Updated: May 8
How to get past Stuck and progress Racial Inequity
(Part 3 of 5)
This is the third of five short articles sharing my learnings as I process and scrutinise my own journey as a white woman committed to anti-racism. In this next short piece I reflect on the importance of focussing on the ‘we’ in the collective outcome, in shifting values and behaviours, through both individual and organisational action.
I write these articles in the spirit of sharing my continuing journey in the hope that it helps encourage others in your own journey of learning, and the education and dialogue we each need to have around racial inequity in the UK – in our homes, our workplaces, schools and communities.
I grew up on the periphery of what I thought was ‘normal’, with a strong single mother struggling to provide for her kids. We lived on a caravan site in the good weather months and moved in to short-term rentals for the winter. We didn’t know where Christmas would be spent each year, food was tight, electricity occasionally optional. But as kids you don’t know any better, it’s just the way it was. I was nearly 8 years old when we moved in to a council house in the village. I was ecstatic – it was my first sense of peace, of stability. We got a cat – a real sign of permanence – and I couldn’t have been happier. But our finances were no better and as you get older you start to notice what makes you different. Or you learn on the playground. The stuff I did or didn’t have didn’t matter at the end of the day but the desperate desire and innate human need to belong did. It’s something I’ve felt throughout my life, that has shaped who I am, my values and choices I’ve made. I know how important it is to feel valued for who you are, not what you wear, how you speak or what you look like. I’ve always hung on to that visceral feeling when you feel like you don’t belong, or are not valued for who you are. Somehow missing that magic elixir that means I fit in. I notice today when I feel at ease or awkward, I notice what’s hidden or shown, in myself and others. I relate to the sense of being marginalised and whince when I hear organisations proudly state they’re a meritocracy. Meritocracy doesn’t care who you are, where you’ve come from, your characteristics or your journey. Which of course is the point. But it presumes that we’ve all started from the same place and for me that’s why the word equity is what I strive for over equality – I don’t want more than what others have, I just want a fair opportunity, that recognises the differences and values me for bringing a different perspective on life.
In the UK the white population are by far the majority at around 85%. We need to use this majority, and our privilege of being in the majority, to stand up for what is right for the benefit of our society. It is not only morally right that white people are in the debate about racial inequity – it’s essential to both systemic and individual change. The subjugation of any one part in society – whether due to racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia and countless others – is an issue that affects us all, regardless of our personal attributes or choices. It’s not about whether you personally have been, or know someone, directly affected by racism. It’s a fight for the culture of society that respects difference, protects minority groups and penalises bullying and discrimination.
At some point in our lives, we each will find ourselves in the minority group – how would we hope to be treated? How would we hope to be encouraged to belong? Our behaviour more than our armchair intentions is what shapes and informs us, our children and society at large. This is urgent, pressing for attention now. It has been a long build over many decades, and I for one say it is enough.
In writing about the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year Reicher and Drury in their research on emergencies (Don’t personalise, collectivise!, thepsychologist.bps.org.uk, March 2020) write that –
“it is precisely when people stop thinking in terms of ‘I’ and start thinking in terms of ‘we’ – more technically, when they develop a sense of shared social identity – that they start to coordinate, support each-other and ensure that the neediest get the greatest help. Sometimes this sense of shared identity emerges by the very fact of experiencing a common threat. But messaging also matters. When a threat is framed in group rather than individual terms, the public response is more robust and more effective (Carter et al., 2013).
We in fact share far more by way of identity than that which differentiates us but we are accustomed, if not cultured, to notice what makes us different. As kids we even played ‘spot the differences’ and are sub-consciously drawn to those that we deem like ourselves. The shared identity that I believe we need to strive for is one that honours and respects differences, and the right to our differences, whether we philosophically agree with each other or not. It’s not to smooth away or normalise the differences but to both appreciate, honour and value those differences.
It’s fair to ask whether Reicher and Drury’s research is a useful commentary given their focus was on responding to emergencies. Are we really saying racism in the UK is an emergency? It’s hard to say definitively. Those that face prejudice everyday may say it is, or it has been at times. For those of us who aren’t directly affected on a regular basis we may struggle to see or understand the urgency. Why I think their research is important is that in responding to a threat to our society it requires us in society to act with a common shared interest – for us all to do certain things for the sake of a common goal – to rid the disease of racism – to minimise the risk of significant harm, and to further our common culture. Racism for me is like a virus that is infectious and spreads unless we develop an effective strategy to neutralise it at the roots, but as we’ve learned from responding to COVID-19 this past 8 months, we need to be consistent otherwise, like any virus, it mutates and springs up in new places in a slightly different form, and often with renewed vigour.
Focussing on the common good or the ‘we’ may not be the fashion of recent years, where a focus on the individual has morphed in to a unwielding tyrant. I call it the ‘Kardashian’ culture where we have been sucked in to believing a certain set of values and ideals that place the individual needs above the needs of the collective. Where we idolise an exceptional few that have [insert whatever the current trend is], over the experience of the many that haven’t. For me this culture encourages unhealthy behaviours of us as individuals that are often overly self-focussed and energy-sapping as we worry about our appearance, our social media status, our brand, and everyday chip away at our sense of self-worth as well as failing to find meaning through contributing to something bigger than ourselves.
An issue as complex as racism has to be tackled by us individually and institutionally for the collective goal of improving our society. It cannot be left to only those directly affected, it just won’t work. It is an issue for us all and we each have a part to play now, today. It is not the fight for only those minoritized or marginalised to fight alone. The white population need to step in to claim our part in creating our sense of shared identity in the UK – to embody the warm welcome and embrace of those that are different from us, for the benefit of a stronger society.