Thank you to everyone who read my post about microaggressions! I received so many heart-warming messages from people who were pleased to have the opportunity to learn how to do better, which is all I can ask for. Of course, I received a couple of messages (not from anyone in the House 21 family, I’d hasten to add) who found the post targeting and unfair; apparently having one’s racist tendencies highlighted is uncomfortable (I’m paraphrasing…much uglier words were used). Well, it’s not meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to be enlightening, educative, informative and emotionally quite challenging. But if someone reading the post was hoping for a mollifying, congratulatory pat on the back for simply refraining from using the ‘N’ word, then I’m afraid that those times, where we overlooked concealed racism, are now over.
As the BlackLivesMatter movement continues to fight for justice and equality, it’s essential that we do not let the attention dissipate. Differences are already being made, so we need to maintain that momentum so that this moment is pivotal in the future of race relations.
In the course of some of the discussions I’ve had since publishing my microaggressions post, a considerable number of interested people have asked me what systemic racism actually is, and how they can recognise it in the future. Systemic racism, institutional racism – whatever you want to call it – is going to be one of the most challenging tranches of British racism to overhaul, simply because it is so ingrained. It is the accumulation of centuries of prejudice and bias, which has now manifested itself as a system which, at its core, gives advantages to white people and disadvantages to those who are not white. The key to starting to overturn systemic racism is, first and foremost, recognising where it exists. Therefore, I wanted to relay my experiences of systemic racism in order to help those, to whom this is a completely new concept, to recognise and fight it in the future.
Please bear in mind that I am writing this through my own lens, and that there will be people who have worse and differing experiences of systemic racism to my own. To give you an idea of the sheer scale of the problem, I have lived a life where I’ve been able to benefit from advantages that are not available to many other non-white people, however I still experience the systemic racism detailed below. If I – someone with privileges not enjoyed by many other non-white people – have experienced this, consider how much worse it is for those living without those privileges.
As our post-lockdown holiday inspo Pinterest boards burst at the seams with idyllic spots for a dream getaway, how many times have you considered whether you’ll be unsafe in those destinations because of your colour? Because that is a very real consideration people of colour have to make when travelling. If you think that this applies only to countries in other continents, think again. When I first joined university as a Law & French student, in my very first semester I was called in for a chat with my French tutor so that she could warn me that when I went on my Erasmus year abroad to study in France, there would be precautions I’d have to take as someone ‘of my colour’. She gave me the contact details of an older mixed-race student who’d already had their year abroad, so that I could contact him to ask what dangers he faced and how he stayed safe. I never contacted him – I wanted to look forward to my year in France, and I very much wanted to deny that my ethnicity would have such a negative effect on my experience. When it came to actually choosing where in France I would be studying, I was called in again along with another girl of colour, so that the tutor could run through with us the possibility of racism in some of the cities. The other girl did not adhere to the advice, instead choosing that the sunnier of the destinations was still the most preferable despite it being the most likely to be racist – and good on her! I have stayed in touch with her since graduating, and having spoken to her about her experiences in the city predicted to be the most problematic, she has cited multiple incidences where she received racism, but clarified that she did not regret her choice “because I get racism everywhere anyway”. I, however, did adhere to the advice. I was incredibly lucky that my best friend with whom I’d made a pact to spend our year abroad together, was happy wherever we went. She was so easy going that I never even had to share my reasons for wanting to choose a specific, on-paper less desirable, location. When I told her the tutor had strongly suggested the destination, her answer was “yeah that’s fine by me, I really don’t mind”, which was just as well because I felt so embarrassed and pathetic that the reason was because that’s where I’d be ‘safer’, so not having to explain was a liberating relief. She never even asked for an explanation. If there was French wine, she’d be there…and there was plenty!
Speaking of my year abroad (I promise I’m not just France-bashing here, I’ll be addressing the UK again in a minute), every single time I went through Charles De Gaulle airport, I was pulled to one side by security, their guns hanging menacingly, to ask if they could see my passport. At least, that’s what I worked out they were asking for after working out that they actually thought I was Arabic. Once they saw my British passport, the tension subsided and the frost in the air thawed, allowing to breathe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be detained.
I haven’t found airport security in the UK to be as likely to pull me over (this is very much not the case for some groups), but in certain countries I basically expect it. My cousin was temporarily detained in a Cuban airport whilst they checked and re-checked her documentation, much to the distress of her parents who feared the growing possibility of her not being allowed on her flight. She’s a mixed-race young woman from Wiltshire, however the Cuban authorities saw her appearance and were suspicious. Their suspicion was based on absolutely nothing more than how she looked, and what’s worse – an aspect of her appearance that is not a choice. She has the skin tone she was born with, exactly like I have mine and you have yours, the difference being that ours triggers unfounded suspicion.
