elettaria: (Trans-friendly equal marriage symbol)
I've been reading an excellent article about white privilege and feminism called This is white privilege by Reni Eddo-Lodge. After a much-needed discussion of racism and transphobia within the modern feminist movement, she goes on to relate her experience of trying to explain what it feels like to be discriminated against to a white woman.

I told her about a recent experience of being passed over for a job I’d interviewed for and finding out through mutual friends that the job had gone to a white woman my age with almost identical experience to me. I had felt the slap in the face of structural racism, the kind of thing you only hear about in statistics of the disparity of black unemployment, whilst never hearing from the people affected.

Then she said ‘You don’t know if that was racism. How do you know it wasn’t something else?


And the conversation went downhill from there. Now, I would put that response in the category of "technically true, but inappropriate, and if you're feeling the need to say it, you're almost certainly prejudiced". Yes, Reni can't say for sure that she didn't get that job due to institutional racism. But the chances are fairly high that this was indeed the case, so it's something that needs to be addressed, and addressed with due sensitivity. It would be worth addressing even if the chances were fairly low, come to that, as it's unacceptable no matter how often it occurs. Challenging someone's right to speculate about whether they have been a victim of discrimination, especially when you are in a relative position of power and not subject to the type of discrimination in question, is not an appropriate way to respond. It's a silencing tactic.

The really insidious thing about discrimination of this nature is that a great deal of the time, you can't be entirely sure. How much of the time this is the case will vary from person to person, situation to situation. I've never experienced racism myself so I can't comment on that, though I'd love to hear from people who can. With my personal experiences of being on the receiving end of sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and hatred due to my being disabled, I can say that yes, it's frequently rather nebulous and hard to pin down, and you don't often dare challenge it on the spot to find out whether it's really discrimination or not.

If two equally-qualified people apply for a job, and the one who is more privileged in terms of race/gender/sexuality/disability/other gets it, then you can't guarantee that this was the reason on each and every occasion that it happens. If you walk out of the office on your way out of the interview and notice that there are a hundred employees sitting there and all of them are white, then something is definitely wrong. If you send out hundreds of job applications without a single response, and then try putting your name down as "Bianca White" and find that the employers are beating your door down, then you have statistical proof of institutional racism. And if you reapply for the same job that rejected you, this time with a white-sounding name, and they are suddenly all over you, then hopefully you've got them cold. On the other hand, I'd rather have a nice job with non-bigoted employers than a successful lawsuit, which of course is one of the things that discourages people from rightfully making a fuss and getting things changed, and unfortunately it wasn't even a successful lawsuit in this case. It's hard to prove even when it's occurring blatantly, and many people are smart enough not to be too blatant about being bigoted. And then you are in the powerless position of not being quite sure what's going on, and not being able to prove it even if you are sure. The fact that you aren't in a position to pull up the person who is possibly discriminating against you and find out what the hell they meant, that it's too risky to do, is important all in itself. I once got chased out of a shop, with abuse screamed at me, for specifically asking for help as I'm disabled. It was so bad that I was in fear of a physical assault. Did I go back and say, "Excuse me, but just to check, you're doing all this because I'm disabled, right? Would you mind signing this document to say so?" Did I hell. Reni is being pretty brave by openly blogging about her experience without mentioning any names. If she'd taken it to court, she could have badly damanged her future employment chances and current finances, not to mention risking hate mail and who knows what.

And you know what? It is entirely possible, though not particularly likely, that on this occasion she was mistaken and that racism was not a factor. She's not omniscient, she's having to guess based on the evidence available, she's allowed to be wrong. That's not really the point. The point is that she is constantly being subjected to racism, to the point where it's necessary for her to consider it as a factor whenever anything like this happens (I certainly will never have to fret about whether my race will affect my employment chances), where it undoubtedly will be a factor in many such incidents, and that she can't even raise it as an issue for discussion without being challenged and even attacked. Whatever the intentions of the person interviewing her for that job, this is still about racism.

