I appreciate we are living through a racially fraught moment, but I’m just going to come straight out with it: I’ve not been a great fan of white skin for quite some time.
It primarily stems from my years working in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, and my encounters with both sides of the racial divide there. What the equatorial sun does to white skinned ex-pats who have not covered up enough over the years is far from pretty, the skin shrivelling, wrinkling and puckering to an eyebrow-raising degree that sometimes left me just wanting to exclaim: Urgh! Set against this was the handsomeness of Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis, Djiboutians and South Sudanese, their darker skins positively glowing with a healthy radiance, in stark contrast to white skin that under the tropical sun looks—even with the firmness of youth—irradiated and blanched.
During one of my early morning jogs with the hyenas up a mountainside on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, I bounded out of the eucalyptus trees to find an Ethiopian man standing with his dog on a rocky promontory overlooking the city. It was impossible not to be entranced by him. He could have come straight from an Ethiopian tourist board-sanctioned postcard. Tall and slim, with the classic sharp features and flawless skin characteristic of Ethiopians that meant he could have been anywhere between 50 and 70 years old, he was clad in a traditional white shawl thrown around his shoulders, and sporting the classic Afro-style—without a speck of grey—that used to be so prevalent in Ethiopia. He also spoke good English, and as we chatted, he exuded a forcefield of dignity and character. I had a keen sense of being in the presence of, if not an Abyssinian angel, a being from a far superior species to my own.
Their darker skins positively glowing with a healthy radiance, in stark contrast to white skin that under the tropical sun looks—even with the firmness of youth—irradiated and blanched
The problems don’t stop with white skin blasted by the sun. White people in developed, rich countries can be seriously annoying, with a propensity for self-obsession, narcissism, entitlement, preciousness, sanctimonious moralising, not appreciating how good they have it, utterly bodging foreign interventions, committing as much geo-political tomfoolery as our enemies, the list goes on. And yet. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in the US that has prompted the current national revisiting of the UK’s imperial and cultural pasts—and which appears to be becoming the latest round of battles in the nation’s continuing culture wars that so many insist we need to be having (as if we didn’t have enough on our plates already)—many seem to have lost their bearings and perspectives, with a good deal of common sense also being tipped over the harbour’s edge in Bristol along with the Edward Colston statue.
Hence talk of “white privilege” is all the rage. The exact origin of this terminology is unclear, though, as with many discussions about race—such as our current one—it started in the US. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, white privilege was infrequently used but usually referred to legal and systematic advantages white people enjoyed in the US, such as citizenship and the right to choose in which neighbourhood you could live or buy a house.
As discrimination persisted during the years following the Civil Rights Act, the idea gained traction that white privilege had a psychological dimension. Peggy McIntosh is often credited as having brought the phrase into wider public discourse with her 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in which she described it as an invisible force that white people needed to recognise, a subconscious prejudice compounded by white people’s unawareness of holding this power that exerted itself in the everyday advantages that whites experienced. These ranged from seeing only your race represented on television, to walking into a pharmacy and finding the Band-Aids only match the skin tone of white people, to encountering a public official without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped.
“I find attention to these terms that are born in academia and then become the flavour of the day troubling sometimes, as they can be used in pretty facile and accusatory ways,” says Kevin Foster, an educational anthropologist in the African and African Diaspora Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But, at the same time, by using these terms and concepts, they are getting introduced to more people, sometimes for the first time, so whereas before people might not have had the language to express something they were instinctively aware of for years, now they go: Oh, I get it, that’s white privilege!”
That strikes me as a pretty level assessment. The terminology isn’t ideal, but it can play an edifying role. Far less edifying, though, is when the phrase is used as an enormously broad brush to tar anyone who is white. Among all the myriad ways that is problematic—including further stoking division and identity politics, while sidestepping the poverty of whites enduring similar economic iniquities–I want to focus on the guilt and shame that appears to be expected of white people in relation to institutional racism and historical slavery.
“The stress on ‘white privilege’ turns a social issue into a matter of personal and group psychology.”
“Politics has always relied on symbols, rituals and performance,” Kenan Malik writes in his Sunday Observer article “White privilege” is a lazy distraction, leaving racism and power untouched. “Today, though, it can feel as if politics has been consumed by performance. Consider the way that we now talk more about ‘white privilege’ than about ‘racism.’ The problem of racism is primarily social and structural—the laws, practices and institutions that maintain discrimination. The stress on ‘white privilege’ turns a social issue into a matter of personal and group psychology.”
This has led in the US, Malik notes, to white people washing the feet of black faith leaders as atonement for their sins, and Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton writing that “White people, you are the problem,” and US-based British writer Laurie Penny commenting that “For white people, acknowledging the reality of racism means acknowledging our own guilt and complicity.”
