Race matters

The first carnival is up! 


[Cross posted on white noise]

Mary Seacole was born in 1805, in Jamaica, the daughter of a white Scottish man, and army officer, and a black African woman, a freed slave.

The family were by no means poor, although they had few civil rights as black people in a slave society. Mary’s mother was a healer, and made her living running a boarding house for invalid soldiers – using her traditional knowledge of healing and medicinal plants and passing it on to her daughter. Mary also learned to care for and about soldiers. She worked with her mother and later travelled and worked within and around the Caribbean, most notably in Panama and Cuba where she was widely recognised for her skill in treating, among other illnesses and injuries, cholera. She had advanced ideas about cleanliness, nourishment and contagion that made many of the European-trained doctors she encountered uncomfortable.

Mary also travelled to Britain twice, spending three years here in total.

Then, in 1854, when she heard of the Crimean war and the many soldiers who were dying of cholera, she went back to London asked to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse, offering her credentials and expertise: she was very experienced, as well qualified as anyone, and more so than most. She was turned down – at least four times. Of her rejection, she later wrote:

In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here (England) it was natural enough that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer… Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale’s companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it… Was it possible that American* prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? (*She was much dismayed by American racism which she had encountered in Panama.)

Mary Seacole was not the only black nurse applying to serve in the Crimea as army nurse. No other black nurses were accepted either.

Well, she went anyway, paying her own way and arriving in 1855 when she was 50 years old. There, she set up the British Hotel, a canteen hut and store, planning to finance her nursing effort through selling essentials like food, soap and boots to the soldiers. Florence Nightingale’s hospitals were a good safe distance from the battlefield, while Mary Seacole stationed herself just 2 miles from the action, took her medical supplies onto the battlefield and worked even in the midst of fighting. She fed, nursed and mothered injured soldiers, and concentrated her efforts on working with the enlisted men, the ordinary soldiers who feared the hospital (rightly, given the state of hygiene there!), and she earned a reputation as a skilled and effective medical professional, as well as a kind and indefatigable woman.

On her return, she was celebrated and given medals. She was at least as well known as Florence Nightingale, if less well-recognised in official terms. She was received cordially at Court and even tended the Prince of Wales in his illness, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. She was praised by soldiers, newspapers and the general public for her bravery and her medical skill. Since her war effort had bankrupted her (the war ended earlier than expected so that much of the money she had spent on supplies for her British Hotel shop were left unused and unsold), a Diana-style four-day benefit festival was held in her honour, attended by 40,000 people – unfortunately popularity did not translate into profit and she only benefited to the tune of £233. She wrote a book about her experiences which was very successful, which may at least in part be a result of her efforts to stress her “good Scottish blood” and to play down the part that slavery and racism played in her own life – not to mention, her mother’s.

William Russell wrote in The Times:

In the hour of their illness, these men have found a kind and successful physician, a Mrs Seacole. She is from Kingston (Jamaica) and she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.

… and he wrote in the preface to her book:

I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.

And then, of course she laped into obscurity. She wanted to nurse in India but could not raise the funds. In 1881, aged 76, she died and was forgotten almost altogether: she did not fit the image of respectable heroine, and even her considerable achievements were not enough to secure her any enduring popular affection, not in the face of “the competition”, dear white Florence Nightingale. It was only a hundred years later, in the late twentieth century – thanks to efforts made by African and West Indian nurses – that our memory of her even began to be adequately revived.


Some sources / further reading:

BBC – Historic figures
100 Great Black Britons

I also recommend Tell me about Mary Seacole, by John Malam for children, which is also a great way to introduce the history of slavery and racism to young people (my girl is three and has just about enough understanding, with discussion/explanation, for this book although I think it is really aimed at somewhat older children).

Remember I mentioned yesterday that I have been working on a new project?

Well here it iswhite noise, a new blog/resource for white feminists looking to explore what it means to have white privilege, and how we can confront privilege and racism in our daily lives. We are antiracist allies who are ready at last to start taking responsibility for our own white privilege.

This is a project that secondwaver and I have started and that we hope other feminists will join – whatever your experience or background. Seriously, get along there. And if you would like to join the project, by submitting posts, recommending resources or in any other way, get along there and volunteer!

As a white woman brought up and living in a white dominated society, I have white privilege. I also have deeply ingrained racist attitudes. Whether I like it or not.

I will not indulge in pointless navel-gazing about whether I personally am “a racist”as that term is popularly understood, or whether I personally am “as bad a racist” as Person A or Person B over there. Nor will I spend unconscionable amounts of time trying to exculpate myself by explaining that I don’t really hate people of colour, or pointing out that I have this many people of colour in my circle of family, friends and colleagues. Because – all that? Not really the point.

