I’d like to share two recent events from my own experience that have arrested my thinking and propelled me further into examining my own bias, identity and assumptions.  I am aware that what I am going to share puts me into the arena of race, culture, identity and inequality, where feelings run high, and beliefs are strong.  I have thought carefully about entering this febrile space with the risks it entails of being misunderstood, misrepresented or provoking strong reactions.  My intention here is not make judgement, rather share something of my journey of discovery. I am acutely aware that my perceptions and interpretations of things are entirely shaped by my identity and experiences.

My self-image is one of a well-intentioned, curious, thoughtful person trying to navigate moral complexity and committed to social and economic justice.  I like to think of myself as on the side of the disadvantaged in the world.  That self-image has been profoundly disrupted recently by these two events.  The first was a chance encounter, the second, an interview in a podcast series I am listening to.

A few weeks ago, I had to pick my daughter up from school.  As I was waiting in reception she came through and gave her name to the receptionist to sign out.  A woman stood near us in reception said to her “Excuse me did you say your name is Gilkes?”  Madi and I both said “Yes”.  The woman said; “That’s my name too.”

Gilkes is an uncommon name, especially in North Wales, so this was an improbable situation, but not impossible.  The woman had a Liverpool accent, not unexpected, Liverpool and North Wales have very strong links.  The woman was also black.  My mind was racing, not only had I found someone with the same surname as me (this has only happened one other time in my life), and in an unexpected place, she was not white.  How could this be?  You can probably guess what followed, as I descended into an increasingly awkward (for me) conversation.  I asked her; ‘How did you get the name Gilkes? It’s really unusual.”  She replied: “Well, it was my father’s name”.  “Oh really,” I said, my enthusiasm running away now, “Where is he from?”  I asked.  She replied: “Barbados.  My mum’s from Liverpool”.  Before I can think about this, I say;” Barbados? Really?” She replies; “Yes, there are lots of Gilkes in Barbados, literally hundreds.”  I ask; “How can that be, it’s such an uncommon name.”  The woman observed me for a moment and then had a two-word reply; “Probably slavery.”, she said.  Although I wanted the ground to open-up at that moment and swallow me and all my naivety, I continued with the conversation to find out some more about her father and his family in Barbados.  It was not uncommon for enslaved people from Africa and their descendants to be given or take the surname of their owner.

There is an interpretation of this event which goes along the lines of ‘You were just being curious; it was a pretty incongruous situation, that’s not bias at play’.  I believe curiosity was certainly a factor but it’s too easy for me to leave it at that.  It’s more challenging to ask the question; in that context, particularly with my identity as a white, middle class British man, what assumptions and bias might have been at play for me?

The podcast is called ‘We need to talk about whiteness’. Hosted by Dr Myriam Francois, a film maker and writer, it’s an exploration of the meaning of whiteness.  In one of the episodes, she interviews Professor Kehinde Andrews of Birmingham City University.  He is an academic, activist and author and the UK’s first Professor of Black Studies. At one point in the interview Professor Andrews is responding to a question about how to build an alliance, or common cause between black and white people to end structural racism.  His response (and this is my replay of his essential point) is that we (black people) don’t need white people to deal with this.  If white people want to come on board and help, that’s OK.  But part of the problem is that black people have been wating for over 500 years for white people to see the injustice (of slavery, colonialism and imperialism) and put it right.  But white people can’t do it because whiteness is so embedded in the political economy, societal structures and individual psychology. It’s like a collective psychosis white people cannot cure themselves of.  Therefore the solution lies in the hands of black people.

My purpose here is not to debate Professor Andrews’ analysis, profoundly provocative as it is.

His argument combined with my encounter at the school have really challenged my thinking and self-perception. Prior to these events I considered myself a subscriber to the point of view that everyone has biases in their thinking.  Whilst I would still agree with that, it also feels too easy.  To accept it as part of the nature of us and then move on, not really interrogate it, examine how it applies to me.  When you are confronted with your own bias at play as I think I was in that school reception, it’s profoundly challenging.  Especially for folk like me who believe they are compassionate, fair, balanced and aware.  Part of my identity is rooted in concepts and beliefs around justice and fairness and finding common cause with others to overturn injustice, create a fairer economy and society.  When you hear someone who’s life experience and academic research leads them to conclude that maybe those beliefs are actually part of the problem – the view that we can somehow reach consensus and come together to make the world fairer, or that it’s my role (as a white person) to come to the aid of black people – that’s really challenging.  Where do my beliefs and perceptions come from? What are they rooted in?  Could they be part of the problem rather than the solution?

It’s not a comfortable place – both the experience and writing about it. But it is useful for me and has propelled me into reading, listening and trying to understand more.

I am currently listening to:
‘We need to talk about whiteness’ Dr Myriam Francois. Podcast

I am reading:
White Fragility. Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin Diangelo.
Black Skin, White Masks – Frantz Fanon