More Realisations in Harlem: some thoughts from a white friend.

The purpose of this blog is first and foremost for my own voice and thoughts. I am not one to platform those who already have many platforms and I am certainly not one to consciously perpetuate the centering of whiteness and particularly white men’s voices. However, a white male friend of mine wrote this in light of last week’s post and I decided I wanted others to read it alongside my own post.

***

TBH very recently wrote a fantastic, thought-provoking piece on the recognition of privilege, inspired by a visit to Harlem last month. I had the very great pleasure of also being on this little trans-Atlantic jolly. But we have slightly different takes on the experience. Not contradictory; different.

Brief point of information: I identify as male, and am very white. Like, spectacularly white. I don’t tan at all. Were I of a romantic disposition, I might even say my red hair burns like brazen copper in the summer sun. In fact, TBH and I are practically antithetical: she is largely in tune with modernity; I wouldn’t know a Kanye song if he was performing right in front of me. Though its a somewhat amusing dynamic, we are fond friends. We are a harmony of opposites and our trip reflected that. So, on our last day, having spent a good chunk of the morning in Macy’s getting spectacularly lost, we decided to visit Harlem.

Stepping out of the subway, the impact is immediate. TBH has already described that vivid difference. I’ll not add superfluous description to hers. But let us say at the very least that the difference between Harlem and the rest of New

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Quite a contrast to Midtown Manhattan. [photo of Harlem street.]
York is striking. Having spent most of the week among the sleek glass and steel obelisks of Midtown Manhattan, even the physical environment of Harlem seemed to highlight a legacy of underinvestment. This quite abrupt break from the rest of NYC only deepened; we walked along the street, only to pause and briefly listen to some guys speaking movingly about police violence whilst a squad car loitered nearby, a foreboding and somehow menacing presence.

 

I hope you can forgive me briefly centring my own feelings here. TBH has written far more passionately than I ever could on the need for active allies, and I echo her call. But my hour in Harlem was not hers. It’s taken me a month to work that out, and I only got there once I read the title to her piece: “Privilege is Uncomfortable”.

[t-shirt reading: ‘I ain’t scared of no Po-Po!’]
Quite unsurprisingly, I stuck out like a sore thumb. There really is no other way to say it  – I was utterly incongruous with my surroundings. There I was: vampirically white skin, brogues so absurd they could have come straight form a Wodehouse novel, and to top it off, an obnoxiously large Macy’s bag. Adding insult to injury, curious as to the meaning of a t-shirt slogan, I quite innocently asked TBH ‘What does “Po-Po” mean?’. There was, in short, an air of comedy to the whole scene.

But what wasn’t funny was the niggling feeling I’d had ever since emerging onto Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Intense self-awareness, and a growing sense of unease. The feeling grew ever more prominent in my mind over the course of our time there. To my shame, even though we discussed TBH’s discomfort about the BLM t-shirt, I was far more preoccupied with my increasing desire just to leave.

Why brood? Why not take more interest in my surroundings? Well, I was anxious about what this feeling was. As an aspirational ally, there’s an imperative to be self-critical in any situation like this. I was immediately concerned that the ‘niggling’ I felt was fear. I went through all the rationalisations: I knew my goods were safe, I knew my person wasn’t at risk. So what was it?

Shame quickly began to rival unease. My deeper concern was that my fear was just instinctive. Was this feeling that insidious remnant of a culture that still persistently vilifies non-white people – was it that ingrained fear of black men that I was convinced I was above?

But no, I wasn’t afraid. This wasn’t fear. I was convinced of it then and I still am. It’s hard to convey in writing, but I felt no threat, no trepidation about my interactions with the people around me.

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Marcus Garvey Park, not to be found in Cambridge. [photo of the park gates.]
We wandered further along the street, passing various vendors and eventually reaching a park where we took shelter from the unbearable heat. Still, I was unsettled. Was this unease another variation of my ‘secret racism’? Was my visit just enormously presumptuous – in my cosy little Cambridge bubble, perhaps I’d erroneously convinced myself of having ally status, sharing articles and batting off the odd criticism about TBH when she made a joke about my being white. Here I was visiting, showing how ‘in touch’ I was with the struggle of those around me when really I knew nothing of it. Was the discomfort I felt a fear that the white saviour within me was sneaking out?

All of this uncertainty obviously fed into our interactions with people there, however brief. In England I might have brushed past somebody trying to sell me something in the street with a half-smile and a mumbled “sorry”, but here the racial dynamic seemed strikingly, almost crudely obvious, and it felt increasingly dreadful.

