It is the personal stories of black people experiencing prejudice and racism, especially if we know them personally, that are helping many of us become more aware and willing to learn about our privilege. As part of several diversity sessions I have led, I myself have shared parts of my husband’s story, which has become intertwined with my own.
However, the last time I shared our story I felt sad and unsatisfied. There I was, laying bare some very vulnerable moments in my husband’s life, trying to convince a group of people that racism is real. Some people were moved to the point of changing some of their views. Others had retreated in silence or responded in a more defensive mode. Since that time I have often wondered whether it was right for me to share a story of such vulnerability, which wasn’t even completely my own story, all the while knowing that this experience would likely be scrutinised and questioned.
I understand that stories are a powerful tool to bring real and meaningful change. At the same time, while the imbalance in the distribution of power and privilege remains unchanged, the emotional burden is primarily put on those sharing their story. To raise awareness, again and again those experiencing oppression have to go over their pain and grief. Others come in to listen to this painful testimony and they might even be changed while listening, but also most likely will go back living their same lives as if nothing ever happened.
So maybe rather than using others’ pain for impact, there’s something else that is urgent and important. I think we need to not just talk about the pain of black people, but actively discuss our own whiteness and the racism, prejudice and biases that live inside of us.
As you might have read in my story, I was born in the Netherlands where I grew up in a mainly white, homogenous world. I moved to England at the age of 22, where I met my now husband. A black man, born in Congo, who grew up in Belgium and had been in England for quite a few years.
Leaving my home country and settling in a new one was no easy process. I had to adjust, learn to speak a new language, get used to a different culture that is still quite close to my own, but at the same time so different. A country where no one had any clue of what I had been or done before. The books I published or the connections I had. Suddenly identifying myself with the word immigrant, having to travel far to get my passport renewed, proving my right to have access to health care, people having difficulty pronouncing my name, being away from family, not having a support network nearby… And then Brexit, and the experience of questioning whether I am welcome or wanted in a place where I have invested so much of myself, constantly having to prove I have a right to be and remain here.
However, I came into this country as a white woman, from a country that is seen in a positive light by most Brits. Somehow we Dutch people usually have a good reputation. I would not often be given the label of immigrant. And as long as I don’t speak and people don’t hear my accent I am not immediately seen as someone coming from elsewhere, as an outsider.
Marrying someone from a different ethnicity and culture has been a rich and God filled experience, but it also came with its fair share of loss. The main thing I ‘lost’ is my own ignorance and the ‘comfort’ that came with it. Yes, I am still white and privileged, but I am raising children who are on the other side of this painful equation. I am confronted with them experiencing racism, even as children, and ignorance from friends and acquaintances.
I have been there myself, doubting what is happening in front of my own eyes: “It must be a coincidence, it can’t be as bad as they say it is…” I could go on and share some of the many personal experiences that changed my heart and opened my eyes. But the point I am trying to make is that I also could have chosen to ignore them or not to see them. I could have easily attempted to explain them away. While my eyes opened slowly, I also noticed how often when I shared these experiences with the white people around me, there would be questions and excuses. “Yes, but…. I am not sure it really exist. It can’t be that bad. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I love black people. I am not a racist…” Trying to explain why it must have happened like it did. Trying to somehow prove that they are not guilty of racism, they are different.
But I suspect they might not be as different as they think they are. And that is the whole point of this blog. The reason I am saying this is because I know I am not different myself… I have discovered the racism, prejudice and biases in myself.
It is not any less because I have married a black man, or because I am raising black children. It is still there… and it shows up on numerous occasions… I quickly judge black people for lack of punctuality, I have talked of Africa as if it is a single country, I have liked pictures of cute black children taken by my white friends on their expensive mission trips, I more easily criminalise the behaviour of men that look a certain way. Living in an Asian neighbourhood, my first instinct was to find a school that wasn’t overwhelmingly Asian. Working in a very diverse job, I have more readily questioned my black colleagues capability and assumed that of my white colleagues… and I could go on.
I am still taking advantage of my white privilege and I am not sure I really want it to change.
Because I am happy when the supermarket shop alarm goes off and the security guard nods at me to continue my journey without checking my trolley. I was chuffed when as a young, pregnant woman with a broken foot a kind doctor let me skip the very long clinic queue and saw to me immediately. I proudly stand next to my husband at border control hoping that I will make him appear less threatening. There are times when this whole fight tires and hurts me, so I decide to ‘just leave it for now’ and not talk about it with my friends, because I can… I decide not to share this painful article on Facebook because I am not sure the response I get will be positive and people might feel offended. I decide not to call out a racist remark because I know it will create difficulties and people will get emotional. But my husband and my children and many other people from the global majority can never choose not to engage with this issue for a day, for an hour, for a moment… It is always there and it never stops.
