Stranger In The Village by James Baldwin

Stranger in the Village is James Baldwin’s final essay in his collection Notes of a Native Son published in 1955 when he was 31. The essay details his time in a small Swiss village around four hours from Milan. It soon became clear that many, if not all, the white villagers had never met a black man before. Their reactions ranged from fascination to suspicion and he describes how some of the children would try to touch his skin and hair. He found the behaviour shocking and writes that while “there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Unlike his experiences of racism in the US that sought to dehumanise him through violence and debasement, the racism of the Swiss villagers dehumanised him through ignorance.

Their ignorance stemmed from their ability to live their lives totally unaware of black people as real people and of the legacies of European colonialism. Yet it was precisely from Europe that colonialists and empire builders went forth, inflicting genocide, slavery and conquest over so many of the world’s countries. Baldwin notes that inherent to this colonisation was the idea of white supremacy, “that white men are the creators of civilisations…and are therefore civilisation’s guardians and defenders.” Crucial to Baldwin’s essay is the reminder (or lesson) that white supremacy is a European idea.

I was never taught this lesson, in fact, I was schooled in white supremacy. I grew up in an almost exclusively white village, went to almost exclusively white private schools and studied at a predominantly white university (Oxford). Throughout my life I have been taught racism: in the colonial propaganda that passed as history, the privilege to never have to think of the colour of my skin and the prejudice I was encouraged to show towards people with darker skin. I was told the world was my oyster. As Baldwin wrote of the Swiss villagers, “these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.” I have never been made to feel like a stranger because I am a child of empire. I have inherited white supremacy and, as I re-educate myself, so I learn of the history of European colonialism, upon which so much of the ‘modern’ world was founded. Whether we learn our lessons or not is one of the crucial questions facing white people. Whether we choose to defend the legacies of oppression and its statues, or whether we stand with Black people and make space for the healing of traumas inflicted by white supremacy. Fortunately, as statues fall, syllabi are changed, police are defunded, we know that change is possible. Here’s to a world in which no one is a stranger.

This post only deals with a fraction of Baldwin’s essay and I recommend you read it for yourself along with his other great works.

Dear White People, This is What We Want You to Do

“…this reconditioning is a necessary lifelong endeavor.”

Dear fellow white people, unlearning our racism and learning anti-racism is a necessity. Start now if you haven’t already, keep going if you have.

Inside The Kandi Dish

I don’t want to hear “I can’t believe this.”

I want you to read upon the history you’ve had the privilege to ignore.

I don’t want your opinions or thoughts.

I want you to listen to the Black experiences you’ve chosen to forget.

I don’t want your #BLM Instagram story reposts.

I want screenshots of your bail out money donations and patronage of Black labor/art/knowledge.

I don’t want your passive Twitter likes.

I want you to follow Black tragedies as much as you follow Black trends.

I don’t want to vindicate your white guilt. It’s yours to reconcile.

I want you to check your racist parents and call out your apathetic white friends (especially when there are no people of color there) without expecting a pat on the back.

I don’t want your tears. I have plenty of those.

I want you to check in…

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Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

How To Be Less White This Christmas

Really!? What a silly idea, that a white person can be less white, it doesn’t even make sense. I mean, if I’m white, I’m white, it’s just the colour of my skin. But in my 199th post on this blog I want to contend that there is so much more to my whiteness than my skin. Whiteness is power. It’s the ability to avoid everyday microaggressions based on my perceived race, it’s being able to cash in on my white privilege over and over again, and avoid being on the receiving end of systemically racist social structures. It’s the privilege to never have to think about my skin colour. I don’t even have to know I’m white because in the society I live in whiteness is so ‘normal’ that it’s almost invisible.

But I do see race, including my own. I see whiteness in so many of the TV shows and films I watch. I see it in the books I read, the communities I spend time in and the culture in which I live. I see the everyday things I get to take for granted because I am part of the oppressor race. I see the effort, often tacit, that goes into maintaining the normativity of whiteness. The scientific justifications that claim whites are inherently better than any other race. The everyday assumptions that are made about people with different skin colours to my own. The ease with which I can enter spaces that others can’t. The violence I won’t be on the receiving end of because I’m white. I see this and I want it to change because it’s ruining lives and killing people.

So, to be less white I have to first acknowledge that I am white and begin the process of discovering what that really means. Because it’s not just about skin, it’s about history, colonialism, slavery, Empire, racism, eugenics, prisons, schools, culture and so much more. It’s about the power my race has abused and continues to abuse. But seeing and acknowledging this is only the beginning and the true work begins when white people begin to redistribute that power. Of course, how we redistribute that power is vital because there are an awful lot of initiatives that serve only to replicate the colonial mindset and exacerbate the problem. The response must be personal and systemic, as we unpick our whiteness for ourselves and do so for the systems in which we live and work – whether that’s challenging our own prejudices, calling out those around us and trying to build communities that both see and see beyond race. Thus, we begin to remove the power woven into our very skin and, by doing so, become less white.