Maybe that was it: I was a white man simply coming to observe for fun, because I ‘knew the history’ – it felt crass, grotesque. The whole milieu was utterly alien. Having the police lurking around, listening to your every word. Being in the minority, quite so starkly. Laughing about it, but still feeling just uncomfortable in your very bones. That was it, right? For years I’d expressed sympathy, maybe even solidarity, with those who were different. But this was the very first time I’d ever been that person. I felt utterly out of place, utterly different, utterly incongruous with my surroundings. Every move felt uncertain, each syllable I spoke belying the real subtext beneath. Right?

I’ve been reflecting on that experience ever since, grappling with it. TBH’s blog post has helped enormously, because I couldn’t agree any less with her title.

“Privilege is Uncomfortable”.

Let’s get this clear – the whole body of her blog post is on the nail. Yet, the title sparked off some thinking on my part. Because, ostensibly, it seems to perfectly encapsulate what I felt – discomfort. But the more I think about it, the less that seems to fit my experience in Harlem.

Sure, I certainly felt like I was far more aware of my privilege. I was a middle class white man in Harlem, dipping his toe in the water for 45 minutes. How could it not have been revealing?  I’d given myself a brief exposure to a world I’d tried to learn about, (or dare I say ‘change’) from the safety of my laptop, thousands of miles away. The place was always going to be something of a culture shock.

And once again let’s reiterate this: TBH is bang on the money. It is these moments, these precious few moments of uncertainty and revelation that we need to pounce on, grasp, and develop from. These are the brief moments when Reality, with all her pitiless vigour, wrenches your brain into active gear. Realisation must be a tool, not just a cognitive state. If we really mean what we type, then the imperative is to act, not just to know. I fail to live up to that standard far too often. But in light of that, I cannot say that my recognition of privilege was uncomfortable. To do so strikes a jarring note. It’s the conclusion you might get from a seminar discussion, removed from the facts of the situation. The analysis is convinced of its own profundity and perception, but gets entirely the wrong end of the stick. It cannot be enough. To say that I felt uncomfortable is a grotesque remark, crassly devoid of any real appreciation of the reality around me. Forget relativism.

I wasn’t uncomfortable. Of course I wasn’t. How could I be? I felt a bit out of place, perhaps a bit uncertain of myself and what my trip really meant. But uncomfortable?

No.

I was in Harlem, but I was so very, very comfortable. Those big banks we passed in Midtown were never going to turn me down because of the colour of my skin. Those silently menacing police officers were always going to side with me had anything happened, wouldn’t they? My life wasn’t going to be endangered in America simply on the basis of my appearance, was it? When I flew back home, I wasn’t going to be on the wrong side of systemic inequalities. TBH writes of taking risks as an ally. But if I’m honest, what risk will I face for calling somebody out for a repulsive comment or a lazy assumption? Not much. I might get a rough response, or I might be ignored. But I won’t feel discomfort. Not the real discomfort that comes with being a victim, rather than a witness. I didn’t, and I don’t, know the half of it.

Our brief wander around Harlem was interesting, perhaps even revelatory. It did inspire reflection on the meaning of the word ‘ally’. It did throw privilege into relief. But I didn’t find it ‘uncomfortable’. To say that diminishes the real struggle of thousands upon thousands of people on that continent and here. Labelling the recognition of privilege as discomfort is a half-truth, a conclusion with enough verisimilitude to hide the darker reality behind it. We think we see the truth of the situation (that ‘privilege is uncomfortable’) when we have it all upside-down – as a white man, I hardly know the meaning of the word discomfort.

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8 thoughts on “More Realisations in Harlem: some thoughts from a white friend.

