Black lives matter. But this isn’t new news.
I’ve seen a few posts, a few memes this week. Reminding me that silence is betrayal, silence is complicity in racism. That’s why I’m writing this. I didn’t want to write this. I don’t feel qualified to write this. But I agree. To be silent is to be complicit in racism.
Once, ten years ago or so, I was at a birthday dinner paid for by the birthday girl’s father. When her parents asked her new, undesirable boyfriend whether he had found a job he replied no he hadn’t. The birthday girl chipped in that he had been offered a job on a building site as a labourer (something which he had no experience of, his entire career history at that point consisting of playing on the PlayStation and smoking weed all day). He dismissed the job offer though, adding that he wasn’t getting up early every day for “nigger wages”.
I didn’t use an asterisk for that. Maybe reading it made you as uncomfortable as it did me hearing it. Perhaps you will suggest I should have used an asterisk, and if you feel I should have done then please say so. We need to speak openly about this. We need to listen.
I didn’t say anything, when he said that phrase; a phrase I’d never heard before nor since. I was conflicted between not wanting to cause a scene – the good manners in me not wanting to spoil someone else’s birthday – and doing what was right: calling it out.
I’m articulate enough to challenge these things, and given a second or two even in the heat of the moment I could have said something as mild as “what does that mean?” or “what a thing to say!” or anything anything at all.
Instead I was silent. I was complicit. I didn’t say that I wasn’t friends with any Black people who worked on building sites around that time. But I knew lawyers, and HR business partners, accountants, teachers. I was pretty sure their salaries were good. My best friend would have told me, ‘don’t worry love we are used to it, I know you’re not one of them’. Instead I didn’t tell her, I didn’t want to put her in a position where not only did she have to hear his words but to make me feel better about my own lack of action. More than anything I didn’t tell her because I was ashamed.
I didn’t just let her and them down. I gave him license to say it again, to assembled white people, who would probably also be silent too, either through awkwardness or agreement. That’s how it becomes acceptable. Or perhaps maintains its acceptability.
So yeah, I didn’t want to write this but I can’t be silent again. Other people on social media – you know the type – couldn’t wait to say something. To let everyone know they are not staying silent. I get that. And I’m not trying to derail the conversation when I say that I think some people are doing it to be seen to be doing it. That next week it’ll be a new hashtag, a new belief, that they can dip in and out of, like a buffet of principles. Black Lives Matter this week, a bit of Pride, a touch of supporting sex workers. It’s easy to be an ally when you can put your plate down when you’re full.
It’s admirable. It’s positive. It’s a message of support. It’s probably more than I’m doing with my life. But I can’t help feeling that what is more important than speaking is listening. Listening to Black people all along. I feel inherently uncomfortable about the idea that Black voices are only validated through white mouths. Some people love this agency. They want to be the white heroes in the Black struggle. And yeah I’ll admit, I don’t want to appear to be doing that.
I don’t know what much else there is to do – in the bigger scheme of things – but listen. I’m not qualified. But I need to listen more too, to ask myself if I’m doing enough and listen to suggestions. As it is, I don’t go to America and won’t at the very least until Trump is out of office. That’s not enough on its own. haven’t given my deliberate custom to many black owned businesses over the last few years because I’ve never actively sought them out. That’s probably not enough either.
Before social media and camera phones I’ve intervened in unfair PACE stops. I’ve argued with police officers that three young Black men being driven home from Tesco with their youth worker do not simply “fit the description” of suspects in the area. That the tired youth worker who had lived through the care system in the 70s and the Handsworth riots in the 80s wasn’t “going equipped” and didn’t need his boot searched. They didn’t even search our cars like that at seasonal road blocks when the IRA were in town. To be aware of the injustice – both in theory and played out on the streets – is that enough?
When I worked in HR & recruitment I ensured selection processes were fair. I worked positively to promote equal rights and diversity in the workplace. I was confident I did a good job but was it enough? I attended black women workers meetings and I listened. I listened to the stories of the workplace in the 80s. Of their mothers’ experiences. Of their daughters’ experiences.
I know there’s more I can do. Today and tomorrow and as long as is necessary. I know people dedicate their whole lives to the advancement of rights and justice. I know everyone wants to speak out right now. But this isn’t just a right now thing. Can we please just listen?
At the thin end of the wedge, I’ve supported suggestions on twitter a few times that Black women’s observations about white women’s lip fillers and overt self tanning should be listened to. I am met by a barrage of defensive white people asserting that it is not racist. In all the loudness, I wonder how many people might listen to the complaints and take any of it on board. If you are lucky enough never to have thought twice about the subtleties of race and identity in the history of Black women’s hair, skin, body image and portrayal in America and Britain then that’s one thing, but to purposely close your ears to it is another.
The noise that people will make to defend fake tan and fillers, for some people to go out of their way to make themselves look deliberately ethnically ambiguous, is mind boggling to me. The energy which people will put into arguing about “reverse racism” or that “white privilege doesn’t exist” exhausts me. Equality is that all people should enjoy the same rights – what’s so hard to understand there? You don’t have to give any of your own to someone else. There are – or should be – enough human rights and respect to go round.
I’m tired of it, yet I can walk away from it. That’s what white privilege is. Being able to turn it on and off. Being able to put the plate down. Being able to choose whether to listen or not. I don’t know what it feels like for it to be my own life, my own skin, and to have my observations or suggestions trivialised, laughed at, or steamrollered by people who have never educated themselves on the most basic tenets of racism and identity (especially to do with Black women), who have never deployed a bit of empathy in conversations about race that don’t only include overt acts of violence that have gone viral, who have never stopped talking long enough to listen.
Anyone who invests so much energy into batting away complaints and observations at the thin end of the wedge, is complicit in what happens further up the scale. Yes silence is complicity. But so is not listening.