image by soofiya.com
“It’s because you have foreign blood in you, that’s why you live 350 miles from home,” my uncle says to me. Noah* is sat next to me. Embarrassed, I look down into my dinner and mumble “well, what about my brother? He’s always lived close by.” I try and disrupt his logic. “Well he’s different, isn’t he?” My uncle carries on talking. I stop listening. I’m angry. Why has no one interrupted him? Why is no one sticking up for me?
It’s Easter Sunday, 2018. I’m at my parents’ house for a family gathering with both sides of my family. My uncle is white. My dad is white. My mum is brown. I’m mixed race. My mum was born in Mauritius, she moved to the UK when she was a baby in the ‘50s. My parents, who have been together since the ‘80s have never addressed the issue of race. I think they just wanted to keep their heads down in the hope that things would get better. Racist comments like those from my uncle are commonplace at my family gatherings.
Noah is my partner. He’s white. His family are racist too.
“You do not know what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as your own”
Every time I’ve met Noah’s family there have been questions or comments that made me feel very aware of my skin colour. It’s othering. It’s uncomfortable. They ask questions like, “Is your brother the same colour as you?” “How dark do you go in the sun?” and “Does she speak English?” These comments have occurred on every meeting, too many now to be one-offs or given the benefit of the doubt. It has become even more clear to Noah and me that the colour of my skin is a problem for his family. It echoes back to the white side of my family and I really don’t like it.
Noah and I discuss his racist family a lot. We argue. I cry. We talk about my experience of his family and my own family and decide that to say nothing is to be complicit. Noah decides the best way to address these issues is to write a letter to all of his family. It is well-written, clear and concise. He urges them all to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race– we think it’s an accessible source which gives an overview of the history of racism in the UK and how that manifests in Britain today.
I naively thought Noah’s family would listen, read the book, apologise and make changes. Sadly, their response was not a positive one. They argued that it was a difference of opinion, they had meant no harm and accused me of being overly sensitive. There was no mention of the word sorry and the general tone was patronising and dismissive. It centred on themselves and their intentions: “We’re not racist, we help an orphanage in India. You should know better Noah.” And “what if I don’t agree with this book you’ve told us to read?”
“Your expectation that I (a woman of colour) should teach you (white people) about racism reinforces several problematic racial assumptions”
I’m even more upset and angry. So is Noah.
Months go by, Noah doesn’t contact his family and they don’t contact him. No one reads Reni’s book. Then a letter arrives from his brother John* and his wife Jane* addressed to me. They say sorry, they have started to read Reni’s book. They ask me to help them on their journey of learning about racism, they hope that I can teach them. They say they have never knowingly or intentionally been racist to me. They wished they could talk to me in person.
I am fuming. Noah doesn’t seem to see a problem. “They’ve said sorry, haven’t they? And they sent you flowers.” The flowers go straight in the trash. I spend the next week writing a response. I’m so angry. It consumes me. This letter is as much to Noah as it is to them. I feel invisible and like I have to fight in order to be heard.
Here is my response:
Dear Jane and John,
I am saddened by the fact it took so long for this response to come. I’m not sure why it took you so long for you to understand that you should read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book. Noah clearly says in the letter that you should read the book. It is frustrating and feels like there is a lack of respect for either what Noah has to say or myself, a woman of colour. I strongly suggest you reflect on why it took so long for you to hear what we were clearly saying – that you should read Reni’s book! It feels like there has been a real emotional disconnect and I think this is because you do not know what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as your own.
“John, I am not willing to have a conversation with you about racism when I believe you still think we enter this conversation as equals”
I would like to highlight some problematic behaviour you displayed when you first verbally responded to Noah’s letter back at the beginning of May. Firstly, you never considered that in not understanding my reaction to the comments you made about my skin colour and ethnicity, you might be lacking in some knowledge or context. You demonstrated no curiosity about my perspective of why I might have taken offence, nor did you show any concern about my feelings. You demonstrated a lack of humility, an unwillingness to listen, and you focused on your intentions over any impact it had on me. In my opinion, I see your need to argue, minimise, explain and play devil’s advocate with Noah as a form of bullying. It appears you are trying to make it so miserable and difficult for us to confront you – no matter how diplomatically we try to do so – in order that we will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.
John, I am not willing to have a conversation with you about racism when I believe you still think we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t. The reality is that we are nowhere near equal. This state of play is violently unjust. The difference that people of colour are all vaguely aware of from childhood is not benign. It is fraught with racism, racist stereotyping and, for women, racialised misogyny.
“Racism, like sexism, is woven into the fabric of our world. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. And I am angry about how I have been treated by your family”
Your expectation that I (a woman of colour) should teach you (white people) about racism reinforces several problematic racial assumptions. First, it implies that racism is something that happens to people of colour and has nothing to do with you and that you consequently cannot be expected to have any knowledge of it. This framework denies that racism is a relationship in which both groups are involved. By leaving it to people of colour to tackle racial issues, you offload the tensions and social dangers of speaking openly onto them. It allows you to ignore the risks yourselves and remain silent on questions of your own culpability.
Second, the request requires nothing of you and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of colour to do your work. There are copious resources available on the subject generated by people of colour who are willing to share the information; why haven’t you sought these out before?
“This experience has been emotionally exhausting and deeply upsetting and I am not willing to engage in it anymore”
Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of colour have indeed tried to speak about what racism is like for them and how often they are dismissed. Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility sums it up: “To ask people of colour to tell us how they experience racism without first building a trusting relationship and being willing to meet them halfway by also being vulnerable shows that we are not racially aware and that this exchange will probably be invalidating for them.”
Racism, like sexism, is woven into the fabric of our world. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. And I am angry about how I have been treated by your family. These things should make you angry too. I hope you can start to see that you have been socialised as white in a racism-based society, you have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated you. Racism hurts (even kills) people of colour 24/7. Interrupting it is more important that your feelings, ego or self-image.
My experience of your family has not been a positive one. My family and friends have been shocked and appalled by what has happened. The initial responses to Noah’s letter left me frustrated, angry, and exasperated at the refusal to simply listen and showed the depth of your racism ever more clearly. This experience has been emotionally exhausting and deeply upsetting and I am not willing to engage in it anymore.