“These days, of course, everyone knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” (James Baldwin, 1974, p. 59)
I was brought up in a frankly racist and misogynistic environment.
This sentence, now that I’ve written it out, has turned out far too flat and bland for what it is intended to convey. Or is it that I have produced a flat and bland sentence, to veer away from the surface, and beneath it the substance, of what I (a white man) am really needing to own and attest?
After all, it is immediately evident that I have projected both the malignance and the responsibility for it into my environment, by the simple device of deploying the passive voice: as who would bewail “look what they did to me”…. So: let me try again!
Fear and hatred of people of colour and of women – unconscious, subliminal or out there in plain sight – is what I not only took in from my upbringing; I took up these stances and attitudes – uncritically – and I embodied them and acted them out in various ways.
Now this sentence, in contrast, feels very stark. Straight away I want to append a mass of qualifying statements, so you don’t get the ‘wrong’ idea. I won’t give you a ‘for example’, because that would be to smuggle one of these ‘qualifiers’ in – but the temptation is very strong. It’s a full-time job and a life’s work, untangling those knots inside me that my own mind has fashioned along the way.
In fact, as I write this, I realise that this urge to qualify, disarm, explain, contextualise, differentiate from (possibly) more overt or egregious examples, and generally to smooth off the edges of anthropoemic othering, is part of the whole inheritance and discourse: epitomised in that toxic old trope, the one that goes ‘don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are…’
In any case, I perceive clearly that the very best thing to do is not to qualify that second statement of mine. If I were a woman of colour, would I allow this white man leeway or mitigation? Well, it’s not at all for me to say, but I certainly suppose that I might do only or particularly if I were habituated to or conditioned or controlled or coerced into doing so by the likes of me…
However, I realise that I am not in fact asking for leeway, or for slack to be cut. What I am looking for is the chance to make reparation. I am probably not going to earn myself such a chance if I start out by worrying about the impact upon my status and social capital of speaking truth to my own power.
The process of co-writing, and of co-operating and col-laborating more generally, brings all this complexity vividly into focus. The flat little hyphen in ‘co-writing’ (and this is also the case, for example, in the ‘co-facilitating’ of a group, or in the ‘co-production’ of a service development project with service users) is often there to obscure and perpetuate a power differential in which one person leads and the ‘co-’ or the ‘co-s’ must follow in their wake.
I am not invested in perpetuating that differential: this at any rate is what I tell myself, and that is certainly how I theorise it. I want and need and intend that ‘co-’ to signify an active practice of equality. Yet I discover that I – the same ‘I’ – desires to take charge; to lead; to mobilise; to drive the project forward; to break new ground.
Now – being kinder to myself than likely I deserve – I can see this on some level as the operation of the force of habit and pattern, over and above the creativity of re-imagining power relations. If ‘naturally taking the lead’ has been the practice established over time, then my impulse or reflex to continue it, to iterate those same old moves, will be strong, and it will take a lot of carving out new paths in the forest, before there’s a genuine choice when a fork in the road presents itself.
But if my desire to ‘take charge’ is driven by habit and pattern, then the grim fact remains that its roots are therefore easily traceable back to the toxicity that infused the development of the practice in the first place – that toxicity which inheres in the received ‘obviousness’ that a man is going to be the leader (not to mention the highest earner) of this or any group that consists of one man and two women.
Moreover, I note the discourse which establishes that a white middle-class public-school-educated man is supposed to be ‘obviously’ the ‘natural’ leader of Empire, the ‘natural’ holder of such and such a mining concession, the ‘natural’ governor of such and such a province; the ‘natural’ dispenser of arbitrary justice, whatever values local wisdom and culture might uphold.
Such a specimen as I, according to this discourse, is held to be – holds himself to be – ‘naturally’ superior to the other, however the other may be constructed….but see how I have drifted back into the distancing of theorising here!
It is I (not merely ‘such a specimen as I’) who must make amends here. I am the one who is having to carry on grappling with it, because I am still caught up in it. There is no effective difference worth arguing over, as between the ‘reconstructed’ and the ‘unreconstructed’ me – I am still perpetuating white (male) supremacy, if I don’t change my practice.
I deploy my status and social capital, as well as such experience and expertise as I can bring to bear, in order to interrogate power dynamics and relations of domination in the workplace (and beyond). Now, I don’t suggest that’s a bad thing, or a project not worth pursuing. I simply find that the logic of it inescapably presses upon me the realisation that I replay the power dynamics, even as I endeavour to dismantle the structure of my own power.
This is my process (drawing to a close here, because for me to bang on about my process indefinitely, would certainly be to replay the problem!) To make a reparative offering, I don’t see how I can do other than to say what violence it was and is that I did and am doing.
It is not enough to perceive and theorise this violence at the structural level. It is not enough to note that I am a white man and so, yes, I am the beneficiary, by definition, of historical structural violence (in my recent blog about Writing critically about race and racism, I’d be rated a mere B3 there for “evasively identifying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in the other?”; or at best a B4 for “apologetically acknowledging themself as a ‘beneficiary’ of Whiteness and White supremacy”). That was not enough at the start of this piece of writing and it’s not enough at the end.
Yes, I happen, by circumstance, to be a white man; but I am actively the perpetrator and perpetuator of these several violences. It is not only circumstance that is at work here.
The secret heart of co-writing, I have come to understand (perhaps, of co-existing at all!), is, for me at any rate, to begin by giving up the idealised fantasy of how the piece would look if I wrote it myself (as if there even was such a thing as a single voice!); and to know, right from the outset, that the co-equal and creative intersection between two or more minds, across those myriad differences that both divide and connect us, will produce something richer and unexpected, more likely breaking of new ground (at least at the micro level): and, by definition, more precious.
This piece arose out of the work of the Equality Working Group at the Bethlem Hospital – and more specifically out of a collaborative writing project which prompted the three of us who were directly involved to agree to each write a ‘process piece’ about the experience of co-writing. To both these colleagues – Michelle Michael and Rachel Allen – I am particularly and profoundly grateful. I have slightly adapted my own piece for this blog.
Baldwin, J. (1974) If Beale Street could talk. Reprinted 1994. London: Penguin Modern Classics.