It is tempting to tell ourselves that we're on the verge of an inclusive, multicultural new age.
An era where colour doesn't matter all that much, where race doesn't define us. After all, society is changing. Radically. The Conservative Party's first-ever black female MP, Helen Grant, has just been elected. And across the pond, there is a black man in the White House. Or is there?
A controversial new book, The History of White People, claims that Barack Obama is, to all intents and purposes, white. Not because he had a white mother but because of his educational background, his income, his power, his status. The book's author, the eminent black American historian Nell Irvin Painter, has written a fascinating, sprawling history of the concept of race, looking specifically at the idea of a white race and at why and how whites have dominated other, darker-skinned races throughout recent centuries. The conclusion of Painter's book – which has taken more than a decade to research and write – is explosive. Race, she argues, is a fluid social construct, entirely unsupported by scientific fact. Like beauty, it is merely skin-deep.
Technically, she has a point. The $3bn Human Genome Project revealed in 2003 that every human being has a unique DNA sequence which differs from that of any fellow human being by just 0.1 per cent, regardless of ethnic origin. Thus, all humans beings are 99.9 per cent the same and, from a scientific viewpoint, there is no such thing as racial difference.
And now along comes this weighty history of white people, written by a 67-year-old black woman, telling us that the white race has never really existed. Unsurprisingly, America's far-right are furious. On the white supremacist group Stormfront's internet forum, one member complained that the book: "will likely win a Pulitzer – just look at how they patronise and indulge these negroes". Another member said Painter "is just jealous of our history and of the beauty of white women".
Painter remains unfazed by the criticism: our perceptions of race are expanding, she claims, and she herself is, she says, effectively white – by virtue of her lifestyle (she's a Harvard-educated former Princeton history professor currently pursuing a master's degree in painting).
Being "white" in America is perhaps like being upper-class in Britain, except in America a wealthy, well-connected black person can become "white" and a disadvantaged white person could lead a life that's "black".
Historically, the entire classification of 'whiteness', Painter argues, was in no small part a philosophical justification of slavery. The white-black thing was about economics. Whiteness came to represent freedom and nobility, while black-skinned peoples were now cast in the role of the underdog. Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, white-skinned people were not routinely held to be more elite than blacks. In medieval times, it was largely whites who were the slaves. During the 1300s there was a dearth of labour as a result of the Black Death, and Christian kingdoms in the Mediterranean enslaved more and more white-skinned people – hailing from Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. It was another 200 years or so before the growth of the sugar industry demanded more and more slave labour. White-skinned Europeans began to enslave Africans to work their plantations. The transatlantic slave trade flourished. White-skinned slave owners, enjoying the financial fruits of this new slavery, started to deify themselves, self-identifying as inherently superior to blacks – morally, socially and intellectually. Suddenly blacks were held by their white 'owners' to be only three-fifths human. The widespread worship of 'whiteness' had begun; to date it has not ended.
Here in the UK we may be inclined to dismiss this book as the latest emblem of America's never- ending obsession with race. We might imagine we are so integrated here that we are beyond needing to discuss race and unpick it and re-examine it. But we would be wrong. Whiteness may only be a social construct but it is still a powerful one, and the concept of whiteness continues to represent a social holy grail. In her book, Painter presents the idea of non-whites moving onwards and upwards to become virtual whites as pure social progress. I beg to differ. I see this as quite a step backwards. In fact, it takes me back several decades.
When I was born in the early Seventies, my mother – an African-born black woman – decided to try turn me white. Not by bleaching my skin but by sending me to live with a white family, so that I would be fully immersed in white culture, pretty much from birth. My mother, who had grown up under British colonial rule in Nigeria, wanted to make me as white as possible so that once I was grown-up I would, she was sure, thrive and prosper in her adopted country, England.
The idea was that I would begin absorbing white privilege right from the start, before I was even old enough to talk. My mother wasn't alone in this way of thinking. At that time, thousands of other African-born, recently migrated parents were paying white families to raise their babies and children. They
presumed that white culture would rub off on us and open doors for us. To give us the best of starts in life, they felt it necessary to separate us from our blackness.
To hear Painter tell it, race is about "us" and "them". To be one of us is to enter the hallowed elite of 'whiteness'. Everybody else is one of them. In my case, I was the nobody caught in between, acceptable to whites to a degree simply because I was always there. I didn't feel black. When I looked in the mirror I saw nothingness reflected back at me, I did not see myself as black. I was praised (by my birth mother) for having such a white accent that anyone speaking to me on the phone would have no inkling I was black. Until they saw me in person.