The point is, I want to do something useful to recognise and address my own harmful or alienating attitudes and behaviours, and to help the white people around me recognise and address their own.

I would like to thank the white feminists out there who are on the same journey (especially, recently, secondwaver) because you have given me the courage to put this in the public domain. I would like to thank the black feminists out there who keep beating white feminists over the head even when it seems like we might be a lost cause.

I will try hard not to be afraid.
I will try hard to listen.
I will try hard to be honest.
I will try hard to act.

That picture up there – it’s a sunrise. A January sunrise.

I don’t cry much because I’m a hardhearted bitch. This made me cry. Those kids.

(This has been around on all sorts of people’s blogs all year. I only just noticed it though…)

Ding! bellAfter reading this post (by Magniloquence, via Starfish, thanks to both) I actually worked out what it was that was *really* bugging me about the Great Lowri Turner Debate (see this post).

To recap – Lowri Turner, who had just had a new baby daughter of mixed race by her now ex-husband, wrote a couple of articles in which she discussed her feelings about the fact that her daughter was of mixed race. Some of what she said came across as fairly crass. But on the whole, I felt, she was trying to talk about and think about how her daughter’s heritage was and/or should be relevant to their lives – and I thought, however clumsily she may have approached the subject, that it was a good thing for her to be talking about. (I also thought that the criticims of her were particularly harsh and that this was because reactions to her were exacerbated by the general tendency we seem to have of hating on anyone we perceive to be a bad mother – but that’s another story.)

Lots of people saw things differently. Some just thought that she was being racist, end of. Some thought that it was not proper for her to speak of her daughter’s race, or her feelings about her daughter’s race, particularly not in the way that she did. Some felt that for her to (be allowed to) speak publicly about her noncolourblindness in some way validated, or at least appeared to validate, racism. Many felt that it all reflected badly on her not just as a human being but more particularly as a mother, because they felt that it showed she did not love or respect her daughter as a person, or at least not as much as she would have done if her daughter had been white.

Because I’ve just found Magniloquence and got a Clue, I want to write a little in the post about the race angle – which is on reflection (ding-ding!) as much what bugged me about the responses to Turner’s articles as even the bad-mother angle.


The first thing I want to say is that most white people are racist. Me too.

I don’t say that as the beginning of an apologist defence of racism, but only as a recognition of the simple fact that most white people are to a degree racist (whether they like or admit it or not). This is for the same reason that most people are sexist – we are raised that way.

The second thing I want to say is that I recognise that for many white people the above is going to be unpalatable. The word “racist” is loaded (like “bigot“, I guess) because we all KNOW that being a racist is a bad thing. Nobody wants to get called out on being racist because we all KNOW that racism is evil.


Knowing that racism is a bad thing is not the same as exorcising racism from our brains. You can be walking down the street at night, you can see a couple of young black men coming toward you, you can feel nervous, and then you can catch yourself doing it and you can ask yourself whether you would have reacted in the same way if they had been white men… You see a woman in a hijab, shopping in the Authentic! World! Food! aisle at Asda, and you assume she is foreign born, submissive, probably doesn’t speak much English, and then you can catch yourself doing it and you can ask yourself why you make these assumptions about people even you know it is racist and stupid… Such things happen even though you wish they wouldn’t.

So where does that leave us?

We don’t necessarily condemn all men as human beings just because most of them are trained to think in sexist stereotypes and/or to be male supremacist in outlook. We criticise their attitudes and the social structures that led to them having those attitudes, but we don’t necessarily blame them for it – especially not if they recognise their privilege and accept that this is something they need to work on. We hate the sexism, but (usually try to) understand and forgive the sexist, choosing to analyse why he or she turned out that way rather than screaming SEXIST PIG!, feeling that we have struck a blow for the feminist movement, and going back to our separatist commune.

Similarly, I hope – and I recognise my interest in hoping this – we can avoid condemning all white people as human beings just because most of us are trained to think in racist stereotypes and/or to have a white supremacist mindset. Those stereotypes and mindsets certainly need to be exposed and criticised and the social structures that lead to and perpetuate those views must also be examined. But, I hope, we can also – while condemning the racism and insisting that white people recognise their privilege and work on unlearning their taught racism – try to forgive and understand the racist, choosing to analyse why a white person turns out that way rather than screaming RACIST PIG!, feeling that we have struck a blow for anti-racism, claiming a special white-lady badge and then going back to our daily lives.


So here we are.

