As another Black History Month passes, Josephine Namusisi-Riley FRSA says 2020 is a good year for white people to reflect on the difference between not being racist and being actively anti-racist and suggests one innovation that could support such a move.
I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. - Martin Luther King Jr.
2020: the year George Floyd died at the knee of a white police officer in America and a year that will be remembered in history for two deadly viruses, the Covid-19 pandemic and racism. Yet in the midst of this terrible pandemic, we have also witnessed profound community, empathy and selflessness in this country and around the world. In the fight against the Covid-19, we shield and protect those most at risk and rally to keep them safe. Could this same approach work to fight racism?
The support for the Black Lives Matter movement this summer was overwhelming, with thousands of white people calling for an end to racism and an acknowledgment of the sins of Britain’s past. Black History Month (BHM) should feel momentous and especially hopeful given the events of this summer. Yet as the days grow shorter and the trees shed their leaves, those of us who saw a glimmer of hope in these protests are once again disillusioned.
Many of the optimistic anti-racist pledges of individuals, statutory bodies and organisations we heard this summer have faded into a familiar noise: white silence. And the voices calling for racial justice have been drowned out by a powerful backlash, fuelled by the media and politicians happy to manufacture a culture war to deflect from their fatal mishandling of the pandemic. These are the voices that are loudly calling for an end to Black Lives Matter, ridiculing ‘wokeness’, complaining about Diversity’s Britain’s Got Talent performance and now claiming that it is illegal for teachers to teach white privilege. Even standard corporate campaigns for BHM resulted in fury and boycotting of Sainsbury’s, with repeated cries that it’s all ‘gone too far’.’
Most black people suffer emotional trauma because of racism. We are tired of asking for real change and being rewarded with tokenistic spaces. Tired of sitting with fellow black people and other people of colour devising solutions but having no real power to effect change. Tired of our experiences of racism being dismissed by those who always come back with an explanation, disbelief, denial or in the worst-case scenario, defence for racism. Even being listened to, believed and understood is a privilege many of us simply don't have.
Similar sentiments were echoed by many black people in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Indeed, black people have been speaking and demonstrating for hundreds of years and we are still here getting angrier, more frustrated and losing hope.
A good friend of mine recently told me this story. A few years ago, her son who is a gentle giant, about 6ft 4 was jogging to his basketball training session on my road in South London. He was wearing an oversized hooded jumper with the hood quite low on his face but also covering his hands. Suddenly, a police car stops, and a couple of officers approach him. He stops and takes his hood off. At that point in the story, my friend asked me to guess what might have happened and I just couldn’t. After realising he is white the officers ask if he was OK. Was he in any trouble? Was anyone chasing him?
This experience stayed with this young man and helped him understand his white privilege. We know that if he was a black youth or indeed my son who is stretching to the same height, he would have had a different experience. That same day, I asked my son how he feels about our plight as black people and the unfair treatment of black youth by the police. He told me simply that he is safer with his white friends so he would stick with them.
Much of the Black Lives Matter discourse this summer revolved on whose job it is to ‘do’ anti-racism work. Many of us are exhausted from doing this work our whole lives. White people who earnestly entered these conversations too early were scared off by saying the wrong thing. There was much talk of ‘performative allyship’, and feeling that white people could not lead these discussions without being paternalistic. Many felt that there was no point trying to rid white people of internalised racism, and that our energy should be spent on systemic change. These are all valid points and these discussions continue.
While there are strong arguments to be made for not wasting our energy on changing the hearts and minds of white people, I have come to the conclusion that there is value in this approach.
White people, after all, hold the majority of the power to make systemic change in the UK. Whether they are headteachers, school governors, employers of small businesses, CEOs of huge companies, police officers, judges, CEOs of hospitals, academics, scientists, or in charge of the entertainment we consume, the majority of positions of influence are held by white people.
And I do not believe that all those white people hold deep-seated racist hatred against black people. In fact, I believe that many of these white people are well-meaning but scared of getting it wrong. From speaking to my white friends and colleagues, I realise that this is a big ask. Fears abound around cancel culture, ever-changing terminology and preferred language, and even the fact that the last few decades of multiculturalism instructed us to ‘not see colour’ because we were living in ‘a post-racial Britain’. It is no wonder then that in their fear of saying or doing the wrong thing many white people are choosing silence.
Which is why I want to create a safe online space for white people to share experiences of witnessing racism or benefitting from white privilege (which – with respect to the UK’s Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch – does exist) learn more about racism in this country. This would help to strengthen the dialogue about how they can use their individual power or influence to effect positive change.
White people sharing their experiences of racism may seem paradoxical, but after having had my own experiences diminished or explained away repeatedly I believe that if we heard more stories of white privilege as in the example above, it would help those who don't understand or believe our experiences to stop and think. Will people get it wrong? Probably. Will there be difficult conversations and ‘tension’? Definitely. Will that constructive tension lead to growth and social change? I believe so.
We need white allies to be courageous. Stand up, examine yourself, your attitudes, the power and responsibility you have and the decisions you make. Use your lived experience of privilege and your voice to challenge each other; it is so much easier for you than it is for us! Those already doing the work have come to the realisation that it is no longer enough not to be racist. The next step is to be anti-racist and this means action. This call is an opportunity, or a first step to start taking anti-racist action.
It is very important to acknowledge that we have all had thoughts, ignored or acted in ways that could be described as racist but our thoughts or previous behaviour should not limit who we are or the capacity we all have to change for the better.
Josephine is a wife and mother of three children aged 21, 17 and 15 years. She started her career in the UK as a volunteer and subsequently as an Advisor with the Citizens Advice Bureaux. She then worked in the HIV voluntary sector for 15 years supporting people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. She moved on to work for a children’s education Charity School-Home Support and currently works for Citizens UK as a Project Lead for the PACT (Parents and Communities Together) project in South London.
Glanville Williams FRSA asks whether discrimination could be the reason why black and minority ethnic healthcare workers are at a disproportionately high risk of becoming critically ill with Covid-19.
Ian Burbidge Claire Doran Riley Thorold
Local conversations could help communities make sense of the impact of covid-19 as it continues to unfold.