[Trigger warning: This article discusses racism and recounts racist statements and actions.]
As a white woman, I am nervous writing about race. I have never experienced racial prejudice, but I have experienced bucketloads of racial privilege. As the experiencer of said privilege, I could probably have gone on for years and years without realising just how much privilege I have access to, and I have no doubt that there is still a whole lot I am not aware of.
I was born northwest of Sydney to two white parents. My father is of British heritage but was born and raised in Chile, while my mother is seventh-generation Australian and of a whiteness comparable to a snowstorm that my blisteringly hot native country rarely experiences. Until about the age of eight, I lived in a rural area with very few people of colour. We then moved closer to Sydney. While my more rural school classes might have had the odd person born in England, my more urban school had kids born all over the Asian continent, parts of Europe, other parts of Oceania, everywhere. At my tender age, I found these differences interesting, but did not think much about them.
I started understanding the concept of racism in high school. I went to one of New South Wales’ selective high schools, the sort of school in which you have to take a special test to get in. Selective schools in Australia often have high numbers of Chinese and Southeast Asian students. I don’t recall being bothered by that, but my true-blue, dinky-dye white Aussie family members were pissed that the school hadn’t enrolled more white kids. My family used racial slurs and accused the minority students of cheating to get into selective schools. My grandfather was particular vicious.
So, yeah. My family was my first taste of genuine Aussie racism. To say that I have never been bigoted, uttered a racist slur, or blindly shared in my family’s racist anger would (to my great shame) be a categorical lie. Indeed, I probably would still be participating in my family’s bigotry if I had not undergone a couple of significant life experiences that highlighted how insidious racism is.
The first experience consisted of living in Japan, a monocultural society. Japanese-born people make up well over 95% of the population, and my high school was all ethnically Japanese people — and me. I got stared at on the streets. I had to get a special winter coat because the coats there were too small for an average-sized Australian, let alone a great fat fattie like me. I wasn’t allowed to be in a competition with my after-school club. People would touch me without my permission. I would be constantly asked where I was from, and I would always be spoken to in English, without anyone asking whether I could speak Japanese.
It started to strike me that these irritations were comparable to some of the stuff people of colour in Australia and other countries have to put up with all the time. Indeed, it started occurring to me that most of the stuff Australians of colour go through would be very much worse because, despite the stereotyping I got, I was experiencing racial privilege even in Japan. I was not vehemently hated the same way that Chinese and Korean residents of Japan are hated. I was not seen as a criminal or as comic relief the way that black people are. I was trusted, people liked me, and I was envied for the skin and hair they would frequently touch. I was an ethnic minority in Japan, but still a member of the race with the power.
The other experience that made my white privilege clear was moving to the UK. Citizens of the UK are majorly concerned about immigration and have varying opinions on it. It was one of the major issues addressed in this year’s general election. The right-wing party that ended up winning is racist and hell-bent on making life difficult for immigrants.
I’m an immigrant. I’ve lived in the UK for less than a decade, and I have always needed a visa to live here. If my current visa expires before I can secure a renewal, I’ll need to get out quickly. Considering how concerned the UK is about getting levels of immigration down, you would think that UK citizens would want me out, right?
Absolutely not. Most citizens love me. I used to work in retail, and customers would often ask me where my accent came from, and I would sometimes tell them my story. Their reaction would always be the same: “Why is a hard-working girl like you struggling to stay in the UK, when non-white immigrants from the EU can come and go as they please?”
One could argue that this question represented a gripe against Britain being part of the EU, but it doesn’t change the fact that EU citizens of colour are viewed with more hostility than I am. And it is not as though it stops at immigrants. People of colour born in the UK, who are 100% British and have contributed to British society all of their lives, are told to “go back where they came from” far more frequently than I am. And I’m an actual immigrant.
All because I’m white, and they are not.
I can actually pinpoint the moment when the final nail went into the coffin. I was driving along a main-ish road in London with my father in the front seat. We saw a woman with light brown skin and a headscarf walking down the footpath with a pram. Dad’s remark on this completely harmless activity?
“Get out of my country.”
His immigrant daughter almost crashed the car, let me tell you. Hoping that he would see his hypocrisy, I said to him, “Dad, the UK might be your country, but it’s not mine.”
Since then, I have noticed more and more how white privilege is a barrier. It gives me a disproportionate benefit of the doubt. It allows me to prove my own character, often to the detriment of people of colour. It protects me, while also giving me a voice. People do not assume negative things about me (that I’m poor, lazy, uneducated, stupid, non-English-speaking, a dole-bludger) based on my race. If I were to be arrested unfairly, I know without a doubt that my story would be listened to. People of my race are widely represented in the media as something other than a caricature. I will not be purposely targeted by security at airports, banks, shopping centres, and so on. I can find make-up and clothing that suit my skin tone. My skin tone and hair are seen as beautiful. I have one blue eye and one green eye; both are seen as beautiful. I can look like a complete mess and still be treated with more dignity and respect than many well-dressed people of colour. This list could conceivably go on forever.
If it were it not for a couple of events in my life, I would still be blissfully unaware of my racial privilege. As a white Australian, I have the luxury of not needing to be aware of the privilege I hold as I lead my day-to-day life. In the name of radical self-love and social justice, however, the ignorance many white people have toward their privilege cannot go on. We need to wake up to the world we live in, listen to people of colour, and be part of the change that must happen in the service of a just and loving world.
[Headline image: The photograph features a white person with long auburn hair and a flowered shirt looking over a balcony, contemplating.]