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
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”.
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.
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?
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.