The Wednesday before last, I had a minor Twitter debate – not even a spat – over the use of race in argument with one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris (previously reviewed). Here’s what went down.
As Yashika Bageerathi, a nineteen year old A-Level student, was deported to Mauritius, Twitterer @NotAGateway (account run by Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield) attempted to document and protest the goings on at Heathrow. They were removed by the police for attempting to film. When @Jeffjeffdejeff – Jeff Nicholson, an actor – weighed in with their opinion about the police, a series of tweets were exchanged, culminating in @NotAGateway calling Nicholson ‘whitey’. (This and all related tweets from @NotAGateway appears to have been removed.)
Author Joanne Harris – @Joannechocolat – who had retweeted @NotAGateway‘s original tweet, joined the fray to denounce ‘name-calling’. She went on to say that @NotAGateway had ‘alienated’ people previously on their side with their use of a ‘racial slur’.
Here is where I came in, because I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter, and Harris had fullstopped her side of the conversation so that everyone could see it.
While I felt I had to say something, I came away feeling frustrated with Twitter’s limitations. 140 characters is not at all a lot to express something that people have written essays about. Because of this, I decided in the end to write here what I would have said in the first place, had I had the space.
This needs to be said upfront – not as if it ought to give me more credibility, but for the sake of full disclosure: I am whiter than a mushroom. I am whiter than an axolotl. If I shaved my head and put on a loincloth, I could be mistaken for Gollum. And you know what?
‘Whitey’ is not a racial slur.
In fact, ‘whitey’ isn’t just not a racial slur: implying that it is is offensive to people who have actually experienced racial slurs. What, exactly, is offensive about being called ‘whitey’? Is it because of the long history of the word’s use in systems of oppression against white people? Is it because the word is rooted in the assumption that pale skin is undesirable? Is it because in the country in which you live whiteness is presented in the mainstream as niche and somehow lesser than? No?
The notion seems to have taken hold, particularly in mainstream UK culture, that racism is treating someone differently because of their race, regardless of what their race is. This conception of racism is unhelpful, because it assumes we live in a post-racial society: a society in which non-white people are no longer overwhelmingly the victims of racial inequality.
Obviously, we don’t. Racism remains primarily against people who don’t tick ‘White British’ on the census. Last time I checked, I don’t recall ever being disadvantaged because I do tick that box. Funnily enough, non-white people are more likely to be victims of disadvantage than white people. Like, for instance, being deported to Mauritius.
To equate a white person being treated negatively because of their race with a non-white person experiencing the same is fallacious. The treatment of the white person is a singular incident in a lifetime of privilege derived from belonging to the dominant race, whereas the treatment of the non-white person is an inextricable part of a system of oppression that patently still disadvantages them. If you, the white person, can’t see that without prompting, it means that you, like me, should be happy to have never experienced actual racism.
Furthermore, creating a furore over the mildest epithet ever conceived is derailing the topic at hand – which happened to be, at that moment, the premises that Nicholson has a positively biased view of the police force by virtue of his being white and therefore more unlikely to have experienced abuse from them; and that the police force is made up of primarily people of the dominant culture and is invested in using its power to maintain the dominance of that culture. Isn’t that more worthy of discussion?
Yet further, white people telling non-white people not to get angry in discussions concerning their own experiences of oppression? Is insensitive as all hell.
Now, because I’m whiter than the rind on brie, don’t just take my word for it.
- In Defense of Facebook Activism on Black Girl Dangerous talks about activism on social media, challenging the idea that progress must be won from the dominant culture by cooperation, and owning one’s mistakes.
- BattyMamzelle: On Tone Policing: Why It’s Bullshit And Why You Need To Stop. Exactly why blaming people for their anger is a dick move.
- Chitra Nagarajan in Fighting anti-immigrant racism in the UK recounts some of the injustices visited upon non-Brits attempting to live in the UK.