Saying something racist or homophobic is a bit like taking your eyes off the road for a second when you are driving and clipping a pedestrian.
When you are driving there are no free passes. If you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter how careful you have always been or how slowly you usually drive. Nothing in the past changes the fact that right now, here, you have made a mistake. You didn’t mean to do it, but the damage is done. You can’t claim that you are in a relationship with a pedestrian so you know what hurts them and what doesn’t or that the pedestrian that you ran over last week didn’t mind.
Lots of drivers get angry at the pedestrians they hurt. They get angry that the pedestrian is in their way, or blame pedestrians for being so squishy. Some pedestrians pretend they haven’t been hurt just to avoid this kind of response. It’s even been known for drivers to run over a pedestrian they have clipped because they are so angry. Sometimes I think it is because anger is a much more comfortable emotion than shame. It is easier to blame the pedestrian for getting hurt than to admit that you did something wrong and you are horrified at yourself.
Fortunately, metaphorical car accidents are much more easily solved than real ones. If you can get over the shame and not let it move into anger, you can apologise. You can resolve to do better. You can think about the underlying attitudes that prompted the mistake and start laying down new thought processes.
Having to watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and motorbike riders is annoying when you are driving a nice sports car, but remember you are having a much more comfortable ride. Cars are great, you just have to be careful with them.
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.