The recent furore in the Labour party about Anti-Semitism has shocked me. It never occurred to me that there was any racism in the Labour party, of all places. The very thought of it seemed ridiculous – it was like waking up and finding that my beloved Aunt had a basement full of Hitler Memorabilia. Whatever the faults of Labour, surely anti-semitism was not one of them?
But then I thought about the situation and yet again I realised that I shouldn’t be shocked. Because it’s full of white people, and unless they work very hard, white people tend to be prejudiced against people who are not like them. Myself included. Not through malice, or through blame or annything which is active, but simply through being a human being with a worldview which does not come from being a member of a minority.
Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone have both argued that they are not racist, because they have never been racist – they have always been on the side of the oppressed minority, and this means that they cannot possibly have prejudices that they have so long fought against.
But my experience is the opposite of this. Because part of my constant journey into not being racist, sexist and homophobic is by acknowledging that my default setting is that of a straight white man, who is surrounded by the worldview of a straight white man, living in a country which is historically, and currently, run largely by straight white men. It is therefore not only true that I am to a certain extent racist, sexist and homophobic, but it would indeed by astonishing if I wasn’t.
It’s the same for all of us, whatever our colour gender or sexuality – black gay women can be every bit as prejudiced as me, but it’s more important when you’re the colour, gender and sexuality which rules the culture in which you live.
Because what seems fair and reasonable to a straight white man, like myself, or Jeremy Corbyn, or Ken Livingstone, is not fair and reasonable when you are a Jew, or a woman, or gay. Becoming un-prejudiced is not something which can be achieved simply by wanting to be it.
I see this all the time in white people being racist, in straight people being homophobic, in men being sexist. I’ve done it myself on more occasions than I like to admit. I’ve heard old ladies saying they’re not racist, but black men look aggressive. I’ve heard decent upstanding members of the church say they’re not homophobic, that they’ve fought for equal rights all their lives, but why do gay people push yet further and insist on getting married? I’ve heard men saying that women already have equality, so why are they still going on about it?
Ken Livingstone thinks he’s not racist, because he defines someone who is not racist as himself. Whereas the definition of being human is to have prejudices against people who are not like you. Just because you have been successful in not being racist for ten years, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be racist today. Like all things worth doing, to become un-prejudiced requires constant work, not simply the desire. You don’t become a good pianist by wanting to play the piano, you do it by practicing. And when you stop practicing, you stop being good at it.