Protests against racism have dominated the week this past week, following the murder of George Floyd in the US. I know, it’s being called ‘his death’ in all the news outlets, but this is my personal web space, and I feel justified in calling a police officer kneeing somebody in the neck until they die ‘murder’ – even if it hasn’t been proven in a court of law (yet). What lessons can we draw from this?
I’m a middle-aged white heterosexual cis male with a university degree and a job in IT, so I could be the poster boy for ‘white privilege’. That technically means I should shut the fuck up. This is not about me.
On the other hand, facing up to your privilege feels like the way forward in this. So, buckle up, let’s go for a ride into shame-ville. If you do feel like I’m being a jackass, or whitesplaining, or being a preaching white asshole, feel free to call me out on it in the comments, and my apologies in advance.
The ‘not here, note me’ defense
I’m a Dutch citizen, born and raised in the Netherlands. This is not the USA. The Dutch past was pretty sordid in regards to slavery, but we’ve always prided ourselves on our tolerance. We are the first country to have legalized same-sex marriage. Our police killing a suspect is an exceptional thing, immediately making national headlines and put under a microscope. What happened to George Floyd doesn’t apply to-
It’s easy to point to the US only, but everybody everywhere should take a long hard look at their own country. We don’t have clean hands.
People of color in the Netherlands have a much harder time than white people. No, the Dutch police don’t usually kill people, but they do have a history of racial profiling. The Dutch tax office used ethnicity to target people for tax fraud, ruining them financially, without proof. Employers routinely discriminate against people of color, and so do real estate brokers. And, of course, there’s an active criminal case against one of our parliament members for openly calling for deportation of Dutch citizens of Moroccan descent.
Oh, and if you skip all the links above, you might still want to read about our Blackface-for-children problem. One interesting parallel there is that the protests started with a decade of peaceful ones on the sidelines and things didn’t change. Until protests became in-your-face, that is. Which is why I feel saddened about the violence in the US, but I sure as hell understand why it is necessary.
Maybe dismissing racism as a ‘US problem’ isn’t such a hot idea after all. At least the US had Barack Obama, the Dutch Minister-Presidents (as we call them) have been an unbroken line of white middle-aged men since we introduced democracy a century-and-a-half ago.
Having established that Racism is still a thing, the next line of defense is the ‘but not me’ defense. This might be a harder one, for me personally as well. I like to think of myself as an enlightened person who doesn’t discriminate against people of color, LGBTQ+ people, or anybody else. Of course, most people do. As I wrote earlier, it’s much easier to point at all those racist others instead of yourself.
So, as the poster boy for white privilege, let me say this: I was raised in privilege, in an environment with all kinds of subtle institutional racism. So, honestly, that must have left a mark. Which means I’m probably racist in ways I do not know.
What that means exactly, I do not know either. I don’t go around being a racist. Quite the opposite, I hope. But I have a tendency to make jokes, and I know I’ve been insensitive with those in the past. Maybe I have made people uncomfortable with jokes that were racist or sexist – even if I didn’t mean them to be. Maybe I hurt people in other ways. I supported our blackface tradition, arguing it wasn’t meant to be racist, until I realized a few years back that – in fact – it was racist, and for no good reason.
The important thing, I think, is that we privileged folk all have to start changing our thinking from ‘I am not racist, so this doesn’t affect me’ to ‘I have probably been racist in the past, how do I stop being that going forward’. And that applies to racism, but also sexism, and all other forms of discrimination. We can all better ourselves if we dare to admit we’ve been wrong.
I’ve had friends filling Facebook with messages to go protest and to give money to anti-racism charities. That’s always good, of course. However, like I recently said in a discussion on Discord, to me it feels almost like a cop-out. One of the benefits of being privileged is that I have a comfortable job and income, even during this crisis. Giving some money isn’t going to affect me much. A day protesting is a kind of quick fix as well.
Like a crash diet, simply spending some money or a day on the problem feels good in the short term, but in the long term it isn’t going to help. Like a diet, it is something to work on every day, and you can’t quit, ever.
So, what I’ve been trying to do for years is be less institutionally racist and actively non-racist, on a personal scale: propose to hire women and people of colour for IT jobs every time – and I still only ever got one or two woman’s résumés. During job interviews I try to be aware I of my possible bias against people of color and women and actively examine this and try to counter it. I encourage my daughter to play with children of all colors, genders, and whatever.
I actively call people out about their bullshit on social media – interestingly, I have been called a left-wing facist for that one. Social media are such a toxic mess I wonder if it’s worth the effort. But words are my strong suit, so I try anyway. And of course, I try to make no racist/sexist jokes, which might be hardest of all for me – and what I fail at the most.
Doing stuff yourself is well and good, but the interesting question to also ask is how much can the government do?
Some people don’t want to be less racist, and some people are not intentionally racist, but not willing to change either. Forcing change at metaphorical gunpoint isn’t going to work though. The government needs to do something, though. One thing could be to take (more) anti-segregation measures in schooling and housing. We used to have such policies, forcing cities to mix social classes in urban planning, but those policies have been side-lined.
There’s also the question of reparations. I have personally probably financially benefited from all that institutional racism. Heck, my nation profited a lot from the slave trade and that has likely trickled down to me. But I don’t want to lose my house or my income either. And I need to put my daughter through college at some point.
So how much should we give? To whom? From whom? How much of our current wealth is ‘racism-based’? How much is somebody owed who has one great-great-grandparent who was a slave? Or two? Those questions are hard to answer. But maybe the government should try. And bloody hell not set up an all-white committee of middle-aged men to do so.
In short, my apologies for all the racist I have done, accidentally or otherwise. I’ll try to do better.
Now let’s go make our world better.