This question is one I have been asking myself in recent weeks. How do I – as a white person who enjoys various kinds of privilege – respond to the challenges the Black Lives Matter poses? After weeks (or years) of listening and reading, I’m now going to try to write something that picks up some aspects that worry me, and some challenges I’ve set for myself.
Yomi Adegoke has written for Vogue about the problems with performative online grief when reacting to shocking footage like the murder of George Floyd. For many, how we respond has become a matter of what Tweet or Instagram post we put out, how we perform our grief and solidarity; and for some it is also how we police these responses, or those who fail to respond and so become complicit in the problems of racism through their silence.
For Adegoke, a reluctance to perform her grief and anger came in part from feelings of dread, from a loss of words. She contrasts the expectation that black people ‘perform grief, educate white peers and be primed with emotive, eloquent responses to harrowing instances of injustice’ with ‘the guilty posturing of white people’.
The main problem she catalogues is when black people are criticised for failing to perform their grief online, because ‘silence is complicity’, despite them having been – through their work, their actions – very actively anti-racist. She says:
‘for many black people, silence is complicated. We are “silent” because we are overwhelmed. We are “silent” because we are protecting our mental health. We are “silent” because we don’t know what to say anymore. We are “silent” because we are in mourning. We are “silent”, but only online – offline, we are doing what we are able to to change things and will keep doing so once everyone else moves on.’
I am not black, but I recognise some of those feelings in myself, though of course knowing that they come from a very different place. I imagine other white people, and other people of colour who are not black, would say the same. Through our common humanity, our empathy, many people feel overwhelmed, confused, shocked. We fear that simply sharing a social media post may be trite and insincere, even narcissistic.
Adam Shatz wrote of the risks and confusion for white people in these situations: when does performing your solidarity tip into what Adegoke called ‘guilty white posturing’, or James Baldwin more memorably called ‘guilty eroticism’? When does a desire to act as an ‘ally’ so as to put black voices at the centre tip into institutionalising the segregation of white and black voices? Might the focus on calling out individuals risk ignoring that systems produce racism, rather than the other way around?
I have had similar thoughts about the recent TV adverts that mention coronavirus. Some feel authentic, connected to the advertiser’s mission and ethos (I’m thinking for example of BBC and Channel 4 ads). Others just feel opportunistic, tin-eared, annoying – companies desperate to perform their virtue with small acts that cost a fraction of their annual profit. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. It’s hard for those companies – and individuals – to know what to do which is meaningful.
With Black Lives Matter, a line was drawn eloquently by something I read on Twitter – ‘thanks for posting your black square in solidarity, now can I see a picture of the people on your company’s board?’
Feelings of confusion and hesitation are made all the more difficult online by what feels to me to be an increasingly intolerant and polarised culture. Sunil Suri has written on the (growing?) tendency for us to talk past one another. We are ever-more tribal, and one of the consequences is a loss of interest in what others think. Having made a deliberate effort in recent years to follow people with different perspectives and politics, I often retweet statements like this:
The left: Black Lives Matter. All black people must be heard!
Any black conservative: I thi—
The left: Not you.
— Mercy Muroki (@MercyMuroki) June 8, 2020
I retweeted this sympathetically, and then got into arguments with people who were saying, in essence: I am not interested in what black conservatives think because I have decided (without listening) that conservatives have nothing to say on structural racism.
Suri wrote a follow-up blog about what he calls ‘the polarisation trap‘, with a much more personal reflection on recent events which left him ‘unnerved by a moment where protests on the streets and social media have seemingly united to present everyone with a singular choice to utter their support for Black Lives Matter, or have your silence read as complicity’.
Suri echoes Adegoke’s concerns about performative activism (it was he who pointed me to Adegoke’s article) and goes on to make lots of other interesting points in support of his main concern: that to eradicate racism in our lifetimes we need to find common ground, and this is increasingly difficult when so many act in a way that further polarises the issues.
This runs both, or all, ways. For every woke activist using ‘silence is complicity’ as a weapon to silence others, there is a conservative commentator fulminating about censorship to delegitimise and so silence others. A large share of the commentary on the events of recent weeks aims to polarise rather than to build a common understanding. Even thoughtful and learned figures like John Gray pen diatribes that bury valid and interesting points in amongst a load of complete nonsense. He is not sufficiently interested to take half a day to read up on BLM literature, nor to speak to those with whom he instinctively disagrees, either to fact check his arguments or challenge his instincts.