My right to equality is a political debate, not a given
Honestly, what is there to discuss? Why, when we ask to be treated equally, is the default answer not “yeah, good idea”?
White people can complain about the UK and not be told to go elsewhere
But when people of colour WHO ARE BRITISH dare to suggest that OUR country could be doing better, the answer “you’re welcome to leave” is thrown back in our faces.
Exhibit A: Piers Morgan and Professor Kehinde Andrews. Prof. Andrews explains how colonialism has resulted in him living in the UK and why he should not have to leave just because he thinks we should be less racist. He also explains (between Piers’s shrieking) that, even if he did want to leave, there is nowhere untouched by colonialism. Piers – ultimate racist – Morgan, invites the Professor to move to Antigua. There is no suggestion that Prof. Andrews’ heritage is in any way linked to Antigua therefore, in the absence of any testimony to the contrary, I can only assume that Piers thought of a place where there are black people and thought it was appropriate to suggest that the professor could move there. Watching this exchange live as it aired in 2018, I’d like to tell you I was the living embodiment of the smh emoji, but in all honesty, I was choking back some seriously angry tears.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoP4KuKOIuM (the whole clip is worth a watch, but the relevant part to this point is just after the five minute mark). Please remember this clip when you see Piers Morgan pretending now to be an ally. He is an example of the very worst type of perpetrator.
I can’t get tights / plasters my colour on the high street
Because apparently we’re all Caucasian. The famous plaster scene in the totemic novel Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman is iconic – the television adaptation portrays it brilliantly too. The way in which the brown plaster stands out so prominently against the Caucasian character’s skin is a visual reminder of how little different skin colours are considered when many products are manufactured. See the scene here at 20:17 https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p082wbb5/noughts-crosses-series-1-episode-1
Statues of wrong’uns
Statues of slave traders, amongst a myriad of other racist figures, adorn the streets of the UK, in effect glorifying their part in British history. Imagine the humiliating and belittling feeling of walking passed those statues on your way home, on your way to work, or school every day, knowing that the statue was erected to celebrate them, when they inflicted so much pain and suffering on your ancestors in the not-so-distant past.
We of course should not be trying to erase these figures from our history – we should be learning about them (and hopefully learning what not to be doing in the future). But I do not buy for a single second the argument that these statues should stay put for educational purposes – put them in museums, discuss them on the history syllabus at school, write books about them, make documentaries about them. The statues need to go, because black people should not have to be humiliated daily in order for white people to learn.
For those claiming that Colston’s statue should be reinstalled ‘because of his philanthropy’, I present to you this excellently executed tweet:
Black History Month
Speaking of history, why is the education of my history reduced to one month per year? Put my history on the school syllabus goddammit. And that does not just include slavery – what about all of the black pioneers who history forgot?
I have internalised the notion that being called a racist is worse than suffering actual racism, so much so, that when I do call people out on their unintentional racism I feel a gnawing sense of guilt that fills me with regret for having even spoken up in the first place. Just to be clear as to how ridiculous this is, I feel guilty for asking people not to be racist.
Fear of boring my audience
Whenever I write something and a matter relevant to my heritage or my experience as a non-white person crops up, I either remove the extract altogether or insert it towards the end of the post, because I fear that if I include it towards the beginning or even in the middle, that the reader will feel bored and click off the post. This comes as a result of watching several white people glaze over at the exact moment that I try to insert a point about my heritage or BAME experience into the conversation. The inadvertent yet blatant lack of interest silences me and tells me that my minority experience is boring because, to the audience, it isn’t relatable.
BAME / POC Grouping
BAME…People of colour …we’re all grouped together, as though we have white people in society, then all of the others who we’ll all just group together. These are phrases which creep into my own parlance all the time, because I live in a society where we are all just in the ‘other’ category. But each time I use either phrase, I cringe internally because I know how different I am and my experiences are in comparison to, for example, my British-Indian friend who would be put in the same non-white category as me. We are raised by families from vastly different cultures, the food at our dinners tables is different, our cultural icons are different, our mother-tongue is different, our stereotypes are different (something we jest about a lot seeing as people assume she’s a scholar and assume I’m going to start a fight)…yet we’re grouped together in this category of non-white people, as if ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ are the only two options in this world. This is a difficult one to overcome, because this systemically is the attitude to nearly everything. When we overcome this ‘white is right, everything else is secondary’ ideology, only then will we be able to stop degrading other ethnicities by grouping them all into one ‘other’ category.
