The Privilege, Partiality and Power of My Whiteness

In recent weeks I have become increasingly preoccupied with the issue of whiteness. This has arisen out of discussions with friends and colleagues including Suman Fernando, Jayasree Kalathil and Alison Faulkner. As a result of this Alison and I resolved to write about our whiteness, something that unites us across our different perspectives – female survivor activist and researcher, male former psychiatrist and writer. (We are also lovers of cats, but that’s a different story!) What follows is my first attempt to contribute my personal view of my whiteness for our joint paper. Read on…

 

My eyes were first opened to the racism of psychiatry and the mental health system on my first day as a consultant psychiatrist in Manchester in September 1983. Twenty of the twenty-two male patients whose care I had taken over were young black men. I was shocked. Nothing in my training had prepared me for this. I had spent five years in Edinburgh training to be a psychiatrist, and thought I knew all there was to know in those days about schizophrenia. In Manchester I was baffled. Most of the young black men had case-note diagnoses of schizophrenia, yet when I interviewed them carefully very few of them, a handful, described clearly the experiences that I had been taught were necessary to make the diagnosis. Most of them behaved oddly, and most came over as angry and hostile, but there was little to justify the label schizophrenia.

As I tried to get to know these men other things struck me. Compared with the few white patients under my care, most of the black men came into psychiatric services not through their family doctors, but through casualty, or via police cells or the courts. Many were homeless and few appeared to have contact with their families. I was drawn to the conclusion that there was something seriously wrong with psychiatry and mental health services as far as black people were concerned.

My work covered the inner-city areas of Moss Side, Alexandra Park and Whalley Range, where most of the city’s African-Caribbean communities lived, so I resolved to get out into the community (something I had been encouraged to do in my Edinburgh training) to visit families. I was shocked by the horror in the eyes of the mother of one of my patients when I went on an arranged visit to discuss her son. “Are you from the police?” she asked as she opened the door.

Then I visited George Jackson House, a hostel for homeless young black men set up by the community some ten years earlier. I spoke to the manager, Mrs. Whyte, and my eyes were opened even further. As we got to know and trust each other we shared anecdotes about our backgrounds. It was spring, and the bulbs were in flower in nearby Alexandra Park. She recited a line of poetry from Wordsworth’s Daffodils. At first I didn’t realise what it was. “You must know Daffodils!” she said, chiding me gently. In truth I was shocked that she knew the poem better than I did. “Back home in Jamaica we were taught all about England, English Monarchs, history, poetry. We were taught that we were part of one great family under the Queen.”

In this way began a process of understanding (that is still far from complete) that my view of the world as a white person was characterised by three Ps: privilege, partiality and power – ppp. I had never thought of my whiteness in this way. I was privileged because being white I had had an excellent education from teachers who saw my potential and helped me to realise it academically. I hadn’t been written off as a ‘no-hoper’ who was only of any value on the sports field. (That’s what most of my young black men told me about their teachers).

I was privileged because as a young white man I had been able to walk the streets in Manchester where I studied medicine, without being stopped and searched by the police, or without having to face racist comments and insults from white youngsters (which most of the young black men had experienced). My childhood was secure home; my parents owned their own home and my father was in employment. Our whiteness in the 1950s meant we didn’t have to struggle with Rachmanism, and the corrosive effects of unemployment on family life.

As my friendships with black people began to flourish I discovered that being white was partial; it was prejudiced and biased, but in such a way as to conceal its partiality. For example, at school we were only ever taught about the great achievements of the British Empire. Nothing was ever said about our role in slavery, or white exploitation of the Indian subcontinent, and our attempts to extirpate its cultures and to impose British values and beliefs on the peoples of India and Pakistan.

 

This partiality hit me most strongly through white people’s silent gaze towards black people. One of my oldest friends, Gilroy (the first project worker we employed in what was then Manchester’s African-Caribbean Mental Health Project – now Services) asked would I be his best man at his marriage. We walked down Deansgate to arrange morning suit hire one Saturday afternoon. It was the first time I had been in a mainly white space with a black person. I was shocked at the way people looked at Gilroy. A gaze of suspicion, mistrust, even hatred. It wasn’t until I read Franz Fanon shortly after this that I began to understand.

My role as a psychiatrist confronted me with the power of whiteness. Laws decreed by an almost exclusively white parliament, and enacted through an almost exclusively white legal and medical profession, impacted most disproportionately on black people, both numerically and in terms of severity. These laws meant that white people like me were able to coerce black people into receiving powerful drugs against their wishes, to lock them up, restrain and detain them. The term ‘mental disorder’ instantiated my power as a white person. And all the time the great myth continues because we are not allowed to talk about whiteness, its history, its privileges, its partiality and its power.

Privilege, partiality and power; ppp. In musical notation ppp means as quietly as possible, barely whispered. We white people rarely discuss whiteness, and then only in the quietest of whispers. To be blunt, having to face up to it terrifies us (DiAngelo, 2011). Whiteness isn’t a two-dimensional thing, a shallow wash of cricket and warm beer daubed over our personalities. The more I became friends with people from non-European cultures, the more questions this raised for me about my culture. No, that’s not quite correct. To use the word ‘culture’ here completely misses the point. ‘Culture’ is a soft and cuddly way of avoiding the really difficult reality that whiteness has harmed, and continues to harm black people. I still don’t know how to challenge or overcome it, but perhaps self-awareness is a really good starting place.

 

DiAngelo, R. (2011) International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3 (3), 54-70