“Here’s your coffee.” I look up from my phone, startled out of my perpetual hunt for wi-fi. That can’t be right – I only just ordered it.
And the woman in front of me has been waiting for hers at least since my arrival, which was marked by the arduous off-peeling ritual of one snow-dusted jacket and followed by a thorough perusing of the assorted sandwiches and sweets, before I actually managed to step up and order.
It’s just gone 7:30 a.m. and I’m at the bus station, seeking caffeinated sustenance to warm the cockles of my morning-averse soul. The steamy swelter of the over-heated public building, in contrast to the blustery weather outside, has me sweating proverbial bullets.
I’m about to jump on a Greyhound for the next leg of my North American mini-odyssey and coffee isn’t just necessary – it’s integral to any semblance of continued human function.
“I asked for a coffee 10 minutes ago.” The woman in front confirms my hunch. The server behind the counter shrugs and gets to work on the belated coffee, as I glance at the woman waiting. She’s about my age, my height. She’s dressed for travel, weighed down with bags and warm gear, like me, and swipes through her phone while she waits. At a glance, the main discernible difference between us?
As a something-th generation Irish/Scottish/Danish?/God-only-knows-whatish Australian mix, I am in possession of precious little, while her flawless dark skin is luminous with it. I’m pretty certain I’ve just witnessed a microaggression – a small example of the racism that is the daily reality for people of colour.
Hold up, you might say. Maybe it was a simple error. Maybe I’ve misread the situation entirely, and our respective skin colours have nothing to do with the server’s sub-conscious privileging of me over my fellow traveller. I used to think that way, and could find any number of reasons why the blatantly metaphoric cappuccino always ended up in my hands ahead of someone else’s.
But regardless of what went down that chilly day, the fact remains that I, along with every other white person living in the West today (and elsewhere, too) am the beneficiary of a series of systems that are skewed overwhelmingly in my favour.
They are insidious systems that function as largely invisible to those they benefit. And, having recognised their existence, it is incumbent upon us all to work towards breaking down these systems and building new, inclusive, equal ones that do not privilege some over others.
March 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and kicks off the Week of Solidarity with the Peoples Struggling against Racism and Racial Discrimination. At this time of year, we find ourselves at an intersection of reflective remembrance around the fight for equality of the sexes (specifically in the form of women’s history month), and the likewise ongoing movement for racial equality, which continues now in the face of a resurgence of outright bigotry, in addition to the subtler, less visible day-to-day discrimination which often goes unrecognized.
It is therefore vital to take a step back and understand that there are women (and men… and also those who do not identify with the gender binary!) fighting the twin fronts of patriarchy and racial oppression and on top of that, erasure of their unique experiences, often at the hands of white feminists.
OK, I know this is an uncomfortable topic for most white people – why did I have to bring it up at all? Isn’t discussing race just forcing our differences out into the open and emphasizing them?
It’s so much easier not to talk about it – and besides, there are equal rights under the law now and have been for some time – shouldn’t we treat everyone the same? Shouldn’t we be colour blind?
I didn’t come here to be lectured, I came here to read some of that artful and supposedly gallivantary storytelling from a fun feminist perspective that the tagline promised… I was to understand there would be unicorns, perhaps some delightful karaoke anecdotes and the occasional GoT reference??
Yes, this is difficult. But can you imagine having to think about it constantly?
See, that’s the thing about living in a society that is literally set up to privilege one group over all others – a society where that group is considered the default, and everyone else the exception – functionally we do not all live the same reality.
We as white people have the luxury of not having to think about these issues – we can push them aside and find ourselves unmolested by them, indefinitely if we so choose. People of colour, on the other hand, are forced to face them every day in any variety of ways.
From the relatively small barbs – underwear of a beige persuasion marketed as “skin-coloured”, reinforcing the idea that white is what “normal” skin should look like; to those that are literally life-threatening – over-policing to the point where a routine traffic stop, or an afternoon playing in the park with a toy gun, or a sleepover on your grandma’s couch can end in your violent death. There is no opting out of that.
As for the concept of colour blindness, I would direct you to someone who speaks about this issue far more eloquently than I ever could – if you haven’t already, go watch this TED talk from badass business-woman, president of Ariel Investments and the current Chair of the Board of Directors of DreamWorks Animation, Mellody Hobson.
Her perspective on being colour-blind, versus being colour-brave, is enlightening and inspiring, and shows exactly why we need to have these conversations if we are to advance the cause of racial equality.
Later in my trip, I found myself wandering the halls of one of Chicago’s newest attractions, the American Writers Museum. A place with considerable interactive attractions designed to get you thinking about how books and writing have the power to influence, and focusing on those great American personalities whose skill in moulding the written word has taken generations of readers on journeys to other literary worlds. Ida B. Wells, author, feminist, suffragette, early leader of the civil rights movement, and much more, is one such wordsmith. I will leave you with her wisdom:
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”