Race special: Racism in Britain 2007

The subject of race is in the headlines again, but really it has dominated the social and political agenda for centuries. To start 20 pages of coverage, William Leith asks the question we all fear: 'Am I a racist?'
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The Independent Online

I'm about to take a racism test, and it's making me uncomfortable. Why? I'm not a racist. For the record, I am an anti-racist. If you asked me, I would say that, while the races may look different, they are equal. I would say that racism, the theory that one race is superior to another, is fallacious. Also, it does nothing but harm. It harms the victim, and it also harms the perpetrator. There is no sense in it. It is, quite literally, nonsense.

Oh, I know about racism. I know that, in both senses of the word, it's wrong. Wrong morally, and wrong factually. I don't know anybody who doesn't know this. And yet, as an idea, it persists. Something, somewhere, gives it power. And this is what's making me uncomfortable. Racism gets its power from some mysterious place, and that place, somewhere in the shadows of our culture, our collective memory, scares me.

I have an idea where that place is, but I don't want to go there.

Why does it make me so anxious? Because racism gets its power from confusion and misunderstanding, and these are risky areas. Racism, you might say, is about dysfunctional relationships; as a white person, I am on one side of several such relationships.

I'm white, by the way. I forgot to say that. But it makes a bit of a difference, doesn't it? As a white person, I spend most of my time thinking of myself, not exactly as white, but as something else - somebody without a race, perhaps. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I don't even think of myself as not having a race. Put it this way: I'm English. I'm white. My parents are English and white. My grandparents were English and white. And yet nobody, as far as I know, in my whole life, has ever referred to me as "white".

That tells you something about power, doesn't it? Thinking about this, about how white people can go through their whole lives not being referred to as white - they are, in the parlance of sociologists, "unraced" - thinking about this makes me consider how different I am from people who are not white. To show you what I mean, here's a description of jazz by the musician Wynton Marsalis.

"Jazz," he wrote, "is the most modern expression of the way black people look at the world." He goes on to say that it's different from sport, "where they reinterpreted the way the game could be played'. That's because 'Jazz is something Negroes invented... It is the nobility of the race put into sound; it is the sensuousness of romance in our dialect; it is the picture of the people in all their glory, which is what swinging is."

When I first read this passage, I appreciated it in a simple way - the author had captured something, and conveyed it beautifully. A black guy, he was looking at his own culture in a positive way. And I'm quite happy to appreciate jazz as a black culture, a black thing. But then I thought: I have a mental block about white culture. I hesitate before typing the words - together, on the page, they look difficult and treacherous.

White culture. Try saying it.

There's that mental block again.

Surely, though, if I have the capacity to define something as black, this is because I understand it as something other than white.

So I must have an idea, somewhere in my mind, what it is for something to be white - in musical terms, to sound white. But then, when I think about this, my mind twists and squirms.

I don't want to go there.

There's something about whiteness I don't want to confront. I can say "I like black music" quite happily, but I can't say "I like white music". When I think of white music, I think of raspy guitars and nerdy anger. When I think of white footballers, I think of hard tacklers, such as John Terry, and underfed-looking guys such as Peter Crouch. In my mind, whiteness is defined by what it lacks, or not at all. I can't bring myself to think about any positive generalities that define whiteness. Somewhere close lurks a monstrous power I don't want to unleash.

So, there it is: I'm white, and I'm trying to write about racism, but, racially speaking, I find it almost impossible to look at myself. I'm wracked with guilt. It doesn't sound like a promising start, does it?

On second thoughts, it's more promising than it sounds. And anyway, it's all I've got; as a gateway to understanding, it's the best I can do. So let's try to see how this guilt works.

I was talking to a black guy. Well, when I say black, he was about 30 per cent black. Which, in our society, for insanely complicated reasons, makes him black. Anyway...

Hold it right there. I want to tell you a story about a conversation I had with this particular black friend of mine. I want to be straightforward and honest. But, even at this point, I am overwhelmed with a need for self-censorship. So I'm going to stop, and look back over what I've written.

My first sentence is fine, I think. My second sentence, about the guy being 30 per cent black, sounds dodgy. I can't explain it precisely, but it does. I suppose it's because, as a white guy, to quantify somebody's blackness might be deemed offensive. Even if I have no problem with blackness.

My next sentence, about the fact that, if someone is partly black, in our society he or she is counted as black, feels like a controversy I can't just leap into willy-nilly.

Most pressing, though, is my use of the word "insanely". When something is more complicated than it should be, I sometimes use the phrase "insanely complicated". But here, it sounds as if I disapprove of the fact that, if someone is partly black, they are counted as black. In many ways I do. But something tells me I shouldn't just say this, or even hint it, without first clearing it with my internal censor.

This isn't getting me very far with my story, is it? But I'm going to follow the thought back as far as I can take it.

This concept, that you're black if you're partly black, is called the "one drop of blood" theory, and dates back to times of slavery in the Deep South. The idea, of course, stems from pure racism - blackness was thought to be a taint; a person only needed a bit of it to be, in the eyes of racists, spoiled. And if you read the literature of slavery, you'll come across all kinds of examples, and be sickened. I once read a quotation in which a guy from the century before last said something to the effect that a single drop of black blood "dimmed the light of intellect", as well as other slurs.

So I don't like the "one drop" theory - not one bit. But I also know that a lot of black people have since adopted the notion that, if you're partly black, you're black. And I know that this is out of solidarity - if, way back when, your abuser says that something about you, in any quantity, is bad, then, if you share this quality with others, you'll bond with them. And I also know that the Civil Rights movement adopted the "one drop" theory for demographic reasons - more black people meant more votes. My internal censor is saying: what right do you have, as a white guy, to enter this territory?

And here, my brain is beginning to hurt. I'm trying to say something simple, something about a conversation I had with my black, or partly-black, friend, and already I'm back in the 19th century. This is nuts.

Or perhaps what I mean is that, in some ways, we are all still mired in the 19th century, that we can't get out of the 19th century.

When Ricky Gervais, as David Brent, came up to his black colleague and said, "Do you know who my favourite actor is? That would be Mr Sidney Poitier," I laughed in that way that sometimes happens when something is truly, dangerously funny - Gervais is a comic genius, and he had revealed a patch of dark matter, a murky zone, in my mind.

He had revealed my guilt.

I was contorted in my seat, blushing, with tears in my eyes. "Oh my God," I thought, "that's not me, is it?"

Please, no!

David Brent is saying that he's not racist. But he's also allowing it to be known that he's aware that his colleague might think that he is racist. He is, as it were, lifting a hem, and revealing the concept of racism. He is being mildly threatening. His thought processes, which reveal his racism while attempting to conceal it, are sinister. It makes me cringe.

I'll start my story again. I was talking to this black guy, this light-skinned black guy. That's better. Or maybe not. But anyway, this black guy said that, if anybody called him "nigger", he'd hit them.

"I'd take him out," he said.


"Anybody who used the word 'nigger' in front of me, I'd take him out."