Since starting in Cambridge, I have had several discussions with other (white) students on the topic of race. Most are quick to condemn racism and identify themselves as an ally of marginalised groups. Perhaps naively, I had never doubted that if I or anyone else experienced racism in Cambridge, others would be quick to call them out on it. At the end of Lent, at an informal gathering, a male student began discussing the issue of racism with me. (White, cisgender, heterosexual. Clearly an expert on the oppression of minority groups). This quickly became incredibly racially insensitive, and ultimately escalated into a racist verbal attack. My lived experiences of racism were scrutinised and swiftly denied. I was told that my experience of racism was no more valid than his – a man who has never experienced racism, nor any kind of structural oppression, in his life. Any hopes I had of a rational discussion disappeared when this individual used outright lies to argue his non-points, such as the ‘fact’ that “historically, white people have been oppressed by black and Asian people”.
For those privileged enough to have never had your lived experiences denied, let me explain. The initial disbelief quickly gives way to a combination of anger and upset. It doesn’t quite sink in that this person with whom you have just shared a personal negative experience, refuses to believe you. They might as well have taken a fundamental part of you, and crushed it. By denying someone’s lived experiences because you haven’t personally experienced it, not only do you insult their intelligence, but you also deny their very personhood. This kind of denial is tiring. It is tiring because it not an isolated incident; it is a scenario that marginalised groups like people of colour (POC) deal with frequently. You don’t need to be a POC to recognise when another is being racist or racially insensitive. So when it crosses your path – say something. Call it out. Don’t leave someone in the position of having to defend themselves, yet again.
Most alienating was the reaction of others – or rather, the absence of any real reaction. There was never an apology. And yet, most of my friends and acquaintances continue to be his friends. Many prefer to pretend it never happened. This way, despite their proclamations that racism is A Bad Thing, they can remain friends with a racist. People downplaying the event is almost ubiquitous. It is dismissed as a mere “falling out”. Despite being self-proclaimed denouncers of racism, no one has made him reconsider his opinions enough to apologise. Instead, I am the one asked questions, usually “if I will forgive him”. Months later, the elephant in the room is my refusal to pretend it never happened.
This is my problem with many white people who claim to condemn racism. It’s “disgusting” when it is an abstract concept in the outside world – as though it couldn’t possibly exist within the hallowed walls of our university. The thought that it resides amongst us is so abysmal that it is never entertained. Racism is something that exists amongst people such as Nigel Farage, the EDL, Katie Hopkins. Not among our student population. However, when racism happens in front you, it is ignored. To you, he is still good old so-and-so. To you, I’m difficult because I won’t overlook it. And according to yourself, you are still a fierce denouncer of racism.
So let me say this: I don’t want your verbal condemnations of racism. I don’t want to hear about how you are an ally of the anti-racism movement, because you clearly are not. Actions speak far louder than words, so if you are not willing to call out racism when it crosses your path, keep your proclamations to yourself. Quite frankly, I find them offensive.