It’s Not About You, and other adventures in privilege

The other day, as I was contributing a few choice witticisms to the hashtag #whitefeministsbelike, I heard the dreaded wailing in the background.

Someone had sounded the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.

For the next twenty-odd minutes, my mentions were inundated with the thoughts, feelings and opinions of a self-proclaimed “white feminist” who desperately needed me to know how badly I’d hurt her feelings by implying that she was racist. I had not mentioned her name. I didn’t even know who she was. My tweets did not read “#allwhitefeministsbelike” or “#everysinglewhitepersoneverbelike”. The hashtag was clearly about whiteness-as-power-structure, not whiteness-as-her-personal-life-experience-that-she-needed-to-share-like-RIGHT-NOW.

But here I was, being tearfully reprimanded by a complete stranger, because my critique of a power structure that oppresses me had hurt her feelings.

I am not, despite my frequent jesting, anti-white. I do not hate white people or white culture. Actually, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Mad Men and the odd visit to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with that cheese that I’m fairly sure has never had even a passing relationship with the stuff that comes out of cows. But whiteness-as-power-structure? Whiteness-as-supremacist-ideology? Whiteness-as-oppressive-ideal? Those things, I do not like so much. Those things are responsible for taunts and bullying and my mother being yelled at by strangers on the street and my sisters being harassed and, on a memorable occasion that I’m sure will haunt me until the day I die, my father once threatening to beat the shit out of a couple of boys at a Hungry Jack’s who were making fun of my niqab. (He had removed his belt and was preparing to tan their hides with the buckled end before management intervened and made the young men in question leave, but I’m sure those seats still smell like adolescent male fear-sweat to this day. My father is a very imposing man.)

Whiteness, in short, is something I am very much committed to critiquing, de-centring, and even tearing apart a little. Whiteness is the reason there are very few role models for black and brown children in mainstream entertainment media. Whiteness is the reason that when I see a Muslim character on television, they’re more likely to be a terrorist than a love interest. Whiteness is incredibly problematic and we can and should question it and the ways in which it affects and harms people of colour. Because that’s what it’s about, see – not making white people feel bad, not white guilt or white-shaming or reverse racism. It’s about tearing off the shackles that bind us.

It is, in other words, Not About You.

To the white girl who felt the need to tell me I’d hurt her feelings, I have to ask – what were you trying to achieve? Did you really need the reassurance of a random brown stranger that you aren’t a bad person because of the colour of your skin? Did you need to be preened and petted so much that you had to interrupt a brown person’s narrative – the narrative of a person who is interrupted, silenced and shoved aside by white people constantly –  so that everyone in the metaphorical room could attend to your needs and desires for a little while? What did you stand to gain by pointing out huffily that you, individually, were not racist? Did you want a medal for basic human decency, perhaps? A ticker-tape parade with a float staffed by non-white people showering you in confetti and holding up a big sign saying “This White Person is Not Like the Others”? A lovingly-baked cookie containing the blood, sweat, tears and gratitude of a brown person, delivered to you in a little box with a card reading, “thanks for achieving the minimum standard required for being a tolerable human being”?

Because that’s the message you send when you derail conversations about whiteness-as-power-structure to point out that you, an individual white person, are not racist. You are saying: my feelings as a white person who is complicit in and bolstered by white privilege are more important than your right to talk about the power structures that oppress you. You are saying: I cannot abide a conversation that does not centre me, my feelings and my worldview. You are saying: me. Me me me me me me me me me me me. Also, me.

And let me tell you, that gets kind of intolerable after a while.

Yes, individual white people, I get it. You’re better than the others because you have black and brown friends, because you donate to charities that benefit non-white people in need, because you told a black woman her hair was neat and resisted the urge to touch it. And now, having achieved the standard of good behaviour we might expect of a house-trained puppy, you feel the need to tell every. single. non-white. person. ever. You are so desperate to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Those White People, the nasty racist ones who oppress blacks and aren’t as enlightened and caring and compassionate as you, that you need to make every conversation not about our continuing plights, but about how You Are Better Than Them and we need to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve put in.

How many times do you need to be told this? Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalised and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution. A white person who really does make an effort not to be complicit in white supremacy does not need to trumpet that fact. In fact, they don’t have time to do so, because they’re busy rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with the rest of us. Ask yourself, well-meaning but self-absorbed white woman whose name I don’t even remember any more because this happens to me literally every single time I write about whiteness, why most of the people criticising you and asking you to pipe down were also white. Was it because they had something to prove? Was it because they wanted brownie points and a pat on the back?

Or maybe, just maybe, was it because they were seeing something you weren’t?

If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people. Give us space to speak. Listen to and internalise our stories when we share them (because believe it or not, hearing those stories is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated accordingly). Share our stories with your white friends. Stop your fellow white people from perpetrating the dozens of microaggressions that perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy every single day. Lobby for fairer representation of non-white people on television, in politics, in the corporate world, in academia. Fight anti-blackness. Ask before partaking of our culture so that you can be sure you’re not taking something that’s not yours to take. For the love of whatever you deem holy, DO NOT touch our hair or our niqabs without our permission. See us as people, not as curiosities. And stop equating your hurt feelings at being forced to confront the reality of white supremacy with the real hurts non-white people experience because of the insidious influence of white supremacy in their everyday lives.

