Becoming white and (un)learning colour-blindness: Stefan’s story

This piece is an edited extract from my PhD thesis and appears in the introductory chapter. To cite: Lawrence, S (2014), ‘Becoming white and (un)learning colour-blindness: Stefan’s story‘, paper presented to Leisure Studies Association 2014: Sport, Festivity and Digital Cultures, University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, July 7th-9th 2014.

The day started like any other.  Our primary school teacher would take the register, we’d say a morning prayer and then we would sit down to work. After we’d taken our seats however our teacher told us that she had some exciting news: a new boy, Daniel, who had just moved to my hometown from a nearby, densely populated multicultural city, was waiting outside the door to meet his new classmates. “Do come in Daniel”, our teacher shouted in the direction of the door, gesturing to him to enter the room.  The class fidgeted with excitement.  Slowly, the door opened and a timid figure emerged from the corridor. “He’s black!” a surprised voice exclaimed. The room fell silent, the class stared and Daniel did exactly the same back at the class. In the stillness, my parents’ words sounded in my head: “everyone should be treated equally regardless of colour”. But as a child seeing a black face for the first time, the only thing I can remember thinking was how different this dark body, juxtaposed against a sea of white bodies in a classroom, bathed in bright natural light, was to me and all that I had come to know about bodies in my world.  Maybe it was because Daniel’s body was ‘new’ and with all ‘new’ bodies there is a sense of excitement and intrigue, but somehow, for me at least, there was something particularly captivating about this particular body.

Daniel and I would eventually become extremely good friends: we would meet socially on regular occasions and would ride the bus to school every day, up until we left high school.  Nonetheless, my memory of our first encounter is dominated by a sense that there was something ‘different’ about Daniel, which conflicted with what my parents had told me about the colour of person’s skin that it “means nothing” because  “we are all equal”.  This particularly powerful memory of an otherwise mundane event could easily be dismissed for my own convenience as a typical reaction of a child whose innocence and inexperience had sheltered them from the corporeal varieties of our world; however, since no other childhood friend evokes such a vivid recollection of our first encounter, it is more appropriate to accept that my curiosity about Daniel was a consequence of the failings of liberal, colour-blind racial ideologies to teach children about their own whiteness (MacNaughton, 2005).

Living in a small semi-urban English town in the West Midlands where most of the inhabitants were/ are white, working class, I was raised to be colour-blind toward matters of ‘race’.  However, because of the ideology’s obvious failings, inasmuch as it does not really teach us not to see ‘race’, rather it teaches us to ignore it, I did occasionally notice that certain members of my immediate social network were racialised.  My school friend, Daniel, and my football playing mates, James and Sean, and their dads, for example, were marked out, by an older member of my family in the 1990s, as “black” or “half-caste”.   I, on the other hand, had never learnt about my social location as a raced being.  I was never told that I would be perceived as having a racial identity and I certainly was never informed by anyone that I would be able to call upon a number of privileges that my “black” and “half-caste” friends would have difficulty accessing.   After all, as my parents’ well-intentioned colour-blindness had taught me “everyone is equal, regardless of colour”.  Not once was I made to feel that my childhood or teenage achievements were a result of anything other than hard work and not ever was I made to feel that I was ‘minority ethnic’ or told I could not consider myself ‘properly’ British, despite my dad’s family having emigrated from Sicily in the early 1950s.   And so, although I was aware of my own ethnic identity and the presence of cultural differences, which sometimes was the source of mild discomfort when negotiating belonging as a youth (a preference for wine over beer), I was never marked as having a racial identity or as being significantly (read: racially) different from the majority of my peers, by my peers, family, teachers or football coaches.  As such, colour-blindness had taught me to overlook the importance, or otherwise, of ‘race’, when grappling with the politics of identity, my parents’ quasi-Anglicising of my first name (Stefan from Stefano), my own white privilege, and the realities of racism which my Black friends and their families would/ do experience.

I carried this colour-blind naivety with me into my leisure time and it was through sport that, as a teenager, ‘knowing’ ‘race’ was of marginal importance, I fostered many positive relationships with other boys from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds.  In this way my connections with Black peoples, from an early age, had been largely positive.  Therefore, during my time as an undergraduate student, after taking a particular interest in matters of racial equality in sport and leisure, I graduated as someone who would have considered themselves a fully-fledged left-leaning liberal, ‘anti-racist’, passionate about social justice.  However, before sounding too self-righteous, on reflection, and despite my best intentions, my understanding of ‘race’ and racism was often guided by a traditional view that assumed these matters, primarily, were a problem for ‘non-white’ people.  Thus, even as one of the fortunate few that both attain a university degree and are taught about racial inequality, I gave very little, if any, consideration to white people’s/ my role in perpetuating racialised hierarchies.

