I’m not racist, but…

WMD - I'm not racist, but
Image credit: Melinda Fargo

This week, an emboldened colleague was waxing non-lyrically about the rightness of jobs first for ‘British’ people – his narrative making it clear British was synonymous with white.

I don’t often write about race and racism from a personal arena, mainly because I have not experienced it often, but also wanted my writing space to be about more than the colour of my skin. And in the past, both ‘sides’ have been vocal about my qualifications to comment on race given my husband was white and our children of mixed heritage. As though that observation can be of use in any sensible debate. You see, already I’m tired and I haven’t even progressed past the first paragraph.

However, the inauguration of recent UK and US politics brings race to the fore almost every day now, and its open discussion legitimised around office water coolers everywhere. No, that’s not quite right, since we should be able to talk about race as any other topic in a civilised society. I mean derogatory race talk is being legitimised in our offices and schools.

Here’s the thing, though, this week I was offended by positive commentary on my race – something that has happened to me once before. An emboldened colleague was waxing non-lyrically about the rightness of jobs first for ‘British’ people – his narrative making British synonymous with white.

A wiser colleague, tried to tip him the wink, a reminder that he was sitting amongst a multi-cultural workforce. His response? “Mel’s okay, she’s one of us.”

There it was.

By way of context, no-one would be able to tell my race if they heard me speak on the telephone or they were blindfolded. Twice now in my life this has been translated as me wishing to buy a golden ticket into a race other than that of my birth. That a person of colour who speaks fluent English without dialect or idiom, ergo, wishes to forfeit their birthright.

As I said to my misguided colleague this week (politely and fluently), I should have preferred he sling me a racial invective, since to be anything like him and the other bigots coming out of the world’s woodwork was an insult too onerous to bear.

His response was that he wasn’t racist, but… 

I asked him to stop, since there was no good way to finish that sentence.

You’ll remember I said at the top of this week’s post that I don’t often comment in these pages about race. However, some days ‘No comment’ just doesn’t cut it; some days a thick line of sense and sensibility has to be visibly drawn under ‘Them’ and the non-bigoted ‘Us.’

4 Comments

  • I’ve thought about this a lot recently – obviously as, as you say, it’s out there big time atm. There must be a place where being British and being an immigrant can be discussed as a matter of citizenship and not race. There are British citizens of many racial origins and skin colours whereas many immigrants from Eastern Europe are white. If you don’t make British synonymous with white I think there can be a legitimate discussion about the economic, environmental and safety implications of mass immigration and how best to handle it. In fact I think there must be such discussions.

    • I agree with that. A country is like a box and can only hold a certain amount. A discussion on immigration should not deteriorate, as it so often does, into racial invective.

  • I struggle knowing when it is my place to speak up, not wanting to be equally oppressive by taking words away from the person(s) directly impacted. I feel I can’t not respond so I often say, “That was offensive.” It’s honest to me. No good ending to that phrase – you are so right.

    • Yes. Another way I sometimes approach someone is to ask if they meant to be offensive with a statement because it didn’t make me feel good after they’d said it. Often, people are surprised and actually didn’t mean offence.

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