When I was at school, I had a friend who was extremely beautiful. She had big grey eyes and long auburn hair. I would watch people do anything to please her; bus drivers would make unscheduled stops, shop keepers would knock money off products if she didn’t have the right change and so on. It skewed her idea of humanity. She thought that all people were basically kind and generous. It never occured to her that she was getting special treatment because she was beautiful.
Being white skews my perception in much the same way. I assume that the treatment I receive is extended to everyone around me. I have blonde hair and a middle class accent. In most cases, I am treated with courtesy, even with respect. I have come to expect this level of treatment. It rarely occurs to me to check for dangerous negative reactions from the people around me because I have experienced very little real danger. In fact, I know that I can safely ignore the people around me.
It took a long time to realise that being able to ignore the people around me is an enourmous privilege of colour and class, one which R does not enjoy. Her experience has been one of unexpected, unprovoked physical and verbal agression. She wasn’t even six when an adult called her the ‘N’ word for the first time. The attacks are not constant, but they are persistent and they are incredibly difficult to predict; a few weeks ago she was called a “black bitch” by a suited commuter travelling from London’s financial centre. She never knows when these verbal assaults will spill over into violence, so she must be on her guard constantly. She never has the luxury of being as oblivious as I am.
Kyle Killian speaks about the tendency of white partners to ignore and belittle the negative experiences of their Black spouses in his book Interracial Couples, Intimacy and Therapy (which I recommend to anyone in a mixed relationship). I know I have been guilty of this behaviour. I have said to R “Why do you have to be so sensitive all the time? These people don’t matter”. It ranks up there with the most stupid and insensitive things I have ever said in my whole life because it blames her for not having my level of privilege.
If I am to be the loving and supportive wife I want to be, I have to learn to see the world as R sees it, to make myself aware of my surroundings in the same way she has to. It is not easy, but it is necessary.