Forgive me. I don’t usually identify myself by colour or gender. I happen to be white, I happen to be male, and I happen to have issues. These most commonly present themselves when I express an opinion on social media. That place where everyone is supposed to be the same. Yet my name and my picture are a dead giveaway. They tell people everything they need to know about me. The blond hair, the blue eyes and the stubble mean that I am not expected to suffer from a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when a total stranger decides that I deserve to be condemned because I dared to ask a question.
But expectations can be wrong. I do.
White is a quaint notion, because such a descriptor only exists to differentiate. And to differentiate between people of Caucasian origin and everybody else. We never talk about being pasty, livid or ruddy. Being white only matters because it is the opposite of black. Defining someone by their race or gender is to use language as a weapon. It gives people of one group the whip hand over those of another. To reinforce the will of those in power or to excuse the behaviours of those opposing them.
How dominant patriarchal societies evolved is lost in the mists of time. The concept of a dominant or superior race defined by colour, however, only really emerged in the 17th Century, in America. For more than 200 years that differentiation has shaped cultures, and such a silly notions still hasn’t been expunged. This relinquishment of privilege and entitlement hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been consistent. Britain may have abolished slavery more than 180 years ago, but indentured labour across the Empire continued well into the first half of the twentieth century; and we only have the Second World War to thank for ending those ridiculous notions of genetic superiority based on race.
Since then we have had decades to reflect, seeing abhorrent patterns of ethnic cleansing abroad, and experiencing riots and intra-cultural prejudice at home, caused in part by the failure of migrant housing and education policies. In that time I have seen racist and heterosexist abuse first hand, and I have been subjected to racial and heterosexist abuse in return (not being gay didn’t exclude me from either accusations or the physical torment associated with them). I guess that’s one positive – racism in Britain isn’t one sided, it is perpetrated by everyone.
And yes, I get that being a white person in a nation dominated by white people creates privilege. I also get that white-dominated institutions continue to resist change, usually by denying that there is a problem. That is the curse of trends. Good news follows the direction of change. We have been moving in the right direction here. Slowly and, for the best part, progressively. But we have done so because of collaboration, because of partnership between cultures and ethnicities. Progress has been difficult, and yes, we have to accept that cultural biases have slowed that progress. Genetic superiority may have been proved a myth, but the outmoded belief in social superiority remains, and the class barrier between rich and poor does not just exist, it is growing.
As our society became aware of the injustices done in the name of gender or colour we at least started to think differently. We talked less about tolerance and more about brotherhood. Positive discrimination and political correctness were terms used to describe those actions taken by society to redress the imbalances caused by prejudice. A lot of women and a few lucky non-white people even got successful on the back of it, and they moved up the ladder of social class because, for all our good intentions, classism still exists.
But it works both ways.
As our attitudes toward race and gender have improved, our treatment of the white poor has deteriorated. People forget is that as poverty increases, so too does racism. So now we have black ghettos and we have white ghettos. That’s not the kind of equity I believe in. If anything, it breeds intolerance. When you’re at the bottom of the social order you’re encouraged to believe that there is someone even lower. Slaves, illegal immigrant, foreigners – whatever term is used it becomes a desperate and clumsy tool used to make the poor and ill-educated feel better about themselves. Britain always had a white underclass, and perhaps that is the source of resentment.The postcode gangs that terrorized my childhood were white and male. They knew who I was. They knew where I lived. But over time attention has shifted towards single mothers and ethnic gangs. The poor white male has been sidelined, useful for nothing more than drinking, taking drugs, and laying about doing nothing. And that seems to be why the argument about privilege has started to unravel. Why poor white folk don’t understand black issues. Because, living in the here and now, the argument is about experience, not statistics.
If you are from an ethnic minority it is more likely that you will be poor and disadvantaged. However, you are still outnumbered by poor and disadvantaged white people. And then there is the growing education gap. In a country with a rising number of ill-educated, poor, disadvantaged white men, talking about white male privilege is the proverbial red rag to a bull.
The poorly educated white man will argue there is no such thing as white privilege. Because he doesn’t see it, hasn’t learned about it, and hasn’t benefited from experiencing it.
