It’s May 2020. I don’t have to tell you why I’m writing about race.
What I do want to tell you about, is racial bias.
As White people, we have it,
Whether we like it or not.
I’m from a white-Irish background (so white we're pink!) Irish society is far behind others by comparison of racial diversity, but that means as a 90's kid I got to see the change in the adults around me as our world became more diverse. From a very young age, I learned that difference equals difference. My next door neighbours were Asian. I thought every variation in behaviour they had (compared to our house) was because they were Asian, even things like forget to brush their teeth some mornings (I was 6 and my Mom was an oral health fanatic). When I learned they ate dogs in Asia, I presumed that meant all Asian people did it, including my next door neighbours. As a child, any slip of saying these sweeping generalisations, or curiosity about these differences were shut down, lest the neighbours hear. Race was not a conversation. Mentioning it only brought anxiety to the adults around me.
So I learned nothing. Just to keep my thoughts to myself.
Race was not something that was safe to discuss.
I grew up in the 90s when the first black people moved into our suburb. I saw adults around me whisper about them behind their backs. How many there were, where they lived, again the types of behaviour that were common amongst them, like trying to follow a thread to understand the newness.
So I learned it was OK to say these things, once the people it applied to were out of ear-shot.
At no time did I ever see white people socialising with black people or white people making an effort to get to know their new neighbours. Concern was raised when they moved into “our” neighbourhoods. Resentment was abound when they did not conform to our ways of being. The audacity of the smell of spices and fried onion from their houses.
The adults around me seemed to have the same child-like generalisations as I did. Any behaviour that was deviant, or out of the ordinary was smeared on an entire race. We would walk past POC minding their own business in the village all the time. But words like "polite" and "private" weren't attributed to them. However, the minute a POC raised their voice at a cashier I heard “black people are so aggressive” for weeks after. I never heard “oh there was these white kids causing trouble today.” But if it’s a non-white kids their race is somehow relevant to their behaviour and life choices. I was told this was normal. The people in my life thought they were giving me an education or that they were being inclusive themselves for telling me what they had observed about these people.
The late 90’s - early 00’s the main statement in every Irish house was “I’m not racist, but…” An American friend of mine who visited extended family asked me what the hell was with Irish people and this phrase.
With adult eyes I now see the dehumanisation in this. POC were to be studied from afar. Discussed and psychically dissected afterwards. Never to belong or feel the same.
The behaviour of an individual that was deviant, or out of the ordinary was made to be a presumption about their entire race.
There are POC in my life now. But two years ago, I noticed for the first time that my mind was full of echoes and intrusive thoughts about race. Things I had been told and heard about the motivations, experience and capability of people who were different. The flash of association for words like "aggressive" and “unsafe” still lurked behind my eyes.
I spoke to a (white) Therapist about this. I thought she would kick me out of her office for breaking all the "don't ask, don't talk" rules of my childhood. Instead, she related, and pointed me towards some resources. This allowed me to open up and have a curiosity about the origin of these thoughts - resulting in the previous paragraphs of this article.
In the weeks after I shared a smoothie with an Indian friend, who expressed instantly feeling unsafe to be seen being intimate with a white woman. I heard and read about black womxn's nightmares on online dating. I had two Sarahs (psyeudonym) show up at my 30th birthday party. A separate friend, who I would normally respect, turned to the POC Sarah and said "I wonder how we'll tell you two apart?!" She couldn't be greeted at the door without her blackness being brought up in conversation. Once I started seeing the implicit racism and micro-aggressions I had normalised for years, I couldn't un-see it ever again.
I would love to point a blaming finger at the conditioning I've experienced from people around me and say “I’m not racist but….”
I have automatic, subconscious thought patterns, expectations and reactions around people who do not look like me. I can't control them, they just kind of "pop" into my mind. It takes a bit of mental gymnastics to "spot" the thoughts and remind myself that is not the reality. I don't agree with these thoughts and I do my best everyday to not let them impact my behaviour. But I can not say with all honesty that they have never done so before. This is my racial bias, which has been shaped by my life journey as a white person. The difficult news is you have one too.
The first step of healing is to acknowledge, accept and learn about our shortcomings. We are not bad people, but we are flawed in so many ways. I hope that by by sharing this with you it'll encourage other white people to take that first step. Be brave and scratch the surface, journal your memories, discuss this with a trusted friend and realise you're not alone. It is the least we can do for POC, ourselves, our friends, our children’s friends and future generations.
If you would like to learn more to start your journey, Robin DiAnegelo's book White Fragility is a recommended reading. If you are someone who prefers journalling to reading, as is Layla F. Saad's White Supremacy and Me.