In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US, UK and globally, some may wonder why black people are shouting. The answer is simple. They are protesting and rioting because otherwise they cannot get themselves heard. They have tried and tried, but little has changed. They are shouting in desperation hoping that this time the rest of us will listen.
I sat down to write this not because I want to teach someone a lesson - there are plenty of preachers out there on social media summarising #BlackLivesMatter into neat Instagram images. I’m writing this, like pretty much every Life Tonic I’ve written to date, to process this matter myself. Writing helps me so after watching and reading and talking and listening, I sat down to put my tangled thoughts down.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured it all out and that’s OK. There is plenty I don’t know. I wish our leaders admitted that more often. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not OK not to try to do something when our fellow citizens are risking their lives amidst the pandemic to campaign for change.
The first #BlackLivesMatter message I heard loud and clear is that we, white people, need to shut up and listen for a change. I did some DIY over the weekend, a rather thought-provoking activity, as it turns out, and found myself contemplating my white privilege. It sounds funny only if you haven’t thought about it properly.
White privilege quite simply refers to the fact that white people don’t have to deal with negative assumptions made about them based solely on the colour of their skin, whereas black people experience it every day. Black people have to “prove themselves” in everyday situations because of the prejudicial assumptions made about them at work, on the street, etc. Someone put it well: white privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard, it just means that the colour of your skin isn’t making it harder.
I admit that I have not thought much about it before. Now that I have, it makes me look back and realise that black people have to make so much effort just to avoid some of prejudice they experience. I work closely with a black person who never swears and is exceedingly polite. In Small Island by Andrea Levy I read about black kids of the British Empire being taught manners by their mothers so that a white man could never find a reason to reproach them. Last week I cycled to Finsbury Park where a black man about to enter the gate ahead of me attempted to give me way. Why? I arrived after him. And I saw very clearly it was his habit to let people like me go through first.
Another thing I learned about myself walking with a friend along the Regent’s Canal on Saturday is that the colour-blindness I pride myself in may be missing a point. I understand colour-blindness to be a virtue in that I see the person not the colour of his skin. Indeed, I never think of my people of colour friends any differently than I think of my white friends. And yet this means that I also choose not to see the colour of their skin and how it may affect their lives. I see a handsome, successful, interesting to talk to Goldman Sachs banker but not what it might feel like to be one of the very few people of colour at the top of that institution or what it took him to get there. I see a beautiful, fun-loving, exercise junkie I used to work with, but it never occurred to me that she was once explicitly told what kind of hairstyles were acceptable for a black woman to wear in our office.
Having said that, I don’t know what to do with this new angle I now see. I tried calling a black friend and asking if she had a racism-free day and we both laughed. I don’t expect anyone to call me and say: “Any casual sexism you experienced today?” either. But perhaps we could all learn to open up a bit and talk about our experiences.
Some say don’t make comparisons of your own experience to #BlackLivesMatter but I disagree. Comparisons is what helps us relate, understand and learn. Empathy isn’t something you can buy on Amazon, it’s a muscle which gets better with exercise. #BlackLivesMatter took over our lives in the same way #MeToo hashtag took over social media a couple of years ago. I will never forget that experience of seeing so many women posting their stories or just #MeToo on their Facebook walls. It was truly overwhelming and brought up some deeply buried memories. It was also life-reaffirming and gave me hope that going forward we won’t tolerate harassment, and the new generation of women especially would be brave to speak up.
I realised that watching a black man pinned down by a white policeman begging for mercy and the subsequent outcry from the black communities must have brought up all sorts of memories for people of colour. We are advised to check up on our friends and I tried. But that isn’t easy either. I struggle, for example, to find the right words for a grieving person, but formulating a text message about racial abuse is something else entirely.
Yesterday the chief executive of my company invited all of us to write to him and suggest what we could do to make sure that Black Lives Matter. If there is thing you could do, what would it be?
I was sort prepared because I did spend some time thinking about it and bouncing some ideas off my friends. We talked about mentorship and even more importantly sponsorship of black talent, creating opportunities where rather than having a token black presence in governing institutions, companies and on screen, we should encourage and support people of colour to progress their ambitions. Plenty of such initiatives already exist, e.g. a friend of mine is involved in promoting greater diversity of undergraduates in Cambridge, venture capital fund Backstage Capital runs an accelerator programme to help underrepresented founders in the US and in London.
But if I had to choose one thing with the widest reach and longest impact, it’s education. I’m not familiar with the school curriculum be it history, literature or arts here in the UK or in the US and I would leave it to specialists to educate us on that. What I have in mind are two practical ways we could try to reach everyone from preschool kids to pensioners promenading in Thanet.
First, we need to give black people a platform to speak while white people should just shut up and listen.
Right now black people / people of colour talk in an echo chamber while we, white people, occasionally put black people on comedy panels, insert them into theatre plays, even elect them so we can pat ourselves on the back and move on. This is tokenism.
Let’s give black people the platform. If you currently work in a company hosting regular Zoom meetings, invite non-white members of your staff to speak. Sure it requires some bravery but they don’t need to talk about racism. They could simply share their everyday experiences like the achievements of their kids or the last holiday they enjoyed and keep longing for during lockdown. Maybe the next person will talk about people who inspired them or how they felt when Obama was elected and how they feel now. Someone may even talk about how they taught their kids about racism and even invite white parents to share what they told their kids about prejudice.
This is practical and I believe it could make a huge difference in a small way.
Second, we need to create and market content which educates the public at large.
There is plenty to cover.
For example, did you know that black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy, birth or postpartum than white women in Britain? I listened to a Woman’s Hour podcast about it last summer and I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing (hiking to Kilemche village in Kyrgyzstan).
We need to inspire black kids to reach for the stars, teach them confidence, encourage all young adults to call out discrimination when they see it, prompt teachers to think harder about books and art works they choose for their pupils.
I started following an amazing account on Instagram called @ablackhistoryofart. It’s run by a Cambridge student studying art who discovered there was no black art on the curriculum so she started posting works of black artists and putting interesting captions like what does a hoody symbolise or how does it make you feel. Next thing you know people will start buying paintings from black artists… or so I hope.
Luckily, we now live in the world with an abundance of media platforms with films, TV series, podcasts, books, blogs, radio shows, plays, live events - all of these are capable to educate and inspire us to become better citizens. Why, even pub quizzes could include questions like “How many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the US are black?” or “What was the highest grossing movie made by a black director?” or “Which sport is Simone Biles famous for?” or “Whose real name is Michael Omari or, if you like, Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr? (The answers are below.)
I’m pretty confident that most people reading this are already doing something to educate themselves. Have you heard that Brit-ish, a book by Afua Hirsh has actually been sold out on Amazon? But let’s be honest, not everyone is like that so we need all types of content to reach every white policeman in Minnesota and every Wetherspoon’s patron here in the UK. We need broadcasters, publishers, movie studios to put some money behind content highlighting black lives, and we, as consumers, need to spend our money so that it becomes not just a nice thing to do but a profitable thing too. (Here is an independent publisher which creates shelf space for diverse writers.)
If this ended up being a long article, this is by no means all. I'm still thinking and processing it all and I hope I won’t ever stop. All thoughts and ideas welcome.
Answers: 4; Black Panther; Gymnastics; Stormzy