“I wish I had nice brown skin like ___, Mummy,” said my daughter, naming one of her friends at school.
If this were a well-meaning facebook comment, this anecdote would be followed up by an observation that the author has taught her daughter not to see colour, just to see people, possibly ending with a well-meaning but cringeworthy comment that she’s always envied mixed race children with their beautiful curly blonde hair and tan skin, and isn’t our shared future lots of smiling children whose differences in skin tones have blurred into a range of shades that can be described through foods: coffee, nutmeg, milk chocolate.
Instead I hope this post is about the danger of drawing false equivalences, and what we can do with history when we pull our statues down.
Full of Grace; the Lord is with Thee. My daughter’s name comes from a gift from God: an unmerited gift, one humanity has not earned but with which they have been blessed. Being born white is, if not a gift, a stroke of fortune, one that – no matter how many other injustices and disparities we face – smooths the cogs of the universe, making our lives easier to run.
Blessed art Thou among women. The Virgin Mary – Palestinian teenager, young and brown – has been for so long depicted in the Western media as white that to paint and draw her any other way seems to many to be making a political point, rather than a mere recognition of probability. That whiteness is part of the Virgin’s purity, her worth. She is as white as every Elsa-emblazoned school bag I see on the shoulders of my daughter’s school friends, who are around 95% BAME children. The symbols they venerate and covet are, by and large, white.
That’s why my daughter saying she wants to have brown skin isn’t the same at all as a brown or black child saying the same. When my daughter says it, she’s noticing that most of her classmates look different to her; she perhaps has a wistful wanting to join in, to be the same, to match, as many small children do. She is not reacting that way because she has been made to feel like her skin colour makes her less worthwhile.
I was five years old when I asked my mum if she knew she was supposed to have made me White when I was in her tummy. At this age in school, I was being asked to sit at the back of the room because the smell of my hair moisturiser made my teacher feel sick.
One of the students at my university wrote this. She was about the same age as my daughter is now. The casual cruelty she experienced is breathtaking. A desire for whiteness in a black child is not at all the same as a white child who admires her friend’s brown skin or her friend’s curly hair. They are separated by a great weight of history, a weight that pulls only one child in that example down to the bottom of the sea.
The people of Bristol had the good sense to reclaim drowning for stone villains instead of live victims by throwing Edward Colston’s statue into the harbour. In doing so, they were not erasing history, but instead joining a long historical tradition. As Elizabeth Archibald explores, since antiquity people have understood the malevolent power of statues, and the need to dispose of them:
In the Case of the Murderous Statue, the blunt force of the monument is a blunt metaphor: in one way or another, old monuments are capable of causing real harm. As the narrator concludes: “Take care when you look at old statues, especially pagan ones.”
What happens when most of us look at a statue of a long-dead slave trader? Nothing very much; our eyes pass over the old stone, because we are so unfamiliar with our collective history that what these men did, and who they did it to, has not been worthy of comment. Public history instead records, in banal plaques, that they were benefactors, proud sons of cities they enriched. It is a cowardly sort of history. I prefer the empty plinth, which leaves space for questions. And one day, perhaps, a new kind of monument, one which offers conversation rather than biddable silence. We have all of us white folk been silent for too long.
Black lives matter.