We are currently witnessing a global focus on another utterly tragic loss of life of a Black man whilst being detained by a White police officer. Of course, I refer to George Floyd. Sadly, there are many more deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of law enforcement that came before him and – unless drastic change occurs – there will be those who come after (and, indeed, there have been losses of life already). What an absolute living nightmare that must be to parents of Black children when they send their children out in to this big, White world.
Solidarity without the solid
In 2019, the public pulse raced watching the Netflix drama ‘When They See Us’. The series retold the true account of the ‘Central Park Five’, the name given to five Black and/or Mixed Race young people who were wrongly convicted (and later exonerated) for the rape of a White woman in 1989. The series went viral and the White public recoiled in collective horror: How could this happen?! The US is so messed up – at least stuff like this does not happen in the UK! Thankfully, that wouldn’t happen nowadays; times have changed. Just some of the typical comments made at the time. And, of course, social media was flooded with the requisite postings of how ‘heartbroken’ people were at the situation accompanied by the appropriate hashtags. A virtual manifestation of white solidarity.
Or was it…
No. It wasn’t. It was solidarity without the actual solid bit. Of course, not every post was performative but, if you did make such a post, ask yourself this: in the time between you posting #blacklivesmatter after watching ‘When They See Us’ and your most recent post calling out the murder of George Floyd (or of Ahmaud Arbery, or of Breonna Taylor, the list sadly goes on…) what have you actually done to ensure that Black Lives Matter? If the truthful answer is nothing, then, yes, your ‘solidarity’ is likely performative. Social media hashtag trends are just that: trends. But people’s lives, of course, are not trends. If your social media post was influenced by your desire to tell the watching world you are not racist, you have effectively made a stand more for yourself than for the Black (or Brown) community. It becomes an attempt to cloak yourself in virtual immunity from being labelled ‘racist’ and your ‘solidarity’ is reduced to staking a picket sign in your virtual front yard announcing you are one of the ‘good ones’. In other words, you have made this about you. Yet, for Black lives to truly matter, our actions need to be for the benefit of the people we claim to value. End of.
“But, I am not racist….”
Ummm. Yes, you are. Yes, we are. Humans are all capable of prejudice in the same way we are all capable of experiencing the entirely human feelings of greed, anger, hate, jealously etc. (yup, even good people). Prejudicial thoughts are not exclusive to White people, of course, but racism IS a White problem due to its potentially lethal combination of prejudice plus power. In a world where Human Rights needed to be enshrined in law for a minimum standard to occur, we should not kid ourselves that White people aren’t the powerholders and the gatekeepers to its effectiveness, and nor should we kid ourselves that human rights are achieved equally. You would not believe the amount of defensive huffing and puffing I did twenty years ago when I first heard someone say that only White people can be racist, and it was years later that I actually ‘got’ what they meant. We live in a world in which the dominant, default culture is Whiteness. We deemed ourselves ‘the norm’ and anything else is ‘the other’.
It’s why Netflix has a sub category for ‘films with a dominant Black lead’ because the default is White storylines with White actors. This default White society we inhabit is built on the fruits of the slave trade and on an imperialist exploitation of other countries and people. Our whole societal fabric is constructed on racism and White saviourism. Get your head around that and it is not hard to see how structural racism then exists and, indeed, persists. And that’s where the power bit comes in that precludes Black and Brown people. In a nutshell, this means that so long as we – as White people – benefit from that racist system (and we do!) then we are all racist, whether we are comfortable with that thought, or not.
There is a legal and policy framework around racism and oppression which can hold individuals to account but this does little to undermine the overarching racism that is sewn into everything. It’s why the officer who suffocated George Floyd to death was fired (and not initially charged) but the culture that allowed his behaviour to so confidently occur in the first place will remain (and similar cultures are present in the UK). This individual accountability without a structural underpinning means many White people ‘fear’ talking about racism or even race. It’s why most of us have a Great Uncle Tim who whispers the word ‘Black‘, or guffaws that he never knows “what term is acceptable nowadays” (**said as Uncle Tim rolls his eyes at his self-proclaimed haplessness in the style of Boris Johnson**).
This type of behaviour is dangerous as it diminishes our responsibilities towards human decency and respect. It reinforces the view that it is just “PC gone mad!” (**Uncle Tim has had a few wines now and it’s all coming out**). Black and Brown people rightly want a seat at the dining room table within the house they call home so isn’t it about time we stop acting like we’re being coerced into respecting their place? We’ve all become so fearful of being called racist that we’re more preoccupied with the resulting social suicide if you are indeed called racist than we are with the potential impact for harm of any racism we may actually inflict on someone. Again, back to centring ourselves and our own feelings. Tut.
