It was Thursday night, and I was indulging in one of my favourite late night activities, binge-watching The Bold Type. This is one of my favourite television shows of all time: not only does it discuss important topics such as the BRCA cancer gene, politics, feminism and lesbian identity, I feel it also gives me a glimpse into the future I want. Seeing three badass women working for a magazine, and living their best lives in New York – it reminds me why I work hard every day. When I watch The Bold Type, I see my future, but in the fifth episode of season two, I saw a very familiar part of my past.
This episode of The Bold Type is titled ‘Stride of Pride’ and tackles the subject of white privilege, in an incredibly nuanced and vital way. Let me set the scene: one of the lead characters Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) had just lost her job and was on the lookout for a new one. Her boyfriend Ryan (Dan Jeannotte) had connections to a rather popular women’s magazine and set up an interview for her. Jane was convinced she had gotten the job, however, when Ryan called her with information about their decision Jane was left utterly stunned. He explained that the magazine loved her, but wanted to push for more diverse voices at their historically white magazine. Jane was frustrated and believed that this was discrimination.
|Still from ‘Stride of Pride’. Credit: Freeform|
Jane automatically believed that she was more qualified for the position than the women the company was looking to employ. Jane explained her situation to fellow lead characters Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy) and Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), and the words that were coming out of Jane’s mouth did not sit well with Kat.
Kat is black and biracial and the only woman of colour in their friendship group. Jane’s storyline intertwines with Kat’s storyline, as Kat was pushing for more diverse hires at Scarlet Magazine, the company she and Sutton both work for. Kat was fighting for a young woman of colour named Angie, to work alongside her in the social media department. Angie was the perfect candidate, she knew her way around social media like no other, and had an enormous social media following. However, Kat was not allowed to hire Angie as a result of company policy. All employees had to be college graduates, and Angie’s family could not afford to send her to college. Kat saw that this policy hurt women and people of colour the most, and decided to fight to reverse this.
Kat and Jane clash over this because Jane refuses to acknowledge her white privilege. Jane possesses several privileges that poorer women of colour like Angie do not have. This is why Kat attempts to explain to Jane that the push for diversity is a good thing. Women of colour are finally being given the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Jane essentially ignores what Kat is saying to her, cuts her off and announces that she is not racist. Kat and Sutton’s eyes widen, and Kat replies that she never called her so. This is followed by an awkward silence as all three women avoid eye contact with each other. This scene is a pivotal moment in the episode, as while discussing the issue of white privilege we get a real look at the reality of being a person of colour existing in predominantly white spaces, and having white friends.
The scene stuck with me for a long time after I watched it. I’ve been in the exact same position as Kat with my white friends. People of colour everywhere can relate to this experience when the issue of race worms its way into your conversations, your friendships with your white friends often end up as never being the same again. I remember having a really eye-opening experience with my white friends a couple of years ago, and it showed me where I truly stood with them as a black person.
I was in my A-level art class with my two best friends, and I was having a lengthy conversation with my art teacher about my final piece. I was creating a sculpture about the hyper-sexualisation of black women, and this led to us having a conversation about reverse racism. For those of you who do not know, reverse racism (according to Google) is “discrimination against members of a dominant group in favour of members of the historically disadvantaged group”. He was explaining that racism against white people was prevalent, and I didn’t have the energy to argue with him, so I just let him talk at me. He assumed that we entered this conversation about racism as equals when there are structural systems that work to the advantage of white people at the expense of people of colour.
“I learned an important lesson that day. Just because your white peers appear to be socially aware, doesn’t mean that they fully understand racism. Unless they are actively trying to understand structural racism, they won’t understand where you’re coming from, so don’t expect them to.”
I was frustrated by this conversation and left the classroom as soon as the bell rang. I started venting to my two white friends, let’s call them Annabel and Sarah. I was complaining that my teacher was equating the oppression of black people to the oppression of white people, and exclaimed that reverse racism was not, and is not real, because of the clear and undeniable imbalance of power between races.
I felt comfortable expressing myself in this way because both my friends appeared to be socially aware. We’ve had countless conversations about race, gender and sexuality, so I was under the impression that saying this would be fine. I learned an important lesson that day. Just because your white peers appear to be socially aware, doesn’t mean that they fully understand racism. Unless they are actively trying to understand structural racism, they won’t understand where you’re coming from, so don’t expect them to.
