Yesterday, I was watching a TV programme in which a man on an ‘empty’ spaceship hears a baby crying in a different room. He hunts for a while for this child and finally finds it in a drawer. As a viewer, you’ve been hearing the baby cry for some time now and you are eagerly awaiting the catharsis. He opens the drawer, and there is the baby. The baby has dark skin.
The man in question, who is black himself, lost a son several episodes beforehand; and this is the kind of intense situation in which he might go delusional. Therefore it wouldn’t be strange for the viewer to be guessing that the baby would have dark skin. Other than this, there is no reason why the viewer should have any expectations about the baby’s skin colour.
After he had found the baby, I did feel a sense of catharsis. But today I remembered a thought that had occurred to me in the millisecond when he found the baby. A thought I quickly pushed away and almost unwittingly tried to ignore. The thought was that, not only had I expected the baby to be white, but that the discovery of a black baby was something of an anti-climax. In words that are hard to write, this translates to the notion that a black baby’s life is worth less than that of a white baby.
Irrespective of our own characteristics, those of us who are committed to liberation are constantly trying to check our privilege. We stay aware of facts (such as the fact that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get invited for job interviews than those with white-sounding names and the same profile) but we tend to believe ourselves to have transcended this on a personal level. We tell ourselves that the ways we relate to folk are different because of their characters, not their ethnicity. With babies, though, our biases can’t hide, since they are innocent and vulnerable. You can’t say to yourself: ‘I like this baby more than that one because he has a kinder heart.’ My shocking thought meant that my own racism was thrown into stark relief.
The unspoken and largely unacknowledged view in the West is that white lives are worth more. If the building last year had collapsed in a predominantly white nation instead of Bangladesh, there would have been international uproar. Americans would have been much less supportive of the Iraq war if their partners and parents were killing white people. The West would be more vocal about Palestinians’ rights if Palestinians looked like white people. And, regarding the refugee crisis, I honestly cannot imagine thousands of white people being forced to jump fences and sleeping in camps. The West simply wouldn’t let it happen. Boko Haram kidnapping 200 white girls in Nigeria? That would have sparked a war. ‘Other’ can be defined on any basis; the most dangerous ‘othering’ hasn’t always been about race. But these days, it is.
It feels very unpleasant to acknowledge one’s own racist thoughts. As Andrea Gibson says, the truth is not polite. There’s no time to be pleasant when death and destruction are real and all around us. Black History Month has just ended, but keep checking your privilege. Making any kind of a difference requires us first and foremost to know what’s going on inside our own minds. The danger lies these days not in fanatical racism, but in what’s unspoken. Changing the world is about noticing the thoughts in between.