Thursday, June 11, 2020

Why I want to talk to white people about race

By Abir

I'm going to ask for your indulgence. I want to skip this week's topic and talk about race. 

The last few weeks have been tumultuous. Since the murder of George Floyd by policemen in Minnesota, much of the world seems to finally be waking up to the endemic, systemic, and enduring, a racism, both overt and covert, macro and micro, that black and ethnic minority people face on a day to day basis.


The first thing I have to say is that writing this makes me extremely nervous. I’m still learning about race and privilege and nothing I write about my experience of racism should be taken as definitive or representative, because it is neither of those things. My views are based on my experience and nothing else. You may disagree with what I have to say, yet I need to speak out, because if not now, then when?


Racism is not a ‘one size fits all model’. It’s predicated on so many factors - gender, class, ethnicity, history, geography, to name a few – and while all ethnic minorities suffer racism in some shape or form, I think it’s important to understand that not all have their lives and life-chances blighted to the same degree.


My experience has been mild and I’m ashamed to say, it has on occasion coloured my thinking. In the past I was, to some degree, unaware of my own privilege which inoculated me against the very worst of racism and also blinkered me to the struggles of others. 


I consider myself fortunate. I am a straight male, born of middle class, educated immigrant parents, who gave me a good education and raised me in a tolerant (though far from perfect) country. They admired British society. Britain gave my parents opportunities that they would never have had in India, but they were always painfully aware of the terms on which they came, and that their lives here constituted more forbearance than acceptance by most white British people. My father would tell me stories of the signs outside boarding houses in the sixties which read: “ROOM FOR RENT: NO BLACKS, NO PAKIS”. He remembered the anti-immigrant speeches by mainstream politicians, and the marches by the fascists of the National Front, and the racist articles and cartoons in the daily newspapers.


And my parents were the lucky ones. They and their ilk came not with money but with qualifications and over time, that allowed them to carve out a place for themselves in British society. They passed on the advantages they’d struggled for to their kids. They gave us the tools to survive in a white dominated world and the education that would open many, but by no means all, of its doors. 


While I didn’t take that for granted, it blinded me both to the difficulties faced by those who hadn’t had the benefits my parents gave me, and also to much of the prejudice that is still out there. So much so, that it took a long time for me to realise just how much the deck is stacked against non-whites, and particularly against black people.


A tale of two industries


To an extent, the career choices I made (or maybe had made for me) also contributed to my attitude. I spent the first twenty years of my adult life working in finance, in the City of London. Like Wall Street, it’s a bastion of capitalism, encompassing all manner of greed and amorality, and with more than its fair share of sociopaths in positions of power. But here’s the rub. Despite all that, I never encountered much in the way of racial prejudice or felt that my career was held back by racism. On the contrary, I feel I was sometimes over-promoted. In some senses the finance sector is a meritocracy, employing people, regardless of skin colour, who can make the biggest profits for a company. In the past, because white men had a monopoly on higher education, the City was almost totally white and totally male, but from the late eighties it started to become a lot more egalitarian. It’s still by no means perfect (you still need to be able to access good higher education to get a foot in the door, and it still has myriad problems) but it is, in my experience, far more open and less racially prejudiced than the other major industry I’ve been involved with - publishing.


At first that seems ridiculous. In my experience, publishing is populated by good, liberal, progressive people, and I’m fairly certain it employs fewer sociopaths, but when it comes to equal opportunities and a level playing field, I’ve found it to be ten to twenty years behind what I was used to in the city. There’s a lot of handwringing of course. A lot of good people wanting things to change, but that change never quite seems to materialise in a meaningful way. 


So why is it that an industry which thinks of itself as forward-thinking, and which is populated by open-minded and well-meaning people, when it comes down to it, is still so mired in unthinking prejudice and practices which are far less tolerated in other industries?


I think it’s possibly because those in the publishing industry see themselves as liberals and ‘allies of minority groups’ that they are blinded to their own prejudices and shortcomings. It’s much easier to point the finger at the overt racism of others than it is to notice the quiet structural racism hard-wired into our societies. The ivory towers from which liberals pontificate about equality are so often inaccessible to those whom they claim as equal, and it’s only when that comfortable world is challenged, when rocks are thrown into those calm reflecting pools, that we see the truth and it makes us uncomfortable.


These last few weeks, there’s been an outpouring of angst on Twitter from agents and publishers and booksellers about representation and privilege. Maybe it’s a real ‘come to Jesus’ moment for the industry, but I doubt it. My first reaction was one of anger. It all felt rather patronising and self-serving. All these people now looking to ‘represent un-heard voices’ – where were you last month, or last year? 


