Why I'm no longer talking to Black people about race (the way I used to...)*
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
(*with apologies to Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of 'Why I no longer talk to White people about race')
An open letter to other White people in the UK...
Dear fellow faded Africans,
On the 25 May 2020, the death of George Floyd rocked our White world. In the following weeks, global protests even reached the bastion of White Middle-England that is Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. At a 'Black Lives Matter' event on Tooting Bec Common in South-west London, I looked around and noted that at least 75% of the 1500 or so people that attended were White. George's death had starkly disturbed our White psyches with the truth that racism is still alive and well in a post-Obama world.
But, at the beginning of Black History month, five months later, where does the issue sit with you and me now – as White people? Is it just yesterday's news, or has something permanently shifted in our White psyches?
'Racism and me...'
As a member of a large multicultural South London church with over 50 nationalities and 50% of its 500 strong membership from BAME communities, letting the issue rest has not been an option.
In the church men's group I help to lead, we convened three Zoom listening assemblies, a month apart, entitled 'Racism and me...'. in which Black men and White men took it in turns to simply listen to each other’s experiences and perspectives. In between these meetings, our Black brothers shared many links, YouTube videos and articles on our WhatsApp group, patiently helping to fill in the gaps in our whitewashed histories and experiences.
Sometimes the truth has been almost too painful to bear. Like many White people, I've been in touch with my own White fragility and defensiveness. I’ve been tempted to 'balance' the strong feelings expressed by Black people with 'Yes, but...', messages? "Yes, but Black people can be racist too", "Yes, but all lives matter", "Yes, but can't you be a little less angry as you talk about racism - it makes it easier to listen to you". Deep down, I know my "Yes, but.." responses are more about managing my own discomfort when facing difficult truths rather than listening effectively to the pain of another.
As I reflect on my own journey since 25 May, three things stand out:
1. The depth of ignorance prevalent in our White psyches
There has been so much to learn and unlearn. As a child, I pored over my Dad's 1930's world atlas and asked him what all the pink-coloured countries were. I learned that those were the countries that 'belonged to us' (ie ex-British Empire). My heart swelled with pride at being British - a nation so small on the map, but with so much influence. My reading, viewing and conversations since May have put a very different complexion on the 'pink' of my Dad’s world map. The uncomfortable truth is that the British were as capable of human atrocities in the name of Empire-building as Nazi Germany (1).
I used to think that Black people should be grateful that White saviours such as William Wilberforce came to the rescue and got slavery abolished. But in the abolition story I had previously heard, the painful and necessary groundwork done by notable Black figures has been expunged. Why are the names of Mary Prince, Phyllis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano unfamiliar to us? And who’s heard of Baptist pastor Sam Sharpe, who, along with 300 others, paid with their lives during the 1831 Christmas Rebellion at Montego Bay, but paved the way for abolition? (2)
I have come to the painful conclusion that the so-called 'glory days' of the British Empire would be more accurately described as the 'shameful days': an era in our history when we exploited the natural resources of far-off lands and traded their peoples as mere possessions. On such has our economic clout and current position as one of the G8 countries been built (3).
2. The depth of pain prevalent in Black psyches
I confess, I’ve been tempted to argue that slavery is such old news. Surely it’s time for us to put it all behind us? But what if every day on my way to work I passed a statue that celebrated someone who facilitated the enslavement and rape of my great, great grandparents? And I wonder how distant my experience of slavery would feel if, every time I signed my family name, I signed not my ancestral name but one that indicates my ancestors' ownership by a slaveowner of that name? Such are the daily reminders of an enslaved past for so many descendants of slaves living in the UK and USA today.
I left the first of our men's listening sessions overwhelmed by the universal experience of my Black brothers of a drip, drip of micro-racist aggressions since childhood, and their weariness in talking about it. So little seemed to have changed for them. My Black brothers had, out of necessity, learned to be strong and to adapt to their daily experience of racism. Not only this, but they have needed to brace their children against the systemic racism they would experience as they ventured out into the world, just as their parents had braced them (4).
George Floyd’s death, for many Black people, was like twisting a knife in an open wound that was already proving difficult to heal. It had been kept open not just because of deaths at the hands of the police, both sides of the Atlantic, but because of the tokenism, defensiveness and ongoing apathy about racial inequality from people like you and me.
Shortly after publishing my previous articles, ‘The Silence of the Leaders’ and ‘Confessions of a racist’, a Black friend sent me a message that profoundly moved me. It made me aware of a depth of pain I had known nothing about. I share it here (with her permission):
" I wanted to thank you for your posts...they moved me. You went beyond tokenism and just “saying the right things”...you didn’t shy away from the sensitive subject matter - it was honest, introspective, and sincere.
I didn’t realise it, but I really needed to hear those things from a white person. Mainly because a lot of white people in my life that I’ve considered close friends have disappointed me lately in their unwillingness to have the tough conversations, or even admit that systemic racism/white privilege even exists, and then I have the burden of trying to convince them otherwise when the evidence is obvious.
Emotionally and mentally, it’s been a difficult time for me to navigate. I’ve oscillated between tears, anger, and hurt…”
More from her message later. She also reinforced in my mind:
3. The need for White people to take a lead in taking healing and reparatory action
Why is there still a need today for Black parents in Britain to sit their children down for ‘The Talk’ 4 preparing them for a life of racism outside the safety of their homes, just as their parents did for them? And why are those children growing up expecting to give the same talk to their children?
I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that it’s up to people like you and me as to whether that ‘Talk’ is consigned to the history books. Unless White people like us own this issue and say enough is enough, that talk will still be needed. Don’t get me wrong: Black people don’t need White saviours, but they do need White people that are true allies in the struggle because the system is so stacked against Black people and so stacked in our favour.
And it can begin with owning our responsibility, taking a stand, saying it is wrong and committing to being a true ally for change.
To continue my Black friend’s message:
“…but two things have made me feel optimistic and hopeful:
1. I attended two protests, and was comforted by how diverse the crowds were. For the first time, injustice didn’t look and feel like it was just a problem for black people.
2. Secondly, were both your blog posts. I read and reread them, while I was queuing to get into my local Sainsbury’s...and I got quite unexpectedly emotional. I needed to hear some truth from a white person who truly “got it”...and in that moment you stood in the gap for those that didn’t and refused to.
Thank you for...taking the debate beyond lip-service and writing something “real”. I truly appreciated it.Please keep writing...it’s a conversation that needs to be kept going".
Proud once more
As a White person, I want my heart to swell with pride again at being British – for all the right reasons:
- For Britain being known more for the true value of racial justice than a false value of racial tolerance.
- For Britain to recognise the obscenity of paying 40% of our national budget in compensation to already rich ex-slave owners in 1833 (we only finished paying this off in 2015 (5), and nothing to ‘liberated’ slaves).