Credit: Pantone & fuzzedupbear
On the 26th May, a white friend messaged me to tell me the anger she was feeling about the tragic death of George Floyd. I think at this point I’d heard the news but after feeling pretty sick to my stomach a couple of weeks before hearing about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, I remember thinking I didn’t want to be sat staring at a screen again, going over and over how it is possible that so much hatred and violence could be stirred up in reaction to the colour of someone’s skin. The colour of my skin. But this time I didn’t have a choice. It was not just my friend who was incensed that another American Black man had lost his life due to police brutality. Within a week the whole world had suddenly seemed to wake up to the fact that fifty years on we are still dealing with the same problems of inequality and prejudice and that systemic racism is real, and not just prevalent in the US.
This is a win. There is absolutely no denying that. But there are elements of this wakeup call which seem bittersweet. There are elements which are also alarming. As someone who is mixed-race, I’ve come to realise (during this current movement and before) that I’m often searching for some kind of middle ground in conversations about race. Like I have to choose a side when really we should all be on the same one. I find myself searching for reasons why things might not be racist, because I want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t want to be pushed into a position that causes me to feel any resentment and anger to any ‘group’ in society, and on top of this, the ‘group’ that is half of my DNA.
This movement is forcing me to interrogate this in a very draining way. I don’t know if I want people asking me if I’m ‘ok’ or coming to me to vent to me about racist relatives. Since social media has propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to the mainstream, I cannot scroll through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, without seeing something which reminds me that there is black and there is white. I said before that the raised awareness of systemic racism is a win, but with this raised awareness there also seems to be some agonizingly regressive opinions coming to the fore. In the rush to become an ‘ally’ many white people are missing the point of the movement. I find myself frustrated at this caption or statement going around: ‘I understand that I will never understand, but I stand’. I understand the intention of this statement; showing solidarity whilst not claiming to have gone through the same experiences. But I can’t help feeling like it’s a cop out. How can you stand for something you don’t understand? And how can you not understand when the last few weeks there has been a constant barrage of resources explaining what racism is and why it is ingrained in society.
To me ‘allyship’ does not go hand in hand with people not understanding. I can’t really accept that or my family, my mixed-race family has to exist with this rather large elephant in the room. That we can’t understand (or even try to understand) each other’s experiences. The possible lack of true understanding is undermining the Black Lives Matter movement. White people taking photoshoots in protests, having street parties, or blackfacing on TikTok, all justified under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Again, I try to reason with this, at least they’ve paid attention, and at least they might be raising attention? Overshadowing this is the performativity of these things. This doesn’t feel like an attempt to understand.
Maybe it is hard to talk about racism when for most of your life it has not been on your radar. It’s hard to speak out when you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or having your actions attacked. I don’t believe that it is wrong to criticise performative behaviour in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, however some of the virtue signalling I am seeing on the internet has my heart sinking and I’m feeling despondent that we will ever truly be able to work together in fighting this fight. I have seen Black activists tearing down not just white people for their attempts but also other minorities of colour and mixed-race people. Why is it turning into a competition as to who is the most qualified to talk about racism, rather than a movement to band together to distinguish the racists from the anti-racist (it is not enough to just ‘not be racist’ anymore). I will never personally experience the fear and weight of being a Black man in America, but that man could be my Dad, my Brother, my Uncle, my boyfriend, my friend. This is the same for many white people. I am optimistic that white allyship goes beyond performativity for this reason.
I am optimistic for other reasons. In the past few weeks, I have had conversations with white friends which I never imagined I would be having for fear of causing awkwardness, or for fear of highlighting my differences. But I have never felt such willingness to listen before, a willingness to understand and not just stand. I remember when my (white) Mum first saw Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. Before any of us had read or understood what it was about, she seemed visibly upset or irritated. This is understandable, why would she want to be excluded from a topic which my family cannot remove themselves from? But Eddo-Lodge goes on to explain: ‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms’. This acceptance is the beginning and if there is any main positive to draw from recent events it is that this level of acceptance appears to be growing.
We don’t hear much about the UK having a civil rights movement. We don’t want this movement that’s happening right now to be forgotten like the rest of Black British history. Surely, the best way to do this is to keep it in the voices of as many people as possible – whatever the colour. So, whilst it is unusual and sometimes uncomfortable to see so many people talking about race right now, I welcome it. Black Lives Matter is not a Black person’s movement, not a mixed-race person’s movement, not a white person’s movement, it’s humanity’s movement – one that we should all be owning at this time.
By Georgia Mulraine