Activitst Layla F Saad in her Me and White Supremacy Workbook writes:
“What you receive for your whiteness comes at a steep cost for those who are not white. This may sicken you and cause you to feel guilt, anger and frustration. But you cannot change your white skin colour to stop receiving these privileges, just like I cannot change my black skin colour to stop receiving racism. But what you can do is wake up to what is really going on, challenge your complicity in this system and work to dismantle it within yourself and the world.“Layla F Saad – Me and White Supremacy Workbook
Through my engagement with people from the global majority, I have discovered that my version of God was not quite complete and truthful until I started engaging with those so different from me. This also made me aware of the racism, prejudice and biases in me. And they are still there, it hasn’t gone away. It is something I need to work with on a daily basis. So my question to my fellow white people: have you discovered the racism, prejudice and biases in yourself? Rather than expecting our black brothers and sisters to be vulnerable and share their pain to convince us, can we be the ones choosing vulnerability and have an honest conversation about what’s going on inside?
- Racial Justice Reading List (a start!) (also includes link to a great podcast playlist)
- The Weight of Fighting for Racial Justice and What I Can Do as a White Person
12 thoughts on “The Prejudice and Racism in Me – The Need to Reflect on Our Whiteness”
Thank you. Such good insight and so much to think about – so much to change.
Thank you too for your encouraging words. Let’s keep encouraging each other on the journey!
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Dear Mirjam, Thank you for this searingly honest, timely, well-grounded and moving post. For a long time I have reflected that the part of the whole picture that I can most easily be blind to is my own particular white ethnicity. This came home to me when I first moved away from home to study theology. I moved from living in a poor working class family in the North East of England into a community of (to me) wealthy and public school-educated people in the South East of England. Nothing about me seemed to fit. This turned out to be a deeply formative experience for my discipleship and spirituality. I am moved by Jesus’ comment that, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ When racism is unrecognised and unresponded to, people do not know the truth that can set people free; then too often a particular person’s or a group’s ‘private’ version of the truth is used to protect themselves and to keep other people far from real freedom. Even after years of sensitisation to the vital life-giving resources of cultural and racial differences we still have a lot to learn.
It is very good to know you are still right in the front line of discipleship and spiritual development
Thank you Gordon it is so good to hear from you and to read a bit about your own experience. I love what you say about our tendency to use our version of the truth to protect ourselves but that it is ultimately keeping us from real freedom. So much to learn! Thank you for joining the conversation! I am going to send you an email!
Thank you Miriam for your insight. For helping me to realise how very privileged I have been. I didn’t realise I had got so many “hidden” racist traits. I honestly believed I was doing OK. A very long way to go but I hope I have made a start. I know I will still make mistakes but I hope I will continue to learn. And to be alive when change happens and all people are valued for who they are and not the colour of their skin.
Thank you Lesley for your honest reflection and it is beautiful to hear about your learning. Love to you!
Thank you for this moving post, Mirjam. Yes, I am aware of my racism ( though not aware of all its manifestations as so many of them are unconscious) as well as my commitment to anti-racism through reading, listening and trying to keep open a mind that wants so often to close. Aware of the importance of trying to influence those in political power as well as those in my more immediate circle, I have written to my local MP, Tulip Siddiq, whose office responded immediately and sympathetically to my concerns about the murder of George Floyd and the racial prejudice of which we see evidence all around us and within us. I am recommending the books, podcasts and conversations you have pointed us to on this important subject to everyone I can think of.
Am I becoming a pain?
When Simone de Beauvoir was asked why she was ‘always going on about feminism’ she responded by saying she would continue to go on about feminism for as long as the inequities towards women persisted.
The two discourses, feminism and racism are plagued with similar dynamics of oppressive power. I am very pleased that on our course at the London centre for spiritual direction this year we have contributed stories, each of our own experiences of being excluded, rejected, ostracised, prejudiced against, for whatever reason, so that our own emotional pain, so often left with marginalised groups, was being felt and picked up by each of us rather than merely offloaded, acted out and passed on.
At its most fundamental this is a matter of respect for ourselves as well as others, not making any individual or group pick up and shoulder alone what belongs to each and every one of us.
I love your wise words Kate and reading about how you are challenging yourself and taking practical steps. It is very inspiring! “Am I becoming a pain? Probably!” Thank you for this
Thanks, Mirjam. This (and Reni Eddo-Lodge) have led me to thinking and talking to my daughters about my own marriage – my wife was Trinidadian of Indian descent and died in 2014 – and how that has impacted on them (and to a lesser degree our grandchildren). They commented on their awareness of their white privilege in that, though of mixed heritage, through the accident of genetics, they are usually perceived as being ‘white’, while at the same time being proud of their diverse heritage.
Beautiful to hear you have been having these conversations with your children Richard. Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you again Mirjam. Listening to your story, and your seering honesty about your own biases has been very impactful on my consciousness in this past year. Thank you for your courage and insight. How widely are you happy for this to be shared?
Thank you so much Dawn! It’s been a privilege to journey with you over the past year. This can be shared anywhere!