The other point with respect to this story is the power of instinct. (I'm speculating here, of course, and I'm not trying to put words into anyone's mouth.) I'm guessing that if Reni had solid proof for her suspicion that she'd been passed over for being black - and while there probably are employers somewhere who are crass enough, foolish enough, and downright nasty enough to say directly, "Well, you see, we didn't realise that you'd be...black," they're in the minority as far as I'm aware - she'd have said so. So either she thought something along the lines of, "Hmm, this is the tenth time in a row this has happened, it's not feeling like coincidence any more," or her instinct was telling her that racism was a factor. (Or another option which I haven't thought of, because hey, I wasn't there, but these two seem reasonable to guess at, at least.) That instinct is quite different to impressive-looking, remote-feeling statistics on black unemployment, but it should absolutely be valued. Instincts are even harder to prove, they're often based on subtle clues such as body language or ambiguous remarks, and they're not infallible, of course. Sometimes they can be swayed by completely irrelevant factors, such as having a particularly good or bad day. But most of the time, people's instincts on matters like these are pretty sound, and our default position should be to trust them. It's an instinct you develop after being in the position to experience discrimination like this for years. If you're a sympathetic ally, and in particular if you do actual work with the group being discriminated against, you may develop a certain amount of this instinct, but it's not the same, and you shouldn't assume it is.

I remember talking about racism within the NHS with a doctor friend of mine whose parents are from India. I can't remember exactly what we were talking about, but I remember that I expressed a guess at how bad the racism was, and she told me that no, it was much worse than that actually. I was shocked that I hadn't realised, that it was occurring to that extent, and also because it made me realise how much our society covers that sort of thing up, so that it's fairly well-hidden unless you're personally suffering from it. It would certainly never have occurred to me to doubt her word. Of course she knows more than I do about racism, she's the one who's living with it, whereas I just observe some of it from the outside - and I get to choose whether or not I want to do that. I admit that I did exactly the same thing that Reni is talking about, namely to think of the problem as someone else's fault, rather than mine. I was shocked, and I was concerned with my friend's welfare, especially since she was also reporting a troubling amount of sexual harassment which she effectively had no option to prevent. And I'm not a bolshy male surgeon playing power games with students half his age, so it didn't occur to me to think about what I would have in common with someone like him. Apart from the obvious things like believing her and being a supportive friend, I'm still not sure what I can do about that sort of situation. But they're not going to go away if we pretend they're not happening, that's for certain, and thinking "this isn't my fault" is dangerously close to "this isn't my problem".

Anyway, this is one of the things that made me realise that people usually underestimate how bad discrimination of any sort is when they're not experiencing it personally, and sometimes even when they are for that matter. The well-meaning ones are eager to learn, will be ashamed of their ignorance as I was, and will make an effort to find out more and change their own behaviour. Not everyone is like that, alas. A former support worker of mine once corrected me when I tried to explain the nasty looks you get when you're out in a wheelchair, telling me that she'd been out with people in wheelchairs and they didn't get any of that. It was the experience many people get when they try to discuss discrimination they've faced. They're told they must have been mistaken, that it couldn't have happened that way, and anyway they're not truly representative, so they don't have a right to speak up. Ironically, the people telling us this are usually the ones who have even less right to speak up, because they're not living with it. This happens to sex workers an incredible amount, for example.

The thing is, I can understand initially reacting with doubt when someone accuses someone else of something nasty. You don't want to believe that people are capable of doing this sort of thing, you hope for the best. Still, "Are you sure?" is not the best response. You need to bite your tongue if it occurs to you, because you are starting to place yourself in complicity with the person who did something wrong and take their side against the victim. If you trust that person, and I'm generally talking about conversations in the context of friendship, you trust them enough to reckon that, on balance, they probably know what they're talking about, especially if it's something they've experienced and you haven't. The more shocking the news that they're giving you, the more important it is to listen to them and give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm not discounting the importance of the truth, but if your friend tells you about something bad that happened to them, your main job as a friend is to support them, not to assume a position of mistrust and grill them.

