Always First in Line: My Encounter with a British Mother in America
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in an East Coast suburb which I will call ‘White Flightsville’ in the interest of both privacy and accuracy. During the course of the afternoon, I visited a friend, and we drove to her child’s school at pick-up time. I found myself waiting outside at the front-line queue while my friend met briefly with her child’s teacher.
A woman in the crowd bumped into me by accident, then turned to apologize. I accepted politely, at which point she started a conversation. She seemed pleasant and outgoing, and I listened as she told me that she was waiting for her daughter. She glanced down at my ipad and saw that I had an article about Brexit open on the screen. Here is the gist of the conversation that ensued:
“Oh, that bloody mess. Finally, a cure.”
“Well, I’m from Britain myself. And before we came here about a decade ago, we had to wait in line at clinics in London just to be seen. My mother still has to wait, because the clinics are jammed with immigrants from India and Pakistan, and other Arabs. We can’t just let them keep flooding our country.”
Hmmm. At this point, I realized that this woman was somebody who either perceived me as white, as ‘passing’ (a particular semantic slip which requires much more than a sentence to unpack) and thus felt she could express her deepest prejudices without consequence, or simply didn’t care that I wasn’t white and that she was telling me to get to the back of the line.
I then realized that, of course she thinks this way, because she can, because she is white in a white supremacist society! This is the institutionalized part of the equation. But pretending it is the only factor — that white people are simply bandied about in a white supremacist society and have no individual responsibility — is just as absurd as saying that each individual white person has complete responsibility. Both are true: white people should be working on their individual beliefs AND on social institutionalized barriers. In this case, at some subconscious psychological level, this woman has chosen to perceive herself as superior. She should take individual responsibility for that choice.
I opted to stay silent at this stage, hoping to avoid embarrassing my friend. She took this as her cue to continue to fill the ambient air with her voice once again.
“If we don’t do Brexit now, the entire country will be…will be… well, it won’t be England anymore.” She stamped her foot.
“Oh, that’s so interesting. When did you leave Britain for the United States?”
“About ten years ago. In 2009. And it is much nicer here.” She lifts her arms to indicate the dome-like bubble of White Flightsville around her. “Here, they treat us like we still matter.”
“Oh, how nice,” I commented, “So, you’re an immigrant but you’re treated nicely in the United States. That is really nice,” I added. She continued as if she missed the implication while I struggled to figure out where she could possibly have been — on planet Earth, at least — where white people no longer matter. This significant distortion of reality — ‘White Lives Matter’ — is a dog whistle I hadn’t realized was also embraced in other countries.
She continued: “Yes, when I go to clinics in this country, I don’t have to wait for a bunch of immigrants to be seen before me when we should really be seen first. We were here first.”
We were here first. Who, exactly, were you here before if you just got here ten years ago?? Not too many people of color: Native Americans were always here, African-Americans have been here for centuries, and other black, brown, and indigenous (BBI) peoples, including me, who she had already plopped into a white category for the luxury of not having to strain to hide her racism have, in many cases, been here longer than this woman from Britain.
Note the psychological stance this white British immigrant takes: in Britain, she (and other white people, as she implies) should always have first dibs. She expresses overtly that ‘immigrants,’ who she clearly perceives as both non-white (‘other’) and as Middle Eastern (‘other’) should not consider themselves equals: that is, British people should always be first in line. Because she is white, she makes the implicit decision that no matter where she is, she gets to be first — at least relative to BBI peoples, who can just go ahead and get in the back of the line (bus, job interview, promotion, award, admission to Ivy League, etc.) where, she implies, they really belong. Note that her psychology guarantees she never competes with BBI peoples on any sort of equal basis: favor should confer to her automatically.
The interesting part is not the overt nationalism as much as the fact that she locates herself, in ALL settings, as primary and dominant because she is white in such an automated manner that her investment in white supremacy becomes immediately apparent. She perceives herself, as a British person, as ‘first in line’ in England and other immigrants as secondary.
Then, when she is an immigrant in the United States, she conveniently transmogrifies the meaning of ‘immigrant,’ placing herself as primary again, so that as a white person, she is once again ‘first in line.’ She reveals, from this behavior, that dominance doesn’t really have to do with country of origin or with immigration, it has to do with whiteness. She illustrates how potent white supremacy is not only in the US but also worldwide.
I repeated, “So, you’re an immigrant in the United States.”
At that point, she stopped and stared, and her friendly smile slithered off her face.
“I’m just curious,” I added, since this time she was the one picking her jaw off the ground, “if immigrants are second in line in England, shouldn’t immigrants, in general, be second in line everywhere else? Or, are we talking about something different from ‘immigrants’ and immigration?”
She had the decency to blush, indicating some degree of moral comprehension, however vague. But instead of responding with acknowledgement of her hypocrisy, she huffed and puffed as if to blow the truth down, and crossed her arms.
“Alternatively,” I continued, “we could treat all people equally. Like the American Constitution says we should. Including immigrants like you.” I smiled in the hopes that this would soften the truth that so many white people don’t want to see.
But, it didn’t. She turned away, her face red, and at that moment I was mercifully saved by my friend returning with her daughter.
This attitude is the sort of investment in white supremacy which is expressed routinely by white people as individuals AND which is expressed institutionally by white people as a group. In my experience, there are scanty and few exceptions to this rule. ALL white people should be working to dismantle white supremacy, but instead many of them cling to their exalted, false sense of superiority rather than deal with the guilt that taking things from others should provoke.
This episode illustrates that white supremacy is not merely a crowd phenomenon: that there are behaviors and actions which individual white people can take to dismantle these attitudes, and instead they often take the opposite tack, defending and upholding white supremacy.
It is true that white supremacy, as a long-standing worldwide fascist institution — the first which encompasses the entire planet — cannot be dismantled by a few individual white people: it is much too formidable a force. By definition, as an institutionalized reality which contaminates the entire planet, white supremacy will require wholesale changes.
This woman tells us all clearly that white people are first in line everywhere in the world, and that if BBI peoples dare to pretend our equality, as a group white people will do anything they can to preserve their right to subordinate others, worldwide.
When I told my friend, who is white, about the episode, she asked me why I hadn’t been even more forceful. I explained to her, once again, that it is the responsibility of white people to discuss racism and to find ways to dismantle it. It is already bad enough that, as BBI peoples, we are subjected to it on a minute-to-minute basis, never mind that we have to fix it. I asked that, as a white person, she address this issue: bring it to the forefront of the school and in every setting in which it is deployed.
It is not the responsibility of BBI peoples to continue to tolerate the wholesale ignorance of the bulk of white people while white people find ever more creative ways to shirk responsibility for historical decisions AND current individual choices that frame them as superior. It is the responsibility of all white people who feel that they understand to make proactive attempts to dismantle it.
Until white people as individuals AND as a group behave as if all people are equal, we are still a deeply white supremacist society. Any devolutionary behavior such as that expressed by this racist British mother should be addressed by other white people who call themselves anti-racist.
After dealing with this sort of automated privileging (social/group) — along with the lack of morality it takes to acknowledge it (personal/individual) — for decades, I have decided that my energy, as a BBI person, should no longer be used to fix problems created by and routinely enforced by white people. I urge all BBI peoples to consider telling the white people in their lives that it is time to do some proactive work dismantling the white supremacy that benefits them so completely, worldwide.
White people taking responsibility for white people inventions such as ‘race’ — instead of dumping it in our laps as if it isn’t their problem — will allow us as BBI peoples to make our worthy contributions to the human race instead of forcing us to use our valuable energy negotiating racism.