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In my book ‘White Privilege Unmasked: How to be part of the solution’, I suggest that it is important to understand our history if we are to understand racism in today’s world. We have apparently come a long way since the days when people were enslaved, cruelly packed into ships and bought and sold in the Americas to carry out back braking and thankless tasks without pay. There are now laws against slavery, exploitative employment and racism. People who are not white are to be seen in many walks of life that would have been unthinkable in the past.
However, there are two linked challenges to the idea that prevailing attitudes have changed out of all recognition. One is that non white people are still disadvantaged in comparison to whites in many areas of life and the second is that the attitudes that were commonplace decades and centuries ago but would be thought of as shocking today are in fact, still with us, many of which are covered up and denied.
It is good for us to remember that the idea of ‘races’ was invented by white people who saw themselves as the most intelligent, capable and even beautiful. The ‘white race’ was spoken of by whites and admired. There are still places where this point of view is explicitly found. The rise of far-right political parties, for instance, and also in more pseudo-academic circles such as Counter-Currents Publishing which publishes books that promulgate white supremacy in an apparently academic and ‘respectable’ way such as the book The White Nationalist Manifesto. It was on their website https://www.counter-currents.com/2010/08/rudyard-kipling-the-white-mans-poet/ that I found a poem I was searching for called The Song of the White Man by Rudyard Kipling. On this site, the authors bemoan the way that Kipling’s verse has been ignored that explicitly mentioned and admired the ‘white race’. There are other poems by Kipling published on this site lauding the ‘white man’. These declare that foreigners are not to be trusted as they think in a different way to us. These ideas are certainly still around today, implicitly and explicitly revealed in the turn to the right in our society.
One thing that has certainly changed is that the ‘white race’ is not often referred to as such. White ‘people’ may be spoken of but not a white ‘race’. This is something even more insidious as white is now considered to be ‘normal’ so that those who ‘have’ a race are black or brown or have other features which are thought of as distinguishing their race. In his book ‘White’, Dyer points out that there is nothing so powerful as to be ‘just normal’. No wonder we think of race as a black problem. Remembering that it was white people who invented the idea of race and then took themselves out of the equation is an example of the reason that it is important to remember our history.
There are two ways in which our history stays with us. The first is through cultural transmission. The attitudes and assumptions of those around us – our immediate and extended family, our immediate and wider community, including our school and peers – shape and form us. They create what Stolorow and Atwood call our ‘organising principles’. Even if we apparently deny our heritage and apparently despise our parents, our reactivity is itself shaped by our experience. Although we cannot escape this, we can be thoughtful about it and understand that our subsequent biases are not God-given truths but simply attitudes that we have absorbed in our lives and experience.