I hope I’m wrong. I hope there will be real change, but you’ll forgive me for being sceptical. Publishing’s reaction to blacks and ethnic minorities is a bit like Americans’ reactions to mass shootings. When something happens, there’s a great commotion, a lot of thoughts and prayers and a desire to change, and then three weeks later, everyone just goes back to business as usual.

For the record, let me just say that some of the kindest and most wonderful people I have met have been in publishing who are trying to change things for the better. None of this is a reflection or criticism of those people. It's simply a reflection on the state of the industry as a whole.


I realise that none of the above is particularly helpful. So let me try and be constructive. I think we all understand overt racism, the macro stuff. It’s the covert, micro things that are harder to pin down. Prejudice is so often unthinking, especially when the individuals don’t consider themselves racist, they can fail to notice their own behaviour.


Polite, passive racism is hard-wired into our society, so much so, that we don’t always notice it. And when people try to improve things, level the playing field by hiring more people of colour, or providing scholarships to universities for minorities, many white people who’ve taken their privilege for granted, see it as a threat. I’ve been involved with an initiative run by Penguin Random House to help more writers from BAME backgrounds get published. When it was announced, the a pretty famous author complained it would lead to a dumbing down of standards. As though everything that is currently published is Nobel Prize winning standard. Is Fifty Shades of Grey written to the same literary standard as a Booker Prize winner? The great breadth and depth of what is published is huge and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise. But I think arguments like that, essentially racism disguised as defending meritocracy, are accepted all too willingly by sections of white society because they feed into certain tropes about feckless minorities looking for handouts. It is the belief that things are equal when they’re not, that is so pernicious.


You might ask what impact such covert racism actually has, and it’s a good question, especially when compared to the casual brutality of overt racism that can lead to a Black or an Asian man being gunned down by an officer of the law on the most spurious of grounds. I can only say that I fear one feeds into and reinforces the other.


How has racism affected me?


I asked myself this question, and it’s a difficult one to answer honestly. I look at the list below and part of me thinks it’s trivial when compared to what others suffer, but at the same time, part of me is angry that I should have to suffer at all compared to my white peers. It’s not an exhaustive list and it’s not about eliciting any sort of response. I’m merely laying it out in the hope that it might help.



-       It is about being singled out for being different.

-       It is the mantra inculcated by parents that you need to work twice as hard to get half as far as a white person – and my accepting and internalising that as an unalterable fact of life.

-       It’s knowing that your experience doesn’t count – that your history is whitewashed.

-       It’s not seeing people who look like you on TV, other than as shopkeepers or terrorists.

-       It’s sitting in history class while Winston Churchill is eulogised and knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of three million of your parents’ people.

-       It’s the hushed tones and off colour jokes at work that can’t be complained about.

-       It’s the assumption that because I’m brown, that I must be muslim or have some insight into islam.

-       It’s the mispronunciation of my name on a regular basis.

-       It’s the mis-spelling of my name – not once but twice after it’s pointed out.

-       It’s mistaking me for another brown writer, not once or twice or three times, but on more occasions than I can recall.

-       It’s having to take all of that in good humour because to do otherwise would be to rock the boat.

-       It’s being the token minority speaker at a whole weekend of events.

-       It’s being on a panel with other BAME writers to talk about ‘diversity’ when there are no other non-white people on any other panels at a whole festival.

-       It’s watching other writers get angry over a list of 100 writers in a newspaper article about the fact that only a quarter were women, while completely ignoring the fact that the number of non-whites on the list (male and female) was three.

-       It’s having to question every time I see my name on a literary award shortlist or longlist as to whether it’s there on merit or as a token. 

-       It’s about the above and knowing that even if it is on merit, there will be people who will question that.

-       It’s the ‘random’ security checks at airports.

-       It’s about people asking me where I’m ‘really’ from.

-       It’s having to hear – ‘if you don’t like it, go live somewhere else’. You might as well say   ‘Go back to your own country’ – But this is my country – as much as anyone else’s. I was born here. I was raised here.


And yet, as I say, I’m one of the lucky ones. I was given the start and the tools to play the game with only one hand tied behind my back. For most black and ethnic minority people the deck is stacked far more heavily. 


I feel I’m not explaining any of this well. The truth is, it’s exhausting - the emotional strain of discussing race; of highlighting inequalities which should have been put to bed decades ago; of going over the same ground again and again and lacking the articulacy to do so properly. 


I don’t have an ending for this. No words to wrap it up into a neat package, and that’s probably fitting, because the problem hasn’t gone away. I’ll end by saying that no one is asking for charity or an advantage, just a level playing field and that you open your eyes to the real situation. All that's being asked is for blacks and ethnic minorities to be afforded the same chances in all fields as white people, and more importantly, the same respect as human beings. It pains me that we should even need to ask for that.


