Why do we care so much whether technically you can be ‘racist to white people’ or not?
We need to make sure we always have the best, more qualified, most informed people in each job. That’s what meritocrats who don’t see colour or gender or anything else always say. Tell me why, then, we have so many repetitive, inexpert voices, who speak without intentional malice, just with a complete lack of understanding?
This week we have heard a lot about ‘racism against white people’ in the context of Bahar Mustafa’s safe spaces and ironic jokes which have offended so many. Anyone who thinks ‘safe spaces’ of this kind are places full of groupthink and indulgent mollycoddling has almost certainly never been anywhere near one. I’ve been called out and challenged to think about my words, actions, and my most deeply-held opinions more in ‘safe spaces’ than in any other place I’ve ever been in my life. Strange how those who complain about safe spaces and groupthink also are so often the first to denounce so-called ‘call out culture.’ Which is it? We are too critical, jumping on everybody who opens their mouth until no-one can say anything, or we are too circular, just sitting there nodding our heads?
Let’s talk about safe spaces. Let’s talk about triggers. It’s a flawed, perhaps problematic analogy, but we put warnings about flashing cameras on things to help people with epilepsy makes choices about what media to consume. Many people have no understanding of PTSD (despite, of course, being given space after space to write about it), and vaguely imagine ‘triggered’ just means ‘upset.’ So the idea of a warning that something might throw you back into reliving a vivid flashback of being raped (for example), make you sick, make you unable to function for a time, make you pass out, make you panic and struggle to breathe, is dismissed as nonsense for the over-sensitive.
The ignorant conclusion those people arrive at is understandable I suppose, if irritating, but the demand that people don’t set up our own safe spaces either, while refusing to understand or respect people’s needs in public spaces, feels like outright bullying to me.
Safe spaces are not just about PTSD, of course. It takes a huge amount of personal energy to watch people with no knowledge or understanding or interest in listening to actual experts dominate the same old boring conversation, a conversation that is about your life, time and time and time and time and time and time again. Imagine walking into a university level maths seminar, with people who have years and years experience, academic or literal or both of maths, and stating that you don’t agree Pi exists, because it’s never used in common language between you and your mates.
And imagine, when people suggest you chat to a tutor separately if you want to learn maths, but actually, in this seminar people have turned up to have a bit of a more complex discussion about maths that you might find confusing, demanding that you have a right to be in the space and you’re being discriminated against for not knowing about maths.
People will say, of course: “Ah, but that’s about a level of understanding, not skin colour. Bahar Mustafa wanted to discriminate on skin colour. My skin colour is irrelevant to my ability to understand racism, my gender irrelevant to my ability to understand sexism.”
This is simply not true. Just look at where we place our focus. When Katie Hopkins or David Starkey or Jeremy Clarkson or John Terry or Prince Philip or David Coburn or Iggy Azaelea or Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle or Dapper Laughs says offensive things, you might hear a condemnation of what they say, but the focus, the central point, always gets dragged back towards “freedom of speech” and their “right to say it.” Ched Evans raped someone for crying out loud, and the overwhelming din from the media for week, if not months, was “do we really want to blight this man’s career, his future, over a mistake?” Meanwhile, when Bahar Mustafa or, as we learn this week, young Muslims who don’t want to shop at Marks and Spencer’s or drink booze (no, really), offend us, we might in passing acknowledge that they have a right to say what they said, but the focus always gets dragged towards why ‘reverse racism’ matters, whether you can be racist to white people, whether ‘social justice warriors’ have gone too far, and, above all, why it is so important not to be racist to white people.
Your life experiences impact what you think is immediately compelling about an event or news story. Of course they do. You can’t help it. It’s why diversity isn’t the opposite of “getting the best people for the job” – it’s the only possible way of doing it. How else do you explain the disproportionate amount of fuss made over whether technically you can or can’t be ‘racist to white people’?
And, boy, can people talk about that in great length! Why do we want it to be called ‘racism’ so much? Comparing institutions and patterns of systematic, deliberate, historical oppression with someone offending you because they dislike you as an individual for your white skin on one single occasion does seem extremely minimising to me. And since there’s already a word for the former (racism), how about we (white people) just let it go, and call it something else when someone is a bit mean about a white person?
Perhaps that’s not how your mates use the word. Perhaps you only ever use words in their colloquial meanings. Perhaps, in the maths seminar analogy, you think the professor could reasonably be expected to refer to Pi or zero or some other concept that mathematical experts probably have a rather different understanding of than you do, by a different term. But you probably don’t. You probably recognise that maths experts know more about maths than you do.
You probably understand (or who knows, maybe you don’t), that straight men aren’t all creepers, but understand that lesbian bars exist for women, and the bouncers might be inclined to turn away big groups of men who turn up demanding to be let in. You probably understand that a mental health support group isn’t a space you can wander into in order to ‘learn’ about mental illness, by listening to people’s experiences and vulnerabilities. You probably also recognise that David Cameron’s wealthy background doesn’t in itself make him personally a bad person, it just means that his perception of life is a bit different to that of a guy who works in Morrisons. And that his policies reflect that. So it is relevant to the debate about his ability to do his job well.
Imagine if David Cameron turned up in a trade union meeting about, say, the living wage, to ask questions like “but why does it matter if you earn an extra 20p an hour, it’s such a tiny amount anyway? Can’t you just use your savings? I don’t agree with your definition of the terms ‘work’ and ‘wage’ and ‘welfare state’ and ‘working class’ – after all, most people don’t commonly use it that way. Can you explain why you use the term ‘wage’ when technically we are talking about someone working for their benefit (because that’s what we have decided to call it)?” He might just get told piss off.
And imagine him saying, but how will you grow this movement, if you don’t let me in? If you tell me to shut up? I’m on your side, I believe in aspiration! I want to help you. You have to listen to me, I have heaps of ideas. I know about this stuff, man. I really, really, really care about it. I learned about it at school.
But one thing they don’t seem to teach you at schools like David Cameron’s is that you don’t need to be leading or speaking or even in the room where others are speaking in order to support social progress. You can volunteer time for boring, thankless tasks that no-one wants to do, donate money or possessions to charities and refuges, listen, learn, elevate, empower and validate and support others. It’s no fun hearing it if your entire skill set is to have opinions and say things for a living, but the most constructive thing you can do a lot of the time is shut up.