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Angela Tilby: Privilege is not always obvious  

12 June 2020


Protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in London, on Wednesday

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in London, on Wednesday

IT IS 1983 in a department store in a Japanese city. Two tall non-Japanese women are mooching around surveying fashion, stationery, kitchenware. At lunchtime, they go to the self-service restaurant, where they load trays with green tea, smoked eel, and rice, and go and sit on the tatami-matted floor to eat.

As they chat over the meal, a crowd of schoolgirls come in with their teachers. The two women are quickly aware that they are, to this incoming group, objects of considerable curiosity. Fingers are pointing at them. The girls and their teachers are laughing into their hands, imitating their gestures. Somehow, their presence has unwittingly provoked hilarity and suspicion, and, accompanying both, a vague hostility, as though they shouldn’t really be there at all.

This was how I remember the incident: I had this experience when I was in Japan making a film about religious responses to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On my first visit to the country, several years before, I had been warned by the then BBC correspondent that the Japanese could be suspicious of strangers. I was advised to sit down on entering a room as tallness, especially in Western women, was considered bad manners. So, I had tried to make myself as small, insignificant, and amenable as possible. In the department store, I was not being as guarded as usual, and, although I felt uncomfortable at the unwanted attention, I shrugged it off. It was their problem, not mine.

But I am beginning to see the long-ago incident differently in the wake of our current racial tensions. My companion in the restaurant, the film’s production assistant, was black. Her family came from Jamaica, and she had been in Britain since childhood. When we left the department store, we didn’t discuss what had happened. I assumed that she must have felt about it as I did: that it was vaguely embarrassing, but not hugely significant.

Now, I am wondering what she made of it all. Did she brush it off as I did? Or was it, as I have now come to fear, just one more public moment in which she was pointed out, laughed at, and treated as an object of suspicion and fear because of her appearance?

I know that some white people sometimes clench at talk of white privilege. They just don’t see themselves as privileged, and feel that they are being unfairly got at. But privilege is not only having obvious advantages: it is also not having to put up with being seen as different, whether that difference is construed as amusing or threatening. It is the constant micro-aggressions, as they are tellingly called, which wear people down.

At least, today, we are a bit more aware of the problem. But we need to do better — much better.

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