Their deaths were the tip of a systemic iceberg of racism and racial violence. We are all seeing the protests, the debates, the righteous rage, the fury, the ‘enough is enough’ reaction to centuries of oppression.
A lot of white people might feel caught in the maelstrom that social media creates on an issue at any given moment; the conflicts of actual allyship versus performative allyship. Is posting a black square enough? Will sharing a quote from Martin Luther King soothe their discomfort, or white fragility on this issue?
Obviously, a key part of being a white ally is to not make it all about you as a white person. But increased reflection and self awareness is an inevitable part of the road to progress.
Those of us who are white and are scrolling, posting, ingesting the news right now, might well be feeling a little awkward or possibly even a bit uncomfortable.
A lot of my white friends have admitted to being overwhelmed by events of the last few weeks. Social media is awash with Instagram black squares, messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, tense video footage of clashes with police and tributes to the likes of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd who were all unarmed people of colour killed in the US in the last few months – Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police offers.
That’s why I think it’s a good thing if you feel uncomfortable as a white person right now.
At the root of that discomfort is the likelihood that many people have never had to think about racial issues for this long before – and it’s only been a week. Imagine not having a choice about that. Imagine not getting the option to not think about racial injustices all of the time – a luxury that isn’t afforded to a person of colour who, instead, is faced with the reality of being othered, excluded, ignored or outright discriminated against.
White people will never truly understand what it is like to be a person of colour. White people so rarely consider the small things that add up to the big unflattering picture – the tiny assumptions, microaggressions, judgements and omissions that contribute to a system of ingrained racism. Because it is a sliding scale from the unconscious biases many of us undoubtedly have, to the racial hatred we see on the news. Those are not divorced from each other, they are part of the same problem. dismantling that starts with unpicking these smaller thought structures.
So, we pester our black friends for the answers, when they are already exasperated, emotionally by the pressure to both exist in a racist world and have to explain racism to those who benefit from it.
But racism is not the black community’s problem to fix. They have been doing the work on this forever, to fix a problem that is not of their making. It is time for the white community to also do the work. Which is why that white discomfort is a good thing.
The time has finally come, in our supposedly woke wonderland of 2020, to admit that “I’m not racist” simply isn’t good enough, and it might not even be true. Now is the age of being anti-racist.
Think you’re not racist? Good for you! But are you anti-racist? It’s a question all white people should be asking themselves right now. It’s a question I am also asking myself.
I grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood – predominantly white Irish, Asian and Caribbean – and went to a school where the black girls in my class were the majority. This was normal to me. Racism was something I consigned to the history books, as I devoured the civil rights movement as a teenager. “Thank god that doesn’t happen here” I would always think, surrounded by my black, white and Asian friends, imagining we lived in a multicultural utopia where everyone got along and everything was fine.
Yet when I went to the University of Cambridge over ten years ago, there was one black person in my year. ONE. And what shocked me about that, was that no one else seemed bothered by this. It struck me what a bubble I had been living in, gloriously oblivious to the ignorances at worst and apathy at best, of others. My time there made the divisions in Britain I had been blind to, suddenly sharpen into focus. I then went on to become a journalist, and I again found black colleagues almost non-existent.
But what did I do? Did I ever truly get to grips with this? Did I ever do enough, read enough, march enough… care enough? It is arrogant of me to think in my bones I am not racist and yet have precious few receipts to show for the work I have done to be anti-racist. This current moment has made me realise that more than ever.
Acknowledging that I don’t think about race enough, that I don’t genuinely consider its ramifications enough – or the part white people play in all of that – is profoundly uncomfortable. It’s why many white people have probably felt uncomfortable a LOT this week. But communities of colour cannot escape these constant thoughts about racial injustice. Now, neither can we.
Feeling uncomfortable? Good. It’s about time.
I’ve heard so many white British people claim that things are different here in the UK as if racism is something that happens elsewhere. It’s an apathetic attitude to race which fails to acknowledge our problematic relationship with colonialism and empire. So few in Britain understand the role our nation really played in the slave trade and that shows a profound deficit in our education that many campaigns right and organisations, like The Black Curriculum right now are actively trying to fix. Just look at the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol at the weekend to gauge how people feel about our nation’s existing racial struggles. This is not a US specific issue and that makes us uncomfortable.
White British people have a responsibility to actually address our part in this, our history and our biases. We are not innocent in racial dynamics and we need to do better. That means asking ourselves some unpleasant questions, that means interrogating ourselves and challenging ourselves in ways that won’t always be pretty, but may well make a difference. It means doing the work.
Now is the time to get uncomfortable. The root of that discomfort is hopefully a reminder that you haven’t done enough, thought enough or cared enough about this. Now is the time for white people to get our shit together, take this seriously, do the work, do the thinking, actively engage.