We may all be tired but real change is long overdue
It’s been a long couple of weeks. I’ve processed so many different emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, grief, empowerment and joy. The acts of police brutality in the US and the underwhelming response of British politicians have triggered me. If that wasn’t enough, black people are still being killed every week, if not every day.
The New Normal in the context of the death of George Floyd
Why we need to actively rethink what the “new normal” should mean
Although the emotions I’m feeling are not new, recent events have opened up past wounds to a depth I have not felt before. I’ve been mentally replaying in my head my own experiences of racism and prejudice. All this alongside the mental duress that comes from being in a global pandemic.
It also appears that once again social change has been fuelled by black pain and ostentatious acts of racism. By racism, I’m referring to the systemic power construct which denies equal value to the life, freedom and potential of certain groups of people based on the colour of their skin. This goes beyond individual words, beliefs or actions, and may not always be conscious. Instead, it encompasses all barriers that prevent people of a certain race from enjoying the same dignity as the majority group.
Racism (including but not limited to anti-blackness) can manifest itself in several ways, from individual actions through to institutional cultures. I noticed it when my year 7 history teacher told me how amazing the British Empire was and conveniently forgot to mention the colonial history of the UK in Africa. I felt it when I’ve heard non-black people shouting the ‘n-word’ in a club because they think it’s just a word. I saw it when I read the statistics about black women being 5 times more likely than white women to die due to complications in pregnancy (please sign this petition after finishing this post). I also see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and other ethnic minorities. The UK is far from being a post-racial society, regardless of the attempts of our politicians and media to frame it as such.
Reflections on my experience as a black woman in the UK
I have operated within and navigated white-majority spaces my whole life. I also refer to racism knowing that I’ve not had to struggle through life in an economic or social sense. I went to private school, I graduated from a top 10 university, I’ve travelled to different continents and I work at a top professional services firm. I don’t say any of this to brag but to demonstrate that none of these facts can transcend the fact that I am a black woman. I will never have white privilege, and I have not escaped from racism.
Reflections from a Token Black Friend
Thoughts going through the head of a guy who doesn’t look like many of his friends.
There are so many experiences that I can point to whilst growing up that speak to the implicit and explicit biases that people have against black people. I’ve been stopped in my car whilst driving alone for a “random spot check” by the police. I remember being called an ‘Oreo’ at university, because apparently “I’m not really black”. A work colleague told me that “I don’t sound how I look”. The list goes on. I haven’t even touched on experiences concerning my hair or my name, because otherwise, I would be here all day. I will not turn this into a pity party as my experiences are not unique. Some of my experiences may even pale in comparison to the experiences of many other black people, especially those who are darker-skinned.
I do want to refer to one particular experience from childhood to demonstrate that prejudice is learnt from a young age, despite its absence from school syllabuses. In primary school, I was told by a white male “friend” that they could never marry a black person because it would be “wrong”. I was confused because the colour of my skin had never been an issue before, or at least I thought as much.
My race didn’t seem to matter in our friendship and didn’t even matter during any of playground marriages that happened when we were much younger. But then again the marriages were make-believe, and he wasn’t such a great friend after all. I wasted time trying to change his opinion as I couldn’t fully articulate my feelings and beating him up would have been an unacceptable response. I was deeply hurt and felt unattractive. The insinuation that a relationship with a black woman was immoral in some way also did not sit well with me.
When it came to the time for 11+, I also didn’t understand my classmates who questioned why I was applying to private secondary schools. I was the only black girl in class doing the 11+, but I had white classmates also applying to private schools who did not face the same questioning. Luckily, I had teachers and parents that believed in me, and I passed all my entrance tests, so the joke is on them.
Although I’m very much over it all, these experiences did have an impact on the way I used to see myself in relation to my white friends and peers. There were times I was not proud of being in my own skin. The lack of visibility of black women in the media I consumed didn’t help. Where were the black girls in the toy stores, on my TV screens or in my children’s books? I didn’t see any black British female protagonists operating in the same majority-white spaces as me. I do recall Raven Symoné on the Disney Channel, but that was only in an American context.
The viral video of the 4-year-old black girl who called herself ugly touched a nerve because there have been times where I felt the same way. I internalised some of the anti-blackness I witnessed, and likely shared some of the same anti-black prejudices as my white peers. I’ve had to work hard to unlearn this prejudice and to learn to love the skin I’m in.
I also recognise that all these experiences inevitably inspired my work ethic. My parents never explicitly told me the age-old adage about having to work twice as hard, but I realised this myself from a very young age. Thankfully, I’ve always known I’m intelligent, hardworking and that I’m going to succeed in life, no matter what resistance I may face. However, now that I’m older, I know that I am smart and beautiful at the same time, and I would not give up my blackness for anything.
No more silence and no more ignorance
A barrier to progress is that people who speak up against racial discrimination are often accused of overreacting or being too sensitive. The offended quickly becomes the offender. Too much effort goes into convincing the victim that you’re not racist. Instead, this energy should be refocused on battling the implicit biases that people have in the first place.
We also need to reduce the burden of proof that lies on the people who are calling out racism or bias. Give that person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t turn it back on the person who dares to speak up. Reflect on your words or actions, and confront your prejudices.
