How to get past stuck and progress racial inequity
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Part 2 of 5
This is the second of five short articles sharing my learnings as I process and scrutinise my own journey as a white woman committed to anti-racism. In the first I wrote about the importance of broadening our experience and our perspective rather than to stay in the place that we don’t understand what we don’t recognise. Just because we don’t see and feel in personally doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In this article I reflect on what it feels like to step in and accept shared responsibility for racism, but not get over-burdened by it. As I said in my first article ‘responsibility provokes movement where guilt thrives in stuckness’.
I write these articles in the spirit of sharing my continuing journey in the hope that it helps encourage others to start their own journey of learning and the uncomfortable conversations we each need to have around racial inequity in the UK – in our homes, our workplaces, schools and communities.
Most white people I know wouldn’t consider themselves racist. They certainly wouldn’t judge or discriminate based on colour. Or at least that’s what we’d like to think of ourselves. I think the particular discomfort in this discussion is in admitting where we might have in fact perpetrated a negative stereotype or racial slur based on where someone comes from, what they look like or how they speak. Even harder to recognise and face into is the subconscious paradigm that white is privileged over others.
To face in to the fact that we have had responsibility – wittingly or not – for the culture that persists means we have to examine both what has kept us passive, and when we may have been racist. For me I think my passivity as a white woman in the UK has been about a lack of personal experience. I hadn’t realised the depth or rotten-ness of the systems until I got to the point where I could no longer deny embedded socio-economic differences, racial profiling, the data around maternity and mortality for black people and people of colour. Let alone media, schooling, the filter on history. The list goes on.
I get asked why I feel this is my fight? Why do I feel responsibility? I am a white woman living in the UK. I don’t live in the US (read: where racism is far worse). Or at least this is what I have told myself. It isn’t my fight surely, and it’s not that bad here in the UK… We’re a meritocracy for goodness sake, there are dozens of cases where black people have broken through the barriers and got to the top in their profession. We point to the few successes, and ignore the marginalised and minoritized many. Which surely must be their fault, not the system that you can’t even see.
I’ve heard several black comedians mock how charming we are in our racism in the UK. It’s not direct, but more subtle they say (this isn’t a compliment). We ask ‘where are you (really) from?’, ignoring the implicit undertone of ‘where do you belong’. It is more ambiguous in its delivery, but the impact is the same, if not worse. Was it me, did I just misinterpret that? This indirect, casual racism was highlighted in what now feels a very dated interview by Nick Ferrari with Afua Hirschi in 2018 on a Sky news panel debate show discussing whether certain statues should be removed in Britain for what they represented of the legacy of that person. Afua Hirsch said Nelson’s column should be pulled down. A legitimate view worth debating you might think. Nick Ferrari challenged Ms Hirsch why she stayed in this country if she took such offence when you see Nelson’s column, ‘if it offends you so much how do you manage to stay here?’ This is what we mean by casual, insidious racism. Where a person’s right to their nationality is dependent on their views. That there is an unspoken standard that black people or people of colour have to meet to merit the right (repeatedly) to be residents of Britain. If you are feeling some discomfort as you read this, or are challenging the points, then perhaps racism is closer to home than we’d like to believe.
This is my responsibility because I now see it. I now feel it. This wasn’t an isolated incident; I have heard variations of this before. This isn’t about Nick Ferrari, whom Afua Hirsch has actually defended as being a supporter of hers too. The bigger issue is whether you recognise and take responsibility to eliminate the insidious, invisible standards all around us – in education, broadcasting, policing, our work organisations. What we need to do is get clear on what we stand for – what our standards are in how people should be treated. I am clear on my standard here: I won’t condone a culture where a person’s right to be British is somehow conditional on what they think and how they behave. We have laws to uphold criminal acts, we don’t need unwritten bigoted rules on what is ‘acceptable’ behaviour based on your colour.
But this responsibility can feel so weighty, so complex and immense it’s easy to get paralysed by it. Even if I accept something needs to be done, what can I do that will make a difference? What can I possibly do that will matter? I want to remind you that this was how I felt when the issue of climate change became more mainstream several years ago. I felt small and powerless. How on earth could what I did in my home make a difference at a global level? And yet today we separate our waste, reuse our plastics, recognise the impact of travel on our carbon footprints. We became more informed and made better choices in our behaviour, admittedly encouraged by our local councils, tighter regulations and changing norms in our workplaces. This surely is the same dilemma we face again in relation to racial inequity – we need to trust that what each of us does as action does make a difference – both to those directly affected around them and through the ripple and contagion effect as those around us pass it on – the benefits of a virus if you may.
This is the second part of a five-part series where I share what I believe are key issues in the journey of eradicating racial inequity in the UK. In each of those the white population are key to making progress for the benefit of our culture and society.
If you are on a journey toward anti-racist allyship please share your learnings and insights with me – Debbie.email@example.com