White silence & me

This is going to be a long post, so I will split it into two parts, and it is to do with my learning / un-learning journey to being anti-racist.

This past week, like many others, I have put aside time to listen to the voices of black people both in the US and here in the UK, having made the commitment to change, in myself and the world.

I’m working through the book by Layla Saad called “Me and My White Supremacy” – not as fast as I’d like to, but at a pace that allows me to engage with the prompts and dig deep. Week One’s prompts centre around White Privilege, White Fragility and more.

Some context to my life

I currently live in England. But I was born and educated in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to British parents into a colonial context and lived through the Bush War that led to Zimbabwean independence in 1980/81. I have also lived in post-apartheid South Africa for 18 years. This means I have had experience with black people being in the majority, with black people being in political power, being leaders in institutions I’ve worked in, with Black Economic Empowerment initiatives, working with predominately black educators and children in my work, with black culture and fashion. With a constitution that in theory believes in equality (!).

If I add childhood and other traumas to this mix, I sadly discover a web of unconscious reasons about why I don’t stand up to take action, preferring to hide behind an “apolitical” stance.

I found myself struggling with the complexity of my responses to the daily prompts in the book when I take all these life experiences into account.

But, my white colonial upbringing has undeniably conditioned me in hundreds of subtle, unconscious ways (which is a topic for another post), and these are not excuses. I’d like to say outright that I acknowledge that I have and still do benefit from white privilege, am complicit by being silent and suffer from white exceptionalism.

The web of unconscious reasons

I want to share what I am learning / un-learning by doing the work in this book with white people who read this blog. Because the work is complex, tangled and uncomfortable. And by sharing, I hope to reach out to other white people who may also be struggling with the same emotions. However, I am not claiming that I speak on behalf of all whites, I am simply untangling my own learning as I work through this book.

How have I stayed silent? By not rocking the boat

I’d like to share one particular response to a prompt. The prompt was how I have stayed silent (in defending the status quo through inaction) and ultimately protecting the system of white supremacy?

I’m not always silent but I’m not a vocal activist either. I respond differently in different social circles – I am very vocal with family and tend to call out their racist (and other unacceptable) behaviours. But with strangers and colleagues, I don’t respond at all, especially when the conversation centres around racism. I’ve also never attended a protest march or done anything in public to “rock the boat”, overtly challenged the status quo. Yes, I have signed petitions and shared things on social media, but for me that doesn’t count as taking action.

This is the crux of it for me – rocking the boat. I fear conflict and have done my whole life. I have never been taught how to deal with conflict in a safe space. If I’d rocked the boat as a kid, my violent step-father may have hit me as well as my mom, so I learned to shut up and stay in my room out of the way. My mom wanted it to be that way.

That learnt behaviour has followed me through life. From the little girl who hid in her room, to the teenager who never rebelled in order to keep things on an even keel, to the wife who succumbed to her husband’s so-called superior intelligence and opinions, to the person who never really had her own opinion until she got divorced. Finally she started to find out who she really was without all these other influences competing for attention.

Disturbing the status quo makes me feel vulnerable and scared and takes me straight back to that frightened child hiding in her room.

This fear has made me complicit in upholding white supremacy – all be it unknowingly and unintentionally – but I have still done it. I know in my heart that I am not a racist and have been railing against colonialism and its devastating effects my whole life, but because of this fear of rocking the boat, I have never taken action. The railing and discontent has all been internal, tentative and mixed up.

Who have I harmed in the process? People of colour, myself and my son. Why? Because my core beliefs about equality, oppression, colonialism and more are never expressed, are held in tight check and never acted upon.

I. Have. Never. Taken. Action.

And now, I want to learn, find my voice, act in accordance with my core beliefs and make a difference to the lives of people of colour. To be a better person. To take action.

Thankfully, this work is bringing this into the open for me and I hope it will bring out more. I am discovering why I don’t take action and why I feel so much conflict, shame, guilt and discomfort. Now I am beginning to unearth this why, I can start to do things whilst I continue to learn more.

In part two, I discover how I have unknowingly passed on my white exceptionalism to my son.

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