By Katherine Craig
6 September 2017
Last week, model Munroe Bergdorf hit headlines
when a statement she’d posted on social media following the protests in
Charlottesville allegedly calling all white people racist was leaked to the
Daily Mail. Since then, Bergdorf has received rape threats and death threats,
been accused of “playing the victim”, and been sacked from a L’Oréal campaign
that, ironically, celebrates diversity.
For the record, I’m white. I don’t hate other
white people. Lots of my friends are white. Yet the statement “all white people
are racist” doesn’t make me angry. It makes me sad, because I believe it’s
Just to be clear: I unequivocally oppose all
forms of racism. As a human rights lawyer, I’ve brought cases against
individuals, companies and governments for racial discrimination. I’ve attended
protests opposing racist policies. I’ve boycotted companies that made racist
statements or behaved in a discriminatory fashion. I’ve laid wreaths in the
slave dungeons of west Africa and gas chambers of eastern Europe, and I have
called out racist language, including when it meant placing myself at risk. I
have supported community groups and organisations championing rights for people
of colour, and have tried hard to serve them with humility. And, yes, I have
lots of black friends. But that doesn’t mean my thoughts or actions have never
been tarnished by a subconscious, racially prejudicial thought.
Too often, we seem to think that racism means
actively doing or saying something racist. Not so.
We live in a society that is built on the
spoils of racism, and that continues to benefit from inequality in all its
forms. Or, as Bergdorf put it: “Slavery and colonialism, at the hands of white
supremacy, played a huge part in shaping the United Kingdom and much of the
west, into the superpower that it is today.”
“Why does that make me a racist?!” I hear you
ask. It comes down to this: in western society we are all taught (explicitly or
implicitly) that lighter is better. Those racist narratives are particularly
prevalent in the US, but you’re kidding yourself if you think we Britons don’t
suffer from the same prejudice. Take, for example, the stereotypical portrayals
of black people in the media.
The net effect of this conscious and
subconscious racism was reflected in a recent study recreating the landmark
doll test of the 1940s. It showed that “we are still living in a society where
dark things are devalued and white things are valued’.
In other words, if you grow up in a racist
society, through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick
subconsciously. It’s an unconscious conspiracy in which we are all complicit,
unless we fight it.
But there’s more.
As Bergdorf said “…western society as a whole,
is a SYSTEM rooted in white supremacy – designed to benefit, prioritise and
protect white people before anyone of any other race”.
There’s a lot of evidence to support that
claim. For example, you’re six times more likely to get stopped by the police
if you’re black. Unemployment rates are twice as high for ethnic minorities
than for white people. Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are more likely
to suffer from mental health problems and experience discrimination in
accessing mental health crisis care. People from BAME groups are more likely to
experience homelessness, and the number of hate crimes in the UK doubled this
Our society has structural inequalities that
benefit white people over people of colour (in the same way that structural
inequalities around class, gender, sexuality, age and disability benefit certain
groups over others). I benefit from that white privilege, and if you’re white,
so do you. It’s not a choice we made, but it is a fact. And, significantly, we
benefit from that at the cost of people of colour. If, as a white person, I am
more likely to get hired than my equally competent BAME counterpart (something
that has been amply documented), then I am benefiting from my white privilege
as part of a systemically racist society. When there is only so much of the pie
to go around, getting more than your fair share inevitably comes at the cost of
I’m sure most of the people who were upset by
Bergdorf’s statements would never be racially abusive or violent. But in a
society that is still too often skewed in favour of white people, at the cost
of everyone else, that is not enough. As Bergdorf states: “Institutionalised,
systemic racism is just as damaging as a violent, racist attack.”
Bergdorf didn’t cause offence because she was
wrong. She caused offence because she highlighted an uncomfortable truth: that
being un-racist is not the same as being anti-racist.
Any white person who is serious about racial
equality has to be anti-racist. This requires us to actively acknowledge our
privilege, because that privilege – even though we never asked for it – is the
very cause of the inequity suffered by others. Only then can we be part of a
meaningful solution to institutional racism. We have a choice: be offended, or
be part of the solution. But we can’t be both. I’ve learned not to bristle at
the statement “all white people are racist”. Instead, I learned to listen to
the pain, injustice and – yes – the accuracy in that statement. Just like I
learned to recognise those subtle situations where my race made my life easier,
and someone else’s life harder. Every day, I am still unlearning subconscious
prejudices, and checking my thoughts, actions and language for hidden bias.
Because I would rather acknowledge those faults now than look back in years to
come and know that I could have done more to be on the right side of history.
As Martin Luther King said: “The privileged
have a responsibility to do what they know is right.” Right now, when a black
woman is being attacked for opposing structural racism, that means standing
shoulder to shoulder with Munroe Bergdorf. If you’re a white person reading
this, I hope you’ll do the same.
Katherine Craig is a lawyer and social change
“…made my life easier, and someone else’s life
If his/hers life was on par in a society that was “on
level playing field” then if he/she made their lives
easier by their own honest efforts, there is no guilt attached to it. In fact that
must be considered honorable and praiseworthy by that society.
On the other hand if it was made easier by making
someone else’s life harder, then for sure there must be an element there of
racism and exploitation of one by the other and that is inhuman. On that basis
the cliché “They are poor because we are rich” is guilt ridden and shameful and that must be resisted.