Once up on a time, I thought that Britain was beyond racism. It is only thanks to the labour of people of colour that I have started to learn in the last few years how wrong I was. I am still on that journey.
I remember being shocked when I was seeing a black guy a few years ago and he told me about his experiences of racism in Wales. ‘It’s not like that where I grew up’, I thought, rather than realising that that was simply because those things hadn’t happened to me.
A couple of years later, I was shocked when more obviously racist incidents spiked after the Brexit vote. ‘This isn’t the Britain I know’, I thought. But for many, it just made the racism they already knew more visible.
I thought that being racist meant using offensive language. That it meant being affiliated with the BNP, or KKK. I didn’t understand how racism is institutionalised, woven into the fabric and systems of society. That I had benefited and continue to benefit from racism because I am white. I thought that I ‘didn’t see race’, whereas what I really didn’t see were the obstacles and discrimination people of colour were facing. To not recognise race is to be ignorant to the experiences of people of colour.
At school we were told that Britain was a land of heroes, how Churchill saved us from the evil Nazis, without telling us anything about how he presided over people being put into concentration camps, tortured and murdered in Kenya, or his role in the Bengal famine. A lot has to be done to decolonise our education systems, but it’s also about time we started thinking for ourselves and really taking active steps to understand our own history. The information is out there if you look for it.
I thought that racism was terrible, but that I was ‘one of the good guys’, because of my interest and work in social justice, and although I came to understand how the standard of living I am used to in a very wealthy country was built off the back off slavery and extreme forms of racist human rights abuse, I didn’t see the extent to which it still perpetuates the world we live in now.I remember feeling defensive hearing activists saying that all white people are racist. ‘But they can’t mean me, not all white people…’ and then I realised that I was doing the same as those guys who respond to stories of misogyny with ‘not all men’. Something fell into place in my mind.
It’s not enough to not be a total dickhead. That’s a very low bar to set. To be allies to people of colour, we (white folks) have to be actively anti-racist. That could mean many things. It might mean showing up to demos, it might be other awareness-raising activities, it might be having uncomfortable conversations with loved ones, it might be taking an active step in pushing for better representation in your work, particularly in higher graded roles, it might be donating to anti-racist organisations or community projects run by BAME people, or giving up some of the power you have has a result of your privilege- taking a step aside to pass the mic to someone less represented than you, even where that might disadvantage your own interests. Most of all it means listening to people of colour, reading writing by people of colour, believing their experiences, and for white people, trying to understand, though we never will.
It took me a long time to say something about this because I know that I am not the best placed to do so, but since I also recognise that white silence in violence, it seems necessary to say something. Thank you to the friends, colleagues, and comrades who have helped me to make a start on this journey, and for your bravery and strength in the anti-racist movement that is so extremely personal to so many. I know that there is a long, long way to go. I will never really understand, but I stand with you.