Guest post: Why I am talking to white people about race

Thank you to Miah Bailey who responded to my call for guest posts inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and which address issues of race, career and social justice. In this posts she discusses the common microaggressions that black people experience in UK workplaces and considers the role that education can play in responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. Please get in touch if you are interested in sending me a guest post.

The tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25th 2020, has sparked widespread, global attention to the Black Lives Matter movement – the most ever since it began in 2013. Now, people from all around the world, of all backgrounds and races have sprung into action to show their solidarity for black lives.

If you’ve been following the media and engaging in the conversation, you may well also be aware of Ahmaud Arbery, a black American man gunned down in a premeditated attack by white supremacists, whilst he was out jogging in his neighbourhood in February; as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, unlawfully killed in March by US police as she slept in her bed.

For black people far and wide, news of these racist attacks occur year after year (noting there are many more that do not gain media attention), and our pleas for justice have been ongoing for generations with no real change. It’s through the power of social media that in 2020, non-black people are no longer able to ignore the plight of our existence, confronted by blatant acts of racism which cannot be denied or debated. For the black community, this comes with the uncomfortable truth, that after generations of fighting for our basic rights, it’s taken for the world to witness the 9 minutes an innocent man was brutally murdered, to open their eyes and extend their allyship.

It seems this is the only language of racism that the majority of people understand, but fail to recognise less overt acts of prejudice that occur on an everyday basis, by people who probably don’t consider themselves as, (or deliberately intend to be) racist.

In an online extract of the book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, author Reni Eddo-Lodge explains that people often feel that if a physical attack has not occurred or racial slurs have not been used, then an action cannot be racist. She writes, “We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.

It’s the covert nature of systemic discrimination, often in the form of subtle microaggressions, which makes it difficult to call out and hold to account. For many generations and writing from experience, when black people do choose to speak out about such oppression, we are often accused of pulling the race card, no action is taken or we’re quickly reminded that it can’t be racist, since ‘racism no longer exists in the UK.’

The UK is not innocent

Despite this misconception, my existence as a black-British woman is something I’ve been made aware of for as long as I can remember, caused by the microaggressive rhetoric – in and out of the workplace – that many of us can relate to.

Being told I’m “different” and don’t talk or act like a “typical black girl”, because I’m well-spoken or don’t conform to a stereotype (stereotypes which have been infiltrated by whitewashed media, and is a problem within itself).

Being asked: “Where are you from? No… Where are you really from?”, and having to defend my British identity, because the idea that I could possibly be born in Britain to British parents is unfathomable.

Having white colleagues wanting to touch my hair (and sometimes without asking), which I understand is mostly out of curiosity and innocence, but the ignorant undertones of this question and action subject black women to feel like the ‘office pet’.

Whilst this illustrates just a glimmerof my personal experiences, the commonplace microaggressions black people are subjected to in the workplace also include:

  • Tone-policing: an oppressive way of silencing black people through racial stereotyping, such as being labelled aggressive; in contrast to the ability for our white counterparts to speak or act assertively in the same way, but with no reprimand.
  • Appearance-based discrimination: such as the implications that natural afro-hair is unkempt or unprofessional; or prejudgements on a person’s capabilities based on stereotypes (this campaign ad is a powerful example).
  • Tokenism: particularly in corporate fields, black employees experience being the only or one of few, and find they become the spokesperson for all black people as if we are all the same and share the same values.
  • Gaslighting: often delivered in a well-meaning tone, but is the act of undermining or invalidating a black person’s experience when they call out microaggressive behaviour.
  • ‘Othering’: boxing us into categories such as ‘BAME’ & ‘POC’ which virtually means ‘everything but white’, this pushes the agenda that white is the norm and everything else falls underneath that.

Our struggles, and therefore needs are all different and creating terms to be “politically correct” is more about discomfort in saying the word black, than it is about politics.

Generational race trauma is very real

 There is also a sense of discrimination which is felt almost at an innate level. Being taught by your elders that you will have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts to access the same opportunities; or having to think twice about ticking the ethnicity box on a job application, out of concern this will diminish opportunities.

This is a manifestation of systemic racism and it speaks to the limitations set by social and political institutions, which allow white people to progress while limiting all others. It is the ignorance bought about by white privilege which allows racial bias to thrive. Which is why these conversations we’re having are so important in flagging such attitudes and behaviours. 

Black Lives Matter is so easy to say, but how do we put it into action?

To resolve the injustice, oppression and trauma that black people experience, we have over four centuries of work to undo. Though I’m grateful for all and any positive change that is taking place, I’ve come to accept that complete change is something I will probably never see in my lifetime.

As we move forward in a progressive direction, I believe it’s crucial that we start by dismantling white superiority, the whitewashing and appropriation of black culture and changing the many harmful narratives and stereotypes that have been placed upon black people through institutionalised racism. Such breeds prejudice and is therefore the catalyst for racism and white privilege to continue.

It is the responsibility of educators to not teach slavery as the only thing to come from black history, but to also celebrate black achievements and contributions to history outside the lens of ‘struggle’.

It is the responsibility of employers and business owners to see more black professionals in leadership positions and to not only hire token black employees to meet a ‘diversity and inclusion’ quota, and then call it a day. They must align their company values and educate themselves to the equal treatment of said employees.

It is the responsibility of media and entertainment platforms to show positive representations of black men and women, that doesn’t portray them solely as aggressors, gang members and other stereotypes which have negative connotations.

It is the responsibility of brands and influencers to stop appropriating black culture for personal gain and profit, when they have the means to collaborate, provide opportunities or amplify the voices of the originators (e.g.  Jamie Oliver and his catastrophic version of rice & peas!)

And it’s the responsibility of us all to recognise that when your black peers are speaking out about their lived experiences, this isn’t to seek pity or to be anti-white – only ever to exist as our true selves. Not having to compromise who we are, or present a version that is palatable to the white lens and allows us ‘to get by’ in life. Simply, to be heard, seen and treated as equal.

This list by The Future Laboratory, offers tangible actions you can take to engage in the conversation, commit to the cause and expand your knowledge:

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