Many of us have been protesting and campaigning for decades about racism. Yet it seems to me we’ve failed miserably in many respects. Even where we have made movements forward such as equalities legislation, we still face wearying, soul-destroying, heart-breaking holes in our society which black people fall through, often literally to their deaths, as in the case of George Floyd.
Last year I came to realise that the things I thought worked were getting us exactly nowhere. All the marching and speeches – why has nothing fundamentally changed? I couldn’t understand why racism is so persistent, despite all our work. So I went back to the books. And I read things that challenged me to my core and filled me full of shame and guilt at how little I understood. It took taking the time to read and really think that made me finally realise that I have co-operated in perpetuating a system of white supremacy all my life despite my protestations to the contrary.
And at a most profound level I came to see the normal responses to racism such as exhortations to highlight black voices, to create equal opportunities policies, to introduce guidelines and regulations are important, and definitely worthy, but ultimately are a bit like sticking a plaster on a nasty infection. The plaster covers up the pus but is wholly ill equipped to deal with a deep wound, a structure that is inculcated into our children from the moment of birth and reinforced through our education, our leisure, our play. We haven’t cut out the infection and it seeps and leaks into all areas of our lives poisoning everything.
We have to cut out the infection at its source. And that means those of us who are white properly educating ourselves, our children and those we come into contact with that white supremacy exists and that we are all perpetuating it.
But it’s incredibly hard for white people to accept this. We pontificate on FaceBook or Twitter about how abhorrent we find racism; we sign petitions and share memes, we pride ourselves on not being racist. But we ignore great Uncle Jim’s racist remarks because ‘it’s his generation, darling’. We don’t challenge our siblings when they make racist jokes because we don’t want to fall out with our family: it upsets mum; they get offended and defensive and it’s easier to just stay quiet. We don’t point out how wrong they are when our white friends say there is a race card (there isn’t – there is just racism) or that they’ve experienced racism themselves (if you’re white you absolutely haven’t). We definitely don’t talk to our kids about it. But above all we don’t listen enough to other voices. We tend to deny or minimise the experiences of black people because we believe we haven’t seen it or felt it for ourselves.
When we talk about how racism needs to be eradicated we too often abrogate our personal responsibility in our own small worlds. We look upwards and outwards for others to legislate or instruct without looking downwards and inwards at what we can do. We must no longer laugh off or silently ignore the casual racism of those we know. The truth is that pissing off family and friends because you’ve challenged them is surely less important than a black man dying because a white man is racist – and we’ve colluded in that by not being aware.
And we definitely need to talk more often and more openly at work about racism. Without educating our white staff properly about what racism really is and how we are perpetuating it, the truth is we probably aren’t actually changing anything much.
A black colleague said to me that the best thing any of us white people can do right now is to educate ourselves. Instead of sharing memes or quotes or protesting our own innocence because we exhort anti-racism we need to pick up the books and read them. And above all listen to the voices of our black brothers and sisters. We need surgery not plasters.