HOPE not hate activist (and former member of our staff) Maatin Patel reflects on the significance of the protests against police violence taking place around the world, and what white people can do to be better anti-racists.
A month and a half ago, there was a knock at my door. I opened it without thinking. Standing there were two policemen. I immediately froze. Running through my head were thoughts of “what are my rights? Do I have to tell them my name? What if they try to come inside?” It wasn’t until hours later that I processed my own thoughts. Why had I frozen? I hadn’t done anything illegal. In truth, I hadn’t even left my house for the better part of a month, having been struck down with covid-19 in early March. I had no reason to be worried, or afraid, or to assume that I was in trouble. So why was I?
Police presence is designed to intimidate. Police target young men of colour. Police cannot be trusted.
These are the messages that we – as non-white members of society – have come to absorb. The people whose job it is to protect us, instead seek us out and try to pin blame on us. How many grainy Twitter videos have you seen where the police officer says something akin to “just give me a reason…” to find a way to justify using excessive force, almost as if they’re looking forward to it. I share this story because if you’re white, it’s probably not something you could relate to. And even though I live a very middle-class, very privileged life in many ways, I still have to wake up every day and live my life in full awareness of the concerns and risks of having brown skin. That’s racism in a nutshell. And I have it a ton better than most others.
It turns out the policemen were responding to a complaint and had the wrong address. We cleared that up quickly. But that didn’t stop them asking me if I had anything to do with it, even after I’d told them, politely, more than once, that I had no idea what they were talking about.
Seeing the explosion across all areas of white society in reaction to George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minnesota has been, for want of a better word, surprising. As a person of colour and anti-racist activist, sadly, the reality is that with each racist murder, with each incident of violent hate levelled at us, they all start to blur together and you become desensitised. It’s honestly the only way to survive because giving into the emotions of each situation can be overwhelming and destructive. When you live in a world that penalises you for the colour of your skin, you have to find a way to keep living.
Let’s for a second suppose that you speak French and I don’t. If you read me a sign in French and tell me what it means, and I turn around to you and say, “oh, no, you’ve got that wrong,” how would you react? It would be incredibly confusing and not make any sense at all! That’s a pretty normal situation for me (and most people of colour) who are constantly challenged by white people about their experiences with racism. Speaking up about racism comes at a price, and I have to make a choice. If I ever speak up among white friends, I run the risk of being told I’m “always making it about race”, or that I’m wrong, or maybe worst of all, that I’ve misinterpreted it. At a certain point you just give up.
One huge barrier to white people’s understanding of racism is that too many think of it as limited to violent acts – murder, anger, bloodshed. But as a person of colour, I’m reminded everyday of how society treats us unequally. And as easy as it is for people in the UK to point fingers at America, we haven’t really got it much figured out here, either. Why else is Diane Abbott, a black woman who has been a trailblazer, a role-model, a high achiever her entire career, set up to fail by her own party and recipient of more death threats and abuse than any other member of parliament? And on the other hand, an under-achiever who has been fired from multiple jobs and never apologised for racist, bigoted remarks made throughout his career is running the country? Why is PPE harder to access for non-white frontline nurses than their white counterparts? Why are non-white people disproportionately dying from covid-19 and yet the white faces at our press briefings have no answers and instead push to open up the country? Just last month, Belly Mujinga, a black woman, was spat on while doing her job as a ticket officer at Victoria station, ending in her death of covid-19 on 5 April. This week, the police have closed any investigation into who is responsible for this. Just stop and take that in. Have you ever really thought about why, when the victim has non-white skin, we are not protected like you are? Grenfell Tower is still covered in scaffold and no responsibility for the government’s failures has been taken. If it had been filled with white, “British” lives instead of people of different colours and backgrounds, would you be satisfied with inaction? Given that 94% of journalists are white, is it any surprise that there’s no press scrutiny or pressure applied to support and defend black lives?
It’s hard to know and understand why this specific incident has had such a widespread, bigger reaction, especially among white people just now choosing to raise their voices. It gives me some hope. But I’ve had this hope before, many times. My memory might be tricking me into thinking this time will be different. I’m hoping it doesn’t die down this time like it’s always done previously, before it takes another innocent black life to reignite people’s shame and action. A few days ago, I reached out via Instagram to let my friends know that I am here to answer questions and help guide them through their own experiences taking on this job. It’s not an easy task for me. In fact, it can be emotionally exhausting to have to explain racism to even the most well-meaning white friend. But I know that we need you in this fight. For too long, too many white people have looked on at us, some with sympathy, and seen racism as something tragic and terrible that only we have to deal with (or worse, minimised or dismissed it as if it were an overblown myth.) Racism and white supremacy cannot be changed without the participation and action of white people. That has always been true. And I hope that if I and many others are willing to do the work to show you the ropes, you’ll show up and do your part.