Solidarity and intersectionality are not labels. They are things you practice. They are ways of living and being. If you truly want them to apply to you, stop making everything All About You and start listening a bit to all of us.

We all have opinions. Here’s why I don’t care about yours.

I spent four years in medical school. My professors were experts in their fields – accomplished physicians, prolific researchers, sometimes even pioneers in their areas of interest. From them, I learned the foundations of biomedical science – anatomy, physiology, histology, biochemistry – as well as the details of the various specialities of medicine.  There was no question at any point that these people who had spent their lives and careers becoming experts, amassing lifetimes of experience between them, knew more about their areas of interest than I did. This is why I was the student and they were my teachers. Generally, this is how education works.

I was born non-white. I grew up non-white. Non-whiteness has been a central fixture in my life for every single day of my existence, from the day I was born and my mother’s doctor remarked that I looked “like a little monkey” to the first time someone called me a terrorist for wearing the niqab to the numerous times I’ve been told my looks are “exotic”. One could say that I’m something of an expert in the field of non-whiteness and how it shapes a person’s life and experiences. This is my life, after all. Who could possibly know more about it than me?

According to the internet, the answer to this question is, “anyone with an internet connection and the means to communicate their thoughts to me.”

I cannot tell you how many times in the last week alone I’ve been interrupted whilst talking about my own lived experiences by white people who “just want to share their opinions”. Everyone, it seems, has opinions to share about my life and whether or not I’ve truly experienced it the way I say I have. From the well-meaning but misguided “I would never do that to you!” to the dismissive and trivialising “but I’ve never seen that happen!”, white people seem to be possessed of the need to tell me how they feel about my life and about my apparently audacious decision to talk about it in public.

The thing is…hmmm, how do I put this as bluntly as possible? White people, I could not care less about your thoughts on my lived experience if I tried.

You know what I never did during pharmacology lectures? Interrupt my prof mid-slide to let her know I had “thoughts” on the pharmacodynamics of anti-epileptic medication. Do you know what I never said to my consultant during ward rounds? That I had “thoughts” on his catheterisation technique or his provisional diagnoses of complicated patients. Do you know what I never said to the lab techs who taught me histology? That I had “thoughts” on microscopy that I really, really desperately needed to interrupt them to share. That would have been foolish. That would have been ridiculous. They had years of experience, knowledge and expertise that I did not. How could I possibly contribute positively to the discussion by sharing my uneducated, uninformed “thoughts”?

White people, let me lay this out for you. You do not know more about my life or my history than I do. You have not lived in this body for twenty-four years. You do not experience the multiple microaggressions I do every day. There is nothing in your life that you have experienced due to having white skin that is even slightly similar to what I have experienced due to having brown skin or what others have experienced due to having black skin. Nope, nothing. Not a single thing.

You may have “thoughts” about racism. You may have ideas about what we coloured folks need to do in order to better ourselves or improve our situation. Let me stress this again: your opinions could not be any more worthless. Until you have lived as a non-white person, until you have carried on your shoulders the burden of non-whiteness, until you know all of our stories and history and have borne our scars, your “thoughts” on non-whiteness are not only irrelevant, but completely worthless. I mean that in the bluntest, most direct way possible. I do not care what you have to say about non-whiteness. Nobody does. You talking about what it’s like to be non-white would be like me asking my pharmacology professor to take a seat while I talk about antibiotics.

I know you hate hearing this. If my mentions are any indication, you find the idea that nobody cares about what you have to say offensive. I am here to tell you that nobody cares about your hurt feelings, either. Not me, not my other non-white friends whose discussions you insist on hijacking and derailing. These are our lives we’re talking about. Our lives. The racism we experience is a direct result of white supremacy. What could a white person possibly have to say that could be of value to us, other than, “I’m sorry – what can I do to help?” (And even then, do you have to interrupt us to say it? Can’t you wait until we open the floor to questions?)

White people are used to their opinions carrying weight by virtue of the speaker being white. Maybe this is why they insist on barging into every conversation as though it’s their God-given right to take centre stage. Let me be the one to thoroughly disabuse you of this notion. White people, we do not care about you. We do not care about your opinions. We do not care about what you think being non-white is like. We do not care that you have “thoughts”. And most of all – and it is my great, great pleasure to tell you this – we do not care that this hurts your feelings. Your feelings are irrelevant in discussions of racism and white supremacy.

Here is what white people are welcome to do when non-whites are discussing racism and white supremacy: sit down. Shut up. Take out a notebook. Start taking notes. Ask questions when invited to and not before. Be humble. Be quiet. Remember that while you may be the centre of your own universe, you are not the centre of mine or ours. This is my story. These are our stories. If you aren’t prepared to listen to a lecture or two without keeping your worthless thoughts to yourself, please exit the auditorium before class begins. People are trying to learn here, you know.