The first step towards eradicating racist attitudes is – obviously – to recognise them for what they are. Admit to them, even if only privately. Admit to them, even though it hurts. Even though it is embarrassing, and humbling, and it makes you feel like a shit.

But I am a beginner at this. So, as Magniloquence asks, what if I screw up? What if, like Lowri Turner did, I say something in the midst of stumbling around that is seriously offensive, stupid, rude and/or actually just proves I’m even more racist than I already think I probably am?

Well, then that would make me a shit. I would have to re-evaluate myself. I might even have to say sorry.

But at least if I give someone the opportunity to point this out, I have the opportunity to learn from it. At least if I keep thinking things through, keep educating myself, keep analysing it all, I have the chance to get a Ding! moment and realise what I messed up, and how, and why. At least, if we are talking about it, we are not brushing it under the carpet and pretending that everything is fine.

This all takes a surprising amount of courage.

Cake people by race

Today, I came across a couple of articles by Lowri Turner. I had no idea who she was, and still have only a fuzzy notion – apparently she is a Z-List columnist who has been on the telly in one of those celebrity reality gawk shows, and made a fair few quid flogging her wedding to the glossies, and generally she just doesn’t fill your heart with a quiet respectful smile.

In these articles (Guardian and Daily Mail, practically identical sentiments expressed) she wrote about her feelings on being a single mother with a mixed race baby. She is white, her two sons by her first marriage are white, and the new baby is half Indian. She states openly and repeatedly that she loves her baby and I believe her. She also talks about her complicated feelings on the subject of her daughter’s race. In theory she is a white liberal who knows that racism is wrong. In practice she has to a greater or lesser extent the same racist modes of thought that we all do, by dint of living and growing up under white supremacist patriarchy.

The difference between Turner and the rest of us is that she has had to confront those painful, uncomfortable truths as she looks at her own beloved, precious daughter. The difference is that she has to KNOW that she finds her daughter’s darkness strange. She has to CONFRONT that she finds it strange that her sons hardly seem to notice the difference that strikes her every time she sees her baby. She has to acknowledge and actually THINK about her fears for her family: that she worries about her daughter’s future in a racist and sexist world, that she worries about how racist and sexist society will perceive her and her multi-coloured family – a single mother with children of undeniably different fathers, one of them not even white.

Turner has been roundly slapped with the label “racist”. Her racism, directed at her own innocent new daughter, has struck many as particularly vile. People say that this woman, whatever she may feel inside, must not say such things lest her daughter in years to come will read them and realise that her mother does not love her at all.

The Daily Mail comments and these blog posts (one, two, three, four) and comments thereon are all good examples.

Yes, Turner is racist. Her reactions to her daughter prove that. She as good as admits it. But we are all racist, and – for what this is worth – it does take enormous courage for a white liberal to recognise that in themselves and to admit to it. It takes great courage to stand up and say – I married a person of colour, but that doesn’t mean I’m not racist. That doesn’t give me a free pass. I still need to examine myself and to think and to confront the nasty things I find. The parallel with “feminist” men struggling to recognise and challenge their own sexism needs no elaboration.

Yes, Turner doesn’t strike me as the kind of person I actually want to champion – what little I know of her (which may be unfairly skewed) leads me to suspect that she is pretty much taken up with the cult of celebrity, and that automatically makes her – in my book – someone I probably can’t respect. And she certainly says some dumb things about how she feels that her baby cannot possibly look like her just because they have different colouring, or about how anyone who dates or marries a person of a different race is making a political statement.

But then what? Someone, albeit someone we don’t respect much, has stood up and honestly talked publicly (as a columnist, that is after all her job) about racism – she has analysed her own feelings, examined painfully her owned weaknesses, questioned her own hitherto unsuspected racism.

And what are we saying? That she should STFU? That this should Not Be Spoken Of? That she is a Bad Mother if she seeks to start a public conversation about our latent racism, just because her own confrontation with her own latent racism happened in the context of her reactions to her own mixed race baby?

Should we also STFU about post-natal depression or about the difficulties some of us have in bonding with our babies? Should we also STFU about discipline problems, about our “unmanageable” children, or about how we are tearing our hair out trying to cope against all odds because they JUST KEEP WHINING?

Should we just pretend that being of mixed heritage is the complete non-issue that it should be, when it isn’t? Should we pretend that just knowing and believing that racism is wrong and harmful automatically makes us “colour-blind”, when it doesn’t? Should we pretend that by Not Talking About It, the elephant in the room will simply fade away – when it won’t?

Let’s not. OK?
Let’s not pretend.
Let’s not be afraid of our own truth.
Let’s talk about it.
Let’s learn from it.

Let’s grow up.

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