Susan said...

A tiny example of embedded racism: Some years ago I found I had black ancestors. I was excited because it made an interesting change from all the East Anglian farmers on the family tree. I shared this news with a very nice man, who had helped with family research. His response was to reassure me that my African ancestry didn't show, and that nobody would guess. In a thousand years, this otherwise kind man wouldn't see this as racism. Laugh or cry?

Helen Cox said...

Wonderful wise words. We are all individuals. We all share the same planet and no one of us should be any less or more important than the other.

Anonymous said...

I think you have been massively articulate - it was an emotional read for me as a middle aged white woman whose father thought Enoch Powell was a god. I have spent my whole life trying not to be a racist ( often failing) and realising, even now, how insidious a thing it is. Racism is everywhere, and our own fragility and inability to do the hard work of examining ourselves to see what we are contributing to it will continue to be the obstacle. No matter how many token gestures are made. For instance, a while ago I was part of a discussion between white authors of how to describe, without using the words Black or Asian, the ethnicity of minor characters ( ... ) I said just use Black of Asian and asked why, if the distinction was so important, were they minor characters? What I received was one of the saddest exhibitions of white privilege I have had the misfortune to witness. Several people left the group and accused me of bullying. I am not a bully, I have never been a bully but if it stinks I'm not going to pretend it doesn't. Another for instance, and this from a member of my own family ( the shame!!!), whilst driving through Dudley " Do they call it the Black Country because so many darkies live here?" Said by a relative in her early thirties who has had the privilege of a free education. Where do we start with what is broken here? Of course I put her straight. I am seen by my extended family as someone who is too much - someone of whom it is said " Oh God, is she on her soap box again????" . Actually, yeah, I am. What of it? Gather round!

Paul Gitsham said...

Beautifully written as always mate. I'm not going to comment further as it's not my place to do so and because I have no experiences that could add to what you've written.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thank you, Abir, for sharing your experience. I know this takes courage. White privilege is a fact that many accept as 'just the way things are'. Bottom line, we all have to do better in recognizing our own and systemic racism and work to level the playing field for everyone.

Unknown said...

Dear Abir

This is a really good piece. Having spend thirty odd years in the book world as writer, publishing editor and reviewer, I’ve thought a lot about this (I have, for what it’s worth and amongst other things, written a non-fiction book about a racist miscarriage of justice, published Attica Locke’s first novel in Britain, written a biography of Michael X, and right now I’m in the middle of writing a biography of CLR James).

A lot of what I’m hearing at the moment feels depressingly familiar. About once a decade publishing suddenly wakes up and notices how white it is. It publishes a few more black writers for a year or two, then drops most of them. Rinse and repeat.

What really struck me in your piece is the contrast between the financial world and the publishing world. Why is it that the one run by straight up capitalists is effectively less racist than the one run by liberals?

There are no straightforward to answers to this but there are a few questions it might be worth asking. Could it be that white anti-racism is in itself a problem? Do white liberals see non-white people as deserving causes, not real people with strengths and weaknesses? Do white liberals really only want non-white writers to write about how oppressed they are? Does the relentless focus on black suffering end up disempowering all concerned? Does white liberalism end up seeing black writing as sociology not literature? Does that result in only publishing books by black writers that only deal with one aspect of their experience?

And then there’s the question of who works in publishing. The problem here is money, and it’s a huge problem. Publishing is a very poorly paid industry. It’s also a nepotistic one. To get in it helps to know someone who helps you get an internship and then you need to be able to live in London on next to no income. And if you do get in you’re very unlikely to earn much. As a result it’s overwhelmingly a profession staffed by people who come from the securely moneyed classes. It’s hardly surprising that immigrant families haven’t shown up in the UK urging their kids to get a career in publishing. It’s typically only after a generation or two that the children or grandchildren of doctors and lawyers decide to do something so irresponsible.

Which leads us to the thorniest problem of all – class. Class cuts through BAME – British Indians earn on average more than White British people. Black and Bangladeshi British people earn significantly less than White British people. Money may not negate racism but it does change class. Money means access to fancy schools and elite universities , all of which can help get you a job as Chancellor of the Exchequer, or , if you’re very lucky, an internship at Penguin.

Class, for me, is the biggest issue in publishing. But it’s also the big issue in society. In so many ways publishing is a symptom of a society that fails to work for those on the bottom. I have my doubts as to whether the book word is going to be changed by well-meaning people in corporate publishers. What we need, if you ask me, is a return to independent publishers staffed by people of all backgrounds , looking forward not backward,in both content and approach.

