Part One: I Am The Hypothetical Child Bullied By POC Classmates For Being White And What Happened To Me Was NOT Racism
I am white.
I was born into a world that white people had already slashed and burned into our own image, a world where white people are a minority yet we are treated as default examples of humanity. I have always seen white people on my television screens and been taught about the deeds and sayings of a great many white people at school. I was brought up in a way that formed and fed the assumption that white people were everywhere, that we did and said almost everything of any real consequence. Images of both the past and the distant future presented to me by books and TV portrayed a world just as full of white people – often more full of white people than the town in which I lived where segregation was socially enforced. There were white areas of town and Asian areas and we all knew to keep ourselves in our place. I was taught that this was the fault of the Asian people who weren’t trying hard enough to “integrate”and definitely had nothing to do with the white people’s disproportionate response to Asian families moving in to an area – white families would simply move out.
I was born into a world that was set up so that I would be advantaged over my Asian friends and still feel able to blame them for their own relative lack of success.
Two things happened that have massively changed the way I see the world. From the age of 11 to 16, I attended a school where white pupils made up just two or three percent of all pupils and I was ostracised, bullied and harmed because of my skin colour and my race. Then, from the age of 23 I began to experience something that might accurately be called racism for the first time. This is because I had knowingly done something that made my previously unquestionable status as a white person become conditional and precarious: I began living openly as a Jew.
As a white child in a space where almost all the other children I spent five plus hours a day with were Asian (specifically, almost everyone was either of Indian or Pakistani descent) I was subjected to a range of unpleasant treatment specifically because of my skin colour and stereotypes and perceptions associated with it. I was called names, rumours were spread about me, I was hit, spat at, had things thrown at me, had people stalk me, got death threats and rape threats. I was stared at, I was ostracised and frequently ditched by so-called friends if popular children of their own race wanted to hang out with them. I was fetishised and told by boys that all girls of my race were sluts (I was still in the closet about being trans and was living as though a girl at the time). I was repeatedly told that being white made me a Christian even though I wasn’t. My decision to learn to speak Urdu was treated as incomprehensible. I was frequently mistaken for other white pupils or assumed to be related to white students who shared my (very common) surname. Teachers and pupils alike couldn’t understand why I wasn’t friends with other students whose only commonality with me was race.
And yet, while all of this was unpleasant and certain seems on the face of it to resemble racism, that was not racism. Racism requires power and privilege. Racism is structurally enforced. Those other children were not in a position to assert power over me nor was the prejudice they showed me structurally enforced. Nothing they could do to me would change the fact that I was born white in a white supremacist world and they were born not-white into that same world.
It was no coincidence that more than half of our teachers were white. It was no coincidence that I, often the only (other) white face in the room, was the star pupil, the teacher’s pet, the favourite and first unofficially and then officially the public face of the school. I was literally the school’s poster child, appearing in local papers, on local radio and on the local news. If there were to be cameras around, I was brought out and put in front of them. Parents interested in the school were told about my achievements. Was I bright? Yes – but not really the brightest pupil there. But I was white as well as intelligent and that is why a school with hundreds of pupils choose me to be its public face.
Looking back, I had a lot of power. If I had not been white, would the (also white) senior teachers have listened to me and accepted my wishes when I argued my way into only studying the subjects I wanted to, into taking a completely different syllabus from the rest of the school for one GCSE topic, into switching classes because I didn’t like the teacher or into the Gifted and Talented group? I honestly don’t know. I somehow doubt I managed all those things with reason and intelligence alone, rather than perhaps the spectre of one of the school’s few white families going to the local paper should I not get what I wanted. I walked out of classrooms without getting told off. I “lost” homework. I consistently turned up late to class and I often forgot my PE kit and yet I never had a single detention or note sent home. When teachers gave whole classes detention they let me go. If my skin had been a different colour, I doubt I would have been afforded so much lenience. I was assumed to always be telling the truth and to always have good intentions – not all my classmates were so lucky.
So, I was able to use my White privilege even there to get what I needed / wanted – whether that was an extra day to finish my homework, the right to sit in the G&T library or even to study a course no one else in the school was taking. Yet there’s more to why what happened to me at that school was not racism.
The school was a large part of my life but ultimately, it was escapable. 35 or so hours a week, 40 or so weeks a year for five years I was in a space where people who looked and sounded like me were massively outnumbered. The people I went to school with, on the other hand, will all spend much more time than I ever will in spaces where people who look like them are massively outnumbered by people who look like me. At the end of the school day, I could go back to my white neighbourhood to read books written by, for and about white people and watch television shows made by, for and about white people – and all my non-white friends would head home to Asian neighbourhoods to read books written by, for and about white people and watch TV made by, for and about white people. Whilst at school, we would read books written by, for and about white people, whatever the lesson. Everything, from English Literature to Science to History to Maths was about how White people had done just about everything ever worth noting except Islam which was the one thing brown people had ever done.
Any school in the UK would have taught pretty much the same. I could have chosen to leave the school for one where more people looked like me and that choice was not one my fellow pupils could make. It was seen by all as highly unusual for a school to be so non-white but no one questioned other schools having massive majorities of white students. In short, the prejudice I experienced for being white in a space where white skin was atypical was temporary, escape-able, considered highly unusual and greatly ameliorated by my White Privilege. The racism experienced daily by my fellow students who weren’t white was permanent, inescapable, commonplace and they had no white privilege to use to make it more tolerable. For as long as this world is a white supremacist one, I will be afforded advantages that I do not deserve any more than my fellow pupils did and they will not be afforded them. And that *is* racism.