As a result of white privilege, white people do not need to think too deeply about race, and again, just assume we enter conversations about race as equals when we do not. My friend Sarah was the most offended by my words. She stopped in her tracks and looked at me, saying “I won’t argue with you, but it does exist,” and then stormed off into the toilet. Annabel and I, like Sutton and Kat, were left stunned and stood in silence. Before I could say anything Annabel said: “here is my opinion on the matter, and I don’t care if you agree with me or not.” She then explained that she does not think the racism experienced by white and black people equate, but does believe that white people still face discrimination, even if it’s not as significant. It became clear to me that my opinion on this topic did not matter, and I wasn’t worth listening to. We then walked to the common room and then collectively never spoke about the incident again.
I realised after this conversation with my two best friends, that when I discussed structural racism with them, I usually put their feelings ahead of my own in order to not upset them. I was censoring myself and my experiences so my white friends would listen to me. I didn’t want to lose my friends and I wanted to make my experience existing in predominantly white spaces easier. I just didn’t want to be alone, and instantly regretted saying anything.
“Unless spoken to about structural racism, white people do not have to think about what it means to be white, and the inherent power that this has. When they are reminded or told they have a power that many others do not possess they see this as confrontation and immediately stop listening.”
That wasn’t the first time I had upset my white friends by sharing my opinions on race. The summer of 2015 I allowed two of my white, real-life friends to follow me on Twitter. Let’s call these two, Kendall and Rose. Twitter was my safe haven for many years, and nobody in real life was aware I had it. So allowing them to follow me was a big deal, it meant that I trusted them. 2015 was a glorious time to be on Twitter. I learned so much about myself, sexuality, race and so much about feminism. Around this time, people on Twitter were moving away from the basic ideas of feminism and were recognising the exclusivity of the movement and were pushing for intersectionality. They started calling out feminism that wasn’t intersectional and called it ‘White Feminism’.
As a result, I was constantly tweeting, retweeting and excessively liking content about this topic. My white friends were not pleased. They started subtweeting me, saying things along the lines of “calling it white feminism is racist” and “you call yourself a feminist when you willingly attack other women”. I tweeted numerous explanations of what the term white feminism really meant, in order for them to truly understand the meaning of the term, but they decided to ignore those tweets, and along with that they decided to ignore my existence all summer. I spent that summer alone with my family, constantly checking their twitters to see if they had written anything new about me. When we returned to school after the summer holidays we acted as if everything was fine, and never spoke of the incident in person.
All these stories have a common denominator. Jane didn’t listen to Kat, Annabel and Sarah refused to let me speak, and Kendall and Rose ignored my explanations. Unless spoken to about structural racism, white people do not have to think about what it means to be white, and the inherent power that this has. When they are reminded or told they have a power that many others do not possess they see this as confrontation and immediately stop listening. They prepare to get defensive and stop seeing you as somebody with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own.
“After having to deal with hearing my schoolmates casually say the n-word or discuss how they could never date a black person, I realised that no matter what … I was alone.”
They begin to emotionally disconnect with you and don’t see you as their friend. If Annabel, Sarah, Kendall and Rose truly saw me as their friend in those moments they would have really listened to my words and respected me. When people of colour speak about race in honest and nuanced ways, especially to white people, they’re making themselves vulnerable. This is a dangerous conversation to have, especially with those who don’t see racism as a very big problem. Jane wasn’t being a very good friend to Kat, and Annabel, Sarah, Kendall and Rose weren’t being very good friends to me. These events did happen some time ago, and some of these girls have changed a lot since then. I’m able to speak a lot more honestly with them now, but it took a lot longer than it should have.
My advice to other young people of colour existing in predominantly white spaces would be to only share your hearts, souls and spirits with those who want to uplift, listen and show you true allyship. More often than not, we end up having rather exhausting, toxic and one-sided friendships with white people.
When I realised that race was not something I could speak to my friends about, I started to distance myself from them. I stopped going to their parties and actively stopped going out of my way to see them outside of school. I lost countless friends but when I got home I could finally exhale. After having to deal with hearing my schoolmates casually say the n-word or discuss how they could never date a black person, I realised that no matter what I decided to do I was alone.
I could either be in ill-company with people who didn’t respect my race, or I could actively isolate myself. I knew that being by myself was the only option that would keep me sane, but I was extremely lucky to find a small group of people who understood me, loved me and were my true allies during my years of isolation. You know who you are.
To all those people of colour who have once felt like me, and who saw themselves in Kat Edison, you are not alone. It’s difficult living and breathing in predominantly white spaces, especially when you are doing it alone, but you are strong. I know it’s hard when you are just trying to survive, but speak up as much as you can. As Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, “every voice raised against racism chips away at its power.”