  1. This article is a classic example of the us vs. them mentality that only serves to further segregate people. I am a white male and before you make assumptions about me (on a side note, do you not see the irony of criticizing someone on the basis of race and gender?) I was made homeless at age 16. I have worked alongside many lovely people of every race have no problems integrating with anyone (even as the only white person at my place of work) because I don’t have this us vs. them mentality and neither do many POC. Skin colour and gender are no more important to me than hair colour, and for some reason this makes me a racist or ignorant for not acknowledging my privilege? I’d actually argue that I’m the opposite of ignorant on the subject: it wasn’t until I started to investigate that I formed this opinion. I ask this question in a genuine way, what supposed privilege do I have, over you as a middle class oxford student (not to get personal sorry, but based on your blog that would seem to be the case), as a working class white male who was made homeless at 16 and grew up in a household that can only be referred to as less than stable? I was harassed by police, where was my white male privilege to protect me then? I would argue that ‘white male privilege’ only applies to a very specific type of white male – rich. When I read your articles it oozes that you have no personal experience with the white working class at all. The way this mentality serves to segregate is within these movements like black lives matter they paint the image that all white people are some oppressive force only out there to make life hard for POC, which further pushes these people away from wanting racial equality. Also the white working and lower class are entirely overlooked by these people, which pushes them further away from associating with the movements. I don’t know you personally but I do know that you study at Cambridge and can we please just be honest for a moment, that probably puts you in the top 1% of privileged people in the world. I know you’ll disagree with me on the basis that you’re not white and I completely respect people in privileged positions speaking out against inequality, but you make it seem as if you yourself are very hard done by. I don’t know about your upbringing but it is fair to say at this point in time you’re in a very privileged position. As a white male who likely faces the rest of his life working in the service industry I am more than happy to change bodies with you if you want all the supposed advantages that it would would bring? A final point I’d like to make is that as a 21 year old, how have I had any kind of hand in the oppression of POC? I have always treated everyone equally and have absolutely 0 political power, I can honestly say that I’ve never used a racial slur in my life (not that that’s something to be proud of, it should be the norm in an ideal world) but I am somehow meant to accept responsibility for the oppression of everyone who’s not a white male? If I refuse to accept this I am then ignorant, or sexist, or a racist. How am I expected to identify with a movement that shames people on the basis of gender and skin colour? I accept zero responsibility for the oppression of POC and would be the first to speak out if I witnessed racial injustice. I urge you please just to take a step back, consider that white men account for the majority of the homeless population, and suicides, and then consider how you would feel if the situation was reversed and it was black females who were the majority of victims of these kind of things. I’m sure you would say that it’s a symptom of a white supremacist culture.
    I look forward to hearing a response and I apologise if I came off as at all abrasive, this is just something that I feel passionate about.

    Yours sincerely,
    The ignored underclass

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    1. Hi Harry,
      Thanks for your comment. Since it’s quite lengthy I’ll just try to respond point by point as you made them.

      1- “what supposed privilege do I have, over you as a middle class oxford student (not to get personal sorry, but based on your blog that would seem to be the case), as a working class white male who was made homeless at 16 and grew up in a household that can only be referred to as less than stable? I was harassed by police, where was my white male privilege to protect me then? I would argue that ‘white male privilege’ only applies to a very specific type of white male – rich.”

      So firstly I think what we have to understand here is that no one is ever only privileged or oppressed. People have many different identities, some of those may give them access to certain privileges, some may not. Therefore, you’re completely right that as an Oxbridge student I’ve gained a lot of class and academic privilege. I’ve picked up social etiquette cues, I have access to resources and people who know publishers and jobs in sectors I might like to go into, I’ve picked up social capital. However, that privilege doesn’t negate the other identities I have, it simply exists with it. So I still do not benefit from male privilege or white privilege. I would have more privilege if I was a white male Oxbridge student, my access to jobs would be even easier and I would never face sexist or racist barriers in pursuing my career or life. That puts me in a somewhat complex position, but identities are complex and privilege is not a competition or anything to shy away from but to recognise.

      In terms of your question about what privilege you have compared to me the answer, I think, is best articulated in this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html by a white working-class person. I don’t wish to speak over your experiences and I in no way would compare my privileges to your being homeless. However, I think perhaps you implied the answer in your own question: “I was harassed by police, where was my white male privilege to protect me then?” I think this is a great example of how white male privilege works. My guess would be that you weren’t harassed by police because you are a white man but because you were homeless. If you were not white or were a homeless woman then the likelihood of you being harassed by police for would be even higher – you can look up statistics – and you would also be vulnerable to racist and sexist abuse. Obviously that doesn’t lessen the trauma of your experience which I cannot imagine, but it suggests that privileges and oppressions play out side by side all the time. You can suffer from class oppression but still benefit from racial privilege. This truth is only ‘segragatory’ if you take it to be a bad thing. Instead we can just acknowledge privilege and use it to help one another. For example , as a fairly privileged brown woman I can try to elevate the voices of more oppressed women but can also ask more privileged women to elevate my own. It doesn’t have to be black and white.

