Why I’m talking to white people about race

Because I am a trans woman.

Because when I was about to transition, I was representing at about a hundred tribunals a year, and decided the tribunal members should be told, so that my change did not distract them from my client’s case. After one hearing I went back in to tell the tribunal I would transition, and ask how to notify other panel members. When I explained, the doctor on the panel said that tribunals do not discriminate on any ground, and I saw the shutters close behind his eyes as he said it.

You can see their eyes shut down and harden, wrote Reni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. It’s precisely the same experience. Because there are quotes from people on the back endorsing the book, and all of them are people of colour, apart from Paris Lees, a white trans woman- who is also the only person allowed to be herself, a recognisable name, “Paris Lees” not “Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015”. In that list of endorsements, the men come first, then the women.

Because all that stuff about telling people before we transition is problematic. Human Resources might get an expert in, to give training to the staff members- “Stephen is going to transition. From 25 April, she will be known as Clare”- as if this was something weird or unusual which no-one had ever heard of before, or the correct pronoun to use was in some way difficult or complicated. To give people a chance to ask the intrusive, insulting questions, so that they would not have an excuse to for months afterwards- “Are you going to have the operation?” If you want to find out about trans, there’s this thing called the internet. There are even books!

Because we know this stuff, and yet we still face it. “People talk to my husband over my head,” said the woman in the wheelchair. Oh, God. “‘Does he take sugar?'”- disabled people have been complaining about this, framing it, mocking it, pointing it out, with simple phrases to lodge in people’s heads, for decades, and it still happens. Or my friend suffers this:

-Where are you from?
-No, where are you really from?

Wolverhampton. Really. We have been getting closer to mere courtesy for some time. We said Asian people, then Asian origin, now Asian heritage– because they were born here, as were their parents in many cases, so they are not Asian nor do they originate in Asia. We do need to label these matters still, because people of colour can’t be colour-blind, they notice that they stand out, that white is the default normal- just as trans women stand out. She still gets “Where are you really from?”

For so long, the bar of racism has been set by the easily condemnable activity of white extremists and white nationalism, writes Eddo-Lodge, and I feel yet again the recognition I feel, over and over again, reading her book.

There have been black people in Britain for millennia- the first colonists, walking over Doggerland, were black, there were Roman soldiers from Africa, black sailors in our ports-


and lots of black immigration in the 1950s, because the mill-owners of Lancashire, rather than investing in new plant and equipment, wanted to keep costs down by employing immigrants. There were century-old looms working in mills closing in the ’90s. So the hard work for diversity and acceptance of all people came from people of colour first, and GSD (Gender and Sexuality Diversity, I still feel the need to explain that abbreviation and wish I did not have to, straight publications even spell out LGBT) rode on their coat-tails.

Because everybody benefits from acceptance of diversity.

Because I see people being wronged, and their fight is my fight. The book is excellent. It gives history. Muriel Fletcher, reporting on “The Colour Problem in Liverpool” in 1930, said white women who married black men fell into four categories: “the mentally weak, the prostitutes, the young and reckless, and those forced into marriage because of illegitimate children”. That’s vile. Her use of the word “half-caste” has contributed to its use today.

7 thoughts on “Why I’m talking to white people about race

  1. Maybe it’s where I grew up but I completely fail to understand the significance of race. All it does is very broadly describe a few superficial physical characteristics that have no bearing on one’s world view.

    On the other hand, ethnicity or culture does affect one’s world view and how one relates to others. And it does affect how I interact with others, sometimes significantly.

    The word “race” is almost never used here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Instead we tend to use ethnicity or culture as they are more relevant.

    For example, I’m a Pakeha. It describes my cultural history, not my race. My son in law and daughter in law are both Polynesians, but culturally and in world view are closer to me than they are to each other. My son in law embraces the Maori culture of his ancestors while my daughter in law hails from Tahiti and you’d be hard pressed to see any difference between her and any woman from metropolitan France. There are a number of Asians who have married into the family including Japanese (my wife), Thai, Iranian, and Shri Lankan who have less in common with each other than they have in common with their Pakeha partners. And I often feel I have more in common with the Polynesian and Asian family members than I do with family members from Sweden, Ireland, the USA and Brazil.

    Sorry for the rant Clare, and perhaps my upbringing in a far away bi-cultural, multi-ethnic community in the South Pacific colours my perception, but differences are not due to race but to ethnicity. What people need to learn to appreciate is variations in culture. They go to the depth of a person’s being. Race is only skin deep.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t hear it as a rant. I heard quiet explanation, possibly a bit of puzzlement- until the word “rant” changed the previous paragraph completely.

      Yes. Race is only skin deep. Which is what is so cruel about “Where are you really from?” As if being Black you have to be Jamaican three generations in, you can’t just be Brummie. Genetically it may be no more a difference than hair colour is, but it marks people out, and they cannot do enough to be just English for some people. You can’t integrate or be one of us because you’re not white. Iftikhar married a white woman, spoke with Manchester inflections, swore and drank and was a blokey type, like any other Macunian, except for his name and his skin colour. He gave up alcohol for Ramadan. His skin marked him out. He was suspicious because he was trying so hard.

      That’s the white sin whites must expiate. You’re a Pakeha, and I wonder at you using a Maori term, which can’t have been affectionate for all the history of its usage- but in the majority in the UK whites have to get over this. Then we will get the blessing for it, the full potential and contribution of non-white people, who will simply be English or British, at least no longer Othered in this cruel and pointless way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • By “rant” I mean something I feel strongly about, not how I would deliver the message 🙂

        As far as is known, the Term Pākehā has never been derogatory, although some people today think it is/was. I’ll quote from the Wikipedia Pākehā page: Historian Judith Binney called herself a Pākehā and said, “I think it is the most simple and practical term. It is a name given to us by Māori. It has no pejorative associations like people think it does—it’s a descriptive term. I think it’s nice to have a name the people who live here gave you, because that’s what I am.” New Zealand writer and historian Michael King wrote in 1985: “To say something is Pakeha in character is not to diminish its New Zealand-ness, as some people imply. It is to emphasise it.”

        Interestingly, my daughter self identifies as “Japanese Pākehā”, while my son self identifies as “Pākehā New Zealander”. And when you get to know them, it’s easy to understand why. Neither identify as either “European” or “White”, and correct anyone who refers to them in those terms.

        Perhaps because I spent my formative years in communities where Pākehā were not quite a majority or were a slight majority, I don’t see race as significant. One couldn’t tell what culture someone most associated with by their skin complexion.

        But I do tend to get irate when features from complexion and hair colour to folds of eyelids and shape of nose are used to “other” people.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: I’m not White, I’m skin coloured! | Another Spectrum

All comments welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.