Opinion: I was brought up a racist

PUBLISHED: 13:43 07 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:43 07 July 2020

David lives in a part of South Devon with 97.5% white population. Photo: Getty images/Geoff Eccles

David lives in a part of South Devon with 97.5% white population. Photo: Getty images/Geoff Eccles

Geoff Eccles (Geoff Eccles (Photographer) - [None]

I’m a privileged white man living in Devon - but I know that Black Lives Matter

I am not black, I live in Devon, so what the hell has Black Lives Matter got to do with me? I cannot be the only middle-aged (at a push) white privileged person that is asking themselves that question at the moment and frankly having asked the question of myself; I wouldn’t say I like a lot of the answers.

I was brought up a racist – no doubt about that. White and living in a Yorkshire mill town in the 1960s and ’70s there was never any debate about it – white good, everything else not so good.

At the family table, the blame for any of our ills was placed at the door of people we had never met, never had any dealings with and knew nothing of, other than the colour of their skin.

The influx of migrant workers needed to keep the woollen mills running was a bone of contention among the working classes at the time, mostly borne out of ignorance, but mainly out of the economic posturing of some politicians and union leaders.

When times were good, ethnic minority workers were tolerated. When times were bad, they were encouraged to go home.

I regularly witnessed exchanges not dissimilar to those in the landmark stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s book, Small Islands, about Windrush, where the white man claims to hear nothing the Jamaican man says and understands less.

Despite the rapidly expanding minority population in my little bit of West Yorkshire, I went through school without ever encountering anything other than white faces in my classrooms, where the only mention of race was via colonialism.

We were taught about the sort of colonialism that conquered other nations by subjugation, achieved by virtue of an inherited white supremacy, ignoring the fact that it had only been invented a few hundred years before.

In my school, a small grammar school, itself with a proud 450-year history, slavery was not mentioned.

I worked on newspapers first in Dewsbury and then in Bradford, where again my colleagues were entirely white and only one spoke the one other dominant language of the area, Punjabi.

And it was not until I was in my mid-twenties, when covering the racist rantings of a deluded middle school headteacher called Ray Honeyford did I ever begin to question my place in it all.

But again my own white privilege (now recognised) allowed me to take myself away from all that, just before Bradford, not surprisingly, erupted in nights of rioting, not by right or left, but by angry young men of proud Asian heritage and with broader Yorkshire accents than my own.

I was also in Bristol when tensions in St Paul’s boiled over yet again at the end of our garden, or put another way in our own back yard, but I was still mostly unaffected by the issues raised.

To my shame, I thought that it was not my problem.

Moving to Bath pushed the problem even further away – so much so that when our dog, who had only ever lived in Bath, first went to Brixton, she reacted badly. Getting her used to anything other than a white skin took time and patience.

Compared to Bristol, Bath was a predominantly white bubble full of right on people willing to discuss race and racism in principle, but unwilling to get involved. It is easy in theory and at a metaphorical distance.

From Bath (94.6% white) it was a short step to Devon (94.9% white) and our little bit of South Devon which is 97.5% white and if I were a praying man, I would pray that was not a subconscious part of the decision to move here.

They won’t thank me for writing this (then again they probably won’t read this) but much of my family remains racist (some overtly, some less so) and choose to temper their language for fear of rebuke when in my company.

The biggest row I have ever had with my sister was about Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for pursuing an education, and was subsequently flown to the UK for life-saving treatment.

Despite the humanity and compassion shown, and the work she has gone on to do for girls around the world, my sister could not see beyond the colour of Malala’s skin. Period.

By the same token, I have a Jewish friend. No strike that - a Jewish acquaintance - who rails against anti-Semitism everywhere but cannot see the harm in promoting the slogan White Lives Matter Too whenever the phrase Black Lives Matter is used.

Banksy, brought up in Bristol, has it spot on when he writes about racism being systemic: “People of colour are being failed by the system. The white system. Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs. The faulty system is making their life a misery, but it’s not their job to fix it. They can’t; no one will let them in the apartment upstairs.

“This is a white problem. And if white people don’t fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in.”

In short, white lives do matter, but right now Black Lives need the spotlight on them for as long as it takes. Banksy is right, this is our problem. Time we all rallied to help fix it.

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