White Privilege

Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night” – Source: BBC

There’s one constant thread that runs through the Penguin History of the United States by Hugh Brogan: race. Many generations after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, its scars are still visible. Hardly surprising, given the country nearly split in a civil war after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched, in quick succession, two great 2018 films set ten years apart that explored the subject. “The Green Book” is the true story of a 1962 tour of the Deep South by African American pianist Don Shirley and his Italian American driver and bodyguard. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” shows what happens when Ron Stallworth was hired as the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972.  Both are painful yet uplifting.

This is not new ground for Hollywood: “In the Heat of the Night”, the tale of a black police detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi won Best Picture Oscar as long ago as 1967.

It’s tempting to think of these films as examining a particularly American problem. After all, successive Acts of Parliament in 1807 and 1833 abolished slavery within the British Empire. Certainly, growing up in Herefordshire in the 1970s, I was never aware of racial tension. Of course, this might be because I lived in a completely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant world: going to a cathedral school I didn’t even knowingly meet a practising Catholic until I went to university.

One thing that my parents did teach me was that, when journalist James Cameron was confronted with a landing card with a box on it for “Race” at the airport in apartheid South Africa, he completed the form with the word “Human” in the box. Until 2020 this seemed the right response: we’re all human beings, whatever colour we are. Then, following the killing of George Floyd in May last year, I was challenged by a Kenyan friend living in the UK. Did I still think we were all the same? Because that’s not how we are treated.

My friend described the daily micro aggressions she experienced in London – being ignored, being threatened, being verbally abused. She suggested I look at “Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World” by Layla Saad. It’s not hyperbole to say this is the most uncomfortable book I’ve ever read: it’s a workbook that takes the reader through a 28-days anti-racism programme, with prompts to reflect, not on how others think, but on what is going on inside your own head with regards to race and what you can do about it.

Does this matter when you live in a place like Cheltenham? According to the 2011 Census the great majority of people here are “White” of one form or another, 94.3% versus 5.7% black, Asian or other.

Based on a population at the time of 115,000, that still leaves nearly 8,000 people who don’t have the unearned privileges of being white. These are people who were told when they were young that their colour would work against them, that they’d have to be careful not to attract attention to themselves, that they’d be verbally and sometimes physically threatened. They’d have to work harder to compensate for their racial difference, and the colour of their skin would restrict what they were able to achieve or how the world would treat them.

There are so many reasons to fight against this attitude: it’s unpleasant, it’s not fair and it’s not just. If arguments appealing to your emotions don’t work, here’s an economic one:  it’s a crazily inefficient use of society’s human resources to exclude some of our talents based on the colour of their skin.

At its worst, white privilege leads to the last scene of the film “BlacKkKlansman”, which shows footage from 2017’s neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate monuments and President Trump’s words in response that there was blame on both sides: “you had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent”.

This is just not true. I’m glad that after four terrible years, he’ll be out of office and to make it all the sweeter, the new Vice President is a non-white woman.