Protesters holding White silence is violence sign

Many white people feel intensely uncomfortable talking about race. They say that they are constantly in fear of saying the wrong thing, of “putting their foot in it” or “treading on eggshells”.  Recently a white US rap musician Macklemore put it like this: "White, liberal people want to be nice. We don’t want to be racist. We don’t wanna mess up. We want to be ˜Oh we’re post-racial. We have a black president. We don’t want to talk about white privilege and it’s all good, right?” It’s not the case. We have to get past that ‘awkward stage’ of the race conversation, step up and just have it. As a white person, we have to listen."

In the UK very few white people are ever challenged to think about themselves in terms of their own race or ethnicity.  Race and ethnicity  are things that other people (“minorities”) have whereas they are “just the majority”, the default against whom everyone else is contrasted. Attempts to address racism and discrimination are dismissed as “political correctness gone mad”. In the US a number of white anti racists are starting to challenge this utterly lop-sided view of the world. The Whiteness Project (a series of interviews with white people asking them questions about race and racism) was conceived by Whitney Dow when he was asked by a young girl what was his racial identity. At first he thought he didn’t have one and then it dawned on him that he actually has“the most powerful racial identity in America – being white”.  Stephen Thrasher interviewed Dow for the Guardian and reports him as saying thathe wanted to the interviews to “create something that could help white people have the experience I had” to reflect upon white identity and privilege.

The Whiteness project started by filming a number of interviews with a variety of white citizens of the US town on Buffalo – one of the most divided cities in the US. The interviews certainly showed what we are up against. Many  were full of both overt racist statements as well as a more generalised failure to understand white privilege – a number voicing the opinion that it is actually white Americans who faced discrimination in the labour market as a result of affirmative action!.

Despite the bigoted and sometimes deeply unpleasant views expressed in some of the filmed interviews, the conversation about how white people perceive their own racial and ethnic identity remains a hugely important one – we could do with a similar conversation on this side of the Atlantic.