Updated: Jul 27, 2020
By Kathryn Grassu
I am not a social media person. I do not have Twitter (and I have no intention of getting it). I try to refrain from posting on Facebook at all, preferring to utilize the platform to stick my head above the parapet and observe the lives and behaviour of the people I know. A social litmus test if you will. So when it came to blackout Tuesday - an effort made by many people I know and one with which I totally agree - I still didn't feel compelled to copy and share the response myself. This is not because I do not care as much, but rather I am fearful of the white complacency that so often arrives with social media-based action. Everyone seems to just pass something along, repeat a hashtag, sign a petition without following up with further action, and throw money at the problem by donating to wherever seems legit and then pat themselves on the back for being a decent person who is not complicit in racism. And sure, those things are great and I'd much rather these things be done than not done. But if you'd prefer my disclaimer in soundbite form then here it is: Yes any positive action is better than no action. BUT, better is not the same as good enough. We must not settle, we must go beyond what is necessarily immediately comfortable for us as a society that tends to encourage the suppression of emotion. Instead, we must use our empathy and our disgust at the treatment of fellow humans to our advantage; and not allow over-rationalisation of our rightful reactions to take the sting and the effectiveness out of our practical response.
I was appalled to see the video of George Floyd's murder in broad daylight, as all decent people were. I think in the end protests do get things done, both peaceful and non-peaceful when it's necessary. To all the people saying we should not resort to lawbreaking, tell that to the kneeling NFL players whose efforts were met with a continuation of undiluted racism for a beautifully thought out act of peaceful protest. Only now; when full-blown demonstrations are taking place, is the NFL budging from their position and admitting any kind of fault. Clearly peaceful is not always enough to change outcomes on its own.
I want to address some ignorant white people in this article because I have more personal experience of this. However, I have total understanding for some who would prefer me to focus on the lives of innocent victims of a racist world, rather than focusing yet more attention on perpetrators. But I feel I can use my natural bullishness to deal with problem people more strongly. The pain I feel seeing people suffer repeated injustices and the hopelessly slow pace of progress is more difficult for me to express in words, whereas suggesting practical ways for people to deal with microaggressions as they arise seems doable for me.
So please forgive me for taking the route I have taken, I am trying. It is incredibly important for individuals to respond in a way that feels right for them so as to encourage us to better understand ourselves; in order to move towards considering our capacity for empathy a strength. We must not simply parrot enough trending phrases to assuage our white guilt and then stop. We must really look at our own thought process. How we seem to trust instantly the information disseminated to us from biased institutions, then barrage sources of truthful information that happen to contradict the norm with a mental litany of questions and qualifications before accepting them as factual. Don't let anyone you know ‘all lives matter’ this shit. Because as a white person the point is that no person or institution has ever suggested or acted as though your life doesn't matter, your life has always mattered and most of the time more than everyone else's (especially if you're also a man). So don't state the obvious because those pants make your ass look ignorant. Some people are still hearing Black Lives Matter (more) instead of Black Lives Matter (too) and that is half the problem.
It can often be said that we who live on these little islands love to be a bit pedantic when it comes to grammar. We seem to love the petty one-upmanship of the who/whom and your/you're debates. Imagine if we could harness the apparent joy of correcting our loved ones and instead attune it to challenging their ignorance. Well, you don't have to imagine. I'm sure a lot of well-meaning white people will relate to the experience of being at a family function, and THAT uncle who everyone knows is 'a bit'* racist says something massively ignorant and everyone rolls their eyes and tuts under their breath but then simply changes the subject. Why? Because well-meaning disagreers don't want to cause a 'fuss' or an argument, or it's Christmas and can't we all just get along?
This is massively erroneous, we don't have to spend the car ride home thinking of all the reasons why they are wrong and all the things we should have said. It is better to say our piece and have a falling out with a clear conscience than it is to let them get away with it. Yes, we may need these people in our life, but we do not need their racism and the only way I can see to separate the otherwise lovely person from some bitter and hateful views is to call them out any time they rear their ugly head. And if they don't love us even when we disagree with them; then they weren't such nice people after all and at least now it is out in the open for us all to see. Racist attitudes flourish in permitting silences. I beg you, no more.
People often attempt to counter this perspective by saying, ‘well your anger is just gratifying people who want a reaction’. I pity anyone so parasitic and insecure that they thrive on others distress. But instead of ignoring the problem, I suggest that you make the observation of their white fragility part of your argument. There is nothing more snowflake-like than people who simultaneously suggest that being emotionally affected by their words is a weakness yet are so clearly rendered purple-faced and livid by any calm suggestion that they should reconsider an ill-informed but deeply held perspective. We can be charitable in the knowledge that we are just helping each other to be better people and there is nothing wrong with admitting we have been at fault. It is true strength of character to allow our ideas to evolve through patching up holes that others illuminate for us. I would like to point out that this whole paragraph and scenario are about how white people can challenge others. I wouldn't dare tell POC how to deal with something I know little of, as it is the responsibility of the privileged to demolish racism wherever they can, not those targeted by it. POC can respond in whatever way they think best and do not need my, or any other white persons permission to do so.
Tangentially, please stop calling white British people who have moved to another country 'expats' unless they were actually in the military, call them what they are: immigrants, because yes immigrants can be white and yes there is nothing wrong with immigration, it is not a dirty word. Thanks. Glad we could clear that one up, it's been bugging me for years.
I've been embarking on a non-fiction frenzy for a couple of years now. I started with fem-crit (feminist criticism of society), branched into analyses of social class and the establishment, dabbled in research into human sexuality and have arrived at criticism of racist societies and institutions. Before anyone attacks me for the order in which I've been reading, it is only recently that the market (or rather Waterstones) has been suitably flooded with brilliant works for me to really get to grips with. If you'd also like to dip your toe in and educate yourself I'll leave my little list of relevant recommended reads below. It's very frustrating that only now am I being presented with the kind of material I've wanted to read all along, and yes I am to blame too because I should have tried harder and gone looking for the work of eminent POC, but my reading list had already totally run away with me, and it is only through staying at home for 4 months that I have started to catch up. I will broaden my searches even further in future however, as I think that's something very easy that we can all do. We must see the bias in our circle of information and try not to let the bubble get too small. This is made difficult by our old friend consumerist capitalism who is always trying to force more of what we already like down our throats instead of letting us try new things - in case we spend less money. But we cannot hide behind a fear of difference, we must put our big girl panties on and experience new things from people who have lived very different lives from our own.
When I write I aim not to take a platform away from a writer of colour, though of course, it would be naïve to suggest that it won't happen anyway, regardless of my good intent. But by refusing to market myself above others and allowing the words in this article to advertise themselves, I am attempting to prevent the promotion of white peoples' comments on racism above the same sentiments when written by POC. Because as we all know colour blindness is a myth, and a piss-poor excuse for not doing enough. This article is a melting pot of my responses to the evidence of systemic racism that I have seen, spurred into existence by a more open climate for conversations that confront racist attitudes. This article is all I plan to say on current matters so I'm not hogging too much attention for myself. It is fundamental that white people learn to listen as well as speak.
A common tenet of the self-defence of racism is the so-called humour excuse. How many times have I heard a white man** say 'but it's just a joke'? Way too many, enough for a lifetime in fact. But to me, this is the shoddiest excuse of all - because we should be trying to do better, and failure to care about how what we say affects others is childish, irresponsible and just plain rude. Jokes are supposed to be funny and if you have to be a racist to laugh at it, then it plainly isn't. Obviously humour is subjective and all that jazz, but I would suggest that the lowest form of wit is not sarcasm after all, but jokes that rely on 'shock value'. If the kind of laughter you are aiming for is the nervous, cringing laughter of the guilty, then you need to be reintroduced to the pure, euphoric indulgence of open, guilt-free laughter at something that is truly funny. Discomfort in humour has always been there, and of course, there are no rules against it if you insist that this is your cross to die upon. But it is not as clever to write, or as difficult to come up with, as material that has more broad appeal. If you really want to ring in the money and admiration as a comedian, not alienating a significant proportion of your potential audience from the start is simply a better way to go.
The UK's law on freedom of expression is extensive (not simply 'free speech', as people who spend their time listening to Americans misinterpreting their own constitution, often put it) and we abide by people's right to say what they want with their own mouths, and rightly so. Do not be tricked into thinking this means you can say whatever you want without consequence, as this has never been true, just because you have a right to say it, does not mean you should not be arrested for hate speech. Nor does it mean you have a right to be given a platform for your views or to misuse a social media platform to promote racism. Platforms should be handed over when earnt and revoked as a disciplinary action for setting out to deliberately hurt and divide people, which you can still do with your own mouth if you really want to, but we shouldn't be helping you to reach more people with your bullshit. Who decides what constitutes public decency? We do. Not the state, not corporations or CEOs, us. We should be able to promote what is good for us as a multicultural society, and refuse to allow some of us to be singled out by racists, who don't want to share power because it means they don't get to feel superior any more. I say this is how platforming 'should' function because this hasn't happened in practice yet as we are still so new to this worldwide communication thing. But just because we can say anything and someone out there will be listening, does not mean we should. Posts are not just vents for our angry, angry spleens, they are contributions to a conversation that involves everyone, and there is nothing wrong with staying silent while you think carefully about how you want to be represented by your own words before speaking. There is nothing wrong with checking yourself. Not trying to be conscientious at all is worse than trying and failing. Neither is preferable of course, but mistakes are to be realistically expected in the course of gradual social change.
Ultimately, I feel my rallying cry is all about calling shit out every time, even at the expense of jobs and people liking you. Because in the grand scheme of things, these are terribly small prices to pay compared to systemic discrimination against you from birth. It is not the duty of POC to explain to racists how not to be racist, or to educate the ignorant about their struggles. Other white people could be doing this, filling in this gap because POC are busy; they have better things to do like climbing to the top, fulfilling their potential, living their lives, enjoying freedoms and doing whatever they damn well please. I want to be clear - I am not suggesting all white people are responsible for racist individuals, but something we can all do more is to use our privilege to redress what we can whenever we can. Just like the patriarchy, racism hurts everyone (clearly not proportionally), but when white people are desensitized by the everyday injustices of a racist society, our humanity and empathy on a basic level is damaged. None of us can let our own ability to create big change, through perpetual addressing of smaller racisms, be diminished.
Be brave or be out-evolved, it's your choice.
POC = people of colour, obvs
* - This is a deliberate misnomer. You cannot be a bit racist - diet racism designed to be more palatable to more people is still racism and just as insidious, if not more so because it allows racists to masquerade as anything other than what they are.
** - of course, women can and have said this too, but in my personal experience it has always been a man who refuses to apologize and tries to stand by the humour defence, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to me to address some men (not all) directly here.
Recommended further reading:
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- Me And White Supremacy by Layla Saad
- Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch
- The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.