Racism in the UK

R, my Black American partner, is constantly asked whether the UK is less racist than America. Now R is compulsively honest. It is obvious that the people who ask want her to say how much nicer everything is over here. She doesn’t. Generally, she tries to be diplomatic and say something vague like “Every place has its plus and minus sides”. It never works. They press her and try to force the issue. I can only assume that they think her patriotism is getting in the way of the truth. Eventually, there is no evading the issue. “It’s different here, but it’s just as racist,” she says. And it’s game on.

We think we know what racism looks like. It is a member of the BNP. It has swastika tattoos. It uses the ‘N’ word. It graffitis people’s houses and attacks people of colour. No one we know does that, therefore, no one we know is racist. If you don’t agree, “there are plenty of airports”, as R was told on the weekend after yet another round of this game.

By this definition, it’s true; very few people in Britain are racist. I really wish that this was the case. If it were, I wouldn’t have to say things like “There are two of us, one of us is Black. Do you have a room for the 14th?” in order to avoid being stared at by the entire hotel staff over breakfast. I wouldn’t have to be the one who does all the shopping whenever we leave London to protect my wife from being refused service. I wouldn’t be working with kids whose chronic dyslexia was written off as behavioural issues until they were 13. I have to do all of these things, because this is what racism looks like in this country.

We are not an expressive people. Much of our communication relies on nuance and shading. In the same way, our racism is generally not the overt kind which hits the headlines, it lies in smaller, more insidious acts and behaviours. The stereotypes and negative attitudes which lie behind the actions are no less dangerous. Quite the opposite, because we silence those who would seek to talk about racism or ask us to examine our own attitudes. We are hurt and outraged by the suggestion that we might have racist attitudes, so hurt and outraged that we are unable to consider whether it might be true.

Only identifying overtly racist behaviour allows us to find other interpretations for actions which are racist. The person might have been in a bad mood. Perhaps the bar tender didn’t see you as you waited while he served everyone else. R Is constantly asked “Well what did you say to him to make him act like that?” This is even worse than silencing the person who wants to talk about racist attitudes because it actually shifts the blame on to the person who has experienced the attack.

Racism thrives in the UK because we persist in not listening to the people who want to talk to us about it. We persist in thinking that we know what racism is rather than being open to new ideas about what it might be. Of course, the majority of the people who want to raise the issue are the people who are most affected by it; people of colour. In not listening to them, we show how racist we really are.

Racism in the UK

Learning to see

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.

Learning to see

Being sufficient

This is the blog post I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read. After you have read it, don’t respond. Don’t offer me sympathy, I won’t like it. You’ll know about this, that’s enough. If I don’t talk about this, nothing else I say will make sense. That’s the only reason I’m doing it. So.

I had a missed miscarriage. Neither of the two fetuses developed a heartbeat. We found out last Tuesday. Yesterday the miscarriage happened. It was my birthday, which was a bit poor. On the other hand, it was the only day this week that R could have been home. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This is one of those times that defines a marriage. R fell and aggravated an old injury last week resulting in crippling pain. She is being messed around at work while trying to meet an impossible deadline. We are both at our limits, physically, mentally and emotionally. And yet what few reserves we have, we are giving to each other. At times it feels like trying to prop each other up with thin air.

What I do not doubt is that we will be sufficient. We will be kind with each other. We will step back and forgive. We will praise and reassure each other. The house will be messy, we will cry and get angry, we will misunderstand and hurt each other’s feelings, but beyond all this, we will keep on breathing and keep on loving. We will come through this.

Post script

If you have experienced a miscarriage or are looking for ways to support someone who has gone through one, The Miscarriage Association has some good advice:


Being sufficient

Who’s the donor?

People are curious about lesbians and their donors (except for the Daily Mail, which says that it is one thing to lose a father to tragedy and quite another to deliberately set out to raise a child without one – Aug 2014). I remember the fuss about Melissa Etheridge’s donor and the horror when it turned out to be David Crosby, who is not an attractive man.

Choosing our donor was a very long process. We have always wanted an anonymous one. We thought about a white donor, seeing as we are using R’s eggs, it made sense, initially. However, R’s neices and nephews are all very light skinned, even though their dads are Black. There was a very good chance that if we went with a white donor, our child would simply look Mediterranean.