I do think that the shock factor is important here, as it can push people further into confusion about how to respond, and defensiveness can quickly spiral into something unpleasant. For instance, a friend of mine applied to Oxford university, got through the exam, was called for interview, and said that she could tell something had changed as soon as she starting speaking, due to her strong Liverpool accent. Then they suddenly decided that she hadn't passed the exam after all. That's unpleasant and unprofessional, but relatively minor as possible discrimination goes. It's not particularly shocking in the grand scheme of things. I don't think she had a problem with telling that story and having to worry about being met with strong disbelief, horror, victim-blaming, reduced job prospects, or violence. People who report being raped, on the other hand, are routinely disbelieved, and have to be very careful about who they tell. And it can get a lot worse than that. Reni reports that, "You’re not too sure when a conversation about race and racism will turn into one where you were scared for your physical safety or social position." That is utterly appalling. It shouldn't be happening, and it really shouldn't be something she has to painstakingly explain to us, and then be pressurised to prove.

It's a standard tactic amongst those in power to claim that most of the people who are complaining of maltreatment are doing so fraudulently and deserve ridicule, even harsh penalties. The number of people who truly are making false accusations of rape or discrimination, or who are collecting disability benefits they're not entitled to, is minuscule. Far more people are telling the truth and having to deal with the repercussions of being automatically treated as a liar. Rape conviction rates are a joke, very few people with disabilities are getting the benefits or support they deserve, and I don't even know how to start measuring the impact this has in the fields of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other areas, because it's so damned massive that there are a multitude of examples. I look forward to the day when press coverage and popular opinion reflect the realities, rather than distorting them to the extent that is currently the norm. If 99% of people in a situation are telling the truth, it's hardly logical to go on the assumption that each one of them belongs to the 1% who isn't, and I don't know why so many people find it so bloody tempting to think that way. We are somehow in the strange position where it is often considered worse for someone to make an incorrect allegation of discrimination than it is for someone to commit that act of discrimination, and where even the faintest possibility of an incorrect allegation is considered reason enough to silence them. Thoroughly fucked up.

So yes, when things like this happen, you may not have proof that would satisfy a court. You still have the right to speak up about it. And if you're the one listening to someone speak up, remember that your job is to support them rather than to silence them or put them through an interrogation. Remember that it's hard to speak up, that it often involves an element of risk. We need to listen to these stories.

One last thing. Reni said in that article, "I learnt that these were women who were only capable of analysing structural inequality insofar as it disadvantaged themselves - no more, no less." I know what she means, I've been seeing an alarming amount of that sort of thing too, and I am now sitting here fretting that I'm doing exactly the same. I do hope not. I'm trying to write this as an ally, and I'm mostly drawing upon my own experiences when talking about power structures and systems of oppression because that's the way I feel qualified to speak about it. But what I hope I'm doing is using it as support for what she is saying, rather than using it as a way of replacing her narrative with my own. If I've fucked up, let me know. That defensiveness that Reni talks about is terribly easy to fall into, and I too am fighting an urge to say, "But of course I'm not like that! It was someone else! I'm not responsible for what other people do!" And I end up flailing about trying to find the right way to look at things, the right way to put it, and incidentally get interested in issues of narrative and power structures because they're something I relate to, then realise that now I'm making it all about me and that's not right either. So this is what I'm trying to say.

The main piece of news here is not that someone once said something shirty to me about wheelchairs. The news is that racism and white privilege are far more prevalent than most of us want to admit, and that those of us who are white need to think about how we contribute towards them and what we can do to stop that. Racism is completely unacceptable. White privilege is part of my existence even if I think I'm well-intentioned. I want to be an ally in any way I can.

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elettaria

January 2014

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