Gray’s unspoken aim – as much as those who refuse to listen to black conservatives – is to polarise. He writes in order to delegitimise Black Lives Matter and ‘the woke’, and to reaffirm his own worldview. In so doing he avoids any uncomfortable discussion about the problems of racism and the ways we can achieve change.
Like the culture war battlegrounds around trans rights or Brexit, I think the majority of people simply duck out of the BLM discussion for fear of being labelled ‘racist’ or ‘woke’ (or ‘remoaner’ or ‘gammon’, ‘TERF’ or ‘anti-women’). In these battles there is no dialogue in the contested ground, no desire to find common ground. We just lob rocks at one another from tribal castles, performing our virtues as our tribe sees them. (People who bang on about woke virtue signalling are apparently unaware of the irony that raising this is their own tribe’s virtue signal).
Suri gives some examples where he fears polarisation occurs. He mentions Jack Shenker’s work documenting the marginalised white community in Tilbury, Essex, and suggests – in the context of debates like the removal of statues – that there is a risk in ‘attacking symbols of British history in absence of a wider civic dialogue about that history’. He implies (and I’m sure this is largely true) that for many marginalised white people in Britain someone like Churchill is a hero. Being told he was a racist, seeing his statue defaced – and the Cenotaph defaced! – and being told by implication that if you don’t want the see the statue torn down then you too are a racist is obviously going to result in one thing, and it isn’t dialogue, understanding, or anti-racist action.
It’s not just marginalised white people who are pushed away from dialogue. Writing as a middle class white person who has experienced many advantages and privileges, I recognise in myself, my family, my friends and acquaintances of a similar background a hesitant reaction to the tone of the polarised statue and British history debates.
I’ve read a fair bit of writing by people of colour whose ancestry gives them personal reasons to deplore Churchill and his various crimes. But sometimes those writers seem uninterested in the reasons why many British people (and others) would want to weigh that against his role in defeating fascism in Europe, just as Telegraph columns defending the statues show little interest in why some people might find it troubling to see a slaver or apartheid-architect venerated in their public space. To even want to weigh these things up – as with setting Ghandi’s racism against his achievements, or reconciling the racism common among early leaders of the labour movement – risks being painted a racist or snowflake. I tweeted my support for chucking the Colston statue in the Bristol harbour (poetic justice!), but held my tongue on the complexities of some other statues because I guessed I would simply be tarred without any likelihood of any dialogue.
One problem I think we have, here, is the polarisation of the racism issue, and the tendency for most of us to see it as a binary matter: you are either racist or you are not. If you are racist then you are a bad person. Nobody wants to admit to being racist, excepting far-right thugs.
Most British people probably think of binary racism in terms of things like ‘I don’t use the N-word’ and ‘I don’t knowingly discriminate against people based on their race’ – clear-cut (and important) criteria that make you racist or not-racist.
(Anyone who has read up on, and works in, anti-racist circles knows that this is a hopelessly simplistic definition of racism; that at one level racism is a belief system that guides harmful actions, but it can also be seen as a system, or as the logic or effect of a system, among other definitions. Yet most of us still use the label ‘racist’ as though it is a simple matter.)
The arguments over statues, or Fawlty Towers, aren’t suited to this binary definition.
And yet these matters take on huge symbolic importance hinging around a binary ‘with us or against us’ attitude.
For one tribe your view on removing statues and TV programmes that you might charitably describe as ‘of their time’ suddenly determines whether you are racist, or complicit with racism. For the other tribe,it determines whether you are the victim of woke hysteria – a framing that sidesteps the suggestion that you might be racist, because you’re obviously not endorsing the darker aspects of Churchill’s history or the parodied views of Fawlty Tower’s Major. The debate is reframed in different ways for the two polarised tribes: for one tribe it is about learning about the dark side of British history and listening to those who feel strongly about the continued public veneration of slavers and racists; for the other tribe it is about recognising the complexity of history, the context of those slavers and racists, and not giving way to kneejerk woke posturing. And so we talk past one another, we don’t listen to one another, and there is no dialogue about history and racism, only accusations and counter-claims as to whether or not either tribe is racist.
We might have a better discussion if we didn’t treat racism as being binary at all.
In his blog on polarisation, Suri is honest enough to admit to laughing along with Islamophobic jokes that weren’t unusual in his circles as a child, ‘fuelled by memories of the partition of India in 1947 and beyond’. Many people found Little Britain funny in the 2000s, and now may feel discomfort at having laughed at some of the characters.
More complicated are many people’s feelings about British history. Few would suggest it is unblemished, or irredeemable. But a reckoning with the darker aspects of our past, of how some (like slavery and empire) might be intricately woven into the fabric of our cities and institutions, is complex.