      2- To say ‘skin colour and gender are no more important to me than hair colour’ is in itself a privilege that you have. Someone who is not white, or not a man, can’t go as easily through life just ignoring race and gender since race and gender impacts their daily experiences and they will have experiences that happen to them because of their skin colour or gender – they may even be killed because of their gender or race, they can’t ignore it. To say such things aren’t important to you thus indicates a way in which privilege works to protect you from such experiences.

      3- You’re right that I have little to no experience with white working-class people. I never pretended that I did or do and I try to make sure I speak over as few people as possible when I write by writing solely about my own experiences.

      4- In terms of something like the Black Lives Matter movement alienating white allies, I really cannot agree. Any white person alienated by the movement has misunderstood the question at hand. BLM activists want black people to stop being killed for being black. It’s not about white people at all and the role of non-black people is to really elevate their message and support and help the movement and message. If you feel they present an image of ‘all white people as some oppressive force’ there is more to unpack here. Individual white people like yourself may never have ‘been racist’ or may be ‘only 21’, however you still benefit from a wider racist culture which places people on a hierarchy dependent on skin colour. ALL white people, racist and not racist, benefit from white supremacy (eg they don’t get shot because of being black). Therefore it is the duty of ALL white people to try to change that culture, as it harms them the least. It’s not about blame or guilt but really just trying to push back barriers and build a better future.

      5- You say ‘I am more than happy to change bodies with you’. Surely you know that a brown muslim woman in the same economic position as you would be in a far worse-off state – earning less, vulnerable to racist and sexist abuse, violence, marginalisation etc. If you mean to swap places with me in my life right now then I’m not sure what you hope to gain. As I’ve outlined, privileges and oppressions exist at the same time. You would gain my class and academic privileges but you no longer benefit from white or male privilege which protect you from daily street harassment, vulnerability and fear of men at all times of day or night, fear and vulnerability of racism, racist abuse, everyday racism and harassment, from the state’s bias which benefit white people and men the most in legislature and policy. OBVIOUSLY if I was a poorer or less educated brown muslim woman my lot would be far worse. I have never tried to claim otherwise.

      I think quite simply you have to accept that no one is ever just privileged or oppressed, everyone is usually both dependent on many axes. If you feel you are ‘shamed’ for privilege then you are making a movement that is not about YOU, about you. Recognition of privilege has no time for shame, no one is blaming you for being privileged by the social structures we live in and by – they are only asking you to use that privilege.

      Best, TBH

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  2. Sorry about my most recent comment – it was very unnecessary and I wrote it in a moment of blind rage. You are clearly a very intelligent person and it’s for this reason I’ve decided to debate with you. I appreciate your response, it is beautifully worded and you make logical points. That being said I now feel it’s going to be relevant to note that I live in a very non-white area, Harehills in Leeds. I can assure you that if you take a walk outside of your middle class bubble you will see that ‘privilege’ is something that applies to individuals and not entire races and genders of people. It is this kind of attitude that encourages the far right – you’ve ignored an entire group of people and even with your response, you pretty much stated that white people can lack any kind of privilege, yet still hold privilege based on skin colour? You’ve clearly spent your life around a lot of middle class white boys, take a venture to places like Gipton and Seacroft, these people harbour absolutely 0 of the privileges that supposedly come alongside ‘white male privilege’. Things don’t matter to me in such a way because I am clearly not a racist person – this becomes more questionable for you however, painting all white people (specifically males) with the same brush. It also became apparent in your post about black lives matter that you felt ‘different’ from these people. I would really love to hear your opinion on the BLM movement, me personally I 100% agree with the premise, and I am certainly not ‘All lives matter’, if one race was being persecuted that is absolutely wrong and I am against that, but here is my issue. Black males, though accounting for around 14% of the USA’s population, account for 50% of the murder rate. Around 90% of black murder victims are killed by other black people, compared to around 2% by police. I’m not for one moment saying that black people are more violent than their white counterparts – it is much more likely due to socioeconomic issues which could ultimately have begun at the end of slavery. That being said, to deny that the black community in America’s biggest issue is their own gang culture is to deny reality. BLM does not give a single shit when a black person dies and it doesn’t meet their political agenda – take for example the 6 year old girl who was executed by gang members, I assume you haven’t heard of her? How about when a mans daughter was shot and killed, and he refused to ‘snitch’ even though he knew who the murderer was? Black people need to claim some responsibility for their own issues – this is not going to be a popular opinion but it’s just face that they will not move forward only blaming the white man. I can assure you I have no way benefited from racism, I have been the victim of racism many times as a white person in a predominantly non-white area. And before you begin with the reverse racism isn’t real stuff I completely agree, it’s not real, it’s just plain racism. The dictionary definition includes no mention of systematic power and we can not just change the definition of words to meet our own political agenda.
    Again I apologise for my other comment today,
    You are an intelligent person and do seem to be very nice, disagreeing with you politically in no way warrants personal attacks.
    I just hope that if you take anything from our discussion, it’s that people who fit the ‘privileged’ label but who are in fact not are getting incredibly sick of being told to ‘check our privilege’ by established middle class left wingers. Please, check your privilege (not you personally, just people who support this ideology as a whole)
    Again I’m sorry if I was at all heated, I in no way intend to be undermining and I do honestly appreciate what you are saying.
    Thanks.

