The White Privilege Clinic | An Open Letter to my white colleagues

I remember the day I changed my name to something more palatable, easier for a Western tongue to pronounce. I shaved off the letters that caused you so much difficulty because you were too nervous, too unwilling, too indifferent to learn it correctly. I still feel the flushing heat of embarrassment hearing you struggle to form the sounds and then deciding to just give up. For such a long time I felt it was easier to just play along, keep my head down and try to blend in with you. I learned about your history, your kings and queens, your great achievements, the way you make your tea. But none of this amounted to anything because like a drop of ink in a glass of milk l am still too obviously different from you.

I gave you the White Privilege Test because life can sometimes feel like you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when you are a person of colour. In the UK racism is both insidious and systemic and this of course extends into our museums. Have you ever been the only one at work who is a different colour from everyone else? Or have you ever been asked to explain where you are really from?

We were both taught at school that we are all born equal, that when you cut our skin we bleed the same blood. We were taught that racists wear white hoods and perform salutes. What you didn’t have to learn was that my existence has been racialised since birth where yours has not.

You have told me how uncomfortable the idea of the White Privilege Test makes you feel. You have told me you can’t have privilege because of your gender or because you grew up poor. You have accused me of trying to make you feel guilty for being white. You tell each other that it’s okay to be white. You tell me that you don’t see colour because we are all the same. I tell you that I am tired.

I ask you what it is exactly about the word ‘white’ that makes you feel so uncomfortable? In what ways have you benefited from being white? I suggest to you that it’s not my questions that are difficult, but instead it’s your answers that are causing you discomfort. I see the panic in your eyes as you get closer to the end of the test. In your mind you are clocking up all the ticks you have accumulated, and you say to me ‘oh gosh, I guess I have scored quite highly haven’t I?’. You nod sympathetically at me. You agree that this issue must be addressed, but you also tell me that you’ve had this same conversation a decade ago. What has changed in that time? Or perhaps who hasn’t changed?

I invited you to take the test because I wanted you to put yourself in the shoes of a person of colour. To see the other side of the same coin. I look you dead in the eyes and tell you my lived experience of racism. I ask you what you are going to do, with whatever amount of privilege you have, to help in this fight. Your white privilege is such an empowering thing. I believe that you can make change.

I know that by making the choice to work in museums I have elected to enter a white space. I know that I have chosen to be in an environment where I am in the minority and that I must find a way to exist in an institution that was born on the back of colonialism. Yes, I may now have a seat at the table, but that seat is a folding chair bought with diversity funding and it can be packed up and put away swiftly. You’d better believe that while I still have this seat I’m going to try and transform this table.

Nobody said this was ever going to be easy but your inaction is costly so what I need is for you to please start doing something.

Your colleague,

Shaz