The chances are that you, like me, have been watching and reeling at the news from around the world – and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably finding it all a bit overwhelming. It can feel like there’s more suffering than ever in the world, and that the problem is too big to know where to begin. For lots of us, it’s a wake up call that we – our race – and the systems and cultures that have been ingraned in us – are part of the problem.
And yet, let’s pause there and make sure that we understand this, before we go any further: this is not a new conversation; not even close. In fact, it’s a conversation that we have been subconsciously or consciously putting our hands over our ears and shouting over, for most of human history. “Racism is not getting worse,” Will Smith said in an interview this week; “it’s getting filmed”.
For me, it’s been a week of watching the things that are going on all over the world with my jaw hanging open and my heart breaking – realising that I have been blind to the pain that has been such a part of the experience for so many, including the people that I love; realising that things are more complex than they once seemed and that for kindness to truly thrive, broken things need to be revealed and old ways of thinking must be disturbed.
So, I’m learning, and I’m listening, and I’m growing, and I’m wrestling with all of this. I know that as much as I thought I knew – as much as the words “I’m not racist” came from my lips, we’ve all got so much further to go, and there is so much to learn from those that we have systematically kept at arm’s length.
That’s what these blog posts are about – I’m going to be reading, and thinking, and Googling, and listening – and these posts are a record of the things that I have learnt, the mistakes that I have made and the stories that have stayed with me in this time. It’s got more to do about identity than anything I have written before – and I dearly hope that with each post, I’ll be a different person to the one I was before.
08.06.20 – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race: Reni Eddo-Lodge (Chapter One) // The Colour of Fear
It seems like a pretty great place to start. In 2014, Reni wrote a piece for her blog: “I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience” she wrote. “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like they can no longer hear us”.
Since then, Reni has spent a huge amount of her time talking to white people about race. And I’m grateful for her words, and her story, and her resilience – it’s not a book she should have ever had to write, but I’m glad she did. I’m starting there, today, with the first chapter.
(Because she didn’t want to benefit from the recent tragedy and the #blacklivesmatter movement, Reni has made the whole of her book available for viewing online, for free. You can read that here.)
The other piece of content that I found today was a clip from a documentary made in 1994 called The Color of Fear, which Reni referenced in the first chapter of her book – it’s a round-table conversation with people from African-American descent, Asian, Latino and white American. It’s a difficult watch, but so worth it: I saw people of colour break down in tears as they struggled to convince a defiant white man that his words were enforcing and perpetuating a white racist standard on them. All the while he stared obliviously, completely confused by this pain – at best trivialising and at worst reinforcing it”.
Lessons I’m Learning and Mistakes I’ve Made
I’m not going to duplicate the information and perspectives from the first chapter of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, when Reni can say it so much better than I can. But with each post, I’m going to write my own reflection on some of the lessons that I’m learning as I listen to black voices, and some of the mistakes that I’ve been guilty of making.
Here are just a few that jump out, as I reflect on the first chapter:
Why should they talk to me about race? Why should they tell me their story?
People of colour do not owe me – do not owe us – anything at all, and we need to hold that as our starting point. It is not the job of a person of colour to be able to repeat some of the most hurtful things that have been said to them, or eloquently describe their pain, just because I would like to be more educated. That’s what Google is for.
In the conversation around the Color of Fear, one man described his experience like this: [They say] “why the hell don’t you come over here” – that’s what I hear every day, and you know that I can’t come over there. You know that this hair, and this skin, and the way that I feel will never, ever get included because it’s unpalatable to this nation”. In other words, no I will not present my pain and my suffering and my story in a way that is comfortable and pleasant and palatable to you. – in a way that blends in with your whiteness.
He spoke passionately and beautifully about the solution that has been suggested in the past – a solution that only works for one side of the discussion: “There’s a way in which American, and white, and human become synonym. “Why can’t we all just treat each other like human beings?” – to me, when I hear it from a white person, becomes “why can’t we all just pretend to be white? I’ll pretend you’re a white person, and you can pretend to be white. Why don’t you eat what I eat, drink what I drink, think like I think, feel like I feel” – and I’m so tired of hearing about that. I’m sick of that – “that’s what it means to be human, be American, be white”. That’s what they say.”
A lesson I will always be learning: the idea of treating each other like human beings is inherently wrapped up in pretending that we are white and share the same story – and they do not owe me the comfort and the pleasure of them coming down to my level to explain the difference to me. Their pain is, in part, because we have put that distance between us, and it’s my job to make the journey towards them.
”It must be a very strange life, always having the right to talk and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen” – Reni Eddo-Lodge
History is written by the winners.
Racism is not simply about discrimination – racism is discrimination plus power, and it’s about so much more than personal prejudice. Evidence of the oppression and harassment of people of colour in the UK, throughout recent history, isn’t easy to come by – because history is written by the winners. But there’s a story bubbling under the surface: oral histories from people of colour who lived through the 60’s, 70s and 80s in the UK share a common thread: the police were not protecting them.
Stop and Search was introduced in 1984, but before this came Sus Laws, in the 1970s – the police had the power to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected (sus) might commit a crime. On the 16th March 1972, at Oval train station in South London, a group of plain-clothed white police officers targeted and tackled four young black me: testifying later in court that “it was clear they intended to pick the pockets of passengers”. They had no stolen property on them, and there were no witnesses.
Stop and Search laws mean that police have to have reasonable belief that an offence has already been committed – but people of colour have always been disproportionately targeted under stop and search. In some parts of the country, black people are 17 times more likely to be stopped. “These were (and still are) sus laws under a different name”.
John Fernandes was a black lecturer, involved in teaching police officers at Hendon Police College in 1982. As part of his research, he asked anonymous cadets to write essays about the “Blacks of Britain”. Their submissions are shocking and can be found in the first chapter of the book – but John persisted with their education. “When I saw them [racist essays], I thought, God Almighty. This is why I had to make sure that it had be an anti-racist course. So that I could explain to them, not to blame them for holding those views. You explain to them how it comes about that they think the way they do”.
Another lesson that I am learning: no-one is educated enough about black history – it’s just not in the national dialogue. I managed to get through eighteen years of compulsory education, without once being told about my society’s part in the slave trade, or about how people of colour came to be in this country in the first place, or about colonialism in any kind of detail. It’s not good enough.
“That I had to go looking for significant moments in Black British history suggests to me that I had been kept ignorant. While the Black British Story is starved of oxygen, the U.S struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the Black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with racism”.
Black Britain deserves a context, and they deserve to be heard – not the version of the story that I am comfortable with, but the story that they have lived in while I tried to project my truth over theirs.
What have you been learning about, this week?
*Thanks to Shaun Bushby for the photograph.