Uncomfortable places

This blog is not going to make for comfortable reading but I make no apology for that. Sorry if you followed my blog thinking it would be about early childhood…this post does have many connections to EC because we need to change our approach and move from our comfortable rosy position that if we promote diversity and tolerance in the early years that automatically things will improve for minority groups there. The need for this good practice goes without saying, but what is also required is pause to consider the hidden systemic inequality that minorities endure. Some may read no further than the first few lines, some may finish and think ‘this is nothing to do with me’. However, if you only reflect for a moment on the subject of this post it will be better than sticking your fingers in your ears and going “ting-a-ling-aloo” (sorry you have to be a certain age to appreciate this reference). If you are brave you might reflect a little longer to think about how you can act to make things different for those you engage with and confront the fact that not being racist isn’t the same as promoting equality of opportunity. So here we go, hold onto your hats…

I watched a video yesterday on Twitter and my husband was also watching over my shoulder. The filming on someone’s phone involved a white man talking at a black woman. It was a ‘discussion’ about what I’m not sure, as that’s not what we both focused in on as we watched the increasingly heated exchange. In the midst of ‘conversation’ the man had asked the black woman where she was born. She refused to answer but indicated her offence that the question had been asked of her. He pushed for an answer, she refused and asked why he wasn’t asking the same question of the white people she was with. The exchange became more accusatory, and she said she found the comment racist. What came next from him was the throw away line that so often comes when a black person calls out something they feel is offensive “you are playing the race card. It’s you that is racist”. I let out a deep, heartfelt sigh. “I know. It’s horrid. Don’t watch it” my husband said. I explained that it hadn’t upset me as much as made me despair. When will people move on? When will white people recognise that singling out someone’s difference can be received as racism? And when can people of colour expect to be able to say “no, this is not ok” without being made to feel they are the problem? In this clip it clearly had racist undertones this was a pro-Europe campaign and the man was targeting his frustration at the black person. However, too often people deny racism because “it wasn’t meant that way”, “you can’t say anything these days – damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, or “I don’t see a person’s colour”. Some white people easily jump to outrage with the perception that their morals are being called to question, or walk away from difficult conversations about race/heritage because they feel it doesn’t apply to them: “I am not a racist”. Why can’t we just put away our discomfort and talk about these things? Having been on a journey of self-discovery recently I have read, and watched videos explaining the term used to describe this – “white fragility”- and it is in effect sticking your fingers in your ears and going “tinga-long-aloo”. It is not about being ‘bad’, it is about being unconscious of the inequality that people of colour face. Racism isn’t always about violent comments and actions, but also comes through systems and structures which award privilege for one identity over another.

I turned to my husband apologetically. He is used to this in the last few months since I have rediscovered the joy of writing, “Sorry, I need to write. I have an itch I need to scratch”…

I remember about 10 or so years ago smiling at a young white woman as she passed me on our local high street saying “hello” as she caught my eye. Now some may think that’s weird, however I was brought up in a small village where it was considered normal to say hello to everyone you passed on the street. I have been slow to lose this habit – and was reminded by my sister on a visit to watch her singing in London very recently, that it wasn’t a sensible approach in a city. This is partly because people think you are the mad lady who is giving eye-contact when that isn’t what you do here (and sadly this small nod to humanity takes up a lot of precious time), and partly because you pick up the hawkers, waifs, strays and drunks who think you are fair game.

Anyway, back to the young white woman in the high street…

I carried on walking, when I heard her call behind me “Excuse me. Can I ask you something?” I turned around waiting for the catch. The sales pitch, the push on my guilt-button to sign up for a direct debit for charity. However, instead she took a big breath and asked “Do you live here?” I nodded and she explained that she was recently married to a black man. She wanted to move to the market town, but her husband was concerned that there weren’t many black people to be seen. She wanted my opinion about living in that rural place. Like some tourist brochure I extolled the virtues of my local space. I explained the positives of living in East Sussex – the rural idyll, proximity to the sea, forest and downs, whilst explaining that it is within travelling distance of more exciting, fast-paced and creative opportunities when the pull for that is strong. She nodded but looked worried “Is there racism here?” I paused only briefly “As with anywhere if you look for it you’ll find it.” She looked relieved “I keep telling him that. We have had a few nasty things happen, but I think he sees things when they aren’t there.

Strangely I have sometimes thought about the young couple over the years and whether they took the plunge to locate to the rural life. From my space here in 2019 I would like to apologise to them both that I made such an unthoughtful throw-away comment: “if you look for it, you’ll find it”. I apologise particularly to that black man. It was a trite comment which negated his concerns and allowed space for that newly-wed white woman to suggest “he sees things when they aren’t there.” This was evidence of white fragility in action – the denial of the problem because it causes discomfort, turning away from the real feelings that someone has based from experience of years of negative actions, of being excluded, or included as a target. Unless you are that person who has experienced the microaggressions that people of colour face, you might want to believe that actions or words are innocent: that the black person is being overly sensitive. My comment was thoughtless “if you look for it, you’ll find it” – a learned response from regular experiences: accusations of ‘pulling the race card’ or “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “I am sure it was only a joke”. To be honest I have never really had to actively look for it – it has always been there in my face. I had just learned to pretend it didn’t exist because those comments pushed me not to make a fuss, that it was me that was being unreasonable.

