I’m finding it hard to write this week. In fact, this week has dribbled into next if you see what I mean. There’s so much to think about. So much to feel anxious and uptight about.
There’s a no-deal-Brexit looming with trade deals being shimmied through while we have our eyes elsewhere. Deals which will probably compromise the quality of our food (chlorinated chicken from the US and all that), and the safety and integrity of our crops (neonicotinoids that kill bees and that sort of thing). There’s the economic downturn resulting from Covid and lockdown – with many friends, family and neighbours facing an uncertain future. There’s the relaxation of lockdown – does ‘the science’ show it’s the right thing to do? Or can ‘the science’ be manipulated like ‘the data’? And, of course, there’s racism, Black Lives Matter, and the horror of George Floyd’s killing by US police (even though millions of us watched it, we can’t say ‘murder’ because it’s not been through the courts). All these things make me feel powerless and inadequate. And then I think: who am I to feel powerless?
For many of us, the killing of George Floyd will have made us look again at our own uneasy record on squaring up to racism and to our national record in the UK as a whole. There are certainly uncomfortable truths that lay behind the mask of our equal multicultural society, and the attitudes and structures that prop it up. These uncomfortable truths have occupied much of my household’s thoughts, conversations and readings these last 10 days or so. And, despite the fact that the daughters suggested I should write about it, I’ve struggled to find a way in.
One fear and challenge for me as a white English woman trying to write about racism is that I must own my past which includes racist thoughts, words and actions – and I am embarrassed and ashamed of that. I don’t like looking back at the racist me – but, if I’m to move forward, I must do it. I also need to acknowledge that I am a privileged member of an imbalanced society that has benefited from the spoils of empire and slavery – a society that still hasn’t totally dealt with its tainted inheritance or the legacy it’s left to the nations it pillaged and the peoples it abused.
It’s seriously painful and awful to still be having these conversations about casual and structural racism. But have them we must. Who, in their right mind, believes that hierarchies (or anything) should be decided by something so arbitrary as skin colour? And yet, this premise is something that is still ingrained in the way our systems work and the attitudes we (often unconsciously) carry with us. And, in our entitlement, we are constantly letting ourselves off dealing with the ramifications of a skewed equality. Only yesterday I was looking at an American research study that demonstrates implicit bias in the treatment of black children and adults by physicians (you’ll find the Abstract here).
You see this disparity even now in the reactions to the demonstrations here and in the US: it’s not the time, we say. After Covid would be a better, safer time, we say. As if Covid were not itself contributing to the polarising effect of inequalities based around skin colour and the social injustices that derive from them (take a look at this BBC video – it scratches the surface but it’s a good starting point).
So, how long should black people be patient about inequality? Ten years? One hundred? They’ve already waited some 450 years – surely a few more won’t make a difference? The subtext here is about maintaining a status quo of power: if people could all just pipe down a bit, we can get on with living through these terrible Covid times, and maybe look at the injustices associated with skin colour in calmer times. Maybe.
If you are challenged by the idea that people constantly side-stepped by rules that are purportedly designed to protect them might cease to respect or uphold those rules, I strongly recommend listening to Trevor Noah’s gentle, rational take on the situation in the States. He deftly summarises the idea of structural racism and the impact of a societal contract which only truly respects the rights and freedoms of the original architects of that contract.
I know many are horrified by the lootings during the demonstrations in the US and by the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in the UK. And I’m not an advocate of civil disobedience, but I don’t feel that demonstrators’ actions are any more horrifying than a man being openly killed by the police, or a black person dying in police custody after being brutally beaten, or someone being stopped time and again by police because of the colour of their skin. In fact, I’d argue the statue toppling is less horrifying. I’m in my fifties, and during my life I have seen a system designed to protect not just slip up from time to time, but actively abuse its powers countless times. And, each time, it seems we shake our heads and say ‘this shouldn’t happen’. We investigate and have enquiries that take years, and we get on with our lives and hope everyone else will too. But there’s such a thing as a perfect storm. And Covid, lockdown and that ultimate abuse of human rights on 25th May 2020 – the taking of George Floyd’s life – might just be that perfect storm.
I don’t think that we should get lost in a sea of guilt and hand-wringing and being ashamed – although many of us will have reasons to; or that we should get carried away in accusations and recriminations and being angry – although many are justified in that. I believe that, for many of us, the demonstrations rocked the foundations of the societal safety net we trust and believe in. But the challenge for us is to acknowledge that it’s a safety net designed with holes that let black people fall through it. And then to do something about it.
History is something we write individually and as a society. That’s why Banksy’s Instagram thoughts on replacing the statue of Colston are so interesting: “Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t. We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”
Visually and intellectually, Banksy’s suggestion encapsulates the shift that real change in the colour-bias status quo requires. Resurrecting this tainted statue and incorporating into it the story of its toppling would mark history in the making. And represent an overdue acknowledgment of a wealth and power that is sullied and, actually, should never have existed. It’s this sort of shift that each of us needs to embrace. Because that’s when we’ll collectively continue to topple an injustice that has blighted too many lives for way too long.