Lord, that’s enough. Hope some of it’s of interest.

jrlindermuth said...

Well said. We are too often 'blinded to our own prejudice' and I fear it won't end until we all realize there's only one race--human.

catriona said...

Thank you, Abir: for writing this. For being honest about how hard it was to write this. Especially for making the point that there couldn't be an ending.

James W. Ziskin said...

Honest, brave, measured, and moving. Great piece, Abir. Thank you.


Finta said...

Amir, thank you. Let this be a time of change in our oh so imperfect society.

Ann Mason

John Copenhaver said...

So well said, Abir! I love this phrase, "racism disguised as defending meritocracy." That's exactly right! Thanks for writing this.

Terry said...

"So why is it that an industry which thinks of itself as forward-thinking, and which is populated by open-minded and well-meaning people, when it comes down to it, is still so mired in unthinking prejudice and practices which are far less tolerated in other industries?" This is the heart of the problem, isn't it? I think the answer can be found in a question about people realizing that the world wasn't flat. The wonder wasn't that they realized it wasn't flat, but that they thought about it at all. I think that's the problem. Not so much that the industry thinks of itself as forward-thinking and open-minded, but that the majority in the publishing world don't think of it at all. I hope some of these conversations, and thoughtful, honest pieces like yours will start to push the dinosaur in a better direction.

Gram said...

What James Ziskin said! I couldn't have said it better so I'm stealing his words.

Cathy Ace said...

Thanks for this, Abir. Listening, hearing and trying to understand...because, although there isn't an "ending", there can be a new beginning every time we have a chance to listen, hear, and attempt to understand.

Laura said...

Thank you for being brave enough to share your experiences in a world that still doesn't value every voice.

Susie Calkins said...

Abir, thank you for sharing this thoughtful and brave reflection. I appreciate the emotional labor as well. Please know that your voice has been heard.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thank you, Abir. Powerful piece.

FireyColin said...

Thank you Abir. I am a white 71 year old man, I was raised in what is now a borough on the outskirts of London. We lived in a council house and I attended a primary school less than 100 yards from my home. My elder brother was gay, although I didn't know that until I was in my 20s. I had never met anyone from the BAME community until 1960, I was 12 and that was when I started at a grammar school that only had one black pupil. The boy was called Sam I think, I don't remember his full name but he was known by all his school mates as 'Zulu'. Sam was very popular among all the rest of us and can honestly say that I never saw any other overt examples of racism to him, not that I would necessarily have recognised them if I had.

About that time in my life I joined a youth club that was run by an extraordinary woman. Disabled by polio and with an indefatigable energy who fought to bring out the best in all of us youngsters by involving us in activities that none of us would have dreamt of doing before. One thing she did was attempt to start a sort twinning arrangement with a community organisation in Southall, about 7 miles away where we went as groups to visit each others youth centres, unfortunately that failed through lack of support from local authorities on both sides. It was the first time I'd met anyone from the subcontinent and I confess I learned nothing from the exercise. The events all descended into 'us and them' occasions and whilst there was no animosity I don't think anything was learned on either side.

Fast forward through my 30 year career in the fire service a predominately white male environment where I never served alongside anyone from the BAME community. Now I live in rural Lincolnshire another mainly white area and I don't believe there are any BAME people in our village or the two surrounding ones.

I don't know how it happened but I have never had what I would regard as a friend from the BAME community, not because I have sought to avoid such friendships but because the occasion has never arisen. Nowadays I communicate with people from all backgrounds but only via social media. I've never had to experience the kind of prejudice that you and others from minority backgrounds have nor am I ever likely to, but have I ever been guilty behaving in a prejudicial way to others? Probably, but I think I can say not knowingly. Have I ever witnessed such behaviour? Most definitely yes. Did I intervene on these occasions yes, but to my shame, definitely not as often as I should have, would I do so now? I hope so.

Why did I go into this lengthy response to your brilliant article? I don't really know because I only started by wanting to explain that myself and many others from an exclusively British background will probably always struggle with languages and it will be a long time before we spell the names of people from other cultures and countries correctly.

Andrew said...

Interesting. I can only comment about lack of diversity in publishing, where I have lived and had my being for forty years.Part of the problem is that BAME candidates don’t apply for jobs in publishing, it does not cross their minds. For example one vacancy we had for a first job in publishing received over 150 applications, with just one from a BAME candidate. I do think that is changing and I did suggest years ago that the PA and IPG do a milk round to unis to raise awareness.

Derek Farrell said...

Thank you for this Abir. Wonderfully put.

Matthew Exon said...

An important post, thank you Abir. I see how writing that must have been exhausting, but doing so is necessary and effective.