Editorial Letter: White People Need to Learn to Listen

Dear readers,

For starters, I am going to retract a bold claim made in last week’s issue. As much as I’m sure he’d still love to cling to power, Matt Port is not your Welfare Officer anymore. It is, in fact, Amy Wells, unlike what last issues’ Exec Columns would suggest and I apologize for my excessive use of the Undo feature late on a Thursday night.

We’re now three weeks into the first semester. Freshers is a distant memory and we’re now getting stuck into the thick of it as we move through October. You’ve unfortunately had to read two of my editorial letters by this point and lucky you because here’s another one.

You might not have realised this yet but October, as well as the leadup to November deadline season and Halloween, is also Black History Month. For the last 32 years across the entirety of October, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, people have celebrated the contributions that Black people have made to British society as well as to educate and raise awareness of the persecution, oppression, and enslavement that Black people have experienced for centuries. 

Black History Month is a celebration of Black history, Black art, and Black culture. However Black history should be acknowledged throughout the year and not just in October. The fact that it needs to exist as a month in order to be celebrated at all shows us as White people need to do so much more to understand the ways race still intersects with the world today.

We always learn about White history though it’s never labelled as such – it’s just history. White literature is never relegated to its own curriculum or module, but most books written by people-of-colour are only studied within postcolonial courses. We study White scientists, White thinkers, and White politicians because they are the ones who have been placed in academic curriculums.

Looking back at what I was taught in school, you’d be forgiven for believing that the Empire wasn’t a big deal, the Atlantic Slave trade didn’t happen (I don’t even remember a single mention and I actually liked History), and that all racism in America stopped when Rosa Parks sat down on a bus, Martin Luther King marched on Washington in 1963 and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964. I even did History up until A-Level and not once was the Empire and the slave trade ever taught. But boy did I learn a lot about Henry VIII’s chronic wife addiction.

Such an ignorance erases the contributions that Black people and other ethnic minorities have made. However, to correct this ignorance isn’t to expect Black people to educate White people about their experiences. Too often the expectation is placed on non-White people to educate those who are White about racism. If you want to educate yourself, Google is always a free resource and there are countless videos of Black speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and bell hooks on YouTube.

You may think though you don’t need to do this because you’re “a good ally”, because you have a lot of Black friends so there’s no way you could ever be racist or even as I’ve heard some people say, “I don’t believe in such a thing as privilege”. However, to say either of these things shows a failure to acknowledge that your experience as a White person means you may not realise how at times in your life, you’ve failed in being an ally to people-of-colour. As White people, we do not know what it is like to be a person-of-colour because we will never be viewed by the colour of our skin. We come out with accusations of racism when Jon Snow makes comments about the makeup of a crowd purely we have always been the norm and therefore have never been singled out for the colour of our skin. 

When people talk about privilege, it’s not a competition about who is worse off as some people frame it. It’s about acknowledging the struggles of people’s individual experiences whether you’re a person-of-colour, LGBTQ+, disabled, working-class or female. As White people, we will never be judged, profiled by the police, looked over for a promotion, paid less, awarded lower grades, refused a job, given lower mortgage rates and financial support because of the colour of our skin. These things do not happen to every Black person or other people-of-colour and it’s important to acknowledge this but we as White people will never experience racism. That is a certainty

As Bob the Drag Queen on his podcast Sibling Rivalry (S2E11) once said:

“The best way to be an ally to any maligned person and this is not just for White people to Black people, if you want to be an ally to trans people or anyone who is maligned, then you need to learn to hear what they have to say”.

That means listening to people-of-colour when they tell you things about their experience that challenge things you believe. This also means acknowledging that people-of-colour are not a monolith, they do not share one view and as our Features interview this week shows, they can even be candidates for the Brexit Party.

Bob goes onto say later in the podcast; “If you get accused of being a racist, you cannot prove you’re not”. He’s right. The best thing to do if you are accused is to listen, not argue back, and then use that experience to continually improve as an ally.

Racism isn’t always about intention either. You might not intend to do something that alienates people-of-colour or you might have unknown implicit bias that comes from growing up in a racist society. However, these things are still racist and if you don’t think they are, you do not have the authority to do so. As a White person, you don’t always know what is racist and what is not. This is because you are not at the receiving end of racism. 

So if someone like Munroe Bergdorf argues that ‘Western society as a whole is a system rooted in white supremacy – designed to benefit, prioritise and protect white people before anyone of any other race’, we should listen to her. When people cry out about Grenfell or Windrush, we should listen.

So, listen up White people. Not just in October but all-year-round.

Ed Barnes, Editor-In-Chief, editor@thegryphon.co.uk