At primary school, my defender from the bullies was a boy called Tony Tharpe. I realise now that he probably understood the injustice of my treatment because he or his family were likely a victim of prejudice. Or maybe he just was the wise and kind old soul that he appeared to be. Grateful for an ally, I didn’t look beyond my own suffering.
As a white liberal growing up in a multicultural community, my privilege allowed me to believe that racism was historical. I was welcomed into friends’ homes, feeling that unique joy of discovering and understanding a different culture or value system. Many of us felt that after all the horrors of WW2, and as we joined the common market after centuries of European tribal warfare, that we were the new generation of Europeans. All Londoners, but drawn from all parts of humanity. And, having understood our families sacrifices to stop fascism, a determination for something different.
I still remember aged eleven watching a classmate scream the n word in anger, and the chilling realisation dawning on me that he meant it. When I told my friend about the incident, she looked at me like I was mentally deficient. It seems unimaginable to me now that I could have gone so far in life in my bubble. If I had been non white I would never have been able to reach that age without experiencing the ever present and ugly reality of racism in 1960’s and 70’s London. It was the first realisation of the white privilege I enjoyed.
But for many liberal whites in the UK, even with constant exposure to the cruelty of racism, the realisation of their privilege seems never to occur to them. They move through multi ethnic environments congratulating themselves on their inclusiveness. Longing to tell you of their cool (read black) new friend/colleague. And yet, many times, in all white environments, they are allowing ignorance, racism, and prejudice to pass unchallenged. Even unnoticed.
The horror of the slavery we became rich on, the brutal truth of colonialism, and the ongoing systemic racism polluting the UK, has bred the white privilege that many still accept without question, and singularly fail to acknowledge.
Living in Kenya now for twenty years, where tribalism and racism are ever present and pernicious, I made the choice to never be silent in the face of bigotry. Yes – sometimes speaking out creates something ugly, and sometimes you despair. But silence leaves you poisoned inside. Life is too short to drive around for a week after an unchallenged remark having the conversation in your head that should have happened at the time.
Stand up. Speak out. Be heard.
No more white silence.