I like to think of myself as quite a well-read and socially aware person. But there are many topics where I have significant gaps in my knowledge and experience. I’m not willfully ignorant. But I’m ignorant nonetheless.
The killing of George Floyd and the background to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement highlighted this.
A little knowledge – but only a little
I have a little knowledge here, but not much. I know about the history behind Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X and Rodney King. But the list of names and incidents of racial inequality is endless.
In my life, I’ve had my own experiences with racism. Yobs in white vans leaning out of the window to shout “Chinky!” at me as they drove past, the height of rapier wit. What used to pass for casual ‘banter’ from rival football fans. Such instances are rare, though. I was lucky enough to grow up in cosmopolitan London, surrounded by people from different cultures. I certainly never feared for my life.
There’s an old idiom that states, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” And that’s where my ignorance gets underlined in triplicate. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black person in America right now. Or in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. Or indeed at any time in history.
This makes me uncomfortable (and so it should). If I don’t know enough, how can I help our children understand? And they should understand. This isn’t our battle to own – but it is a battle we can fight in and stand 100% behind, and know exactly why we do so.
Facts and stories
How can we understand better? Facts are always a good starting point. Then stories enhance our empathy where we will never have the first-hand experiences ourselves.
Here are a couple of facts for starters:
According to recent research, in the last six months of 2018, 26% of stops made by San Francisco police were of black people. They comprise just 5% of the city’s population.
Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. 50% of people in the nation’s capital Washington D.C. are black – but 88% of police killings in 2019 were of black people.
If that isn’t stark enough, I read a story about a white woman with a black husband.
When they go out running together, she always runs behind him. Why? Because the optics of a white woman chasing a black man are so different from the reverse.
If a visitor knocks on their door, she always answers it in case it is the police. Why? Because the reaction of officers when faced with a white woman is often different to being greeted by a black man.
Is this extreme or unusual? I don’t know. But it was enough to stop me in my tracks because it had more than a ring of truth about it.
I don’t know what it’s like to live my life like that. To be honest, I’ve never even thought about it because I’ve never needed to. And that’s the position of privilege that I find myself in, and why I am the first to hold my hands up and plead my ignorance.
So when white folks post on Twitter about how #AllLivesMatter, they’re missing the point. No one is saying that all lives don’t matter. But having to state – in the year 2020 – that black lives matter just as much as those people with other skin colours? That’s the point.
As for a white man driving to a peaceful protest, pulling out a bow and firing an arrow into the crowd … well, all hail the Dollar Store Hawkeye. Or what about the cop in full riot gear charging a TV cameraman with his circular shield, as if he was living out a Captain America fantasy? What possesses these people, other than a self-righteousness born of power and privilege? What’s their story, their rationale for acting the way they do?
And let’s not kid ourselves that these are isolated incidents. They’re not. Racial profiling and police brutality are not inventions of a left-wing agenda. There is a real, systemic issue here.
How can we solve a societal problem?
This makes me angry, but it also saddens me. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a black person in America. I don’t even understand what it is to be white and working-class in America. It’s more extreme versions of this inability – or unwillingness – to understand ‘the other’ that underpins so much of this world’s racial tension.
And let’s not pretend this is solely an American problem. It isn’t. It may not be as extreme, but let’s not pretend that racism isn’t an issue here too.
I will never really know how it feels to walk a mile in either a black person’s or a white supremacist’s shoes. But I can learn more and understand more.
I’m optimistic but I’m not totally naive. Not everyone is willing to tread the path that leads from understanding to tolerance and ultimately acceptance. But it’s a path our kids and I can take.
We can’t hide our children from the fact that our society is sometimes ugly. But we can help them learn about what is happening. We can help them understand why it happens. And we can guide them to act to enable change. Because black lives do matter and it is not an issue for only black people to solve. It’s an issue we must all stand up for. And that starts with me and my family and taking time to educate ourselves.
It’s no longer enough to stand up and say, whether performatively or otherwise, that we are “not racist”. We cannot stand by and be passive. Which means we have to put the effort in to understand what racism truly is and to act – not just speak – in a way that is actively anti-racism. It’s up to us individually what this looks like. But it needs to be something. Actions speak louder than words.
Check out blacklivesmatter.com for more information.