It also carries an emotional burden. Or rather, different emotional burdens depending on your own family history. Thomas Lacquer has written recently of the complexities of coming to terms with the Holocaust in Germany, and with four hundred years of racism and slavery in the USA. Both are so different to one another that comparisons are unhelpful, even foolish in his view. Even the role of statues, and the varied and tangled roots of racism and Confederate nostalgia, in the USA bear little resemblance to monuments and neo-Nazis in Germany. The emotional burdens; the way in which the public have been educated about their past; how their governments have sought to atone for their sins; and whether their societies have eradicated the evils; these are all vastly different in the two cases. So, too, the task of reckoning with our history in Britain is different again, and every bit as complex as for the USA. Within our country, the emotional burden will also differ from person to person. Our own personal histories tell a story of how we have – knowingly or otherwise – benefited or suffered from racism, slavery and empire, the extent to which we ourselves or our ancestors have been privileged or downtrodden. The pride or revulsion we feel in British history may be rooted in this, but is also complicated and personal.
We all feel discomfort, and all for different reasons.
Similarly complex are are the commonly-held feelings among people I know, and that I recognise in myself, about change.
In the course of canvassing in local elections I’ve had lots of conversations with people, some white, some black or other people of colour, who have expressed discomfort at the changes in their local area or the country at large. Much of that change has been driven by other social, economic and cultural forces, but is also often about a changing racial or ethnic mix. I’m much younger than your average ‘gammon’ but I, too, recognise and instinctual feeling of discomfort at places that have changed, or places that feel unfamiliar, foreign even. I’m not somebody who really likes change, I like familiarity. This goes beyond race – it is also about class, age, values.
I know others feel quite differently – they love the diversity, the change – and often there is an intolerance for those who don’t.
It can be dangerous to express these feelings. You see it on Question Time: a person tries to give voice to these inchoate feelings and is immediately slammed as a racist. Perhaps their comments edge into racism. But their feelings are delegitimised, given that terrible label which says ‘you are wrong, a bad person, for even feeling this way’. There is no opportunity to sit with that discomfort, to explore and challenge it, to ask what comes next – a racist policy, or something else?
And so they are driven towards the smarmy racist like Farage saying ‘you’re not racist for feeling uncomfortable, it’s not racist to….’ and so on.
(Of course, if they weren’t challenged, there is likely to be another audience member feeling distinctly uncomfortable about what they’ve heard. A middle-aged white person saying they feel uncomfortable with the level of immigration may make an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, feel unwanted, unliked, not for the content of the character or their contribution to their community, but for the colour of their skin, their accent, their dress. Yet formats like social media or Question Time offer little opportunity for them to express those feelings, and for the two people to start a dialogue.)
It’s easy for the white audience member to feel they can rebut the accusation of racism by treating it in that binary, reductive way. Yes, I feel these vague feelings of familiarity or discomfort; I have confused and complicated thoughts about British history and public figures; and so on. But I never use the N-word, I don’t treat people differently because of their race. So I am not a racist, and in the face of your intolerance I am not going to spend any more time listening to and thinking about racism.
The conservative journalist Peter Oborne has written recently about the way that Boris Johnson has used this class of rebuttal to cover for his lifelong use of racist tropes. Johnson’s instinct is to polarise, to fan the flames of culture wars with poorly-researched columns and witticisms, and all the while to casually brush off his casual racism by narrowing the debate to a binary question of whether or not he would like to discriminate against black people. He gives comfort to all those who would prefer to assuage their discomfort by saying they’re doing nothing wrong, rather than open their minds and hearts and consider what racism might mean to others.
So this rebuttal is an evasion of the issues Black Lives Matter raises.
Because one thing I think Black Lives Matters really asks us is: how much do I think that Black Lives matter?
Perhaps if we could all admit that ‘to some degree I am racist’ without seeing that as excusing racism, we could talk instead about how we reflect and act on that. We could also talk more about whether we are anti-racist.
Anti-racism is not best thought of as a matter of passing the binary test. It is a matter of seeking to understand the ways in which racism permeates our society and economy, and then doing something to help change that.
I really like this graphic which Andrew Ibrahim shared on Twitter, as a way of thinking about anti-racism:
This captures so much of my own personal engagement with these issues in recent years. All of the points in the learning and growth zones use verbs, they are actions. They aren’t glib performances, and they aren’t binary tests. They ask me to think, learn, listen, yield; even to sit with my discomfort, acknowledging that discomfort is common.
In growth it also provides a window for finding common ground. For example, in my work and activism I have talked with a lot of people involved with Community Land Trusts – democratic, community-owned organisations which can take ownership of land and steward it for the wellbeing of their community. They build or renovate homes, conserve natural habitats and protect local shops. They give power to people who are usually marginalised by the market or government. Community Land Trusts were born in the civil rights movement in the USA in 1969. But those purposes form a common thread running through CLTs in wealthy villages keeping affordable homes for local families, coastal towns arresting decline, council estates seeking to take ownership of their homes, and urban communities facing major regeneration.
And so in the network of CLTs there is common ground in the ways these communities are all marginalised, even wealthy white village retirees, and at the same time an opportunity to think about how some – such as black people – are systematically marginalised to a greater degree than others.
I have sought to learn more about those civil rights roots; to donate to and support initiatives like the Black Land & Spatial Justice Fund that could help more black people, among other worthwhile goals, to start CLTs; to direct my organisation’s work towards specific programmes and funding for CLTs that are led by, or seek to involve and empower, black and minority ethnic members of their community, as well as working class, poor, young and others who are marginalised in our land and housing systems. The extent to which I spend my time doing these things over and above other priorities is one way in which I ask myself – how much do black lives matter to me?
Recently I have been reading and thinking about a startling piece of work on racism in the charity sector by ACEVO, my membership body for charity chief execs. Called Home Truths, their work found that 70% of people they surveyed had either experienced, witnessed or heard stories about racism in the charity sector. They concluded that racism is normalised – not exceptional – as well as systemic and institutionalised in the sector. I tweeted nine key points I took away from it for the CLT movement.
To be anti-racist when working in the charity sector is not, therefore, to passively avoid discrimination. It is to face this stark message and work to change those systems and institutions that lead to discrimination.
I think about my own charity and whether we might be too passive in areas like recruitment, applying fair and non-discriminatory policies and practices but not proactively supporting those who come to us with disadvantages born of years of structural racism (and classism, and poverty). I think about our desire to recruit a more diverse board of trustees, but wonder why we haven’t put more dedicated resources into achieving that aim. We are a small, under-resourced and overworked charity, and can only every scratch the surface of all the things we’d like to do, including in this area. Still, I ask myself: how much do black lives matter to us?
I have been thinking about all the Victorian statues and public memorials, and the fact that some truly abominable people continue to be memorialised to this day despite years or even decades of protest from black Britons, and others. Not put into museums or contextualised in situ, but left proudly displayed and unchanged in our city squares and town halls. What does this say about how much we think black lives matter? I think about the kneejerk response of the anti-woke tribe, of all those who hide behind trotting out the line that ‘history is complicated, removal is erasure’, and I think: in not being willing to listen to black voices, to learn more about that complicated history, to sit with the discomfort you then experience, to challenge your first reaction, to consider their demands, how much do black lives really matter to you?
I think about all of the public inquiries and government reviews into structural racism and other deeply entrenched inequalities in Britain. About the Grenfell fire, deaths in custody, the Public Health England report on COVID-19 deaths, the evidence of disproportionality in air pollution deaths, Windrush. All of these wrongs which are public knowledge, and yet are rarely widely known, recognised, discussed, let alone addressed with public policy and funding. How much do black lives really matter to the British public, and to our governments?
I think about my own personal political activity, which has centred around the living wage, climate change, affordable housing and community power. All of these intersect with structural racism, and the overwhelming whiteness of the environmental movement is a perennial problem. I think about these intersections and try to challenge myself, but sometimes I find it disabling: I don’t have the time to tackle everything that is wrong with the world, and sometimes performances of solidarity can – in polarised times – mark me in a way that undermines my work or campaigning. Yes, it can be a matter of balance, but I feel guilty and confused about it. So I ask myself: how much do black lives matter to me?
I say the following not to dismiss the importance of calling out racism, of lending support to those who suffer its harmful effects. But if we can be less quick to write people off as ‘racist’, ‘gammons’ and ‘bigots’, and move past this binary notion of racism with all of its polarising implications, we could have more discussions about anti-racism along the lines set out in the graphic above with a much wider range of people.
We could start conversations with people asking ‘how much do black lives matter to you?’, rather than with a demand for a particular performance of solidarity or a complete agreement with a campaign’s proposition. This applies whether in the context of statues or housing policy, TV schedules or company policies.
I will try to do this, to talk about how we make black live matter more – to ourselves, our company, our community, our country – and to focus more on changing things.