How America Made Me White

It took me a couple of seconds to get Stephen Colbert’s joke line—“I don’t see race”—when I first heard it.

In the USA, the joke works because no one can seriously imagine everyone not seeing race.

But when I first heard it, I had to work that out because I was born and raised in the UK … and I never saw race.

That’s not because I am more evolved than any American or more “woke” or more of anything at all. It’s just that I was brought up in a culture and a manner in which skin color was something one paid about as much attention to as hair color. Colbert’s joke simply wouldn’t work in the England of my generation.

I emigrated to the States 14 years ago and within a year had moved to Harlem, where I lived for five years.

While there, I met a gentleman at a party across the water in Hoboken, and we hit it off. His name was Jesse. We found we had a lot in common in how we saw the world, which was made all the more of a basis for a friendship by the fact that we had very little in common in how we came into it.

We were both Brits so had all the cultural affinity that comes with that, but he had grown up in Camberwell, which, in his day, was to London as the Bronx was to New York before it became safe. In contrast, I had spent my teenage years in an old manor house that had been converted to a private school to which I won a scholarship. He “got out” of Camberwell to become a music producer, while I very much “stayed in” education in beautiful buildings and became a student at Cambridge University.

We started hanging out at his place and mine, and places in between, sharing the experiences of being immigrants to America and being obvious outsiders in the New York neighborhoods where we lived. As part of all that, we talked a little bit about the American obsession—for that is how it felt to us—with race.

I was a white boy living in Harlem and so stood out like a sore thumb when I’d go to pick up the A train on 125th Street.

Jesse lived in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, and also stood out like a sore thumb when he’d go to pick up the A train. But not because of his skin color. You see, Jesse is as Jamaican and black as all his neighbors were. But he attracted more attention in Brooklyn than I ever did in Harlem because his T-shirts were all Beatles and Bowie—not a rapper in sight—and his blazer was, well, a blazer.

He used to get quite the kick as he’d approach the cops on the street corner near his A train stop at Utica Ave. and watch their countenances change as the Beatles and the blazer came into their view. He might even top off the encounter with an “Afternoon, mate” at close approach if he was feeling particularly cheeky.

But being the Beatles brother in Brooklyn wasn’t as much fun when he was out with his white wife: at those times, the glares let him know that his skin color mattered.

It turns out that, in America, when you’re around people who think you should behave a certain way because you look a certain way, choosing the wrong color is much less acceptable than being the wrong color.

A year ago, I attended Netroots, which is perhaps the largest annual progressive political conference in the nation.

The opening ceremony was held in a huge hall with well over 1,000 people in attendance—perhaps double that.

After many speakers had shared messages of unity, the stage was given to a small group that identified as Black Lives Matter. They took up regularly spaced positions across the whole stage in a rather formal arrangement.

I can’t remember everything they said, but I shall never forget the ominous line from one of them that made my blood run cold.

She told us, the audience, that they would be holding meetings at the conference from which people not of color would be excluded and that those not invited “needed to understand why they weren’t invited.”

By the time they were done, the sentiment clearly delivered was, to me at least, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

I’d been active in American politics for about seven years at that point, but that moment was the first that I felt threatened—apparently because of the amount of melanin in my skin, which is not a variable that has ever caused me to take a stand for or against anyone.

The audience was applauding the giving up of a very basic, progressive principle: don’t treat people differently based on an immutable characteristic.

What shook me to the core was to be told that if I didn’t concede that principle, I was someone’s enemy.

No. I won’t get comfortable with your racial segregation. And no, I’m not your enemy, whatever you tell me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been anyone’s enemy. Or are you just trying to tell me that you’re going to make me your enemy by enforcing my segregation—my otherization?

I was shocked but determined not to generalize from a single experience from the words of a few people at a single event to a whole conference—or a movement, or a country.

That would just be silly.

One fundamental difference between my adoptive country, the USA, and my home country, England, is what seems to be the absence of “proportionality” as a principle in law enforcement.

As a big proponent of civil rights, I have long been disturbed by the apparent acceptance in America of an all-bets-are-off approach to dealing with people who are deemed to have transgressed a line. In other parts of the world, the violence associated with enforcement and punishment is much more constrained, it seems to me, to be proportionate to the violation.

Accordingly, while at the conference, I was keen to attend a panel on police violence and a wonderful program that involved (from memory) bailing young men who had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes out of prison for Fathers Day. The panel included a judge, a young man who had been imprisoned for a non-violent crime, a mayor, and a civil rights activist.

After extremely moving presentations from all of them, I got to ask the first question from the floor.

I prefaced it with the observation that “proportionality” seemed not to be an important value in American culture—especially when it comes to law enforcement. Moral determinations in America, I ventured, seemed more binary than in my home country of the UK.

My question then went something like this:

Help me understand the thinking of the culture of law enforcement in this country. Specifically, how can a cop arrest a young man for a victimless crime, such as jaywalking or spitting on a sidewalk (the “crime” that had resulted in the imprisonment of one of the young panelists) knowing that the legal process is likely to end up with the young man in a cage—and the cop not think that he’s doing anything other than an act of violence against him?

The civil rights activist on the panel most clearly accepted the premise of the question and provided me in some ways the most satisfying answer; so afterward, we had a private conversation, which lasted for the better part of two hours.

My new acquaintance gave me the rest of the answer to my question—the bit that, I suppose, he couldn’t give me in public. The real reason why the typical cop goes to work thinking it’s okay to do violence to young black men is, and I quote, “white supremacist colonialism.”

I was confused by this new suggestion that the average cop scarfing down his Cheerios before work is looking forward to another day of building an empire in which people with white skin get to control people with other skin in some form of vassaldom, so I asked him to elaborate. He didn’t give me any causal link between this abstraction and the cop getting ready for work, but he said something interesting nonetheless: an indifference to violence arises from an absence of “historical redress.”

Something of an amateur historian as well as a trained scientist, I am a lover of big general ideas with a power to explain myriad specific human phenomena, so I was genuinely interested. He began to compare and contrast cultures in which groups that had been oppressed had a historic moment of violent uprising against their oppressors with those that had not, explaining that the violence we see meted out against young black men by white cops in the States is a direct result of the fact that black people hadn’t had their “historical redress.” His examples of successful redress were mostly violent. They all involved the violation of the r