(Featured image by Instagram artist @ohhappydani, whose website can be found here)
Over the past week, protests have erupted throughout the USA as a result of the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of white police officers. In the UK, public awareness of racist police brutality is growing – but for many, this social consciousness is confined to social media trends that do not translate into the radical changes needed to alter the prevalent discourses surrounding race. Tasha Ratti and I have collaborated for ‘Spotlight Stories’ to highlight how George Floyd’s death is the effect of a wider problem of white complicity and a misconception of how racism is effectively countered.
“I feel frustrated. I’m frustrated at the passive responses on social media. The surface activism. If you share an image of George Floyd, if you #BlackLivesMatter, but that’s where your response ends, it is inadequate. You are not doing enough.”
Tasha describes having scrolled through her Instagram feed and being greeted with “eye-roll worthy” content. Her friends and those that she followed were virtually canvassing their feeds with ‘RIP’ in a glaringly obvious attempt to conform to a ‘woke’ trend.
“Saying ‘RIP’, being sad, saying you’re shocked. It doesn’t do anything.
“Apathetic (in)action is not enough. Shock is not enough. Sadness is not enough. Passive reactions are not enough. We need to be ACTIVELY anti-racism. Everyone, me included: we need to do more.”
She is careful not to undermine the importance of sharing content about George Floyd’s murder.
“It’s so important to share these things: it generates discussion, it raises awareness, we need to talk about it. It is all done with good intention. But if you’re someone who is idly sharing George Floyd’s name on Instagram, retweeting #BlackLivesMatter, but you are not advocating and fighting for people of colour beyond your ability to share something on social media, you are not doing enough.”
Lorde highlights the importance of talking about and understanding racial differences in order to sensitively traverse and challenge perpetuated cycles of ignorance (1984, p.122). Shared resources and reactions to racist events are significant tools for discussion and negotiation (Lorde, 1984, p.122). How do we explore race and engage in anti-racism with sufficient sensitivity and urgency? We must heighten our knowledge of racist mechanisms, and the privileges that underlie them.
What is ‘Whiteness’?
Tasha’s response to the online mourning of George Floyd’s death is not unusual, particularly amongst non-white individuals. Racism is not merely the belief that people of colour are of different value to white people.
As Tasha describes, “racism does not just encompass the conscious dislike or mistreatment of people because of their race. It is more than that. It is the insidious but potent oppression of people of colour when racial prejudices are reinforced and perpetuated by imbalances of authority and power. It is a complex system of societal, political and economic inequalities that benefit white people at the expense of other races.”
To begin to comprehend the nuances of racism, there must be further discussion around the unspoken race, the quiet decider, the implicit norm of whiteness.
Ahmed describes whiteness as being the centric point around which public spaces are constructed (2007, p.157). She outlines the ‘habits’ that mould entire communities around the cultural actions of white figures (2007, p.157). Notably, the centric point of whiteness does not merely consist of skin colour: cultural and religious norms become the accepted basis of white normality. Whiteness is unseen because it is the foundationally accepted mode of existence. In this sense, whiteness operates outside of race; in fact, ‘race’ is a phenomenon commonly used to describe things that veer from whiteness.
And what of people of colour? Foundationally, we are the surplus. We are noticed. We have an infinite awareness of the space that we can occupy (Ahmed, p.157). Fanon describes this as “third person consciousness” (2008, p.110)- a persistent perception of what we can acceptably do; an unending reminder of our identities in relation to the spaces that we inhabit.
In daily life, being white manifests as a lack of awareness of being white. Your relation to race does not have to be pondered, because you are what other races are measured against and defined by. There is no need to challenge something that is an eternal silent security. Whiteness is the comfort of what does not need to be said, or noticed, or accommodated.
The Violent Truth
Police brutality is as unspeakably evil as it is historic. But it is rooted in a broader, even more historic problem: racism.
