Understanding White Privilege in a Town With No Privileges.
by Olivia Jones
Doncaster, like many other towns in the north of England, is a predominantly white working class area. It is a town where people suffered in the Thatcher era and due to the continued false promises from the government, was lost in the fray between the Labour and Conservative parties over the last few years.
The town’s fabric has been seeped in stereotypes of racism, classism and antisocial behaviour. At the same time, Doncaster has been subjected to its own forms of discrimination and lack of privilege for decades; its residents have seen the effects of austerity, job losses and cuts to public funding leading to a rise in crime, substance abuse and homelessness.
‘What privilege?’ you may ask. It’s a simple question. What privilege does a white working class person from Doncaster have? The simple response to this is that they don’t have to live through all of those issues at the same time as being black. The term ‘white privilege’ is a bone of contention in the discussion of race; it gets stuck in the throats of those who see it as an attempt to minimise their issues and leaves a bitter taste for those who don’t want to be tarnished as a benefactor of racism. The intention of the term white privilege is to help explain that whilst your issues are still prevalent, they will never be made harder by the colour of your skin. So for the purpose of this article I want to pose it as ‘what you don’t have to deal with’ as opposed to ‘what benefits you get’ when it comes to white privilege and the oppression of black people.
In a recent study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary education, of all the children’s books published in 2018 in the UK, only 4% feature main characters who are black or minority ethnic. Looking back to the children’s books that I read at school I can remember characters such as Biff, Chip and Kipper, Winnie the Witch, Matilda and many more white characters. There is nothing wrong with these books of course, the stories are relatable, their characters loveable, but none of them looked like me and if they did, they were secondary characters without voices. If you are white this may not be something you ever picked up on. When you see yourself everywhere it can be hard to notice that others don’t see themselves anywhere. This is just one of the many occasions where the education system fails to include the black experience; another example of this is the ignorance of black history. We are taught nothing about Windrush and how a generation of immigrants helped rebuild this country after the war. Slavery is taught through a series of pictures of black people in fields and on boats. We watch Roots and the blame is shifted to America whilst the UK takes no accountability for its contributions. We are simply not educated on colonisation.
Once we have completed our education we move into the working world. Whilst the environment has now changed the disparate treatment and systemic hurdles remain the same. A perfect example of this was a study carried out by the University of Oxford where they applied for 3200 jobs, the skills and experiences of the applicants were all the same however the ethnic background varied. The study found that the applicants from Nigerian, Middle Eastern and North African origin had to apply for 80% more jobs than their white counterparts before they were successful. Once you got the job you then have to manoeuvre the minefield of office politics. Your natural hair is deemed ‘unprofessional’ so you have to spend hours straightening or styling it in a way that is ‘acceptable’ in the workplace. On the occasion that you do wear it natural, you then have to deal with a barrage of unsolicited comments, your personal space is completely disrespected as everyone wants to touch it yet no one seems to ask. Jokes about your heritage or culture are expected to be brushed off because its ‘not about you, its the rest of them’, if you don’t laugh you’re not a team player, if you dare speak up on it you will be ostracised.
What makes this more difficult to navigate is the fact that only 6% of management jobs in the UK are held by Black or Minority Ethnic workers.
So the odds are, the person that you would be reporting this issue to may not be able to relate to you on an interpersonal level or understand the delicacy of the situation you are in. I personally have been in the position of listening to one manager in a previous job talking about how the light palms of a black person looks like they ‘had their hands against the wall when they were spray painting them out back’. In another job I was made to let a gentleman of Middle Eastern decent know he was being fired because if I did it ‘he couldn’t play the race card’, it was not my job to let him go. In my most recent job I’ve listened to the HR manager making racist jokes and talking about how blackface ‘isn’t offensive’. The worry that defending yourself or standing up to work place racism will cost you your job is something that some but not all white people will understand, but every black person will have experienced at some point in their lives.
The prejudices of the criminal justice system have been at the head of this debate for as long as the debate has gone on; there are so many examples but not all of these are relatable to the average working class person, most of us will never come in contact with that side of the law. Instead I want to draw your attention to the prejudices of the media and how they can use micro-aggressions and scaremongering to divide the classes and races.
Derrick Bird, the gunman who murdered twelve people in the Cumbria shootings in 2010, appeared on the news and in papers nationwide. The most widely used image of him shows him on a boat on holiday; he is smiling, carefree and a bit sunburnt. He is also wearing scuba gear. In comparison to this we look at the image most popularly used of Mark Duggan, whose murder sparked the London riots in 2011; the image we see of Duggan is dark, brooding and angry. He is wearing a hoodie. There are plenty of photos of Mark Duggan smiling and looking carefree that were shared by friends and family alike, so you can begin to understand the suspicion arising when the media deliberately chose a photo of him that perpetuates the ‘young, black thug’ stereotype. At this point you might be sceptical at my reasoning. However it later came out that the photo of Mark Duggan had in fact been cropped to cut out the granite memorial stone he was holding to honour his infant daughter who had recently passed away, hence the lack of a smile a la Derrick Bird. So, not only did they choose a photo to fit their narrative, they then purposefully manipulated it to vilify an innocent young black man who was murdered in broad daylight in the UK by our police force. One was confirmed to have murdered twelve people and one was suspected to own a firearm. Yet only one was dehumanised and reduced to a stereotype.
White privilege is prevalent in the UK and around the world, even in towns like Doncaster. Acknowledging its existence doesn’t detract from your issues, it is just acceptance of the fact that there are certain things that you will never have to experience because you are white. As the protests die down and media stops reporting on the Black Lves Matter movement, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What’s next? How can we keep making those changes to better the lives of our black friends,families and neighbours?’. I have spoken to various organisations who are interested in changing their practices in regards to racism and we have a few projects we are working on at the minute to ensure this is a movement and not just a moment. A lot of allies rally with such a huge amount of energy that they tend to get burnt out quickly and are unable to sustainably support the movement. We can avoid that by making small changes to our lives so we don’t even notice how much we are helping.
One of those way is reading books by black writers, they don’t necessarily have to be about racism but reading something about the black experience every once in a while will continue your education on the issue whilst not flooding you with a constant flow of information. If you’re not much of a reader, there are always TV shows, films, documentaries, podcasts etc that you can invest your time in. You will be both supporting black creatives and furthering your understanding of black lives and anti-racism.
You can also look into donating to causes or setting up a recurring small payment. In times of crisis the Black Lives Matter movement will get a rise in donations but they still need money year round, consistent funding could have a huge impact for them. Another way to support the cause is to use your white privilege to discuss anti-racism with friends and family who are misinformed or don’t understand the movement, hold them accountable for the statements they make and the biases they have. They may not listen to a person of colour but there is a higher chance they will listen to you. Tackling racism head on can be uncomfortable but remember that you only have to be uncomfortable for a short while, you can close the app, turn off the TV, change the subject when you are done with racism. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people do not have that privilege.
Finally, stop saying ‘All Lives Matter’ in response to the movement, it’s redundant, we know that all lives are important but not all lives are seen as equal in today’s society. We say Black Lives Matter because we are advocating for the equality of the most marginalised people and we’re starting here.
For more resources on this topic, see below. This document is intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues. Document compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020.
You can follow Olivia here or over on Black Lives Matter Doncaster
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