Friday, 17 June 2016

I Was a Teenage Racist: A Plea

This week has really shown some of the best and worst of humans in the country I call home. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen a series of threads (here, here and here) where I talked about the murder of Jo Cox, and I don’t think I need to talk about that specific event any further right now (though I highly recommend this piece on the media’s portrayal of the murder as the work of a “mentally ill loner” rather than a hate crime by a far-right extremist). 

My Twitter rant kind of took a turn when I admitted something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while.
It took me a long time to say it in these words, I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em. Teenage Elena, I see you.



I could skirt around the issue and say that I was ‘confused’ or ‘ignorant’. I could blame my middle-class background and my private, boarding school education. I could ignore that phase of my life altogether. But, the more I talk about politics, culture, feminism and race the more I feel at odds with my history. Whenever someone on Twitter retweets or praises me for discussing these issues, the more I feel pressed to say, “I’m shit. I have been so shit. I’m so sorry.” I feel terrified that I’ll be ‘found out’. With Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ feature I live in fear of being provided with archived digital proof of my crappy former views. I feel a bit haunted by it. Am I judging myself too harshly?

It’s always my aim to be honest, open and balanced in my writing. Integrity is one of my core values. I feel like if I get this off my chest, if I document it and make it freely available to read, that I might feel less like a fraud. If I say the words “I was racist”, does that absolve me?

It’s not like I’m a reformed neo-Nazi. I never confronted a Muslim in the street to question them about acts of terrorism. I never excluded someone from an event based on the colour of their skin. I never wished violence or misfortune on other races. I never laid a finger on anyone. Does that make it better?

I did think that hijabs, niqabs and burkas were a ‘security risk’ that shouldn’t be allowed in public places, and certainly not in schools. I thought that asylum seekers should have to ‘assimilate’ if they wanted to live in the UK. Of course, by ‘assimilate’ I meant they should act like middle class, secular white people. I’d argue that ‘I’d have to learn to fit in and play by the rules if I moved to Saudi Arabia’, despite also trying to argue that I shouldn’t have to adhere to ‘oppressive values’. I was scared of Brixton, because pop culture references and comedic anecdotes has created a vision in my mind of any ‘black areas’ of London as a living embodiment of Jay Z’s Run This Town video. That video also scared me. I thought casual racism was ‘just a bit of fun’ and that anyone who took offence was being ‘oversensitive’. I was fearful. I was ignorant. I was narrow-minded. Was I the worst of people? No. Was I racist? Absolutely.

It took a few years and very, very good friends to change all of this. When a group of uni friends had a discussion about politics (particularly about burqas if I remember rightly) which made me feel increasingly uncomfortable I was faced with a question that all bigots must be faced with in one way or another. A simple, three-word question that pops up in your brain when you find your views and beliefs being challenged by passionate, intelligent, well-rounded people:

Am I wrong? 

I was lucky. I was surrounded by people who were patient, calm, gentle and, most of all, who I admired. I’ll be honest, part of the reason I listened while they opposed me is that I wanted to be liked. I didn’t want them to stop interacting with me because of my politics. That sounds cowardly, and maybe it is. But when people you like, people whose company you cherish and who otherwise seem to be on your level look horrified when you voice your opinions, it’s inevitable that your resolve will start to weaken a little, even if you’re incredibly stubborn. When you realise that your views make you unlikeable, you start to look at them differently.

I am so grateful to my friends from uni, I’m so glad they didn’t give up on me the first time they heard me say something stupid and racist. I’m also extremely thankful to people on Twitter who are there to pull me up when I unintentionally tweet something harmful and who are kind enough to actually explain what was wrong with what I said, rather than just descending into name-calling. I love the feminists I’ve met in real life and online who have taught me the meaning of intersectionality and White Feminism, and the bloggers and journos who helped me to recognise my own privilege and how to live without letting my past blinker me.

Everyday racism isn’t lynching or pipe bombs or hate crimes. Everyday racism is a middle aged woman muttering about halal stickers on meat in the supermarket. Everyday racism is someone saying that immigrants should have to do jobs that “hardworking British people are too good for”. Everyday racism is complaining when Beyoncé releases a racially-charged song or when Rihanna sings in Patois. Everyday racism is panels of white people discussing race issues in the media without consulting a single POC. Everyday racism is excusing anti-Islamic behaviour by saying “I don’t want my grandchildren being forced to wear headscarves to school”. Everyday racism is believing that certain traits are inherent to people based on their race. Everyday racism is denying POCs safe spaces because you feel left out. Everyday racism is being complicit in the othering of other races to your own advantage.

Everyday racism is subtle. It’s quiet. It’s worryingly socially acceptable. It’s insidious, viral, dangerous. It’s also reversible.

My old mindset makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel guilty. But most of all it makes me hopeful. If you’d told 18-year-old Elena that she’d turn into a 24-year-old intersectional feminist, blogging about white privilege, voting Labour, condemning my own past racism and tweeting angry satire she’d have thought you were nuts. Yet, here I stand.

Everyday racists aren’t the ones killing people, not directly. But their existence, their proud stance and vocal bigotry stretch the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable, and it’s those greyed-out limits that let Britain First fundamentalists go by unchecked. Everyday racists didn’t kill Jo Cox, but everyday racism almost certainly played a part in allowing her killer to become who he was.

Please learn from this. Learn from my guilty past. Make it mean something.
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