By Elaine Mead
Inequality is rife across our society, and across the world. As women, we are often made excruciatingly aware of the gaps that exist in how we are viewed compared to our male counterparts. In waves across our collective history we rise up and make new stands, employ new social media campaigns and forge forward with our voice to be heard in our pursuit of equality.
Yet there still exists an even bigger gap. One that is seldom acknowledged and addressed. The gap between our experiences as white females, and the wealth of privilege that provides, and our non-white female counterparts.
There is so much racism, both in our past and present as a global society, that is unacknowledged. You can find examples in simple things. Take a look at the best-sellers shelves in your local bookstore. How many of the authors are women? Now look again, how many of those women are white?
It’s a conversation that has stuck with me for over a year now. I was called to account by those I hold dear for how my whiteness allows me access to privilege in society that they are denied. I experienced it first hand in their presence and the shock at how uneducated, how blind, I had been reverberated in my mind.
Though highly educated, I come from a working class background. I was lucky enough to have a mother who told me I could do and be anything, achieve anything – as long as I worked hard enough. For a long time, I believed that it was my hard work, determination and ambition that has allowed me the success I have achieved – both academically and professionally in my career, and as a writer.
While they were of course strong contributing factors, I have to resign myself to the fact they are not the only factors.
We live in a society that favours me, simply because of the colour of my skin. It’s not just my own society either. Societies and communities the world over still favour me for this reason alone.
As an educated white female I am at the top of the food chain, second only to white men. When full equality does come (and it will) I will be the first to reap the benefits of this.
But what about my non-white female companions?
The Guardian reported recently on the gap between the number of black students who drop out of university, compared to white students. Overwhelmingly the responses are from female students who report feeling isolated, misunderstood and underrepresented as factors for their decision.
I have spent much of the last year attempting to educate myself on this issue. Literature has been one of the biggest means for me to do this. I recently read Zadie Smith’s excellent 2007 essay ‘Fail Better’. The essay does not pertain to race as such, but asks the question what duty do we have writers? Is writing an expression of self?
A stand out quote for me from the essay is the below:
“What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen’s prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton’s.”
We need to be aware that when we only read narratives that relate to us, both in terms of culture and race, we are in effect refusing to educate ourselves about the bigger issues and experiences that exist across our global communities. We need to be equally aware as writers and creatives, how much our whiteness benefits us and influences our narratives.
There are so many stories and experiences in the world, that we as white women can’t even begin to fathom. There are many more women who need those stories, and representation. There are entire publications, and networks that provide a platform for non-white female writers, simply so they can have a voice. Because they can’t compete with mainstream publications, where white is queen.
Simply thinking ‘I’m not a racist’ is not, and never has been, enough.
It’s time to exercise better self-awareness. As a writer I need to stop and think whether my voice is needed – and I ask all of you to do the same. Consider, who is it bringing value to and more importantly, who is unable to tell their story because of the space you take?
As Smith advises, great writing forces us to be attentive, to wake us up. This includes waking up to the experiences of others who haven’t had the privileges we have.
It’s time to give them our platform, and our undivided attention.
Art by Laura Berger.