I have been thinking a lot about race recently.
There are many reasons for this, the first being Beyoncé’s blistering, politically charged visual album Lemonade in which she highlights the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and her artistic achievement being dismissed as playing the “race card”.
Gerry Adams’s casual use of the N Word and his attempts to explain it by describing himself as ‘colour blind’ was another and then watching his supporters fall over themselves in an attempt to intellectualise why it’s ok for white people to use a racial slur as long as black people continue to use it themselves.
This is a relatively new topic of thought for me.
Growing up in a small town in west Cork, race was not something that I considered.
I was white, my parents were white, all of my friends and family were white.
When we sang the rhyme Eeny Meeny Minie Moe in playschool, I thought it was ‘knicker’, and often wondered why it was singular, imagining half a pair of underpants running around the place.
We read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in primary school and I wept bitter tears over the treatment of the black characters, unable to believe that such horrors had occurred in the not so distant past.
I didn’t give that much thought to what the lives of contemporary black people must be like, assuming with blithe ignorance that it would be similar to my own.
When I moved to New York in 2010, I worked with two black men who were both in relationships; one with a Japanese woman, and the other with a white man.
They told me of the disgusted stares on the subway, of the muttered comments when they held hands with their partners, and to my shame, I was a a tad incredulous.
They must be imagining it, I thought, shaking at my head at what I saw as “over-sensitivity”.
No one acts like that anymore, particularly in New York.
My blind spot over these issues was fully highlighted one afternoon when I was going through a friend’s Facebook photo of a recent fancy dress party.
“Wait,” a colleague said as she walked past, “Are you friends in blackface?”
I glanced at the screen, at the photo of two girls I knew dressed as the Williams’ sisters.
“What do you mean?” I answered.
I, at the age of 25, well educated, intelligent, relatively politically engaged, had never heard that term before.
She sat down and explained to me what it meant, the historical context of it, why it was so offensive, what it meant to black people to see their faces and bodies parodied in such a way.
I was mortified but I will be eternally grateful for her for taking the time to do so.
I realised that I had never had to explore these issues because I have never had to.
And that was my White Privilege.
I see a lot of people shrugging off the idea of White Privilege as ‘PC bullshit’ but it’s very real.
Peggy McIntosh coined the phrase in her essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack 1989 and gave many example of what white privilege means.
It means watching TV and movies, reading books, and flicking through magazines and knowing that it will generally focus on people who look the same as you.
It means being able to go shopping without being followed or watched, it means reading a history book and being told that it was your race that made our “civilisation” what it is.
It’s knowing that your race has nothing to do with it if you are pulled over by the police or if you are searched going through an airport.
It’s doing well in a challenging situation without being told that you are a “credit to your race”.
It’s small, seemingly inconsequential things like buying plasters or shoes in ‘flesh’ or ‘nude’ tones and they match your skin.
It’s all the things that you never have to think about because this world was designed to protect you, just by mere virtue of your skin colour.
But White Privilege is not just a series of micro-aggressions that people of colour have to endure on a daily basis.
It forms the root of the institutionalised racism that leads to the kind of police brutality that occurred at Ferguson and Baltimore in the US, when unarmed black men with their hands up in surrender were shot dead.
I watched those events unfold on social media, saw the tweets and the Vine videos and the Instagram videos; seeing for the first time the disparity between the reality of the situation and between how the traditional media were reporting it.
The reports of looting and senseless rioting, the depiction of black people as almost “animal-like” by Fox News bore no resemblance to the anguished desperation I saw in real time.
The spectre of the respectability police hovered over the situation, as if black people should just wait politely until true equality is handed to them, as if they are not entitled to feel incandescent with rage at a system that continually attempts to dehumanise and belittle them.
It’s easy to dismiss this as an American problem, but as Colette Browne wrote in the Irish Independent, there is a huge need to address racially fuelled violence in this country as well.
She says that “in just the last six months, the European Network Against Racism Ireland logged 182 racist incidents.
"Among these figures were a number of serious assaults, including a heavily pregnant black woman being kicked in the stomach, a 10 year old Muslim girl being assaulted by a group of youths in a playground; a black parent and her two Irish-born children being pelted with eggs and rubbish as they left their house; and a mother and her two children being forced to move out of their home after the words ‘blacks out’ were daubed across it.”
I am horrified by this.
I cannot understand how any rational person reading this would not feel horrified by this. We simply cannot allow this to continue.
It’s time for us to face our own complicity in this situation, to acknowledge how much easier it is for us to look the other way and to enjoy the benefits of our privilege but to REFUSE to do so.
We have to be allies now. We have to be aware.
The time for wilful ignorance is long gone.
Unless all of us are equal, none of us are.