George Floyd’s life was lost not because a few policemen in America don’t like black people: it would be very convenient if this were the case. It would mean that we could confine racism to one strain of non-whiteness, to one country, to one violence, to one profession. International responsibility could be diffused.
Tasha notes the universality of racism.
“Racism doesn’t just encompass overtly violent acts. Racism doesn’t simply manifest as police brutality in the US. Stop limiting racism to the US. Racism exists here, everywhere, in every person. It’s inside you and it’s inside me.”
Of course, different races, appearances and socio-economic backgrounds result in varying experiences and intensities of racism.
“Being told that you’re ‘pretty for an Asian’, or having people constantly ask you ‘where are you from?’ will never be comparable to the lived experiences of racism as a black individual in America. The fate of George Floyd can never be discussed analogous to the experiences of a biracial – and extremely privileged – female here in the UK.”
However, mine and Tasha’s indignance stems from the separation that people seem to believe that a murder in the US has from other racial discrimination. Police brutality is a spectacularly physical and aggressive manifestation of racism, but racism is omnipresent. Much of the social media activism that many of us have witnessed over the past week fails to acknowledge the overarching problem of racism that using George Floyd’s death as a social media prop does not do justice to.
Lest we forget, racially-motivated murders on UK soil happen. They happen often. Worse still, the conversations that they incite are often hijacked by forces that use them to entrench the ‘whiteness-as-norm’ narrative to an even greater extent.
One of the most notorious examples was the media response to the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man from London. He was waiting for a bus when he was attacked by a group of white men: the attack was racially motivated. Lawrence was stabbed and bled to death. The racial bias that shaped the investigation into his death led to the production and publication of the Macpherson report (I will not detail the case in this blog, but a brief summary of the report and its implications can be found here, or the entire report can be found here). The report brought to light the racist underpinnings of UK policing that led to a failure of the British courts to convict Lawrence’s killers at the first trial. Eddo-Lodge describes how Lawrence’s murder sparked discussion surrounding racism in the UK (2017, p.96). When two of Lawrence’s killers were finally sentenced in 2012, instead of culminating in an authentic exploration of white supremacy, discussions around his trial were transformed into a defence mechanism that sought to protect the racial status-quo: the cry of ‘reverse’ racism’ (2017, p.96), Comments tweeted by the black Labour MP Diane Abbott, who wrote that “white people love playing ‘divide and rule'” as a reference to the British colonial legacy, resulted in an explosive media response (Eddo-Lodge, 2017, p.96).
Even those whose political affiliations would normally have aligned with Abbott’s activism condemned the ‘harshness’ of Abbott’s tone. Eddo-Lodge recalls the Daily Telegraph as having demanded, “imagine the uproar if an equally prominent white Conservative MP said something similar about a black MP on Twitter?” (2017, p.96).
You might be wondering the same thing. Surely, making generalisations about people based on their skin colour is racist, irrespective of the racial group that it is targeting?
Here is the fabulous Aamer Rahman to offer some clarification surrounding the myth of reverse racism:
The truth about racist violence is that it is not always physical; there is violence in implicit privilege and institutional oppression. In fact, the quiet belittling that threatens the fabric of equality is foundational to the physical brutality demonstrated in the tragic case of George Floyd. Attitudes that simmer and go unchallenged in their more subtle outlets are very harmful, but they can develop into the most sinister of aggressions. To tackle racism, we do not need hashtags: we need the knowledge and ferocity to confront everyday dehumanisation.
Tasha explains the role of quieter racial violence.
“Covert racism is racism that is hidden or disguised. As a society, we allow it to take place because few can identify its inherently racist attributes.
“Some examples are cultural appropriation, tokenism, colour-blindness, the denial of racism, European beauty standards, fetishization.”
Covert racism is by nature casual. It is the customer you serve who asks you what your ‘tribe name’ is, or the boss who – before having asked your name – comments that it “will be very hard to spell”. It is the awkward surprise at your intellect or attractiveness. It is an othering that prevails because, as Tasha emphasises, it is socially acceptable.
