The Invisible Whiteness of Being, Philip Thomas

When it comes to matters of race and culture, whiteness is plainly invisible. What do I mean by that, and how can I make such an assertion? Over the years I worked as a consultant psychiatrist, in multi-cultural inner-city Manchester and Bradford, and multi-cultural rural Gwynedd in Wales (where the English were counted as an ethnic minority), I attended my fair share of cultural ‘sensitivity’ training events. At first I found such sessions useful; I’d always been fascinated by cultural difference for reasons that will become clear. But as time passed I began to feel increasingly uneasy about empirical approaches to cultural difference.

This is because we white people were never the objects of scrutiny in these events. Whiteys didn’t have culture; we were invisible. Our culture is so soft, so gentle, we don’t notice it and take it for granted. Like the anthropologists of an earlier generation we assumed we could understand the essence of other people’s cultures as though our own cultural beliefs and assumptions had no effect on how we interpreted other cultures. All we had to do was to learn the objective ‘facts’ and that qualified us to work with people who were different fromourselves. One problem with this is that it overlooks the problematic historical relationships that exist between us and non-European people, historical relationships grounded in
colonialism, slavery, oppression, and the wholesale imposition of White European cultural values and beliefs on non-Europeans. How did this insight become clear to me?

To trace the origins of my personal enlightenment, I have to say a little bit about my own family of origin, where I was born and brought up, and quite a bit about my parents. It is fortuitous that I’m writing this sitting in the departure lounge of Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport, surrounded by people from all cultures and ethnicities, as I wait for a plane to take me via Hong Kong to Melbourne for the funeral of my much-loved Uncle John, my mother’s ‘baby brother’. There’s a sense in which I’m retracing a family journey, one that my Uncle made nearly 50 years ago when he emigrated from Liverpool to Australia with his wife as part of a new wave of Anglo-Saxon colonialism that began after the Second World War and continued into the 1970s. It is of course a deeply moving moment for me, but it has positioned me in the right emotional frame of mind to write about very personal matters. So,here we go.

The first eighteen years of my life were spent in North-East Wales, literally a stone’s throw from the English border, an area that until the nineteenth century was largely rural. But as the Industrial Revolution exploded in Manchester, Lancashire and the Potteries, the coal and brick clay that lay beneath the hills and marshes that bordered the River Dee became a valuable asset. At the end of the nineteenth century John Summers moved his
steelworks from Stalybridge to reclaimed land on the Dee marshes. Consequently the population of what came to be called Deeside exploded, as the new factory drew in people from Liverpool, Lancashire, the Potteries, and of course, Ireland.

My paternal great grand-father and mother, Frederick and Annie Jowett moved from Leeds to Deeside at the end of the nineteenth century. The surname Jowett is thought to be of Norman origin, and descended from the Jouets who accompanied William the Conqueror in the Norman colonisation of 1066. Frederick and Annie were of course not Norman aristocrats, but honest working class Christian socialists, God-fearing, abstemious and hard-working.
My paternal grandfather, Bencie Thomas came with his family from Aberdare in the Welsh valleys to become a highly skilled blast-furnace man at the new steel works. He had a dangerous job, responsible for deciding the precise moment to tap the furnace and release its molten charge of white hot steel. He married Mary, Frederick and Annie’s eldest daughter, shortly after the end of the First World War, a conflict he didn’t fight in because he was in a reserved occupation. There is a family story, how true it is I cannot say, that on the night of their wedding, Mary told Bencie in no uncertain terms that he “…was never to use that heathen tongue in my house”, referring to the Welsh language. The first Welsh Nationalist M.P., the late Gwynfor Evans, described in his book Land of my Fathers (the first Welsh history of Wales) how the English had suppressed Welsh culture for centuries by stopping the
Welsh using it. Bencie was a Welsh-speaker. His Welsh Methodist hymnal in which he wrote in an immaculate copper-plate hand the first lines of his twenty or so favourite hymns (in English, for Mary) is one of my treasured possessions. Then, in 1924, their only child, Roy, my father, was born.

All this is a way of framing my first experience in practicing racism at primary school when I was nine. A new girl joined our class. She had flame red hair, freckles, piercing blue eyes and white eyelashes, a true Celt. Her family left the farm in rural Wales because her father found better paid work in the steelworks. Her appearance and the fact that she spoke Welsh faultlessly set her apart from the rest of us. Those differences singled her out for the most appalling racist abuse. It was her name more than anything that became the butt of crude jokes and derision. She was called Ebrillwen. Only much later did I discover that it meant white April, a beautiful and poetic way of marking through the Welsh language the birth of a daughter in the snows of April. It gives you a glimpse into the love of nature in Welsh culture, and how this is tied poetically to identity. Now to my mother’s side of the family.

My maternal grandfather, Walter Mercer, was a self-made businessman who moved from rural Wiltshire to Liverpool shortly after the end of the First World War. He started a successful printing business in the City, and then built it up again from scratch after it was flattened in the Blitz in the war. His business was successful, and he lived in a comfortable semi-detached house in what was then a middle-class area of Birkenhead, over the river from Liverpool. He married Minnie Love, a beautiful Irish Protestant girl from a large family in Bundoran, County Donegal. The Loves may have originated in Scotland, so-called Ulster Scots, but there is a family story that the name was an Anglicisation of the French Lamour, and that their ancestors were Huguenots who fled the Catholic persecution of Protestants in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. The edict safeguarded tolerance for Protestant worship in Catholic France and the Low Countries. If true, it would explain two important aspects of my life: my love of European and French culture, and the unseemly blend of hatred and mockery of Catholicism that I was exposed to at home from an early age.

