When I was a kid, I told my dad I fancied someone at primary school. He used to walk me to the gates sometimes. He was a giant in the playground; Well over 6 foot – intimidatingly massive, and he never smiled. I would walk beside him in silence and people would part like the Red Sea to let him pass. One day, he asked me to point out the girl I liked.
“She better not be black” he said.
I was too young to really understand the implications of that, so I just confusedly nodded my head in vague agreement, searching my head for a logical justification. I didn’t really know what racism was – I’d never seen it, nor heard of it. But thanks to my dad, I’d just been introduced to it. My school was in South East London. Woolwich to be exact, and I lived just a few streets over. My school had a huge majority of Black and Asian children from the local areas, and I was one of about three or four white kids in my class. Almost all of my interactions at school involved the other Black and Asian children in my class, so to be told that my schoolboy crush shouldn’t be black? I wasn’t really following the logic.
Later on, as a teenager I was becoming more socially aware of the world, becoming rapidly politicized by punk rock, I’d reflect on that incident a lot. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to realise how wrong my dad was or how evil that ideology was. It formed a key backbone to my political leanings. Around this time I started to develop a social life with friends I knew from towards the Dartford/Bexleyheath area. Closer to Kent, really, than London. Those areas had a distinctly racist undertone to them. Much whiter than my native Woolwich. The things I’d witness there would be an even more eye-opening primer on racist violence than anything my old man used to say.
The people I’d befriended were good people who seemed to be irrevocably intertwined with Bexleyheath’s racist fraternity in a sort of despondent, nihilistic way. They didn’t share their beliefs in any way but also didn’t really question them, either. Mostly because doing so might earn you a quick ride to A&E. As a result I could never really figure out exactly who was racist and who wasn’t. It was a vague and murky dividing line between people who honestly terrified me and people who were obliviously nihilistic to the carnage of it all. I used to wear Crass logo’s all over my clothes and anti-nazi pins on my lapel. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the visual signalling of my anti-racist beliefs became a “please punch me in the face” beacon rather than the alienating “leave me alone if you’re racist” vibe that I was hoping for. Sometimes I’d get beaten up by drunks leaving the pubs. They’d hone in on the badge like a red rag to a bull. People would threaten me on busses. Sometimes their girlfriends would have to pull their brain-dead partners away from me. I came seconds away from serious injury far too often – It was a terrifying thing to face as a 16-year-old. I was completely confident, then, that I’d picked the right side of the debate. That because I had suffered in the way that I did, that because I wasn’t a violent psycho like they were – I had chosen the right side of history.
But that’s kind of where the paradox lies. There’s this inherent self-assuredness, this impossible glow that comes with the feeling of how could I be wrong when others have been so bad? I was definitely guilty of that. A lot of Liberal people probably are. The problem is that it became an inability to explore my own failures. I’ll tell myself I’m not them, so I must be good! A logical leap like that can be a double-edged sword. I’ve been a crappy ally over the years because of that. I hadn’t really done anything special to combat racism, I simply signalled my dislike for it. I took a hiding for it, sure, but it made me want to hide my beliefs. It made me stop wearing the badges and patches and I ultimately never followed up on any of my beliefs in any meaningful way apart from simply disagreeing. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out racism is wrong. Perhaps subliminally I’d been telling myself I’m such a great anti-racist because I suffered a little bit. This is most obvious in recent years when I would be confronted with white privilege and I’d tell myself:
How could I be wrong, when others have been so bad?
I found myself butting heads with the concept of white privilege more and more as the debates began to gain more traction online. I’d have quite spirited exchanges with people on the topic. I didn’t really agree that I had white privilege. Especially as my own path through life has been far from perfume and roses. Truthfully, it felt particularly numbing to be told I’ve had it easy in life. It felt frustrating. Spending my childhood having my head kicked in by an abusive father is a privilege? The mother who never loved me? The school kids that beat me? Along with all the depression I’ve lived with, the feelings of worthlessness, the abject destruction of self-confidence? Being told I had privilege? Again, I found myself thinking: How could I be wrong when others have been so bad?
