As 2019 was coming to an end I wrote an essay titled Cul-de-Sac which was about a moment in time in my past-life in which addiction and sex work collided. The astonishingly astute writer Kuchenga read my piece and told me that much of it had lifted her spirits and allowed her to find identification with my journey. She succinctly ended the tweet by adding that ‘she couldn’t wait to read me addressing my whiteness.’
I felt both seen and seen by her tweet. I felt seen and seen. The tweet was an act of generosity from someone desperate for me to engage with my own white privilege.
Kuchenga also suggested I read the book, ‘White Rage’ by Carol Anderson. In the opening chapter Anderson talks about how people such as Rudy Giuliani (when Mayor of New York), relabelled black resilience and resistance to police brutality, poor housing and schooling and employment chances as rage whilst ignoring the structural ‘kindling’ that was causing the resistance. The opening chapter is titled Kindling. It is about the comfort that allows the people in white skin, to ignore the logs of kindling and focus on the nature of the resistance. It is silently racist, different to the Klu Klux Klan, but as insidious.
However traumatic my experience(s) had been (as it happens the piece was centred around intimacy and class) it was still written entirely from the lips of a white person. Despite my class I had my whiteness to serve as a shield to consequence; I get paid now to talk about this stuff now, I get to settle back into the comfort of whiteness.
Even my drug of choice – heroin was classified as a white drug, a fallen drug, a drug and addiction from which ‘fallen white people’ could be rescued. Crack cocaine on the other hand was used by Giuliana et ilk to describe an apparent underclass of uncontrollable black criminality and rage which was threatening the moral fabric of all society. The plethora of film and television references which used the trope of the poor middle class white girl caught up in the destruction of the black crack epidemic.
Whiteness (nee. Privilege) is only ever a shallow breath away from every single white person on the planet, whatever class, whatever education, wokeness or however poor. Kuchenga’s point managed to support me but also gently indicated that I was avoiding talking about the privilege I was born within; she highlighted the similarities within our experience but also the wide still ocean between our experiences because of the colour of our skin.
Whiteness is Jesus personified and therefore untouchably static, but blackness has a white-created-history of labellingand rejection(s) – lightness, darkness, segregated areas in apartheid, the lists go on. Always demarcated by the skin colour’s proximity to whiteness.
My piece, good as it was, lacked skin-colour-societal-clarity. In that sense it lacked the background noise and foreground structures which informed how I as an HIV positive addict could find romance in that moment. I was a white addict, a white person selling my white arse for drug money to a white drug dealer. That allowed me to find and create some intimate moment, perhaps because of the literary and cinematic history of white people and drugs, always tinged with romantic lostness. White people at the margins fighting their way back to their privilege languishing in the centre.
My time spent in drug rehabs allowed me to experience how, more-often-than-not, I was seen as an innocent victim of the set of circumstances that had ‘allowed’ my drug habit to grow astronomically, whereas the very few non white people I met in rehab were, more- often-than-not, treated as criminals first, then as a set of personal circumstances next– they were choosing to be angry and out of control whereas everything had pushed me to the margins where my drug use saved my innocence on a daily basis. It was a re-run of the Giuliana narrative – opioid use equals fallen white person who can be saved by learning to express themselves and letting their rage out safely, whereas crack cocaine use equals danger and rage and needs imprisonment. It needs shutting down.
Yes, I was an addict, yes I was a sex worker who became HIV positive but the risks I took and my place within the field of risk was shaped with the structural protections firmly in place that are afforded to white skin –people seeing me as a victim of my surroundings, innocently selling whatever I could to fund my habit. My drug use was seen as skin-deep whereas crack cocaine use is seen as the whole person (race) breaking down into ruinous immorality.
I could act innocent about my criminality because innocence is part of the spectrum of white privilege. In the same way that Trump can grab pussy and people talk about the innocence of locker room chat, imagine a black man grabbing pussy, people would talk only about the inherent black male sexual danger. If I weren’t white would I get to write about this stuff now in newspapers and magazines. Would I get asked to keynote about my marginal past antics?
The tweet happened around the time of the general election when we were all treated to endless Instagram pictures of ‘influencing voters’ posing outside of polling stations declaring their commitment to the potential of yet another set of old white men who were going to lead us out of (or towards) damnation.
All leadership options were white.
I couldn’t help but think that my trust in old white men had flagged whatever political concept they espoused. The idea that somehow change could come because someone declares themselves to be anti-racist is starting to feel bizarre and frankly dangerous. A white-skinned comfort.
Let’s start in a new place.
White skin in this world is a constant act of privilege, it is, and therefore it has. Full stop.
White skin in this world, be it Capitalist or Marxist, be it rich or poor, is packed full to the brim with structural privilege. It overflows to the point where we don’t even notice that we have it. The BAFTAs, tHe Oscars, the Labour Party candidates, every drug therapist I ever met, all white. We have stopped noticing that it is us everywhere because we have externalised racism to be ‘other’. Bad white skinned people – Trump, right wing, Farage.