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    1. I’m not sure why you were in a blind rage about this, but okay.

      You say it’s relevant that you live in Harehills, I’m not sure how that’s relevant to a discussion about privilege. Socioeconomics, geographic locations, government funding, ethnic enclaves and under-resourcing are all contextual factors which may influence how you experience privilege but which do not negate the fact it exists.

      I’m not sure what you’re point is. Yes you’re exactly right, I said white people will always have white privilege no matter what other oppressions they face. A poor white transgender disabled person would be oppressed and marginalised in multiple ways and for many reasons but never because they are white. If you can’t understand that my argument is one for nuance then this discussion has no reason to continue.
      I don’t have time to explain the BLM movement to you, plenty has already been written about this. “Black-on-black” violence has no relevance to the fact that black bodies are brutalised by the state and black people are killed by the police. Here’s some people who’ve said it more thoughtfully than me:
      http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
      http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/black-lives-matter-loury-mcwhorter/409117/

      Thanks.

      Like

      1. I wrote it in a ‘blind rage’ due to the fact you are a classic case of someone with incredible privilege who is somehow trying to paint the picture that you are cripplingly oppressed. I can assure you that as a Muslim woman, you are treated considerably better here in the west than in countries operating under Shariah – to the point that you would possibly be killed for speaking out against blatant sexism there. Racism has been removed from all aspects of law here in the UK and though we still face social issues with racism I can assure you they are not resolved through segregating and generalizing 🙂

        Thanks

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      2. Also it is relevant that I live in Harehills because white people in no way hold the social power in this area, fair enough if I lived in a gated white community and one of the few black people in the area called me a racial slur, it’s obviously not as serious an issue as systematic oppression. Here white people are outnumbered and demonized by the left wing media who are so disconnected from the white working class that they cannot understand why there is a large right wing backlash. White people here are seen as evil, and true evil is making assumptions about someone based on their skin colour or gender which I’m sure we agree on.

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  3. Just a final question – as a white person can I not be the victim of racism? I’m sure you wouldn’t say this is the case should I be of eastern european descent. As I said I live in a largely non-white area and have been attacked physically based solely on the colour of my skin. Would you say that I am a victim of racism? I am interested to hear. I would also like to point out POC are in no way immune to being racist, I am friends with a guy who immigrated to the UK from the west indies and he despises black people of African descent. Being white British in now way protects you from racism, when people deny this it denies the very real experiences of people. And at almost no fault of POC the white working class somehow have this oppressor label shoved on to them, mainly by middle class white liberals who have 0 experience of actually living in a racially diverse society.
    It’s important to note that more than I disagree with you, I support your right to have your own opinion and I believe differences in opinion are what help us flourish as a society. I am by no means on the side of weird right wing political correctness. You are entitled to your opinion, I just hope you grant me the same respect without calling me a racist (which you absolutely have so far, it’s just the general environment of discourse surrounding these issues.)
    It’s almost intellectually suicidal for me, a guy who left school at age 16 with very average GCSE’s, to debate with a Cambridge student. Though I feel as though I’ve held my argument well I’ve clearly included too much emotion in my argument. For that I apologise and again I completely respect your opinion and the manner in which you’ve responded to my argument though we may disagree. I can assure you that if there is every any threat to both of our freedoms of speech, it will be working class males like me but of all races that die to protect that.
    All I ask is please stop tarnishing all white males as the same – we’re not, us working class in no way identify with the middle class and I can assure you we do not benefit from the same privileges as much as we’re told that we do.
    Again it’s not often that you argue with someone ‘left wing’ and they reply with a purely logical argument (not saying I’m right wing, politically I’m very central and I feel this gives me a good platform to observe both sides of things)

    Thankyou for taking the time to reply and I hope you have a nice day.

    Like

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