I remember when I first started working in early years. I was a supervisor in a community pack-away playgroup in a church hall. We had a wonderful parent committee who were very involved in managing the group – from fund raising, to completing accounts, making decisions about the day-to-day running, and helping to set-up and pack-away all of our ‘stuff’ from the church hall everyday. The latter involved taking their life in their hands by fighting to pile all the equipment from the day into a too-small cupboard with the hope that like some kind of Tardis it would miraculously expand inside. We had devised a plan of where each piece had to fit like a jig-saw if all the equipment were to actually get in. Despite following the plan you would have to close the door carefully giving a silent prayer that the resources wouldn’t make a bid for freedom before you tip-toed out of the vestry. Opening the door in the morning involved side stepping the opening door in case the contents were all spewed out volcano-like on you head once the barrier of the door was released. Anyway, once again I digress. We had a wonderful temporary member of staff – a lovely young woman from Australia. The children loved her, but all to soon she announced she would be leaving to continue her European travels. She asked for a goodbye drink with the staff and committee rather than a present and invited us to a pub near her temporary home. The chairperson had become a good friend (as she still is to this day) and we embarked on the journey to the pub with several others, in her purple and white camper van laughing about needing our passports as we crossed the border between East and West Sussex.

I walked into the pub and froze. Now anyone going to a pub in any rural place will have that moment when they walk in, and all eyes swivel towards them “This is a local pub, for local people”. They may feel briefly like the stranger before the locals return to their beer and banter. However, what I felt was complete and utter discomfort. I cast my eyes around the large open bar. The barman serving the drinks that I had ordered had a fixed smile which didn’t agree with his eyes. Here was a possible source of my discomfort, but not strong enough a reason for my familiar skin crawling heat. We all sat down at a large table and began to chat and laugh. As I joined in the conversation, still uncomfortable, my skin pricked as I heard loud laughter at the opposite side of the room. I knew before I’d turned my head that this was the source of my discomfort, and sure enough as I turned to look across the room a group of 6 men were looking at me and laughing, with that all too familiar challenge in their eyes “…and what are you going to do about it?” My friends and colleagues were having fun and I didn’t want to ruin their night so I decided to do what I did so often then…I tried to become invisible. I stopped talking, and shrunk my tall, large black body as much as I could, slipping down into the chair. It was about half an hour before my friend, who was sat next to me said “what’s up mate? Are you ok?” She had noticed my loud, body wobbling laughter unusually absent from the banter. I explained that I felt uncomfortable in the pub and that I felt that my colour was a problem. She looked at me in surprise and then around the room. She hadn’t even thought about the fact that I was the only black person. She was my friend and therefore colour-blind. She reassured me “I don’t think there’s a problem like that, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. We will have another drink and then go.” I was grateful for that kind compromise, and as often happened then I began doubting my perceptions and internal warning-system. She went to the bar for drinks, and then returned ashen-faced, lips pursed. “You are right. There’s a group over there who I overheard. They are not being ‘nice’. Do you want me to say something?” I admit that these were not her exact words – I do not want to cause offence and my lovely friend has a wonderful gift for colourful explosive language expressed with passion. This lovely woman hates injustice and then, as now, is not afraid to challenge it – loudly and proudly. I shook my head. I have always hated confrontation. I suggested instead drinking up quickly and leaving.

The group of us talked about it in the van on the way home. I listened to their reassurance, and what I now can see was ‘white fragility’ in action. “It’s only a few ignorant individuals”, “most people aren’t like that”, “you can’t live your life avoiding places because you’re scared that there will be a few racist comments”. In effect though I wonder now whether they were pushing down those uncomfortable feelings, the acknowledgment that racism is alive and kicking and living in your locality. Those words demonstrated the idea that in ‘our’ society racists are over there and look like that, and we, your friends who are therefore not racist (because you are after all black), are over here and look like this. They unconsciously perhaps ignored the grey area in between; the deficit language, the systems, the structures, the policies that ‘other’ people based on the colour of their skin, causing inequality of opportunity. As the other friends in the back of the van laughed and chatted, our conversation finished, my lovely friend who was driving, looked sideways at me, I like to think now as if seeing me for the first time “I have protested against fascism and racism in the past. I never thought about what it was like for you everyday…just living. Tell me what it’s like for you

There it was that important first step that can begin to change things; the acknowledgement and discussion about the fact that society isn’t the same for everyone and that whiteness does permeate the fabric and award privileges that are denied to others. She was removing her fingers from her ears to listen and opening her eyes to see, and there the journey begins…

As I discovered on Twitter, today is Stephen Lawrence day commemorating the death of this 18 years old in 1993 following a racist attack. As the website explains “Stephen Lawrence Day is about the part we all play in creating a society in which everyone can flourish”. It asks us all to do something to change things.

If you are interested in finding out more about ideas of white fragility this is a good starting point and a longer video here