Even if it is poor white skin it still has the full gamut of privilege potential. I was born poor and working class but that didn’t stop me seeing myself as a person and not as a race. That is the privilege of seeing race as something outside of us.
The history of white brutality, often silent and structural, underpins all of our lives and until we stop having the ‘he’s or she’s a racist’ debate and start the debate by talking about the brutality that created the comfort in our white skins it will remain the same. Silent but the same.
We could address this tomorrow in the history curriculum we currently teach in schools, the curriculum in which we celebrate the British Empire. We could be honest about the violence embedded in our history and therefore our present structures. We could speak to truth. Our violence still reverberates around the world – the violence towards black trans women, the anti-gay, anti-lesbian legal structures upheld by the legacy of our religious demands on indigenous populations.
We could, as white people who benefitted from the Empire and colonialism, stop taking any medal from the queen with the word ‘empire’ in it. We could, and if we all did it would make a powerful statement that starts to reject the presumed honour of the past. We could start to join up the dots rather than simply saying, ‘I’m not a racist’. That shit isn’t working anymore and we’re all to blame.
It doesn’t mean that we are inherently bad people or full of blame, but we do have to shoulder and interrogate the shame of our skin’s past. It does mean that we can no longer address racism by seeking to develop external plans which ‘combat’ racism without fundamentally addressing the privilege inherent in our white skin. We cannot wear anti-racist slogans anymore on white skin without addressing the paradox.
An anti-racist badge on structurally and inherently privileged white skin is an oxymoron. We have to deal with the cultural and historical guilt that deep down somewhere, we know that we have.
That has to become our starting point, a conversation around our skin and not around blackness. Racists are not the problem, we are, we all are. All white people, however young or old, upper class, middle class or working class are born with a privilege that we simply have to breath in to enact, no more work than that. It just is.
Class does matter, rich upper class white people have much privilege than working class white poor people but the same colour skin and the history of that skin links privilege in a way that encourages the working class to vote Tory and support Trump. We cannot sweep that under an inconvenient carpet.
Our whiteness and therefore our privilege needs to be deconstructed through a committed course of action which isn’t external. For example, an anti-racism march or campaign is an externalised course of action which fast becomes inaction because we are the same colour as Trump, Johnson and whoever else is poised ready to inflame racist divides for their own ill formed childlike policies. We have reached a point which could be seen as the zenith of white skin power where white leaders don’t even have to think or justify anymore – Trump takes out an enemy despite the law, Raab agrees it’s legal.
They can quite literally say and do anything. We watched as black and brown people did the work to combat the harm and inequality they had to contend with daily because of our skin’s privilege. We sat back and presumed our work was just to march alongside them to complain about some of our own whilst waving the same banners. I’m not saying stop marching but I do think it hasn’t worked.
The work we need to do to challenge racism needs to be a process in which we totally deconstruct and devalue whiteness as the sole signifier of power. WE NEED TO DO THAT, NOT THEM FOR US.
That needs real fucking work. We cannot be better people or create a just and fair society until we devalue whiteness as being the apex of aspiration, it’s destroying our planet. White skin is culturally, socially and even artistically toxic.
To stand a chance of fighting racism we need to admit that we need to fight the complicity of our skin colour. All of us, forget that ‘I’ve fought racism my whole life’ line.
It’s tough, even as I write this I feel old and tired, but we can’t go imagining that as white people we can fight racism as an external concept that happens in some bad racist people. It resides in our skin, if we go on a march it needs to be against whiteness as the dominant signifier in our society.
We have to become vulnerable and talk about how our skin colour impacts and crowds out spaces just by being white. We need to experience the discomfort of trying to shed our skins whilst trying to deconstruct the inherent privilege we have garnered from hundreds of years of brutal and often sadistic treatment of skin colours other than white.
I don’t have the answers because I don’t think we are anywhere near the place of answers or even the right questions, the work that needs doing is us deconstructing us.
Whether we like it or not, as white people on many levels we have created the structural environment for Trump, Johnson and insidious capitalism to thrive within, sadly the people who will suffer the most will not be white or cis. We mustn’t externalise Trump, conservatism or capitalism butsee it as a logical part of the history of imperial whiteness. Whiteness doesn’t want fairness or equality, not yet anyway, we haven’t even started to conduct the growth-work to devalue our whiteness to point at which it doesn’t have instant control anymore. We need to re-evaluate and decolonise the external anti-racist tropes we have long discovered white comfort in, endless white well-meaning CEO’s of NGOs empowering the locals and ironically start to boldly colonise the illegitimacy of own skins and privilege. Skin colour, not class, is still the absolute dividing line. We need to address the guilt and perhaps even the shame inherent in our history(s) and start to try to understand how it has shaped us.