“Viewing white people—all white people—as ‘guilty and complicit’ distorts political issues and deflects from real causes,” Malik says.
But, as Jonathan Sacks has written in his fine book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, there is a useful role for guilt, especially in contrast to shame.
“Guilt cultures make a sharp distinction between the sinner and the sin,” Sacks writes. “The act may be wrong, but the agent’s integrity as a person remains intact. That is why guilt can be relieved by remorse, confession, restitution, and the resolve never to behave that way again. In guilt cultures there is repentance and forgiveness.”
A shame culture, on the other hand, Sacks explains, does not provide forgiveness. “It offers something similar but different, namely appeasement, usually accompanied by an act of self-abasement.” As a result, in a guilt culture “it makes sense to confess your sins,” whereas in a shame culture “it makes no sense at all—instead it becomes all-important to cover up your wrong doing by any means possible.”
Guilt can be an effective motivator to rectify wrongs. But guilt can also be hugely debilitating. As I have previously written, after my military participation in the cataclysms of Iraq and Afghanistan, I carried around with me a metaphorical towering multi-decked club sandwich of multiple layers of guilt and shame that I took a bite out of most days during the following decade. Matters have improved, but it still gets nibbled on occasion when prompted.
Guilt has been identified as the main symptom of moral injury, which shares characteristics with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) though it remains distinct, described as a wound to the soul and conscience that can undermine an individual’s faith in their self-worth and identity. It can also provoke self-defensive emotional distancing and reflexive distrust of others, which, fear not, embraces all races, I can assure you, although I am starting to suspect that, in my case, such reflexive suspicion was, certainly initially, more directed at whites—it was, after all, white politicians and generals that sent me and my brethren to war after which I returned to a largely disinterested society that was predominantly white.
Hence there could be more similarities between a brooding, 41-year-old white veteran and a hip-looking, full-of-beans twenty something Black Lives Matter protestor flashing her perfect midriff than meets the eye. Research has indicated that moral injuries carried by veterans can be exacerbated by the evidence that society is ignoring the destruction that has befallen Iraq and Afghanistan and is not willing to accept any collective responsibility for all that transpired, thereby deepening the sense of violation—and with it the moral injury—while also leaving veterans to shoulder the burden, as I previously wrote, because someone should and has to.
This continuing absence of any acceptance of complicity among the general public for what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, addressed in more detail by Patrick Porter in his Critic article on the Afghanistan Papers, means I can see where the likes of Dahleen Glanton are coming from in telling white people that they are the problem. The main problem I have with her pointing out the problem in the way she, and many others, are doing, is that this point has been made more eloquently and, importantly, in a more constructive way, by the African American writer James Baldwin, who rather than talking about broad, abstract things like white privilege, really drilled down to specifics: how whites in America are hamstrung from honestly discussing race because of their fears and insecurities over the likes of sensuality and sexuality, and that much of America’s problem is rooted in how blacks reflect to whites what the latter don’t know about themselves or can’t handle—such as the fact that life is tragic—with the subsequent frustrations of whites being vented on blacks. Also, and very refreshingly, Baldwin was capable of transcending the colour line to set the problem within wider context by discussing the human condition that is, of course, entirely colour blind:
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have,” Baldwin wrote in his 1962 New Yorker article “Letter From A Region Of My Mind” that went on to form half of his landmark book The Fire Next Time. “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall all return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.”
Guilt can be an effective motivator to rectify wrongs. But guilt can also be hugely debilitating
Admittedly, Baldwin gets back to focusing on whites, and goes on to say that “white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them,” adding that “white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him [a black man] as a man like themselves.” This, he explains, has been “proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity.”
How much of Baldwin’s 1962-focused assessment still applies to America, and to race relations in the UK, is the burning, fiery question today. Returning to my literary protest movement over Iraq and Afghanistan, as much as I want some sort of collective reckoning and for society to more honestly face up to what we have done to Iraq and Afghanistan—both for the sake of that dreaded word (but which holds true) closure and if all involved are to have a chance of building a better future—I think it would be ridiculous, and utterly inappropriate, for members of the general British public to have to apologise to me or any veteran. That sort of direct apportioning of collective guilt is absurd and doesn’t help anyone or address larger fundamental problems that still need solving, especially if we are to ensure the military has a chance to get it right in any future foreign interventions that we now seem increasingly incapable of debating or countenancing, even if they might have been, and still might well be, justified (Syria, Yemen, etc.).
For now, debate over intervention is focused closer to home and on race. In looking back at and assessing our shared history and past, many of us, both black and white and elsewhere in the colour spectrum, would do well to remember and try to emulate Baldwin’s advice.
“Whoever debases others is debasing himself,” Baldwin says. “America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity.”
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