Beyond looks, for me there was also the issue of genetic history. I know where my family come from. I know their place in history. No medical profile could give us that information about a white donor. It made me uncomfortable. I understand that white privilege is built on slavery and that all of us benefit from it, but I didn’t want any closer connections than I already had.

We decided to find a donor who was as close to R as possible, matching her Native American ancestry as well. I feel secure that carrying and raising our child will be my contribution to his or her personhood, although there is increasing evidence to suggest that the birth mother makes significant genetic contritbution to the child she bears.

In the end, we found a perfect compromise, a donor who was mixed Black, Cherokee and white. We had to fight for our choice, however, because the counsellor at our clinic could not understand our issues with using a white donor and wanted to refer us to their ethics committee. She couldn’t understand why we would rather have a dark child than a light one. I am sure that she won’t be alone.

Our choice to privilege Blackness and Native American genetics runs exactly counter to all sorts of prejudices. It has already complicated things for us, and will continue to do so. Our decision reflects our ideas of history, identity and (because I am not Melissa Etheridge) beauty.

Post Script:

We’ve just talked to some members of my family about all this. Their response was interesting. I think some of it came from disappointment that R and I have chosen not to reflect my side of the family in our donor.  I can see that it could read as a rejection.

I see it differently. An anonymous white donor wouldn’t be a part of our family. His nose might be similar to our (very distinctive) noses, but it wouldn’t be ours. It would be a matter of pretending.  There may be some value to pretence for heterosexual parents, but nobody is going to believe that I fathered my child.

Another comment was “Well, if you were a heterosexual couple, you wouldn’t get to choose, you’d just have to take whatever genes you got”. If we were a straight couple, things would be much more easy for us. We have decided to see our difficulties as opportunities; that along with greater complexity came greater freedom of choice. We are not trying to replicate the dynamics of a straight relationship.

When a heterosexual couple make a child, that child reflects their mingled genetic material, their family history and ultimately their love for each other. I think some of the consternation about choosing a Black donor is an anxiety that R is rejecting the chance to incorporate her genetic material with mine. Again, this is applying heterosexual ideas in a situation where they don’t fit. Yes, if I had provided the sperm, the child might look more like me than R, and that would be fine. In our case, however, if we used white sperm and the child looked more white than Black, the child would look like some random white guy who donated his sperm. A donor is not a father.

Who’s the donor?

Genetics Post Ferguson

Just after Renisha McBride was shot in the head when she attempted to ask for help after a car crash, R announced that she wanted us to use my eggs and find a white sperm donor. “Having a Black kid is too dangerous,” she said.

Renisha McBride was shot because she was Black, so were Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Other blogs and commentators have spoken far more eloquently than I ever could about the lack of will to hold white people to account for shooting Black people. Even here in the UK, Mark Duggan would still be alive if he were white.

I am still trying to find the right words to explain my insistence that we carry on with the original plan to use R’s eggs and look for a mixed donor. As I’ve said before, R’s family have survived slavery and the Trail of Tears, it did not seem fitting to back down in the face of the current situation.

Then police shot 12 year old Tamir Rice. By this stage, we were well on the way of our fertility journey; the sperm had arrived, we were both souped up on hormones, and I could not escape the feeling that we had put our child in harm’s way by choosing Blackness.

There is nothing that I can teach my child, no amount of manners, virtue, achievement or sobriety that is going to protect him or her from the homicidal prejudices of others. And that is the point. When you have done nothing wrong, how can you do things differently? Mark Duggan wasn’t carrying a gun, what else should he have done? The people who need to change are the people carrying hate and violence in their hearts. The people who think it is okay to follow and shoot a teenager who went out to buy a bag of Skittles. And those people aren’t just the ones with the guns in their hands, they are the law makers, the lawyers and ultimately the voters who control the political will of both the US and the UK.

So I am going to make a commitment to my child. I am only one person, but I can vote, I can ask questions and I can get involved. I will do as much as I can, not to indoctrinate my child into subservience, but to change the attitudes which attempt to make that subservience necessary.

Genetics Post Ferguson