It was during my time as a Masters student, as I explored my own ethnic identity and the history of Italian migrants in Britain, that I would first consider the complexities of whiteness, white people and their relationship to racism(s).  At first, I was reluctant to understand myself as white, even if others did, since I wished to distance myself from the white (Anglo) majority, whose attitudes towards ‘race’ and politics, particularly while I was growing up, often conflicted with my own. The term ‘white’ was a phrase I equated with power and thus I preferred to identify as Anglo-Sicilian partly because this enabled me to avoid asking myself more awkward questions about my role, as a person who is perceived as white, in effecting racialised injustices.  Hence, when I used to write about ‘white people’, I always preferred to think that I was not writing about myself.  As I argue in my PhD thesis, white men dominate sport and leisure, media, higher education and politics, and because of my past involvements with moderately influential positions in sport and leisure, as a personal trainer, sports coach, journalist and youth worker, in addition to my current status as a senior lecturer, I too have been one of those white men who have (consciously or otherwise) taken advantage of white male privilege, regardless of my own politics or ethnic affiliation.  And so, while in many ways I do not refer to myself, within my scholarly work , when I refer to the dominance of white men, because to do so would be to allude to a narrow and essentialist definition of the social category ‘white people’, in many other ways I cannot avoid being implicated in what I write about whiteness and masculinity discourses, more generally.

The following counter narrative story not only hopes to explain why it is I became interested in whiteness and its discursive constructions in sport and leisure media, it also hopes to demonstrate how performances of whiteness can be reflexive and critical, if not often enough,  which avoids reifying the social category ‘white people’ and highlights the complexities of ‘doing’ whiteness:

In my role as a personal trainer, which I undertook in order to fund my Masters degree, I became accustomed to my white male client base asking for help with achieving a ‘[Men’s Health] cover model physique’. Of course I put them under no illusion that to achieve such a body would be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task, but it would be something I could help them “work towards”. During one particular consultation, as was usual, when I asked a client what it was they were looking to achieve, he replied “something you see on the cover of Men’s Health. Y’know not too big, but toned”.  As we stood on the gym-floor, chatting about how we could achieve this goal, the client suddenly pointed towards the leg press machine which was being loaded, with a large amount of weight, by a very muscular black man. “Wow”, the client said, “I wouldn’t fancy trying that!” “Me neither”, I replied. “Then again, black blokes are more powerful than white blokes aren’t they?!” the client asserted, “so getting like the guy on the front cover of Men’s Health is easier for them than it is for us, ay!”.  At this moment I paused and looked around. “Well, that’s not quite accurate”, I said and pointed to a more slender looking black man using the chest press machine who the client had conveniently overlooked. “Yeah but they are renowned for being more cut and toned and that, I mean, think about it, you see loads of ‘em in adverts or doing sport on the TV and they’re all really stacked!”, he said more forcefully this time.  I went on to argue against the client’s logic and politely informed him that his views were “scientifically problematic”, not to mention simplistic given that gym-goers and sportspeople tend to be more athletic than the majority of the population. “Anyway it doesn’t matter”, he said. Needless to say, after that initial consultation, the client never rang back to book in for a second visit with me.

Both of the stories recited during this short piece demonstrate how bodies, whether mediated or lived, are among the first pieces of information we gather when making assumptions about an individual’s cognitive and physical capabilities.  For instance, as my first story reveals, although I came to understand Daniel to have been a confident, religious and musically gifted individual, meaning we shared many similarities, my initial assumptions about him, as different and intriguing, were provoked by my reading of his body, impelled by my surroundings and their colour-blindess.  The second story, too, is also able to reveal the importance of the body, particularly the athletic body, insomuch as it reveals how many people still come to ‘know’ about other people via how they perceive the racialised aspects of bodies. As I demonstrate throughout my PhD thesis, the “techniques of boundary inscription between ‘us’ and ‘them’ begin with the body: ways of looking, ways of sounding, and ways of being” (Valentine, 2010: 531).  In light of this claim, I suggest that continuing to be dogmatically loyal to the myth of colour-blindness, when it is clear people do see colour, prevents us from “get[ting] real about race” (Bell, 1992: 5) – this in turn marginalises, unintentionally or otherwise, the negative effects that racialisation has for differently racialised groups of people. The challenge for social scholars and interested parties alike then must be to unlearn colour-blindness, so as to better understand how it is different bodies are differently racialised and how it is they are represented, contested and (re)produced in unique ways


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3 thoughts on “Becoming white and (un)learning colour-blindness: Stefan’s story

  1. Really enjoyed reading this after stumbling across your blog via Freshly Pressed (congrats on that!). As a mixed person I think what you say about ‘white’ equating to ‘racelessness’ or ‘race neutral’ – if I understand you correctly – has had definite implications for how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others. Made me think about this from a different perspective, thank you.

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