Thursday, 9 January 2014

A Conversation Between Equals.

I love being a mother for many reasons (I won't idealise it though. Sometimes I really think about tearing my hair out, dreadlock by dreadlock). One of the reasons I love being a mother is that everyday my children give me the chance to see the present through the eyes of the future - if I make time to stop and listen that is.

OK - Sometimes I blow it. My children getting to school on time or them picking up dirty washing from their bedroom floor becomes - for reasons even I do not really understand - more important to me, than them telling me their latest ideas for saving the environment or reciting a made-up joke. But sometimes universe intervenes and blesses me with the gift of patience, clarity and time all at the same moment. And when that happens, miracles can occur.

One morning, my 11 year old son tentatively asked me if he could tell me a theory he was forming. We were alone at the breakfast table because everyone else was still asleep.

"Of course" I said. "Go ahead..."

"I think white people make Black* people Black" he said. Then he looked at me like he expected me to think he was talking nonsense. "Do you know what I mean?"

I asked him to carry on talking.

"I think" he continued "that it is white people who get hung up about skin colour. They notice it and then they believe certain things about a person, just because of their skin colour." He felt encouraged to continue when I smiled and nodded. "That's why there is racism. Because white people make Black people Black."

I agree with him. And I am immensely proud. He understands the concept of the social model of discrimination and has not even read a clever book about it yet.

In little and big ways, every day, millions and millions of (inter)actions occur involving Black people who live in predominantly white countries. And while as isolated occurences (if you try really hard you can fully ignore the social and political contexts. Just throw in a bit of "but I didn't mean it that way!" et voila! that stupid thing you did was indeed not racist!), some may forgive these as innocent exchanges, but in their sum they contribute to the construction of a society where Black people are constantly expected to prove their humanity.

Take Blackface as one example. The arguments about whether or not it's racist (or what constitutes Blackface, or indeed what racism is) are tired and annoying. I am fed up of having them. There is enough information by now - yes even in the German-speaking context - for anyone who really wants to inform themselves about why so many critically-aware people condemn it. What Blackface has taught my son is that he is being constructed as Black. As not Norm. He learns that white is the neutral canvas onto which we paint all other identities. People don't look at him and see "British" or "Actor" or "Dyslexic" or "Emotionally Intelligent" or "Mathematical Genius"** but they do see "Black" (or on a really bad day "half-Black" or other negatively connotated variations of the same). Blackface is part of a tradition which constructs "those who belong" as "white" and "those who don't belong" as "Black." And this tradition ensures that my oldest son gets asked to show his ID card regularly (perhaps once a month), while white young men typically don't. It ensures that my second son will be asked why he speaks such good German, whereas his other bilingual and binational white schoolmates won't. It also ensures that a white toddler will assume that my 11 year old cannot buy anything at a kiosk because "he hasn't got any money though!"

In a predominantly white country, it is the constant and persistant observation that their skin colour isn't white that makes Black people Black. It is the constant and persistant repetition of the mantra "I don't see skin colour" or "it doesn't matter to me that you are Black" (oh really? so why exactly are you bringing it up then?) that makes Black people Black. It is the constant and persistant need to stage white people as multifaceted and individualistic (through the creation of opposites which are grouped together under umbrella terms) that makes Black people Black.

Yes of course one can see differences in shades of skin. But where does "Black" begin and "white" end? This is as clear cut as identifying and classifying people by the size of their hands. Racism makes no logical sense at all. And yet people are insulted, abused, maltreated and killed in its name. Every single day.

And Yes. You can dress up and pretend to be something that you are not. Yes I agree - that is what acting and make-believe and creativity is all about. I am all for that. Pretty much anyone can put on a costume and pretend to be a police officer, or a fire-fighter, or a super hero. What you however cannot do - at least not without being a complete cynic - is perform the political identity of a people who have been constructed as sub-human on the basis of the one physical attibute you are emulating and then single-handledly claim that your performance is transforming it into something positive. Or you can try. But you can't expect people not to think you are an arsehole for doing so.

At this point I really must point out that we Black people are not all the same (one reason why the "I will ask my Black friend if x is racist" is a lazy cop-out). Of course we are not. My son is not offended by Blackface - he finds it puzzling and slightly ridiculous. He actually enjoys eating Schokoküsse. He rolls his eyes inwardly if someone makes a stupid comment about how his skin colour resembles a person who has spent too long in the kitchen. These things however bring up various emotions in me, linked to traumatic events that have repeatedly taken place in my childhood and beyond. Conversely, my son learns everyday from the top, that he is Black boy. He is stared at by open-mouthed white children on the underground, he is lusted after by jungle-feverish white women, he is followed in department stores by security, and he is harrassed on the streets by others who want to test out their masculinity on him. I do not experience any of that.

So if you are white, the next time you want to have a serious debate with a Black person about racism, please consider this question: do you have as much experience on the subject as my son?
I'm guessing that without - say - at least 11 years of living as a Black person in a white country, you really are not as qualified to talk on the subject as he is.

In which case perhaps you are the one who should be listening.


*I deliberately write the word "Black" with a capital B.
This is to highlight that I am not referring to skin colour, but to a political identity.

**Actually he isn't a mathematical genius (or at least this talent has not been discovered in him). The point is, you can't tell that by just looking at him!

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