This blog’s been in my mind for a long time. For a long time it was called ‘becoming an ally’ — but I just couldn’t think of an url that didn’t make it seem like a different project altogether.
My experience at the moment is dominated by a very slow dawning of comprehension of how privileged I am. I was born in Norway, conveniently just under ten years after Norway struck black gold in the North Sea. My parents both have 6-year university education, and some of that inevitably rubbed off. These dimensions of privilege are ones of which I’ve been at least somewhat aware before; global poverty has been the one moral issue that has most grabbed me, and on which I’ve actually tried to do something.
But I’ve been almost entirely unaware of just how important it is that I’m male, and that I’m white.
I think a fair characterisation would say that I didn’t really care about gender issues at all until my daughter was born in 2012. That’s 34 years of life with a mother and two sisters. It’s 8 years of married life. But loving these (and other) women was not enough to make me want to really understand what it actually is like to be a woman.
Sure, I promoted ‘Boys against Barbie’ at my high school, and it did genuinely seem shit to me that women are subjected to body pressure all the time. I walked some women home after nights out, because it seemed a justice issue that women can’t walk safely home while men can. That sometimes took me an extra one or two hours on an already late night. Big deal.
But there’s a huge distance between doing one or two small things, at pretty much no cost to oneself, and a real effort to try to understand what it is like, what it is actually like, to live as a woman.
I have no idea, still. This blog in part constitutes an opportunity for me to write about parts of my attempt to change that. It’s pretty overwhelming. One thing that’s had a profound impact on me is simply observing children’s TV on the state broadcaster (the BBC equivalent) in Norway. I haven’t counted (yet), so I don’t have precise numbers. But the proportion of shows that portray the male characters as the heroes, the actors, those that go out and change the world, and the female ones as applauding / supporting / serving tea / being rescued is absolutely staggering. That women manage to get out of bed in the morning — that many get an education, and even become leaders of various kinds — when the message they’re hammered with from they’re one or two years old through state-sponsored television is that their proper role is what I just mentioned, blows my mind.
Another thing that’s had a big impact is reading the blog ‘what is it like to be a woman in philosophy‘. I haven’t read it for a while now, but I read many hundreds of posts. This is your reality. This is what you live through. Being undermined, laughed at, derisively sent on your way by students when you’re in tears, having your points hijacked, being offered something you desperately need only if you take your clothes off and are photographed, being in other ways sexually assaulted, being left without childcare and thereby barred from participation, the list goes on, and on, and on. That’s what you’re dealing with. Many of you, at least. And that’s just a glimpse, into one aspect of life, and in one profession that’s still highly privileged.
What is it like to be a person of colour?* The truth is, I have no idea. Like, I really have no clue. A big paper in my corner of philosophy a while back was Tom Nagel’s ‘what is it like to be a bat’. One point of that paper is that there are experiences we just cannot imagine, for they are too alien from our own. I don’t want to overstate the issue. People of colour are people, and since I’m a person, a vast amount of our experience will overlap. Obviously. But I really think I just cannot imagine what it is like to live with the constant (in the best case scenario) drip drip drip, or (for many and often) drip drip BUCKET drip drip, of racism and denigration every day of your lives. I know it’s not like this for everyone. But for many, a day when it didn’t happen is still a day that it easily could’ve, and where that fact still impacts your day. I just cannot. imagine. it. I cannot feel the pressure that constitutes. I cannot go there in my mind. I cannot evaluate it.
And I sure as fuck cannot say, ‘but why don’t you just …’, about any instance of it whatever, nomatter how trivial-seeming to my white eyes, where you fill out the ellipsis with anything at all.
I cannot even go there at all. And my wife is brown. My kids are brown. Half my extended family is brown. And I have no idea.
One very shameful part of the explanation of this is that I have actively resisted learning about it. I know some ways that I can move forward, at least a little. And I don’t do it. I have a book I have started on, but I haven’t read much of it at all. And yet these are the experiences of some of the people I care about in the world.
It’s no person of colour’s job to educate white people, but boy is it helpful when it happens anyway. Recently I read about a blog post, now infamous, in which a white woman reflects on what to do when, surprise!, the person about to marry your daughter is black, and not white, as you’ve imagined. The discussion of the post on a friend’s facebook wall was to me really helpful. And that’s something I’m ashamed to admit, too, for how is this stuff still not obvious to me? Why do I not see it immediately? I’ve had four years with brown children, and more than ten with a brown family, and I still don’t know? Ffs, I’ve had my whole life, and I have been aware for most of it that, yes, there are people of colour, and they are subject to bad treatment because of their skin. How do I still not get it?
I’ve just started to listen to ‘the Get‘. It’s a podcast. It’s pretty rambly. It’s really funny. It’s serious, and important, too. It’s by two women of colour. And it’s another thing that I feel helps me, just a tiny bit, to begin to understand. And you know what? When I wrote to them on facebook they answered me within hours. Wow.
I’m not writing this blog to get pats on the back. As many people of colour have with such justice noted, you don’t get pats on the back for being a fucking human being. Not being a racist is just being a human being. Understanding, as much as you can, the experience of people you love, is just being a human being. So not pats.
I’m writing this blog because I’m an academic, and because my main way of trying to really deal with issues is to try to write about them. I usually spend ages, often literally years, working on material before I send it to anyone. This is a very different kettle of fish. I hope it’ll help me be better. It’s a way of finally really attempting to become an ally. At least I hope it’ll be that.
If it annoys you, that’s fine; nobody’s twisting your arm to read it. Please spare me the hate. But if you have anything to say that’s constructive, do bring it on. Even if it’s harsh. I fully expect to unwittingly display a bunch of stuff that merits harsh responses. I probably have already.
You made it this far. Thanks for reading.
*I know that no term is unproblematic. I know that white, or more accurately, pink, is a colour. But I need some term, this one is in wide usage, at least in the US, I think, and I feel that constantly writing ‘person of another colour than pink’ is not right either.