Right Here, Right Now

Lisa Simpson

“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:

Ten Lies You Are Told Everyday

Melissa Harris Perry

Read A Book! Or Why I Don’t Talk To Strange White Folks About Race

9 responses

  1. Truth is a lot of white people really don’t see race. For me I think it is more class than race. Successful black people are well respected and do better than a lot of white people, but unfortunately for black people race interjects with class too often for varied reasons, not less caused by black people. Asians (particularly Indians) and Blacks (afro-carribean) came to this county about the same time, it is fair to say that the former occupy a higher socio-economic strata than the latter. This country provides lots of opportunities to those willing to take it, though not perfect but it is not fair to say that in 2012 blacks are bacons. There is a reason why loads of black immigrants choose the UK and not Ukraine or Germany. They must be doing something right to win the “foot vote”. There is a lot of things holding black people back, white racism (if at all it exists in a limiting proportion) is but one of the many. It is high time we as black people expand our pool of thoughts to the things afflicting our communities beyond bacon, eggs and white people.
    @iphyoo

  2. Excellent article, Bim!

    Ifeanyi, apologies if I’ve misunderstood any of what you’ve said, but to the extent that it’s true that a lot of white people don’t see race do you think that this might be because society allows them privilege of not having to see race? Why would it benefit them to do so, or to expressly admit this in any event, when the concept of whiteness is so often set as the default, as ‘normal’ and everything (and everyone) else, largely speaking, is to be ‘tolerated’, accommodated, appropriated or assimilated?

    To mention ‘whiteness’ doesn’t equate to saying that all white people are racist, or problematic, or that there aren’t many benefits and advantages to living in the UK (I was born and raised here, and at the moment, can’t imagine being anywhere else, team GB!) and of course, as you correctly point out, no one can deny the effect of intersectionality; class privilege often acts as a buffer to many issues.

    Yet if people point to the comparatively small number of successful black people (and how is success defined?) and argue ‘See black people, if they can do it, why can’t you?’ it serves in my view, to unfairly minimise the effect of the way society has worked in the past, and continues in many instances, to work today.

    When you say that black people have more things to worry about than white people, I agree in the sense that if we’re going to be ‘saved’ then it’s black people themselves who are going to have to do it. The question of how to do this though remains, in a world where a fundamental part of the development of many societies has been predicated, either explicitly or implicitly, on the inherent pathology and/or inferiority of blacks compared to well, most anyone else.

    This belief is often inculcated (or the attempt is made at least) in many black people themselves, thereby hampering efforts at self determination and self improvement and perpetuating cycles of disappointment and misery through generations.

    There’s no doubt that a lot of work needs to be done ‘for us, by us’ including some difficult, critical self examination (on that point, I guess we’re agreed), but if the question ‘what’s wrong with black people?’ isn’t accompanied with ‘what’s wrong with our society to explain the fact that black people are almost always, as a group, at or near the bottom of the pile?’, then it looks like some pretty huge societal flaws are being excused.

    Racism is by no means an excuse to justify one’s poor or foolish decisions, but if we’re agreed that there is nothing inherently wrong or deficient with black people as a group, but we’re agreed that statistically speaking, it is this group who often end up being the worse off, the “why can’t you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the ‘good’ ones’ ” argument seems to underestimate the seriousness of the lasting effect of inequalities (cultural, political, sexual, racial, economic etc – we had the full house!)

  3. Thanks for posting this. I often say I was born TOO early, I get that there will always be problems but maybe in 200 years some of this stuff will be better addressed?

  4. Dear Bim, Thanks for this article. I enjoyed it very much – a conversation I have been part of many times too and like you the here and now, is a no brainer, as much as I would have loved to have met some to the authors of earlier times. In addition to putting race aside in order to play the game, the thing that I cannot understand when ‘colleagues’ play this game, is why they always assume that they will be part of the elite of the ’20s, ’40s etc. I don’t expect them to particularly know my history*, but I am always surprised that they appear not to have a sense of their own and believe that they’ll be living a life pampered wealthy luxury.

    *Love the way (not!) that Ifeayni assumes that African-Caribbeans got a map out and decided where to rock up in the world – Ukraine? really??? Perfect example of people not knowing the history of others, but feeling that they can say what they like about us. It is maddening, but head up moves on.

    Thanks again B. best, T

  5. I thought it was just me who had that stupid conversation with others! I’d always flippantly remark “Well, it depends where I was,”. It never occurs to some of the friends I know that enjoy that game that history was not the same everywhere.
    I hate that game – why would I want to live in another time when I’d be oppressed, hunted and despised? I think the retro fashions that are coming back are making people look back over the past with a rose tinted perspective.
    Anyway, I’m glad you wrote about it in far more powerfully than I ever could.

  6. Wow! this is truly revealing. Although, much progression has been achieved up till this time, there is no doubt that passive institutional racism is still seen first-hand in the western world, more specifically, the American society. Overall, great piece!

    lazioman.blogspot.com

  7. I feel the same way when people ask about this. I always felt awkward that people never consider the past wasn’t as kind to some as it was to others. I think about racism, slavery and even sexist issues. Like ok, sure living in the 40s (or something) might have been nice with the styles but….what about my right to vote and the expectations that I have to get married by a certain age or I’m worthless?

    It’s not just about “always bringing up race” but being cognizant of your history!

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