You might be thinking, well, I know I’m not a racist. If someone asked you how you felt about racism, you’d probably say it was a bad thing. You might go further. Abhorrent. Inexcusable. No room for that. These are commonly heard descriptors on the lips of white folk when quizzed about a racist incident. To the white ear, they probably sound emphatic, resolute, adequately firm. And importantly, they put distance between you and this inexplicable act. But you’ve kind of completely missed the point.
It makes me think of the actor John Krasinksi. He’s maybe the most likeable man in Hollywood. Married to superstar actor Emily Blunt. Portrayed one of the most beloved characters and one half of an iconic romance story as Jim in The US Office. John Krasinksi is the sort of guy that would say “why can’t we all just get along?” After all, he’s mates with Malala. John has spent lockdown hosting his own “Some Good News” video series on YouTube – a whole program dedicated to only good news. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? The sentiment that we all need a bit of good news in our lives, especially at “these times.” However, when you think about what that implies, it has potentially disastrous consequences. Sanitising the news is a tool to get us to forget about our troubles and our strife. If you feel like switching off the news because it’s too sad or upsetting, chances are you’re too privileged to have to worry about what’s on there. Some people watch the news, while some of us have to live the news.
If you want to understand your role in this, think about how many times you’ve done one of these things: when someone calls out racism, you try and cover it up or make an excuse; been the “let’s all be civil” person; made an ironic racist joke but think it’s fine because you’re kidding; changed the channel or logged off Twitter because it made you uncomfortable; find yourself thinking “they’ll never get their point across this way.” For all the above, you’re invoking the same echoes of oppression that white people have used to keep non-white people from achieving equality for hundreds of years.
We all have a role to play in this fight. Don’t let the way you feel now, today, about George Floyd dissipate. Hold onto that feeling and throw yourself in, willingly and openly, to address racism in all parts of society. It’s not enough to not be a racist. You have to be an anti-racist. If you’re willing to find out what that takes, I’ve drawn together some ideas and suggestions as to how to put that into action.
I have spent years working at the intersection of being online and activism. My advice centres around that – how digital tools can be leveraged and used by you to play your part. For many, the coronavirus lockdown has forged a new or a rethought relationship with technology, as it has become the centre of our ability to stay in touch with others, conduct business or work, and find new ways to reach or do the things we would normally do in person – going to the mosque or synagogue, order groceries, submit homework or contracts. This is a massive opportunity in a number of ways.
There’s a common narrative that social media is bad for us, it’s toxic, we need to get offline. But that sort of narrative is extremely damaging and complicit in the sustaining of racism. Ask yourself how you would have known about George Floyd without social media? And how would this story have spread like wildfire – to be on Sky News and have worldwide protests in response – without it? For all its faults, it has been fundamental in our ability to affect change.
Chances are, if you were learning any type of new skill, you’d turn to someone who’s done it before for guidance. During lockdown, I’ve used YouTube to learn how to repair a fence, grow spring onions, keep foxes out of my garden, and sew on a button. And though the murder of George Floyd may have been the first time you’ve ever considered the structures of racism or how you fit into a racist society, it doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s first time giving it thought. That’s good news! Rely on the experts that are already out there and have been doing the work for decades. There’s tons of them, and they exist all over the Internet. I’ve compiled a list of accounts below that are specifically pitched at educating around the issue of racism in society. Being a beginner is no bad thing and is not a barrier to entry. There’s no cost other than your time and willingness to learn. It wasn’t until university that I began my political education and started to develop a history and understanding and language around racism. It’s never too late to start.
Learning doesn’t have to be or feel like homework. Ask yourself – have you read a book by Toni Morrison? When was the last time you watched an episode of TV or a film where the white guy wasn’t the hero, and the brown or black person wasn’t the villain? If not, why not? Think about where you get your news from. Stop investing in sources that stoke hate and start reading about racism from those who live it.