In the end, as I began to grow up, race – even if it is merely a social construct – became the elephant lurking in every room. Supposedly, by becoming an honorary white I had arrived; but all I felt was a sense of loss. It was like I had had something stripped away from me. Later, in my mid-teens, I opened my eyes and found that society had now become my mirror, and I saw myself reflected back at me – a black person, whether I liked it or not. And I learnt to like it a lot.
Of her book, Painter says, "We think, or we used to think, until I wrote my book, that race was something permanent inside you, but ...[this concept] changed." She adds, "I am what my parents made me ... I am not my biology." I disagree. If I was what my foster parents had made me I would surely still be self-identifying as white.
Race as I see it is something you carry from your ancestors – it's your lineage and your cultural heritage; it's about where you originally came from. Even if you've not experienced the land your ancestors hailed from, or met the parents you were born to. I am African and I am also British. But no "enlargement of whiteness" is ever going to result in me being labelled English. And why should it? That race, or the concept of race, exists is something to be celebrated, not swept under the carpet.
Race is everywhere, lurking beneath the surface – or not. It's there in the silent assumptions we sometimes make. If we really are a post-racial society, why do we have Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit set up in 1998 to investigate so-called 'black crimes'? Why do we have those higgledy-piggledy 'Black Interest' shelves in Waterstone's and WH Smith, bringing to mind the 'COLOUREDS ONLY' signs in pre-Civil Rights America and crammed with anything from gangsta-lit to Toni Morrison? I wonder if that's where Painter's book will be shelved.
The perception within this country and the perception of this country among other nations is that Britain is largely "over" race. An African- American friend recently told me he thinks the UK is fabulous and extremely liberal "because you all accept each other over there. There is no race." Actually, race has always been here. Historically, non-whites were referenced according to their creed or nationality. It wasn't until around 1625 that the word "black" in Britain came to be used when referring to a person of African origin. Before then, a white man with black hair might be described as "black" or "a black", while Indians were often labelled "hindoos" and Africans were frequently called "Moors" or "Ethiops" (Aethiopia was an early European word for Africa).
At a recent dinner party I mentioned that I was reading Painter's The History of White People. A friend sitting opposite me casually remarked that she feels very proud of her family history – and of her race (she is white). There was a stunned silence among those seated around the table. The subject was swiftly changed. Later, one of the other guests (also white) leant over and whispered to me, "I hope you're not offended. She's not usually such a bigot."
So, merely admitting that you like being white makes you a social pariah? What's wrong with liking being white? Or black? Or both? Or something else?
The incident reminded me, in reverse, of an episode from my childhood, when I was around seven or eight. There I was, still a black girl in an all-white environment. My foster family loved me and just wanted me to somehow, miraculously, fit in as naturally as they did into our white working-class surroundings. It was never going to happen and I think perhaps I'd just realised this. I'd heard, on a TV show, a man singing a mantra that both puzzled and delighted me: "Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud". James Brown. I burst out with it, repeating his words to my foster mother. I watched the confusion and disappointment descend over her face.
I had been taught it wasn't the done thing to talk about being black. If I had to talk about my race at all (and I was largely discouraged from doing so) I was trained to refer to myself as "coloured". Any references my white peers made to my blackness were furtive and apologetic and usually prefaced with the phrase, "I'm not being funny or nothing...."
Today, you can talk about being black but when black is reflected back at you via the media, it is almost always in a negative light. Headline after headline reports that black people are more likely to knife each other, drop out of school, get STDs and fail to get jobs. Meanwhile, if you are white, and you like being white, it's considered taboo to admit as much. Unless you are a member of the BNP.
Is this progress? Race may not technically exist, but surely the last thing we should be doing as a nation is lulling ourselves into believing that the concepts of whiteness and blackness do not exist or matter. Must we chip away vital pieces of ourselves in order to be non-offensive? Denying the existence of differences inhibits us from celebrating our diversity in all its glory. Multiculturalism is surely about far more than merely enjoying a chicken korma or liking Dizzee Rascal. It's about not being expected to apologise for who you are, whoever you are.
Precious Williams's memoir, 'Precious', is published by Bloomsbury on 2 August