The Orange House at the Bottom of my Garden- Reflections on Racism
It was the early 1970’s. I was seven when I learned two lessons about race. There are I’m sure many other events still to be remembered but these sum up how racism became woven into the fabric and architecture of my life.
Lesson 1: Foreign people invade and disrupt
I was in my red and blue toy Wigwam. It occupied the bottom of our rose-bedded suburban garden and I sat in it for hours during the summer. I daydreamed about the Cowboys and Indians running across the sweaty canvas. One evening in June I heard a strange language coming from the end of the garden. I emerged from my tent in full cowboy gear with my silver cap gun drawn and ready. The strange talking was coming from three men in white overalls painting the house on the far side of our garden fence. They were painting the white walls ORANGE. My parents were incensed. I remember them going on and on about it. My mum said, ‘this is what happens when ITALIANS move in’. I had no idea what an Italian was, but they sounded dangerous, and unpredictable. I liked the orange house, but I was also afraid of it.
Lesson 2: Black people are dangerous
My uncle lived in the Barbican in London. One Saturday afternoon we drove up to visit him. On our way back to the A3 our Morris Maxi broke down. In Brixton. At night. What I remember most about this was the atmosphere of fear flooding and drowning the inside of that car. My mother was screaming at my dad ‘DON’T GET OUT OF THE CAR’! She was afraid of ‘those people’ outside. She feared their blackness. This was not a TV show to be laughed at from the safety of the Epsom settee. This was not the infamous Black and White Minstrels. This was not someone running in circles for our entertainment at the Olympics. Now ‘those people’ were walking around, just outside the thin membrane of our car. And ‘those people’ were black. A young guy knocked on the window, asking if we needed any help. My parents said they were fine and hid in the car till the AA came.
A white landscape
These lessons were moments that both expressed and formed the cultural landscape I grew up in. No one sat me down and told me that black people are dangerous or unpredictable. These subliminal messages oozed into my landscape like muffled beats on a tape loop in another room. They slithered through the cracks, atmospheres, tones of voice, casual comments and ambient noise. They were not contradicted or even mentioned in any of my childhood reference points, in church, in teachers, in pop stars, in my Enid Blyton and C.S.Lewis books.
The story I told myself as I grew older was that I was nothing like my parents. I rejected most of their values and beliefs including their racism. But I never really looked at how the privileges I enjoyed as an educated middle class white kid were based on the exclusion and absence of others, particularly those who didn’t look like me. This reality was hiding in plain sight.
When I was older I would hang out a lot with people from other countries. I assumed I was not racist, after all, I had black friends. I never investigated the ways in which I was in a position of white privilege or the racism lurking within. My personal narrative of mutuality and connection in those relationships left little space for seeing the differences. In particular, the difference in experience because of race. That didn’t get considered much. I would not say I have been completely deaf and I have tried to engage as best I knew how. But now I realise I wasn’t listening deeply enough because that would mean facing my own whiteness and how that shows up in others lives. I now realise that is a painful and sobering process. No wonder I lived as if I had an internal noise cancelling device.
The white noise of my own narrative that we were somehow all the same cancelled out the distinctive voice of others. As a Christian I would have thought something like, we are all the same under or in God. I didn’t really SEE the distinctiveness of black brothers and sisters and because of that I flattened out the differences. I didn’t see that I was part of a culture that had its roots in the oppression of black and brown people. Maybe because in my culture, in the culture of therapy and the church I had become so focused on individual self-actualisation, on spiritual and psychological transformation. This was a privatised and inward approach that promoted emotional ‘breakthrough’ above issues of justice and racism. This approach can so easily focus on my ego, my journey, my transformation and leave precious little space for the outsider, locked out of the most basic structures of social justice.
The wake up call
Now I am waking up and its painful. I’m waking up to a grief, to a trauma and pain thats ripped into the souls of black lives for hundreds of years. The fact I knew this but didn’t really, really see this before has had a domino effect on me, calling into question other assumptions I have made about the way my world is, assumptions that now look tissue thin. Assumptions like racism has nothing to do with me because I am not a racist cop killing black people. For me this has been a disruptive, disturbing process. But it is not for my black friends to make it better. They have been living with racism for centuries. I know that I am late, very late to the party.
Now as I begin to do the work (and there is a long way to go) some things are getting clearer.
As a white person I need to put a stop to the selfish and narrow myth that I am on this earth to self-actualise my wants. I may become the best person I can be but if my black brother is in the next room being beaten, humiliated or silenced by a racist system that directly benefits me, that is not OK. While there are systemic and socio-economic aspects to racism my particular interest is in addressing what lies within the human heart. Or to say it more accurately, in my heart. I need to audit and face any reactions and micro reflexes that may have hitherto remained unseen.
Now I want to do three things
It is not for me to dump my white guilt on black friends. Thats my shit to clean up. Not theirs. As they say in AA, I need to keep my side of the street clean.
It is not OK to tell black people my version of their story with the hidden caveat that I tell it a lot better than they do, because I SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE. This is the kind of blindness that leads to statements like ‘all lives matter’. That is not the point. If some drunk driver hurts my child, it isn’t helpful to tell me that older people, women and other children all get run down too. I am only hurting for my child. Thats specific and trying to generalise specific, situational, historical pain is nothing short of abuse. It reinforces the experience of being invisible.
It is not OK to give solutions to a problem I helped to create. Many of us react to others pain, I mean pain that really hits us, with problem solving. This is a way of making us feel better because its all getting a little too intense. So we disconnect from our hearts and go up into our heads, from where we can find solutions. This is an exercise in self-soothing and turning up our noise cancelling devices to dial down the sounds of pain, grief and trauma.
Unlike Job’s friends, I will seek to make space to hear the voices of black people. To hear each distinctive and specific voice and to really, really listen. This is an exercise in clearing some space in the forest of my own ego.
2. Do the work
Once space has been created and listening is an ongoing way of life, then and only then can we do the work. I am at the beginning of this process. What I have discovered so far is that if I listen, I start to hear the cries of pain that were always there but dampened and muffled by the sound proof walls of white privilege. For me this has also meant listening to some of my own painful experiences previously suppressed by the same ways of coping and avoiding reality. This is my work, to clean up, get educated and learn.
To do the work is to face the truth that to some degree I have been living in a delusion. A delusion seems real, logical and familiar. But it’s a construction made out of avoidance and the suppression of pain. Waking up to reality can be disturbing and disruptive, but my black sisters and brothers have been living with that reality for centuries.
3. Silence is not an option
This quote from Martin Luther King haunts me. I understand the fear in some white people of saying the wrong thing. I understand the anxiety of inadvertently saying something that gets us accused of white privilege. But to be honest, I can no longer let my fragile ego prevent me from standing up and speaking.This is the time for saying something, doing something, rather than allowing silence to act as a cover for comfort and collusion.
We can enter into the conversation. We can start a conversation. We can think about whether anyone is not included in the conversation.
After all these years, I want to go back to Epsom and see if the orange house is still there. And if it is, I’d like to say hello to the people who live there.