The privileged white man will similarly deny his privilege, but for different reasons. He will argue that equal opportunity and anti-discrimination have fixed everything. That we should put these things behind us because dragging up the past serves no purpose whatsoever.
Then there are those of us in the middle. Educated, opinionated, and fluctuating between comfortable and struggling occasionally. We accept that our historic advantage exists, and we accept that we must continue to help and support change where we can. We can only do so, however, by being allowed a voice. But our voice is drowned out by the obnoxious rich and the embittered poor.
The truly privileged suffer from that terribly colonial problem: the superiority complex. They still believe, deep down, that they are better, wiser, and more able to effect change. That charity is a gift from the wealthy first world to the ineffective third world. Sure, back in the day they might have been idealists and fighters for social justice, but they haven’t seen or accepted that the world has changed around them.
The poor bask in their ignorance. They tell us that migrants (and by association, all people of colour) steal jobs. In fact, they see it. Because they are the underclass. Every person of colour in employment seems to fuel the denial that there was ever such a thing as white privilege.
Those in the middle are tarred with both the brush of white privilege and the paint of poorly educated prejudice. And because they have another perspective altogether, they are subjected to a terrible new trend: racial gagging.
How should you react when you are told that you are not entitled to your opinion? Or worse, that your opinion is invalidated by your lack of experience? Some become entrenched, reinforcing the lie that everything is fine. Others agree there is a problem, and choose to do something about it, either by asking questions, supporting those who do have experience or studying the topic so they can offer an informed opinion. I fall into the latter category, and in doing so I put my considered views forward without fear or favour. My freedom to speak is the only entitlement that I believe in. Nobody has to listen, but they have no right to deny me a point of view.
The ignorant say “I can’t be racist. I have a friend who is X, Y or Z.”
The educated say “I have studied these matters, therefore You cannot argue with me.”
I say that I have experienced being bullied, disenfranchised, othered and ostracized. I have suffered and seen abuse first hand. I have stood by those who have suffered. My empathy is crap, my sympathy is unwanted, but my understanding is very, very real. I am educated enough to have the benefit of both foresight and hindsight. And I passionately believe that my voice counts.
Right now we are living in an age we’ve never seen before. Post-colonial, post-capitalist, and global. It won’t take humanity too long to homogenize, but in the mean time those resistant to change choose to polarize, to set us back and make miscegenation a dirty word again (it already sounds like a dirty word because it was originally indented as an insult, and also because it sounds like misogyny). It is also why religion is rising in importance once more: the ties that bind are always cultural, and religion serves as the new point of difference. As an atheist I expect to be alienated more and more in the coming years.
I also believe my voice matters when it comes to gender and sexuality. Here my opinion is again deemed invalid, either because I am not a woman, or because I am not a member of the LGBTQI community. It would be flippant of me to hark back to the words of Sojourner Truth by saying “Ain’t I got gender?”
I am, regardless, an advocate of equitable opportunity. I do not believe that we are born equal (which, so long as biological differences and class-based hierarchies exist, we cannot be), but instead that we should all have the same chances in life. Our ability should determine the choices that we have (I differentiate between choice and opportunity here), and therefore disability is the most important thing we need to address. To me this is any physical, mental or social obstacle that stands in the way of aspiration and quality of life.
I also support diversity which, to me, is about giving voices to those who would otherwise struggle to be heard. It’s not about me trying to be more diverse in what I do, nor about me speaking from a false perspective. Yes, I do embrace diversity in my own fiction, in my own way, but that is no substitute for the voice of those who should be heard.
I abhor labels (even as I reinvent them and apply my own), and although I agree with a fair amount of feminist theory I refuse to identify myself as feminist. Not because feminism is a dirty word, nor because I am a man, but because feminism itself is in turmoil. Outsiders cannot distinguish between first wave, second wave or third wave feminism, between ecological, philosophical and radical feminism (or, as its detractors call it, feminazism). Many of their arguments dance on the head of a pin: to embrace or to marginalise; to celebrate the vagina or to synthesize the penis; to destroy patriarchy or to create matriarchy. I’m sorry, but these are academic issues, and I’ll just stick with the basics.
When Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man it had nothing to do with elevating the male gender over that of the female. When Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a Woman?” it had nothing to do with her vagina. I believe, totally and completely, in equity: that the same basic human rights should be available to everyone regardless of colour, gender, sexual preference, religious belief or status.
And this is the heart of my issue.
When you differentiate you create exception. For example, when a bill protecting religious freedoms in Indiana is opposed only by one group of victims, then they become the exception. The bill gets “fixed” to accommodate the loudest voice instead of being reviewed to ensure that a more reasonable rule applies to everyone. As an atheist I may still be discriminated against by a rule that could end up protecting only the LGB community. I supported the LGB protest, but my atheist voice, like the Jewish voice or the Islamic voice, was not heard. Now I know that there is an argument that gay and transsexual people are “more visible” and therefore more prone to discrimination, but I’d argue that the freedom for an individual to bear the trappings of their belief – from a turban to a Hasidic beard – should not be challenged unless it presents a direct threat to social cohesion. Having a private life is no such threat.
If you dismiss my right to speak, my right to think, or my right to question, then there is no getting around it: you are, regardless of gender or colour, a denier, an oppressor, or a suppressor. Yes, you can choose to listen or to walk away, but in doing so you are no better (or worse) than those who spent years resisting abolition, emancipation, the franchise and other inalienable human rights. You are part of the problem.
As the speaker, I too have responsibilities. If I prosthelytize or speak hatefully, then I should expect consequences. I may be entitled to satirize or ridicule, or even insult, but if that action intentionally incites hatred in others, then I should give up those freedoms. And intent is often the issue. We prejudge intent, and we are often wrong. When a white man comments on a thread or forum in which women and/or people of colour are bemoaning the attitudes of white men, he already thinks that he knows their intent. Therefore, you would think, he can expect his dissent to be seen as opposition. In truth, he probably just saw something that irked him. Some statement he disagreed with that he was itching to pass comment upon; and that is the real point of difference. If you haven’t lived your life in fear of abuse, you cannot possibly know that making a simple remark in a public place might be seen as invading personal space, of imposing white male values upon those who don’t share them. He stumbles blindly, and foolishly, into the she-lion’s den.
Which brings me back to the question I asked, right at the beginning of this piece. Just so you know. I asked the lady to explain, in her own words, what sort of things a white male reader of speculative fiction might gain from reading more diversely. It wasn’t a question for my benefit. It wasn’t a trick or a set-up. It was about supporting and giving voice to, rather than speaking as a white man on behalf of, a black woman. For me it backfired because I was tarred by my question. Judged right there by a total stranger and sentenced to ignominy. She went on to tell me how tired she was of explaining things, of how she hated having to repeat herself to racist white men.
I got that. Much as it smarted to be so lightly dismissed. She assumed that my motives were the same as those who harass and goad to defend their ignorance. My words didn’t matter because my white maleness prejudged my intentions. Nobody should have to explain themselves constantly; to repeat their views ad nauseam as a means of justifying themselves, especially to those who have already closed their minds; and yet that is exactly what I find myself doing. Again and again and again.
My belated reply to that lady who put me down: Never stop repeating your message. Never be too tired to explain your perspective. The poor white man still needs educating, the privileged white man still needs to realize that we cannot simply put these things behind us, and the white man in the middle really does have challenging questions that might help him to understand things just that little bit better.
UPDATE: It’s odd, but this post was triggered by someone blindly calling me out and judging my politics based only on what I am and not who I am. Unlike George R R Martin I am for the principle of the K Tempest Bradford challenge, because diversity is good (and for those who ask why they should do it, here is why K Tempest Bradford this they should: “reading a wide array of viewpoints is always good. You will be a more intelligent, more informed, more internally rich person for imbibing voices, points of view, ways of experiencing the world, ways of conceiving stories, ways of understanding, learning, growing that are different from your own and from the authors who get the most mainstream attention. You’ll discover that while 25 different shades of cream may seem like a wide array of diverseness, it actually is not.”
It’s not a conspiracy, but it is a campaign to be socially progressive. However, there is no smoke without fire, and knee jerk reactions that throw labels around do happen, and they have a cumulative effect. Some cry foul and claim reverse discrimination, some try hard to argue that they are not what they are accused of (which, believe me, means they care), while others just see it for what it is.