“The fact that covert racism exists – that we even use the term ‘covert’ to describe it – is overwhelming proof that as a society we are not sufficiently educated about race. If people do not educate themselves adequately on an individual level, we lack the awareness to call out acts that are intrinsically racist. If every individual understood race and did their research about racism, then ‘covert’ racism would not be ‘covert’ at all. It would – as a product of education – become socially acceptable no more.”
It is easy to pass off covert racism as insignificant. But those whose comments engrain our identity as ‘Other’ in the everyday context are not simply strangers with whom we have the misfortune to interact. They are our teachers, our managers, our leaders. They decide whether to employ us. They grade our assessments. They make arrests and choose who is sentenced. Quotidian biases dictate our life trajectories. Suddenly, minor remarks and subtle discriminations are not so harmless; they are not a world away from the brutality that has led to the protests that char the streets of Minneapolis.
Surface activism will not do. Discreet racial othering must be acknowledged and extinguished. White complicity needs to end.
“The everyday covert racism that you are a part of: what are you doing to address it?”
Tasha’s question is posed as an indignant challenge to those whose online activism is the entire extent of their anti-racism.
“The societal microaggressions that climax in these horrible acts of violence: do you call them out? Don’t hashtag BlackLivesMatter and share stuff when it’s trending in a pathetic attempt to stay relevant, but do nothing to address the everyday covert racism that we are all a part of tolerating. Your outrage is insufficient if it is limited to police brutality. We need to be outraged by racism in all its forms. Call out covert racism. Call out ‘post-racial rhetoric’. Call out colour-blindness. Call out white silence. Call out denial.
“Racism is apathy and indifference and inaction. We are unintentionally complicit in racism, in its systemic manifestations, when we benefit from its existence but do not confront it.”
How can white people renounce their complicity and do more to dislodge themselves from the sanction of white unsaidness?
“White people need to be educating themselves about race. People of colour do not need the burden of doing it for them. Do your research and homework: it is no one’s responsibility but yours. Learn from and listen to the voices of ethnic minorities: black and brown artists, writers, academics – platform their work. Their experiences need to be central. Have uncomfortable conversations with friends and family. Repeatedly check your privilege. If you are not doing all of the above, you are not doing enough. You are contributing to the resistance felt by people of colour to achieve racial equality.”
Renouncing complicity means conceptualising one’s own whiteness: examining it objectively as a trait that benefits from racial hierarchies and studying its historico-racial roots in the same way that people of colour are confronted with the existential realities of their race with every discriminatory remark.
It means dissolving the defence of “There is only one race: the human race!”
It means relinquishing one’s belief in the illusion that the human experience is homogenous. This pretence shields white people from their guilt and their responsibility.
Courage and complicity: these are the two traits that distinguish the good and the bad amongst us. Bad cops do not just step on necks, shoot strangers or make arrests based on discriminatory impulses. Bad cops observe racism, whether it is a comment or a murder, and say nothing. They do not use their authority to oppose institutionalised brutality; they fade into the clockwork that facilitates it. Their silence oils the mechanisms of racial hatred.
We discard our complicity; it is the foe of equality.
Minneapolis burns. Our hearts brim with the ashes of the fallen.
Do you feel it?
Students at the University of Manchester have compiled this list of resources on the topic of race: the literature it cites paves an excellent foundation for self-education.
I have written a short dissertation titled “What is the Impact of Postcolonialism on Females from the UK who are Half White, Half South-Asian?” in which I elaborate on much of the research that I have used throughout this article. I would be very happy to send it to anyone who fancies giving it a read (or for those who might just find the bibliography a useful starting point for accessing pertinent literature).
Ahmed, S. (2007). ‘A Phenomenology of Whiteness’, Feminist Theory, 8(2), pp.149-168.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. 4th edn. London: Pluto Press.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press.