I honestly don’t know why it has taken me this long, but I’ve made a commitment to myself that I will no longer just take it. I’ve been guilty of not being vocal because I didn’t want to come across as disagreeable. This is especially crazy to me because I know how outspoken I am when I’m with close friends, but that is the value of having a safe space. I’ve self-censored and suffered in silence, but cannot afford to do that anymore. My feelings are valid and should not be suppressed.
Others also need to speak up when they witness these offences too. And yes, it can be awkward. But the more we discuss race and the biases we all have, the easier these conversations will become.
Do not turn a blind eye when you come across a racist act, big or small. The time to act is now.
I haven’t even finished saying everything I want to say and I’m exhausted. What makes this worse is the unspoken requirement for black people to demonstrate visible trauma for the world to pay attention and to start caring. I want to switch off sometimes, but being black is my life. I will continue to be black and that will never change.
If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it.
As exhausted as we may all be, we cannot stop. I am an advocate of self-care and encourage people to take mental breaks if they can, but I know that we cannot avoid taking action. When I say we, I mean everyone, regardless of their race. If you’ve got this far, I assume you’re black and feel the same way as me. Or if you’re not black, I assume that you stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Well, I’ve seen your solidarity; now, what are your plans?
What we need
I’ve set out 5 key themes below on what I believe we need to see real change in the treatment of black people in our society.
Education is important so that people understand the full extent of British history and may challenge their own implicit biases. I’m not going to reproduce a long list of resources on how to educate yourself, which have been circulating on social media for weeks, like this guide, for instance. I am not an expert on race, but I can speak to my experiences and those of people close to me. I’ve had to do a lot of internal work to educate myself on my own, and so others need to do this work too.
We need change on an institutional level, as education on an individual level is not enough. We need to consistently apply pressure to our politicians. Although protesting can be effective, not everyone feels comfortable doing that. But coronavirus or fear of other negative consequences is not a barrier to writing to your MP, donating to a community fund, supporting black-owned businesses, or signing a petition on the government’s website. I don’t have the energy for anyone who thinks voting or other forms of political participation are in vain. If political policies don’t change, there will be minimal improvement in the lives of black people across the country. Our existence is political, and being apolitical is a luxury we cannot afford.
Diversity and inclusion
We need representation and inclusive diversity across all organisations and all levels, particularly senior management. A statement of commitment to diversity without inclusion is meaningless. If you really want people to “bring their full selves to work”, you need to provide an environment in which they feel comfortable to do so. At the same time, organisations love to use black and other ethnic minorities as poster staff for recruitment and PR purposes, whilst failing to address the lack of diversity at the top.
Black people, in so many organisations, are faced with a distinct lack of role models that look like them. Non-black mentors are valuable, but will never understand the nuances of navigating the workplace as a black person. Additionally, we’ve all seen the tone-deaf products and campaigns of some companies. In the absence of self-enlightenment, supporting the involvement of black people in decision-making could help these companies cater to their black customers without offending them.
There is a lot more I could say on race in the workplace, but I will point you to the 26 recommendations from the 2017 McGregor-Smith review (summarised on page 32 — don’t say I didn’t make it easy for you). There is a clear business case for diversity, but we should pursue diversity and inclusion because it is the right thing to do.
Studies on issues that black people face
You only need to look at the recent report on the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups by Public Health England to see the power of data. We need more studies covering different spheres of life with a particular focus on black people as the independent variable. For example, we need studies that look at barriers to progression at work for black staff, and we also need ethnicity pay gap reporting (please sign this petition here).
BAME data has been somewhat useful but can conflate many of the issues. Freedom from racism for all ethnic minorities is important. But to fight anti-blackness requires a recognition of the issues black people face in their own right. Looking only at BAME data cannot tell us which ethnic groups might be falling behind others. BAME data could also be skewed by the progress of one particular ethnic group.
Data is also a useful political lobbying tool. It enables the measurement of progress and provides the ability to hold our leaders to account, both our politicians and our bosses at work. Without data, it is all too easy for our leaders to deny that there is a real problem. Without data, it is also too easy for our leaders to make empty statements about the changes they’ve implemented, which may have no real results.
Finally, we need to amplify black voices and share black joy. The danger with overlooking the “softer” side of the black experience is that it creates a single story. There is more to black life than pain and struggle. So whilst you’re doing your research on racism, please also find something non-educational material that showcases the black community. Everyone should be exposed to black success stories, black content and black joy, not only in the usual arenas of music and sport, but also in literature, art, television, science, journalism, business, fashion, etc. Black joy centres black people, and allows for the sharing of several narratives.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
Recent events are a stark reminder that racial discrimination, inequality and injustice still exists today. A window has opened where people are willing to listen and to contribute to change. I understand that change does not happen overnight, but we need to act. Otherwise, we will find ourselves waiting for another traumatic black death to “shock” society.
I do remain hopeful, as this time feels different. I’m having more open and honest conversations about race than I’ve ever had before. I have been listened to and I feel empowered to speak up more than before. We must continue to educate ourselves, to put pressure on our leaders and to speak up when we witness instances of injustice. Social media has been a great tool to spread awareness. But let’s face it, the issues that black people face in society are not new. Change is long overdue.
It is day 2 for you. And its day 11,608 for me…
The wheels have been set in motion, and it’s up to everyone to keep those rolling. We can no longer afford to be non-racist, but we must be actively anti-racist.
I’m not interested in living in a world where my race is not a part of who I am. I am interested in living in a world where our races, no matter what they are, don’t define our trajectory in life.
Black lives matter. Let’s keep the momentum going.