How to get past stuck, and progress racial inequity
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Part 1 of 5
This is the first of five short articles sharing my learnings as I process and scrutinise my own journey as a white woman committed to anti-racism. 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.
Like many people in the UK, I watched in horror as the police officer in the US slowly killed George Floyd as he knelt on his neck for 9 minutes in May of this year. It was shocking and inhumane. Made all the worse because the perpetrator was in a position of authority who was meant to protect citizens, part of an institution in whom people are meant to trust, and turn to when we are most vulnerable. We all know George Floyd wasn’t the first to be killed by police brutality in the United States. The list is long, and for most that have suffered or died they are black, or people of colour. Watching that video was the moment that it became personal for me. I feel guilt that it took so long to hit home but as I’ve been working through my response to the guilt I realise that it is easy to get stuck in it. What I’ve come to realise is that guilt is fruitless at best, indulgent and paralysing at worst. What we (the white population) need to feel is not guilt but responsibility. Responsibility provokes movement where guilt thrives in stuckness.
After the death of George Floyd people from many nations from around the world protested in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. A rallying cry for a shift in society that would eradicate the perpetuating ills of a society where people are judged and treated differently based on the colour of their skin or ethnicity. But after the protests died down, what has really changed? What it is that keeps us from moving forward in this space. Fear? Lack of individual gain? Perhaps we don’t know many people directly affected. Where outrage needs continual fuel – another life, another maiming – responsibility is self-generating. I’m not advocating that we lost the outrage – just recognise its limits and demonstrate our responsibility with continued, sustained action.
It starts with me, and you, educating ourselves, learning of the experience of people that look or sound different, and speaking up. This is how we effect systemic change, through many small steps being the catalyst and momentum toward larger change, and the occasional leap at a time. We can’t all expect to have the Greta Thunberg impact on race inequity as she had on climate change awareness. So what can one person do that will make a difference? I’ve been struggling with this for months. What I keep coming back to is that we can’t expect or wait for some sweeping change to come from outside ourselves – nor can we allow the list of people dying, maimed or hurt to grow so long until we accept the existence of racial inequity in our society. It may be cliché but we have to be the change we want to see happen. In our homes, in our work, in our communities. What follows is a guide to what you can do to help be the change, to get unstuck and move forward in this most important area so we shift from passive to active.
How can I change what I don’t recognise? Broadening our perspective and experience
Life is hard for all at the moment. It isn’t a colour issue, it’s a human race issue. I came from a low socio-economic background and there’s no way I am privileged in life. This is something I hear pretty commonly, particularly from those who come from or are low socio-economic status. It catches in the throat to be described as privileged when you’ve suffered hardship and poor opportunity your whole life, and perhaps for generations before, stuck in a cycle of poverty. It is hard to see beyond the blinkers of our own suffering yet without expanding our sight we fail to recognise the systematic and systemic biases and obstacles that preferentialise some and penalise or discount others due to their colour and irrespective of their personal attributes, merit or capability.
Through listening and engaging with people that are black and people of colour we learn how blind and deaf we have been to their experience in society. The advantages we have taken for granted, basic necessities in a civilised society, like a decent education, access to healthcare, unbiased police and judiciary, access to work opportunities and even just feeling safe on the street – become apparent and we get a better sense of what it might feel like to walk in the shoes of another. I read a powerful post on LinkedIn recently by James Pogson that I share with you and ask: Can you truly say you don’t recognise any of these sentiments? I think many of us contemplate them but dare not say.
If you woke up black when you went to bed white would it frighten you? Would you leave the house feeling safe?
Prepared for those who see no colour, but see your face. And your ability as one of their human race.
Would you leave the house at all?
If you woke up Black and it’s not your norm. Would life become a violent storm? Or does it not matter, because all lives matter?
Nothing to see. No fuss. No need to discriminate, hate or shoot at will.
So if you woke up Black, how would you act. What card would you play?
Would you show your hand, or accept non privilege.
Because there is no privilege.
Wrong. Or White?
Ask George or Breonna on the other side.’
James Pogson, LinkedIn 2020
It’s said that you need an emotional connection to make a behaviour change. I know I felt very angry and heartbroken when I watched George Floyd die at the hands of a white officer. The mother in me wept for the child, and for his children. My emotional connection is what fuels my thirst to learn more, to do better. I am reading, I am listening, I am learning. Only through this connection and education can I hope to know better and do better. It is the emotional connection that drives our cognitive focus on what we determine matters, and when we are passionate about things that matter then we adapt our behaviour – how we act and speak. We need to be willing to be curious of the experience of another, even, and particularly, when their experience is quite different from our own. Perhaps even challenging our ‘version’ of society. This is not comfortable stuff but then neither is the daily experience of some in our society. Let’s share the discomfort to break through the barriers and end the inequity.
This is the first of five short articles that I am writing on this topic, which I hope are helpful to others. I recognise both getting in to this debate, and staying with it, are hard. But this is one example of what is meant by our white privilege. We can choose to engage with it or not. Black people and people of colour have no choice every day of their lives. There may feel a lot of downside for some ubiquitous, hoped for societal change but it’s important you’re here with us. Thank you for staying, and thank you for reading this.
If you want to share your journey or ask a question then please get in touch on Debbie.firstname.lastname@example.org