White Privilege part 2: if you don’t like the heat …

In the recent discussion on White privilege and the Muslim community, it has been suggested that white converts to Islam who experience both discrimination and difficulty in integrating to their new community have the option of simply taking off their hijabs or robes and shortening their beards somewhat, and all their problems will go away, while their Black and Asian fellow Muslims - and even non-Muslims - do not have that option. This is a tempting way of dismissing the difficulties converts face and has been invoked twice in the past twenty-four hours or so ([1], [2]), but it has no real validity.

What these people are basically saying is that if you dump your religion, or stop practising it properly, you can just go back to your former privileged life. This is much like what many secular opponents of religion say to Muslim women - that discrimination against women who wear the hijab is not real discrimination, because all they have to do is take it off and all the doors will be open to them. Freedom of religion means nothing if it only applies to expressions of the majority religion, or only to those who “look the part”.

However, the principle of “if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen” can be applied to many other stances which people are not compelled to take. I was prompted to write this by reading a John Pilger piece in this week’s New Statesman, which made a reference to the Irish - meaning the Catholics - of Derry in northern Ireland (officially Londonderry, but that name signifies British, Protestant domination). How many times has it been said that if the Catholics didn’t like living in a “Protestant country”, they could simply hop across the border and they’d be in “their” country - after all, they asked for a state and got it, didn’t they? Similarly, it is asked why the Palestinian Arabs do not just move to any other Arab country, and why do the Arabs not just budge up and take a few Palestinians in? After all, didn’t the British hive off most of Palestine for an Arab state (Jordan)?

Sometimes, it is said of people who experience racism or other forms of bigotry unrelated to skin colour that nobody can tell they’re Welsh or Irish or from the north or the south unless they open their mouth! I saw this offered as an excuse - in print - for a British pop star who said, in an interview with the NME (the New Musical Express, a British magazine), “Tom Jones is a Welsh c**t; he’s a Welsh bastard!”. Quite apart from the fact that asking someone to just not speak is not a reasonable expectation, such a comment would never have been tolerated if it related to someone’s skin colour. It’s true that a Welshman in London won’t get called a Welsh git and a black person might suffer racial abuse, but that is small consolation in a school situation, for example. If a group of thugs is beating you up for being a “stupid northern monkey”, it doesn’t hurt any less than when they use the N-word.

The point could equally be used against people who engage in racially or otherwise mixed marriages. There is particular loathing towards such people in (thankfully diminishing) quarters of western society - a black man was murdered in front of his white girlfriend in Liverpool a few years ago, and I have heard racist “music” which rants against “queers”, “reds”, “yids” and “N-loving white slags” (it didn’t use the abbreviation) and threatens them with extermination. It attracts the hostility of racists in a way that the mere presence of non-white people does not; after all, they can console themselves with the thought of coming to power and chucking all the “foreigners” out, but the notion that some of the foreign-looking people are actually descended from British people makes that all the more difficult, as, for some of them, does the thought of white women giving birth to Black babies. Walking out on a partner or spouse is not as easy as taking off a hijab, but it’s the “if you don’t like the heat” stance taken to its logical conclusion.

It’s another way of saying “you asked for it”. Why did you go out at night, or get into that man’s car, or let him into your house, or have that drink? You didn’t have to; you could have been more careful or lived a blameless, pure existence. Why did you grow your hair and become a hippie, or go on that anti-war/anti-capitalist march that got charged by the police, or marry that person rather than the person your parents chose for you? You could have kept it safe and conservative. People do not have to be religious, but it is our right, and if we suffer as a result, it should not be suggested that we just go back to our old ways. After all, some white people do live troubled or impoverished lives, rather than comfortable and privileged ones.

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