How’s your week going? Good? Good. Mine started with a group of young men cycling past me in the street and slowing down to call me a “big black nigger”. The next day Liam Neeson, whilst promoting his new film, recounted a story where, after hearing his friend had been raped, asked her what colour her attacker was, and, on being told he was black, “walked around for a week with a cosh, looking for any black bastard to kill”. Oh, and Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland would have had their birthdays this week.
And we’re only on Thursday!
These events crystallised a thought that I’ve long had: we need a white history month. A month where we can learn about whiteness and great white people. Bear with me, because this requires some context.
I am often asked to sit on panels that discuss race. One of the questions that I like to ask audience members is the first time they realised they were white. The question elicits the same response every time. There will be an audible gasp in the audience as if I’ve asked an offensive question and a nervous laugh as if a taboo subject has been broached. More than once, the person asked has answered ‘right now’. That always gets a laugh and you can feel the tension in the room. The reason I ask the question is to highlight how easy it is for some (white) people to walk around entirely unconscious of the subject of race. I once said one of the most intimate questions you can ask someone is “tell me about yourself”. If you ask a white person to describe themselves, they will almost never describe themselves as white. They don’t think to and why should they? White is the default, always. I am old enough to remember when emojis only came in white. If you’re reading this, you’re old enough to remember it too. Disney’s first non-white princess was Princess Jasmine; it’s first non-white princess voiced by a person of colour was Pocahontas. And let’s not forget: it’s first princess was called Snow White, “the fairest of them all”. Britain ranks Winston Churchill as its greatest person and Abraham Lincoln often tops the poll in America.
Why did a colleague of mine once say, in all sincerity, that they thought that cis-gendered white men were the most marginalised group in society? What is wrong with white when I use it as an adjective to describe a person? Why is there such discomfort when I ask a white person the first time they realised they were white? I wonder if it’s because of a sense that there is another, less sanitised version of whiteness, just out of reach of conscious thought, but indelibly present.
Winston Churchill is put forward as the greatest person in British history. He is lauded for winning the Second World War, defeating Hitler and changing the course of history. Less (openly) celebrated is his racism, racism that when called out has led to condemnation…for the person calling him a racist. In 2017, Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham sparked outrage when he called Churchill “a racist and a white supremacist”. In the outrage that followed, with Whittingham being labelled ignorant and his own party repudiating him, there seemed to be little exploration into whether the claim was true.
“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia…a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” If those words were attributed to Tommy Robinson, Steve King or Nigel Farage they would be condemned as racist (probably by the Labour party, too – Ed). What about “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” or his blaming of the Bengal famine on the people for “breeding like rabbits”. How about his assertion that “it may be that, unwittingly, they are inviting persecution – that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer”. He was talking about Jews in 1937.
If only there was a word or phrase that described the kind of person that espoused these views. Oh, there is: “Greatest Brit of all time.”
Abraham Lincoln, lauded as “The Great Emancipator”, when explaining “the kind of equality in which he did believe [used] a black woman as an illustration: “In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with own hand without asking the leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.” Many will see this quote as proof of his emancipatory bona fides.
His opening clause establishes inequality, which is not bridged by the subsequent ones. His use of the word “equal” should be understood here in a legal sense; by so doing, we see that what is presented as an attempt at arguing for inclusion in society can be more rightfully viewed as an attempt to legally codify a different type of exclusion, an exclusion more palatable than slavery, but an exclusion, nonetheless.
There is no desire for a white history month. Some say every month is white history month. Actually, every month is white history myth month. The legacies of people like Churchill and Lincoln have been polished, with anything unpleasant excluded from the popular narrative. Churchill is loved because a large section of British society is completely ok with him hating the people he hated and because he reminds them of the good old days, when Britain was a great empire. When people say they love the empire (something that has been heard a lot more since Brexit), they are saying they don’t care about the people that were killed in order to create the empire. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. And you can’t make an empire without ignoring famine in one of your colonies and thinking your race superior to others.