• Thomas Rowland

Being Me. Being White.

I am white. But what exactly does this mean?



I used to think it meant, well, being normal. I say think. It wasn’t that I actually thought this. That would be utterly taboo in my multicultural tolerance-deifying cultural upbringing. But under the surface, being white meant the absence of colour. And worse, being white, being “normal” meant being superior. This is the repugnant assumption behind white supremacy that somehow I had ingested, even though no-one said it.


In a previous blog*, I explored how learning to be me meant learning to be with my multifaceted experiences as they arise - some old, some new, some only just emerging - even the ones I really would prefer weren’t there. And, now, during Black History Month when, thankfully, some determined figures chose to bring issues of race and racism to my social awareness again, I find my experience of being white exposed again.


For it’s one of those parts I’d prefer wasn’t there. This is why it was never spoken about. A part I only started to get whiffs of when I started my counselling training, and even then struggled to find the words. And have since found myself in the cycle of approaching, avoiding, curious, ashamed, fearful ever since.


So, here’s what I’m learning to be with.


Colonialism


I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads recently. It’s a wonderful history book, but not on the micro, detailed scale I endured at school. This charts history on a global scale. What I’ve discovered (much to my ignorant ego’s surprise) was that, for a lot of history, Europe has been a bickering backwater (and Britain, the backwater of the backwater), to which the significant civilisations didn’t even bother visit, let alone try to colonise. The centre of the world was the Near and Middle East. “We” were the inferior ones on all of today’s scales: academia, culture, scientific development, economics, wealth, thought and power.


Furthermore, “our” supremacy came out of the experience of being pillaged, raped and enslaved by the Vikings, out of the devastation of the Black Plague that happened to suit western Europe, and out of the constant warfare between European states that never allowed for peace and tolerance. This led to the almost desperate race to make links with the East (and so be part of the world) and to make more effective weapons of violence - and thus the efficient, greedy, inhumane pillaging, raping and enslavement of the Americas and Africa. I’ve learned that even our scientific and cultural developments are steeped in violence: they were only made possible by the wealth of colonisation; they have been used to perpetuate the notion of white supremacy; and our scientific technology was primarily used for acts of war and oppression against non-Europeans.


What reading this book has made clear to me is the unspoken, internalised assumptions of white supremacy. I’m learning to be with the fragility of this experience, the vulnerability lying behind its arrogance. The vulnerability of a backwater, pillaged, unnoticed people, a fragility I often feel in the frantic race for success, a fragility I often feel feel stopping me from wanting to go any further in this self-excavation, a fragility that means I prefer to make it another person’s problem, not my own.


I’m also learning to be with its shame. Frankopan makes the insightful point that British attitudes towards people from the eastern colonies changed through time: people who were once seen as being mysterious and fascinating became ignorant and sub-human, a paradigm shift that had to be made in order to justify our treatment of them. I’m learning to be with the fact that I have received most of the world’s resources, whilst many have not - and it isn’t because they are inferior or don’t deserve it. The shame that I have received my COVID-19 vaccine simply because I live in a place that has built its wealth and power on violence and dehumanisation, whilst most of the world’s population has not. The shame that I have been part of a society that oppresses and dehumanises - that silences, does not listen to, does not care about - that demonises and blames - Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.


Colonised


So why is it that I have played the part?


I came across a podcast* on education the other day about ‘the hidden curriculum’ that favours the wealthy and sidelines the working class. I remembered my experience at a university where students from far wealthier families than me attended; when I perhaps for the first time, experienced my class and felt like I didn’t quite belong.


In the podcast, Dr Neil Speirs brought to my awareness some of Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of social critical theory. He uses the word habitus to mean the world we live in, that determines our perceptions, experiences, aspirations, practices, opinions, shaped by our past and present, and shaping our future. For me, my habitus involves the arrogance, fragility and shame of belonging and not, of having value and not, as well as the tendency to avoid these fears and so unconsciously to perpetuate it. A second concept was doxa, the unwritten, unquestioned, internalised rules of a society that determine our habitus and, because of their unquestioned nature, cause this social reproduction. We see the world as the game we’ve learned, and so play by the game and teach it to others. What hit me in this podcast most though was the final concept of why we keep playing the game: illusio. The game gets under our skin. We get caught up in it because we’re playing it. We get colonised by it as we reap its benefits and fear the losses.


And this is perhaps the hardest thing to be with: all the ways I keep playing the game. I keep participating in and so socially reproducing the rules of dehumanisation - of whiteness, of class, of masculinity, of heterosexuality, of able-bodiedness or whatever other construction of social privilege. I am complicit. And, worse, there is no good reason to be. No rationale that I accept or ascent to. Nothing except the illusion. Even worse, there is good reason not to be. I know it is an illusion that has hurt me, and, far more, hurt those less privileged in the game. It is so hard to be with that hurt.


Emancipation


Speirs says this could leave us feeling powerless, but that this too is part of the doxa: that we can’t do anything, that we must rely on big policy changes for any difference to be made. This doxa is part of the unquestioned rules that determine social reproduction, for they remove another possibility: the quiet, unnoticed carving out of spaces in which we can make a difference to real people in real lives. In which we can change their habitus and thus their future. Spaces that are emancipatory.


Yet I know that this, too, can become just another colonial symptom. I fear it resembles too much the colonial missionaries sent to the ‘ignorant’: ‘I have the power, the knowledge, the privilege and I graciously use it to come and save you.’ No! I am the ignorant. I am the powerless. And I am the oppressor.


This is why I must be with the layers and intersections*** of colonialism in me - the fragility, shame, fears, prejudices, guilt, anger, frustration, fears of losing, addictions to the benefits of the game. To the extent I can do this, I free myself and allow myself the possibility of meeting with others as they are, in their fragility, shame, fear, prejudice, guilt, anger, fears, addictions. To that extent, we can expose, question, rage against, and regret the doxa; we can feel, express, and shift our habitus. And we can - I dare say - become something new. Colonial. Colonised. Emancipated. Even emancipatory.


*https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/learning-to-be-me

*Podcast: The Hidden Curriculum and its impact on working-class students (28 minutes)

**This is the importance of the concept of the wounded healer in therapy (see, for more discussion on this: Episode 176 - The Wounded Healer – This Jungian Life )

***I thank Dr Dwight Turne for his articles on intersectionality and therapy in my understanding here, e.g. Race and the core conditions Therapy Today, October 2020


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