One very important note: Be prepared to be wrong. A huge component of a society built on structures of white supremacy is that we have been taught that white is right, white is better, white is important. That’s reinforced to us in every area of society – for example, 90% of our elected officials are white, and almost all executives are white.
Remember that you cannot put yourself in the shoes of a person of colour because of the way in which racism works – your white skin protects you in a way that it doesn’t us. So instead of trying to do that, listen. Especially if a person of colour has had to use their labour to explain something to you, often for free, don’t set up that conversation as a “debate” for you to refute or critique their perspective. Better still, do the work of learning, listening, and understanding yourself.
Some people are afraid of the term white supremacy as they think it equates themselves to Nazis. Some are afraid of the term Black Lives Matter as it suggests their life doesn’t matter. These are learnings that need to be unlearned – realising that you and your whiteness is not at the centre of this struggle is possibly the biggest barrier to entry to understanding racism as a white person. I have had to do a lot of unlearning myself, and I’m still doing it. It’s a process, and it will be hard and uncomfortable, but remember the reasons why you’re doing it – because being killed by police officers who are meant to protect you, and being oppressed because of the colour of your skin, is harder and more uncomfortable.
Activism doesn’t take one form. Just because you can’t step into our shoes, it doesn’t mean you can’t support us. Speaking first-hand, hearing from white friends, even if it’s just to say “I’m here for you” does so much more than silence. Within the bounds of white supremacy, it’s normal to feel isolated, unsupported, and alone – so reaching out can do a huge amount to bridge that gap. Don’t do it to make yourself feel better, or to burden others with your guilt and shame. Don’t expect a response or understanding. Do it because it’s right!
Racism is an economic problem, first and foremost, and money and wealth are inextricably linked to ethnicity. Did you know that almost all black and ethnic minority groups of workers are paid less than their white British counterparts? More often than not, that means you might be in a better position to resource grassroots activism taking place to combat racism. Showing up with a donation can do wonders to support essential goods and services that are helping those on the front lines of this fight continue to carry out the work that they’re doing. This pandemic has seen unprecedented efforts to support those who need us most at a community level, often through mutual aid networks. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to this urgent issue as well.
3. Use your voice
My years spent in the digital organising world were all about capturing people where they now existed – if we could find a way to replicate knocking on someone’s door and having a face-to-face conversation (a very powerful tool in organising), we could maximise our ability to convince or persuade them about the issues we were advocating for. In addition, the Internet allowed us to do that at scale – having 100 face-to-face conversations could take a team of canvassers a few hours, but a well-crafted email message could reach hundreds of thousands, even millions, instantaneously. Lastly, we imparted the philosophy that if you ask someone supportive of a message to also share that with the people they know, then you’re able to spread that message even further, with the impact of receiving that message from a trusted, reliable source. To put that into plain speak – if you see your mate posting something about racism on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you’re more likely to consider that message with thought than if a leaflet or advert from an organisation you’ve never heard of popped up or through your door.
That’s why I’m so encouraged to see a lot of people – maybe more than ever in my memory – stepping up and sharing and posting (even if that’s just reposting someone else’s words or message) on their own feeds. Those messages will now be seen by a group of people that perhaps have never seen that sort of message before. A few of those people might be really surprised that their friend who’s never mentioned racism or police brutality before is now saying something. That could spark a conversation. That conversation could lead to both you and them engaging in a conversation about how you’ve just started thinking about this stuff. You might have a book to share with them that you found on someone else’s timeline. The process could replicate itself again, and again, and again – and the learning and understanding can start to spread. Crucially, your white voice among other white voices and opinions is an incredibly powerful tool that only you have. If you’re afraid of how people might react to you speaking up, think about how much harder it is for us to have to.
Black Lives Matter UK – https://twitter.com/ukblm
Layla F. Saad – Me and White Supremacy https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com/
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Book)
Robin DiAngelo – White Fragility (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/16/white-fragility-racism-interview-robin-diangelo)
Ibram X Kendi – How to Be an Antiracist https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/14/ibram-x-kendi-on-why-not-being-racist-is-not-enough
The Good Immigrant – book anthology edited by Nikesh Shukla
Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy (book)
Rachel Cargle – https://www.instagram.com/rachel.cargle
Rachel Ricketts – https://www.rachelricketts.com/resources
Jen Winston – https://www.instagram.com/jenerous/
Liz Plank – https://www.instagram.com/feministabulous/
The Other Box – https://www.instagram.com/_theotherbox