“If you could live in any other era, when would you choose?” Around me, co-workers pick their favourites – a lot of attention is being showered on the 1920s and 1940s: “the dresses!”. Others pick the 60s: “swinging London, the music!”. You know, all the usual popular period suspects. Then my co-workers’ attention shift to me. And in a quiet voice, I say, “Right now. This era right here. The one we’re living in, where I am a free black woman, with rights and an education and access to healthcare and contraception. I’d choose this moment.”
My colleagues shift a bit in their seats. “Come on. Any era, and you choose this one? Bo-RING!” And so I explain: things have not been all that awesome for people who look like me for very large chunks of history. And that’s everywhere. It’s a well-recorded fact. So, yeah, I choose this era. Where justice is flawed and there is still no guarantee of my rights, but at least I have a chance to fight for a better future for my children and their children. One colleague slowly meets the eyes of another before sliding away awkwardly. I can sense I’ve said the wrong thing. But hey, they asked. I just answered.
I really hate this game.
The above is a loosely paraphrased conversation I’ve had too many times to count. The underlying grumble is based on this thought: “why do they always have to bring race into it?” I don’t know about them, but I bring race into it because I have to; because it is an inescapable part of it. Question: in a bacon and egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? Answer: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
The past is chockfull of racism – appalling, structured and obvious racism. But the present isn’t all sunshine and puppies, either, y’know. Everyone likes to believe racism is a largely – even totally – conquered thing of the past. In people’s minds, racism began and ended with slavery, with a brief flare up for the Civil Rights era and few bits more in Brixton. I’m not exaggerating. People have swallowed this patently ridiculous idea that racism is of the past, and even then, it was the preserve of the obviously racist – rural yokels who sell golliwog dolls, the BNP and spitting skinheads who call black people the n-word. Ah, if only; we could round them up and begin a programme of re-education and/or mass happy slapping.
Racism is a country with no citizens; the state exists, but no one ever admits to being from there. This bogeyman is an amorphous cloud, only occasionally raining on our collective racism-free parade. To admit that racism has been built into the very systems on which society is run would be a step too far. So we tell ourselves the necessary lies, conveniently rewriting our roles and our history and smoothing out the kinks which would require us to examine our privilege. The idea that we live in a genuine meritocracy is one that is pushed to the nth degree – we are told to believe it, encouraged to live our lives according to this idea. But of course it’s not true. And when you force people to confront this blatant lie, they get uncomfortable. Newsflash: I’m uncomfortable too!
The desire to believe that it’s all in the past is a strong one, and what makes people uncomfortable here is their own unwillingness to confront the realities of their privilege. The system is complicit in the lie of the power of meritocracy: “if only you go to university and get good grades, you’ll be okay”. Imagine a world where the goalposts keep changing, but never shift in your favour. Never. It drives people mad. And then when they give voice to their rage, they’re told they have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not a chip – it’s the reality of a daily grinding down by the very society which purports to extend an equal chance to all. To tell me you “don’t see colour” is enraging. Clearly, you do. And importantly, you should. It’s just that in the bacon and eggs analogy, I am the pig. And I’ve never really fancied being the bacon.
Some further reading: