Lessons from Black Lives Matter
Rest in peace George Floyd. I’ve thought of little else since his brutal death at the hands of a white police officer and the ensuing uprising in the form of the Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve tried to write something many times that encapsulated my response to events, but I’ve deleted everything I’ve written. Every time I thought I understood something new, another Black voice (either in real life, on a placard in the crowd, or on social media) would say something else that I needed to learn. Initially, I thought the last thing the world needed was another white voice analysing, agonising or dissecting the revolution. One of the impressions I got from social media was that amplifying Black voices is a positive thing to do; but as someone who isn’t hugely active on social media, many of the Black women I already followed and enjoyed – Kemi Telford, Candice Brathwaite, Natalie Lee – have far more influence than I do.
So I’ve been listening and learning. Delving into myself and questioning. Remembering past events, and replaying them in the light of the righteous anger that I see everywhere. And I remembered something – a story I don’t really want to share, one that doesn’t make me look as good as a report of me on a BLM march or standing up against institutional racism (I do have one of those for another day) but one that does something that I’ve heard mentioned again and again by Black influencers – the ‘heart work’, as anti-racism educator Monique Melton (@moemotivate) puts it, of overcoming your own unconscious bias. I’ve been listening to her @shinebrightertogether podcast. She’s sparky, erudite and beautiful, and uncompromising on what it will take to overcome racism in society. She says it is white people who need to do the work to make progress. And she’s not impressed by some of the attempts she’s seen so far.
So inspired by Monique, here’s a story of how unconscious bias can affect those of us who thought we weren’t part of the problem. Quite a while ago, I’m not sure how long but it pre-dates having my kids so at least eight years ago, I found myself in a hardware shop on a Saturday. Not my favourite place to be. I take no pleasure in DIY and the only reason I was there would have been to find some random item for a task in the flat that could no longer be put off. So I wasn’t in a great mood and I wasn’t feeling very patient. I can no longer remember what I was looking for, but I couldn’t find it. Then I saw him.
Facing away from me, but wearing a polo shirt the same colour of the uniform of the shop, and apparently explaining something knowledgeably to a customer. I approached him and waited until he’d finished talking. He looked up. I started to ask my question, then realised my mistake. He didn’t work in that store. He was just a customer, like me, trying to find something he needed. You know what I’m going to say now, don’t you? He was Black.
Why did I make that mistake? Why did my mind assume that, in that context, this man would be an employee rather than a customer? Was my white privilege at play? Did I see a Black man and assume he was there to serve me? Maybe I did. I wasn’t rude to him. I acknowledged my mistake and apologised, he laughed it off, and we both went about our days. But that day came back to me when I read about the ‘micro-aggressions’ that Black people experience in everyday life. Did I make his day a little bit worse? Did I reinforce a sense he already had from the rest of society that his place is lower than mine? I hope he doesn’t even remember that day now. But I also know that if he doesn’t, it’s probably because it blends into a pattern of overt racism, verbal and physical assault and workplace discrimination he is also likely to have experienced.
I stand with all people of Colour, I support the Black Lives Matter revolution and I pray for real, meaningful change in our society. But I think that change is going to begin with white people taking a proper look at the systems we’ve constructed and asking ourselves what we, personally, can do. If we can’t acknowledge the huge privilege we have, and the fact that we’ve benefited from it when we didn’t deserve to, then we aren’t even in the starting blocks. I want to be a part of the solution, and that means admitting that I’m not perfect. How could I be? I’m white and I was raised in an institutionally racist world.
When I started this blog I said it was about ‘living consciously’. I didn’t know then what the most important thing was that I needed to be conscious of. But I do now. Unconscious bias affects us all. You don’t have to kneel on someone’s neck to be a part of the problem. But I’d humbly suggest you have to be aware of – and then reject – your own privilege to be a part of the solution.