A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007
|Identity as relationship (Bob Macintosh, amateur philosopher and charity worker)|
|09 August 2007|
Identity as relationship
Posted on: Friday 9 August 2007
I never used to think of myself as white. I would tick the box on forms - white was always the default, always first on the list - but it had no more meaning to me than my national insurance number, and I have never thought that I was LL nn nn nn L. Why should anyone think that they are a colour, a race, or an ethnicity? I found out when I met my wife, who is, or possibly is, Afro-Caribbean/Welsh or Dual Heritage, or Mixed.
I noticed straight away her features, her hair, her skin-tone, and they had no particular significance for me beyond her feminine charm. Our relationship began as man and woman, friends, lovers, partners, and all that ethnic stuff was not even irrelevant, it did not exist. I gradually became aware of strange looks in the street, suspicious shop assistants, odd comments. If ever we made some complaint, there was an immediate 'Oh we treat everyone the same.' I'd never had that sort of comment before, but it did not change my identity. But it gradually became apparent that it was easier for me to deal with certain matters alone, particularly anything to do with authorities and bureaucracy.
My partner was born and has spent most of her life in this country; she does not have a strange accent, or consult the entrails of chickens or anything like that. She has never been to the Caribbean. Appearance aside, she is just like me - university educated, vaguely liberal, nothing unusual. If culture is what you absorb from your surroundings and you upbringing, then her culture is British and white. But in her relationships with society, with the community around her, with the man on the Clapham omnibus, her appearance screams out that she is different, foreign, strange, and suspect. There is no question of choice here, she cannot choose to be white, normal, ordinary, even though she is in all but appearance. For other people, she carries an indelible mark of difference, and that negative identity is imposed upon her. Strangely, quite often people will say to her though, that they do not think of her as black. This of course is an obvious lie; if they didn't think it, they wouldn't bother to deny it. They never say it to me, for example.
The undiscriminating seagulls
It is a fact that my wife stands out in the crowd in this predominately white Welsh town. Perhaps the seagulls do not notice, but she stands out to me, and she would stand out to you - she's the one with the African features and the frizzy hair. There's no point in making a law, or a rule of political correctness that one is not to notice what is immediately apparent, indeed it is quite convenient for me, as I am shortsighted. The question is, what conclusion can one draw from this fact concerning her identity?
Through my relationship with my wife, I discover that I am white, not in our relationship, but in relationship with society, and that white has an unconscious significance of acceptance and privilege, which I have always been the oblivious beneficiary of, and which becomes apparent in relation to her. These identities, white, black, mixed, are not personal, nor are they chosen, they are imposed by the dominant culture on the basis of appearance. People of mixed race may have a 'different' cultural background, or a dual cultural heritage, or they may not. All one can say to 'identify' them as a group is that they are likely to experience that non-acceptance, and standing out in a crowd, that automatic suspicion, and that if they decide to 'go home' because they are barred from integrating into this society, that there is every chance that they would stand out there too.
What is needed, is what is most difficult for organisations, and for many individuals; not more definitions and rules and laws, not more knowledge, but less; less knowing of identities, defining of identities, understanding of identities, and a willingness to learn about someone one does not already know, and has not prejudged.
Read Bob's partner Isabel's paper here.
About the author
Bob Macintosh is an amateur philosopher and works for a charity supporting the disabled.