Truthfully, even though I now acknowledge my own privilege a lot more than I used to, it’s still a little hurtful to talk about, to have it pointed at you. But that’s okay. No one ever pretended that acknowledging these things was going to be pain-free. It’s an inherently self-lacerating process. A painful realization that despite your best efforts, you’re still going to benefit from a better job interview than your black friends. Your interactions with the police are, generally speaking, going to be wonderful. What we’re all realising is that simply disagreeing with racism isn’t good enough any more. You don’t get a participation trophy by having an opinion. Opposing racism is just the first step. Taking ownership of your white privilege doesn’t have to invalidate everything you’ve been through. Both exist, side by side, with each other. It’s possible that you’ve experienced the benefit of white privilege and have had a pretty terrible life.
The common argument I used to bring up was how cancel culture was damaging the left. That needlessly ratting out the few allies we had because of their moral impurities would harm us in the long run. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed explores all of that in excellent detail. I think it’s an issue that the left has never truly solved but, in a way, it doesn’t matter any more. The strides the Alt-Right have made in the last few years are shocking. Not only does the Alt-Right have its tendrils in the political establishment in the form of Donald Trump, but the crack down on personal civil liberties has been intense. They’ve done all of this in front of an audience of millions, with a smile on their face. The killing of George Floyd wasn’t a fluke. It was a proven pattern of racism. The cancel culture conversation will have to wait until the police, the politicians and everyone involved in this morally bankrupt system take their knees off peoples necks.
Speaking of knees on necks – I was in awe of how brazen the police had become during the ensuing riots. These riots weren’t like the others. The cops smiled as they beat people. They were getting ready for the carnage with the anxious jitters of a band being let off the leash. They had the blessing of Trump himself and by god they were going to let those hippies have it. And they did. Police snipers shot teenagers in the head with beanbag rounds, the body crumpling and hitting the floor just like it would if hit with a real bullet. Police vans ran over protestors. Cops indiscriminately shot groups of defenceless, unarmed teenagers among a cacophony of desperate screaming. Elderly men pushed over and nearly killed by carelessness and a fragile respect for life. People illegally detained, actions which were exhaustively detailed over long twitter threads, were starved for up to 10 hours at a time and police would laugh at their misery. And most recently, mysterious unidentified federal troops are corralling peaceful protestors into unmarked cars, with no paperwork, no charges and, in most cases, no inciting incident. I could go on, but so much of what I’m seeing is enraging me to my very core. I still feel sick watching these videos.
But the state-sponsored terror campaign doesn’t stop there. The media, who themselves were victims of the police beat downs, did nothing to accurately report the actions of the cops. This hyper violent exercise of masculinity was barely covered by mainstream press despite exhaustive eye-witnesses to the chaos all over the internet. Democrat politicians, when confronted, refused to say anything about the barbarism. To all the journalists and politicians that had the opportunity to denounce the violence when it was at it’s worst – you’ve done a disservice to people. That’s bipartisan. People were killed by cops in those riots while you refused to say anything. You’re both complicit sell outs. You are what white privilege has come to represent: Silence in the face of death, misery and despair.
This leaves me at an undefined crossroads. I’m not really sure what my conclusion should be. I’m not even sure a conclusion from me is necessary. However, what I will say, is this: These ideological battles should be informed, first and foremost, by the people whom are affected by them the most. They should be heard, understood and acknolwedged so that we can all begin to build a better world than the one we currently have. I fully support Black Lives Matter. I will fund black causes as much as I can. I will magnify black issues as much as I can and I will attend black protests as much as I can but most importantly, I will try to call out racism and privilege as much as I possibly can, regardless of how painful it feels and how hard it may seem. My focus has been on myself, my position within the debate and not enough on the people that are affected. I’ve foccused on cancel culture while the real destruction has been plain as day.
These communities have been devastated long enough and I’m sick of reading bad news every day. If confronting our privilege will help dismantle that, I think it’s worth one hell of a shot.