Change will always take too long for those who need it and feel too fast for those who don’t. Legal and policy changes can also work out of synchronisation with mass culture. The result is that many White people feel ‘affronted’ by the change (how many of us hear people say: ‘it’s the minority dictating to the majority’ or ‘you just cant say anything without offending someone anymore’). Change is drip fed to be more palatable to the White tongue without thought of how that may be felt by the community the change is meant to benefit (read ‘protect’, which should be a basic human right) and even then White people complain of feeling penalised. It’s insane. Imagine being Black British and all you can ever expect from your birth place is rationed acceptance otherwise referred to as ‘tolerance’. In other words, we’ll take the ‘good bits’ like your Notting Hill Carnival, your music and your style but don’t for one second think of letting that second foot land in the inner circle. It’s no wonder George Floyd has become the combustible element to a mass outpouring of anger, fear and frustration from Black people who are, understandably, exhausted from being ‘tolerated’ (at best). How offensive that must be.
John F. Kennedy once said: “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable”. I get why there are riots. I get why there are peaceful protests. I get why the peaceful protests have not garnered anywhere near as much media air time as violent clashes or looting (I’ll give you one clue as to the reason why, it begins with ‘r’). I get why Black people are protesting amidst a global pandemic in which they are disproportionately affected by Covid 19. I get why people are wanting statues removed. I get why people are upset that when White folk with guns lobbied against lockdown measures in the USA, Trump tweeted they are good people and that authorities should safely negotiate with them, but that Black Lives Matter protestors are referred to as thugs and references are made to shooting them. It’s racism and if you cannot see that then you are part of the problem.
Anti-racism and white privilege
White people have created a caricature of a racist to be a hill billy red neck who spends his free time at a KKK rally. Of course those people exist but racist behaviour is more than the overt conscious acts of hatred that we have equated it to (mostly likely done to distance ourselves from relating to it). The Black North American author, Scott Woods, summarises it as:
I have seen a fair few people recently share stock images on-line of Black and White children hugging each other in supposed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The inference is that so long as we love each other it will be OK. But that’s over-simplistic and provides no road map for how to get anywhere close to the ideal. It also centres Black people in relation to us rather than independent of us, as well as diminishes the complexity of the issue. Similar viewpoints can be heard in comments like: ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘I don’t care if you are pink with purple spots’. How is that good enough?! We absolutely should care! By ignoring someone’s colour we ignore a whole culture, an identity, and a lived experience. We ignore the beauty, the pain and the hurt and we distance ourselves from being a part of what hurts them. As said above, racism is more than hatred alone. It is a continuum and we are all on it somewhere even those innocent White children hugging their Black friends in the photos because they are already born into a privilege that precludes the Black child (note the child will obviously not be consciously racist; they’re a kid). The White child will grow up not having to worry about their CV being ‘filed’ because their name is Mohammad, or query whether they got the job to fulfil the minority quota. It’s all the things below (the Instagram account from where I got this is named although I am unclear if @Pattiegonia created it).
As the political activist, Angela Davis, said: “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist“. But to be anti-racist we must be reflective and accountable. None of us are perfect and we will get things wrong. I cringe when I think of some of the things I have said in the past but my journey into anti-racism has been – and remains – one of commitment and of learning. Becoming anti-racist is not a tick box exercise and sticking a copy of ‘Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race’ (by Reni Eddo-Lodge) proudly on your book shelf without assimilating its message is again performative. Being anti-racist is a life style, not a trend and if you are not truly committed then I imagine your actions will be more harmful to Black people than if you never claimed Black lives matter in the first place.
I have had many awkward and difficult conversations with White friends/family/strangers over the years when addressing words or behaviour. It is not easy but nor is the discomfort I feel when I have let opportunities slide past because I was not willing to experience the awkwardness. That is white privilege. Black people do not ever get to side step this; they cannot switch off to it. I hear many Black or Brown people talk of the constant micro-aggressions and the harm they inflict (see bottom of the triangle in the image above for examples of such micro-aggressions). If you have not watched Nova Reid’s TEDx talk on the impact of these on Black people, please do, as it is evidence-based that micro-aggressions cause trauma. And if we are being told this, then we need to make changes. It is the responsibility of us White people to dismantle the racism that we benefit from; not the job of the oppressed. Unless you actively do so, then you really don’t get to say that you’re not racist.
So, what can we do?
- Acknowledge the privilege that our race affords us and dismantle it where we can. If you are struggling with this concept because you do not feel privileged because of…well, life, try to look at it like this: Having white privilege does not mean that we do not have hardship. In fact, white privilege has nothing at all to do with our private life but is all about our public life. So, yes, you may have experienced problems (including issues around addiction, disability, poverty, finances etc) but you do not have the specific problems that come from race-based oppression.
