelin’ empty
‘Cause you got 20 cousins in your country living stress-free
Walkin’ for their water, daughter wrapped inside a bed sheet
Black is distant, it’s representin’ countries that never even existed while your grandmother was livin’
Black is my Ghanaian brother readin’ into scriptures
Doin’ research on his lineage, findin’ out that he’s Egyptian
Black is people namin’ your countries on what they trade most
Coast of Ivory, Gold Coast, and the Grain Coast
But most importantly to show how deep all this pain goes
West Africa, Benin, they called it slave coast
Black is so confusin’, ’cause the culture? They’re in love with it
They take our features when they want and have their fun with it
Never seem to help with all the things we know would come with it
Loud in our laughter, silent in our sufferin’
Black is bein’ strong inside and facing defeat
Poverty made me a beast, I battled the law in the streets
We all struggled, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me
Well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?
I mean, fuckin’ hell, what about our brothers that are stuck in jail?
That couldn’t bust a bell, they held a bird and gotta live with it
Black is bein’ guilty until proven that you’re innocent
Black is sayin’, “Free my fucking niggas stuck inside in prison cells”
They think it’s funny, we ain’t got nothin’ to say to them
Unconditional love is strange to them; it’s amazin’ ’em
Black is like the sweetest fuckin’ flavour, here’s a taste of it
But black is all I know, there ain’t a thing that I would change in it.
Extra verse added for the Brit Awards on 18.2.20
It is racist, whether or not it feels racist
The truth is our Prime Minister’s a real racist
They say: “you should be grateful we’re the least racist”
I say: “the least racist is still racist”
And if somebody hasn’t said it
Equality is a right, it doesn’t deserve credit
Now if you don’t wanna get it then you’re never gonna get it
How the news treats Kate versus how they treated Meghan
Rest in peace Jack Merritt (1), you’re my brother in arms
There’s tears in our eyes and love in our hearts
We never had the same background, culture, colour or past
But you devoted your life to giving others a chance
And for that, I’m so taken aback
Because you gave us all a voice, I have to say it for Jack
As a young black man seeing paper and crack
Given tougher sentences, it’s just papering cracks
All we need is unity, funding for communities, equal opportunities,
People under scrutiny, no more immunity, way less hatred
More conservation, less deforestation
We want rehabilitation — now that would be amazing
But Grenfell victims (2) still need accommodation
And we still need support for the Windrush generation (3)
Reparations for the time our people spent on plantations.
For a comment on the song, read this article in The Independent.
(1) Jack Merritt was killed on London Bridge on 29th November 2019 by the terrorist Usman Khan. Jack was a course coordinator for Learning Together, a prisoners’ rehabilitation programme which was hosting an event near London Bridge that day. Khan had taken part in the scheme while in prison and was one of many people at the event.
The rapper Dave, whose brother is serving a life sentence for murder, said Merritt was “the best guy” and news of his death was “one of the most painful things”. He said Jack had “dedicated his life to helping others” and it was “genuinely an honour to have met someone like you”. Dave would “never ever forget” everything Merritt had done for them.
(2) Grenfell Tower was a 24-storey block of flats in Kensington (West London) occupied mainly by poorer ethnic minorities, including refugees, which burst into flames in June 2017, killing 72 people and making everyone homeless. It was the worst UK residential fire for 100 years (apart from the bombing in the Second World War). The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of the wealthiest in the country, containing some of the most expensive houses in the world, but with the highest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the UK.
(3) The Windrush Generation refers to black British citizens who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. Since 2017, they have again been treated scandalously and shamefully by the current Conservative Government.