But there’s more. Minnie Mercer died three months before I was born, leaving my mother in a profound state of grief during the last stages of her pregnancy. In the early months of my life she nursed and loved me through tears, sadness and despair because her dearly loved mother would never see her first grandchild. But my mother made up for the loss, because as long as I can remember I have felt a closeness to Ireland, its people and especially its humour. This is as important today as it was when I was a child.
It partly explains why I have always found girls of Irish descent irresistible, especially Catholic ones. After all, I married one!
We are now in a position to understand how complex whiteness is. It isn’t a two-dimensional thing, a shallow layer daubed over my personality, a thing that can be dismissed in terms of cricket, warm beer and loyalty to the flag. The more I met and became friends with people from non-European cultures, the more questions this raised for me about my culture, and especially what I suppose what some would call my cultural identity. It’s worth noting in passing that I dislike this expression because it implies that who we are is fixed and unyielding. I believe that who I am changes from moment to moment as part of a complex interaction between the social and political environments I find myself in, who I am with, and how the mood takes me.

I began to see that what it means for me to be ‘white’ is riddled with contradictions, conflict and paradoxes. Let me give some examples. When I open my mouth people assume I’m an educated English middle class male. Well, I was extremely fortunate in having had a superb education in a state school, but my accent changed dramatically in October 1967, when I encountered really privileged middle and upper class white males in my first week at medical school. I consciously lost my Deeside accent so as not to stand out from the crowd. My accent marked me out as different; in the eyes of these unthinking young men it marked me as inferior, a pleb, or so it felt.

In fact I had always been acutely aware of the class system throughout my childhood, because of the disjunction between my father’s and mother’s class origins. I’d always felt neither middle class nor working class. I was a Janus figure looking both ways, liminal and borderline. Consequently, the class system held a morbid fascination for me; this was one reason I joined the Navy as a medical officer after I qualified. I had to find out more about it.

Then there was religion. In my teens I lost all religious belief. My scientific education converted me into a secular rationalist who could not admit to the possibility of a life outside the body, the resurrection and so on. That remains my belief, but my view is more nuanced these days. Medicine places you in a uniquely privileged position with fellow human beings in the most extreme states of abjection, despair and distress. I realised that although it didn’t work for me, religious faith of whatever hue brought great comfort and meaning into people’s lives. This forced me examine the partisan nature my early religious experience, mocking Catholics and the Pope. I still feel ashamed about this, as I do about the way we racially abused Ebrillwen.

Then there was the issue of gender and sexuality, and I have to be very careful here. For obvious reasons I was much closer to my mother, and as I matured I rejected the working class notion of masculinity my father offered. What I witnessed in my family life, the patriarchal nature of white working class culture, filled me with horror and disgust. I could see how, in many different ways, this made women unhappy and deeply dissatisfied with their lives. I also rejected the dominant notions of white working class male sexuality. I have always disliked the bluster and macho nature of male company. At university I much preferred the company of women and my growing number of gay male friends, so much so that I know at one point my father was ‘worried’ I might be gay. I think that’s why he had no qualms about me marrying a beautiful Catholic girl of Irish heritage.

So where does this leave me? It made me increasingly aware of and close to other liminal beings, who like me, existed in the spaces between the conventional pillars of identity, Black, South Asian, LGBT and disabled people, people who became my friends, and who helped me to understand so much more about myself and what it means to be human. It made me realise that the mainstream view of whiteness is so riddled with contradictions, half and selective truths, that it can only be sustained by suppressing and oppressing all other forms of difference lest it be found out.

This, after all, is the great lie of colonialism, a political enterprise piloted by the English against the Welsh (never forget Owain Glyndŵr), perfected on a grand political scale against the Irish, Africans and Asian people, and the indigenous peoples of North America, Australia and New Zealand, before reaching its liberal apotheosis in slavery, the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples in the interests of trade, profit and the economy.

I wince in anger, horror and despair when I hear a British (Brutish?) Foreign Secretary recite the opening lines of Tennyson’s Road to Manadalay – a paean to colonialism – in the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Yangon, Myanmar. Has he forgotten his otherness?
It also helps me to know that my family’s history is peppered with diasporas: a Yorkshire family travelling to a new life on the banks of the River Dee, a young woman from County Donegal arriving in Liverpool to make a new life for herself, a shy young Welsh man travelling across Wales leaving his roots, language and culture behind, Uncle John travelling across the globe as an economic migrant, just like the thousands who followed in the wake of the Windrush.

Then I wonder how similar their experiences were, and realise there would have been no similarity. Uncle John was a successful White business man with entrepreneurial skills that were valued in the host country. Most of the first generation African-Caribbean migrants met with outright hostility and racism. “No Blacks Here” on factory gates and boarding room doors. Then I think of my putative Huguenot ancestors, escaping religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Many settled in London’s East End. The Jamme Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane was originally built as La Neuve Eglise in 1743 for Huguenot asylum seekers. Then it became a synagogue for the Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Poland at the end of the nineteenth century. And I see the reception that Syrian and other refugees fleeing terror and destruction receive today in our media and from the politicians on the Right. Our pompous, self-aggrandising whiteness has a very selective memory, Foreign Secretary, and remembers only those stories about its origins that suit its purpose.

© Philip Thomas
October 2017

Advertisements