- Accept that you can be a good person and still be racist. Once we lose the ‘fear’ around the label it can actually free us to actively learn. In fact, it is a pre-requisite. I’d rather learn from my mistakes than act like this isn’t happening.
- Listen to the experiences of Black people and resist the urge to become defensive or to centre ourselves in our responses. I mean, think about it, if Black people are out on the street trying to tell the world that they matter amidst a global pandemic in which they are disproportionately affected by Covid 19, how horrific must experiencing racism actually be if that is the risk you are prepared to take?!
- Question our thought processes. If your initial reaction to the murder of George Floyd was to comment on why he was being detained, explore that because your view of human worth shows just how much your belief system is prejudiced. Similarly, if you’re more horrified by the removal of historical statues than you were over the modern day lynching of a Black man in broad daylight then, again, that says something about your privilege (and, no, the removal of a statue does not erase history, it simply ceases the deification of a slave trader).
- Diversify your social media feeds, but do so authentically (no-one wants to be tokenized). But don’t DM Black account holders with race-based questions we could ask Google. I wouldn’t DM Jamie Oliver for a fish pie recipe, I would google it. Same principle.
- Read literature by people who are not just White. I’ve seen lots of suggestions for this particularly around children’s literature and toys (if you are a White parent) but this seems to be becoming the default tick box exercise. Our children mainly learn from us, and we need to be the examples. So, we need to focus on our own learning first before we try to shape our children or we will get it wrong and no amount of ‘diverse kids books’ proudly displayed on your Instagram grid will reconcile that.
- Challenge the behaviour of others and discuss inequality. Staying silent is complicit.
- Learn (there are so many resources out there) and share our learning. It could help someone else’s journey.
- Take action. Protest. Stand up. Donate. Petition. Support Black businesses.
- Be committed. I recently heard someone (source unknown) say this is a movement not a moment. How true. Living your anti-racism is very different to displaying your anti-racism (that one in particular goes out to the so-called ‘woke’ influencers).
- We are not exempt from needing to do the work because we may have a Black friend or be a parent to a Mixed Race child. If anything, I would say that increases the scope for exposing Black people to harmful micro-aggressions. Nor are we exempt if we are a parent to a White child in a white neighbourhood. My child is Mixed Race and I have raised her to be knowledgeable of race and race issues partly because it will impact her due to her identity. If she had been White, the ‘need’ to have such discussions may have felt less urgent. But that would be ignorant of me. Don’t leave your child’s anti-racism journey to chance.
- Update your vocabulary and know the power of words. Don’t say ‘All lives matter’. And don’t say ‘tolerant’ (Conservatives, take note). Change the narrative.
My main social media linked to this blog is Instagram and I follow some accounts that specifically focus on race work. My hands down favourite on Instagram is Nova Reid (also on Facebook here). I have also learnt so much from the ladies behind No White Saviors (also on Facebook here).
Other accounts on Instagram (supporting via Patreon where possible/applicable) include:
- Sarah Gregory at A Revolution of Our Own
- Layla F. Saad
- Rachel Cargle
- Whilst not an activist account per se, I find that Dr Ria Clarke at The Doctor Mummy tells it as it is. Remi Sadé is also another account to follow and she recently shared a series of stories on the subject which are available on her highlights.
Nova Reid and Layla F. Saad also offer anti-racism courses that are linked in their accounts. And, of course, there is also a whole host of anti-racism books, or books which showcase the Black experience, including Me and White Supremacy (written by Layla F. Saad). Others include:
- Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- Natives by Akala
- Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
- I’m not your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (very recently released)
And, finally, if you are able to support charities or funds, or sign a petition, there are so many being signposted on social media right now. One I recently signed concerned updating the GCSE reading list to incorporate some of the titles above (link). Other examples include Stand up to Racism UK, Justice for Ahmaud, and the National Bail Fund Network (USA).
I have attempted to make this blog piece focus on the significant issue of race in a way which does not centre me (per se), but which centres on the collective responsibility of White people in dismantling racism. I have cited and linked to all sources I am aware of (but if any are missed please do inform me and I will edit). The words and opinions in this blog are my own and I have not plagiarised anyone’s work. However – and this is the important bit – my thoughts will always be a bastardised version of the thoughts that have been shared by Black and Brown people over the years, either said personally to me or via things I have read or seen. The experiences of Black people have informed my belief system to date and it is why I remain committed to learning and to change. Black people are the experts in their own experience and thus the most important action that may come from this post is that you the reader – if you have not already done so – will seek further information from the experts cited. And do the work.
To be cont’d x