It’s been a few weeks since my last post, I’ve written a couple of articles but decided not to published them because they felt trite and inappropriate. I can’t publish anything else without discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. I’ve been unsure of how to approach this issue because I usually write about my experiences with bipolar, eating disorders and the grieving process. Talking about my feelings of white guilt and discomfort is self-indulgent. I wrote an Instagram post where I acknowledged my privilege and my previous assumption that I was incapable of racism, which was more than enough. I’m going to attempt to discuss this issue without getting in the way.
Covid-19 has exposed society’s ugly underbelly, which was mostly unseen and ignored by those with privilege, but unavoidable to the those without. BBC corespondent Jon Sopel described the situation in the US as being a lethal combination of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, the financial crash of 1929 and the race riots that followed Dr Martin Luther King’s assignation in 1968. I’ve heard some people insist racism and police brutality is an American issue but, while the UK is not the same as the US, we have plenty of similarities. As well as systemic racism that thrives in British society, black people in the UK are far more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts, in fact black people make up 3% of the British population, but 8% of deaths in police custody. Added to that, we are both governed by hard right, craven populists. Trump and Johnson have displayed their wanton racism multiple times and they have both mishandled the pandemic response. Covid-19 has hit BAME communities with brutal ferocity; people of colour have suffered the highest deaths rates and mass unemployment.
The push back from far right groups was probably inevitable but the scenes of white nationalists attacking police with missiles, smoke grenades and flares were disturbing. It is important to note that the Black Lives Matter protests were attended by thousands more people and were mostly peaceful. How ironic that some of the people ‘protecting’ Winston Churchill’s statue, the prime minister who lead Britain to victory against the Nazis, were raising their arms in Hitler salutes. Brexit, Boris and Trump have emboldened and legitimised racist ideologies and white nationalists are not going to tolerate a shift towards equality without a fight. This brings me to the subject of statues and historic symbolism. Although I do not condone vandalism, it’s no surprise that Edward Colston’s statue was pulled down in Bristol. Campaigners have been lobbying for years to have it removed and Bristolians were tired of asking politely. It has been argued that Colston did many good things for Bristol, but the fact is that he made his money from transporting over 84,000 African men, women and children to the Caribbean and the Americas. 19,000 died on the journey, dead bodies and sick people were dumped into the sea. It is understandable that Colston’s statue was trundled down to the dock and pushed into the water. It seems a moment of anarchy was necessary to start the conversation around how society memorialises figures from the past.
Many of us hurry past statues every day without giving them much thought, but their presence looms in our collective consciousness nonetheless. It is important the we take an interest in our history and question whether figurative tributes are appropriate, as the people society chooses to remember demonstrate the values we prioritise. The difficulty is that each monument has to be appraised individually. There are of course statues that should have been removed years ago, Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold II being two obvious examples. Rhodes colonised Zimbabwe and Zambia in 1895, naming the territory Rhodesia and made it illegal for a black person to vote or have a skilled job. He also orchestrated ‘land grabs’, taking land from African farmers and handing it to white farmers, as well as many other appalling acts and brutal murders, while colonising Africa in the name of Great Britain. King Leopold of Belgium was responsible for the deaths of 10-15 million Africans during his occupation of Congo in 1885 to 1908.
The lineage of many other statues and monuments are more subtle and complex. Slavery and systemic racism were integral in the construction of many of the world’s wealthiest economies. It is essential that we educate ourselves and our children about the past, but destroying everything that is tainted with racism is not the most productive way forward. For example, Slaves were instrumental in building the White House in Washington DC in 1792. Most people would oppose White House being torn down. However, is is essential to remember that seat of the ‘free world’ was partially constructed by black people who suffered and toiled under the shackles of slavery. A more productive way to right that wrong would be for more people of colour to be in positions of real power the US government. If Joe Biden has half a brain he’ll pick a black woman for Vice President.
The horrific footage of George Floyd’s public lynching has prompted many of us to examine our own privilege and the origins of white dominance. The cop with his knee of Floyd’s neck, hand in his pocket, nonchalantly snuffing out the life of a fellow human is the epitome of white supremacy and brazen entitlement. However, the attitudes that emboldened George Floyd’s murderers stem from centuries of racial injustice. It is very uncomfortable for white people to dwell on this fact, it’s even more vexatious to consider how we have benefited from racial disparity, but we’ve reached a point where ignoring racism is no longer acceptable. It is necessary to look social injustice in the eye and connect the past to the present. There is little to be gained by feeling excessive guilt, but in order to move forward meaningfully, it is important to understand white privilege and it’s origins. Although the issues we face today may seem far removed from historic acts of barbarism, the lasting economic and social disparity between the races continues to reverberate, centuries later. Slavery was abolished in Britain on March 25th 1807, I’ve heard white folks on social media grumble that this was a long time ago and black people should be over it by now. When slavery was abolished, slave owners were compensated for loss of property, but not the slaves themselves. After emancipation, black people were still living in a deeply racist, segregated society and were not afforded the same human rights and opportunities as whites. In fact, many emancipated slaves lived in desperate poverty and were segregated from white communities for years after they were freed. Even after the abolition of slavery, Britain was still invading and colonising countries around the world, dominating other cultures and races, perpetrating gross injustice and advancing white supremacy. A cursory glance at the history of the Empire and colonialism is enough to make the blood run cold.
We can’t also assume that what happened years ago has nothing to do with us, because we still live in an unjust society where it is easier to be white. We assume that racism is active acts of bigotry and prejudice, but the truth is that systemic racism is far more subtle and dangerous. No one wants to think of themselves as being racist, because of what sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls ‘the good bad binary’, which is the belief that because we don’t use the N-word and do not perpetrate acts of violence against people different to us, that we are ‘good’ and therefore incapable of racism. DiAngelo explains in her book ‘White Fragility’, that it would be strange if white people were completely free of racism, given the insidious white supremacy that envelops us. Invariably, the counter argument is to say that white people suffer as well and to cry ‘all lives matter’. It is important to acknowledge that millions of white people live in poverty and have little to no hope of social mobility. The simple fact is that is that the difficulties in white people’s lives are generally not because of the colour of their skin. Privilege is not about what you have, as it is shit you don’t have to deal with.
If we are to make meaningful change, education is key. It is necessary that we teach our children about racism at the earliest opportunity. White people need to be more robust about our privilege and realise the difficulty inherent in deviating from the what is considered to be the social ‘norm’, as defined by heteronormative, cisgendered, white dominance. Acknowledging this will be difficult and uncomfortable but it’s nothing compared to the hardship and pain felt by people of colour. We will probably have to give up comforting self-delusion; I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of thinking that racism isn’t that much of a problem, because I hardly ever see it in my life. This assumption is delusional at best, ignorant at worst. It will be necessary to ask ourselves the difficult questions and accept uncomfortable answers. The process of education will involve more listening than talking, more learning than responding. We will have to give up our attachment to previously held narratives and face the truth. The path to true allyship will not be easy and we’ll probably make a bunch of mistakes along the way. However, it’s useful to remember that we are not responsible for our first thought, but we are responsible for our first action. Having a racist thought is to be expected, given our system white supremacy, but we are not defined by thoughts but our actions. If we do everything we can to correct it, we will be travelling in the right direction. Systemic racism can no longer be swept under the rug, because the rug is not big enough to cover all that shame dust. I’m confident that this will be a watershed moment and change is coming, but those of us with privilege need to work to earn it.
Feature image from Twitter.