I’m more likely to die when having a baby
Black and black-mixed women in the UK are five times, hang on…let me say that again…FIVE TIMES more likely to die during pregnancy and after childbirth compared to white women. FIVE TIMES.
People assume I need white assistance
Allyship, especially right now, is a fantastic thing, so please do not perceive this point as some sort of ungratefulness or resistance of the people who are embracing this opportunity to self-educate and become activated for change. You guys are absolute fire!
What is, however, institutionally racist is the assumption that we BAMEs (there’s that godawful phrase again) need assistance from white people to excel. This tweet is a bang on example of the demeaning, patronizing ‘white saviour’ attitude:
(For the sake of clarity, this is not a criticism directed exclusively at Corbyn or the Labour Party…no mainstream political party is exactly giving me confidence that they have even the slightest intention of overturning systemic racism).
When I saw this tweet, I nearly threw my phone out the window in anger (then I remembered all the unshared Insta-worthy selfies that were on there and I thought better of it) – I was so infuriated because what we need isn’t for white people to give us a leg up, but for them to stop playing Whack-A-Mole with our pioneers, our icons, our achievers by silencing them, denying them platform they have earned or tearing them down at any given opportunity.
I present to you Raheem Sterling, for example. The British media have called him “greedy” (The Telegraph) for daring to ask for a pay rise when he won the Golden Boy award (which I’m led to believe is giving to the best young footballer in Europe every year). He was branded “obscene” (The Sun) for buying his mother a bathroom sink…I mean, has he no conscience? Similarly, The Sun have featured a point-by-point price list of the black footballer’s vehicle collection, the not-so-underlying tone being how can he have such a nerve, buying himself these luxury cars. Does he not know his place?
The footballer has on any normal scale, but especially on the scale of behaviour we have come to expect from footballers, done nothing to give the British media cause to tear him down, other than be a talented young black man who is, in their eyes, getting a bit above his station. Stormzy is the same. Would a white man with Stormzy’s proclivity for speaking out on his political views be so energetically denigrated? You might not necessarily agree with his opinions, but none of them are exactly unprecedented, original or unique to him. You could literally pick up The Guardian on any given day and read political commentary which sings the same tune. This multitude of commentators don’t receive a fraction of the vitriol, because ultimately the establishment hates it when a popular person of colour dares to use their platform to discuss anything other than the matters expected of them, such as how many women their banging and how much money they’re making. Sure he’s allowed to rap about those things, but God forbid he imparts messages to his fans on the state of the country’s political landscape. God forbid he try to have an intelligent conversation. God forbid he try to bring a black voice to political discourse.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown
I’m not quite done banging on about Stormzy yet…
The rapper’s song ‘Crown’ on the album ‘Heavy Is The Head’ acutely explores the element of systemic racism which places so much pressure on successful black personalities to never mess up, to share their success with other black people and to never fail, because if he does then he’s failing his whole community. This inexplicable pressure is not mirrored with white success. Even those white icons, who’ve risen from disadvantage to succeed against the odds, do not have that same pressure to carry their whole community with them.
The lines “Gotta stay alive and save my brothers as well”, “Any little bread that I make, I have to break it”, “Any little seed I receive, I have to share it” speak volumes as to the expectations put on those minorities who make it to not only lift their whole community, but to also never let them down. Why? Because the racist system in which we prevail will take any opportunity to prove that black people are not worthy of success.
Rewinding back to the nineties where OJ Simpson was tried for murder, there was a heartfelt desperation from swathes of African Americans for him not to be found guilty – not because they condoned the murder of a woman, but because they had so few black icons that were lionized and revered in the mainstream, that they did not want to lose those few crumbs of respect they had been allowed.
Fast forward to present day, could you imagine the uproar that would have occurred if Obama had committed a fraction of Trump’s transgressions. Would a black man who had received allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment even been given an opportunity to run for President? Would a black man who has done unspeakably degrading things with prostitutes be given an opportunity to run for President? Would a black president who’d suggested consuming bleach still be in a job? Obama could not have stepped a millimetre out of line, in his professional or his personal life, without all of his achievements being whipped away from him. But a white man (although patchy tangerine seems to be his preferred skin tone) can stand at a podium uttering incoherent, nonsensical sentences whilst his advisors look on with a look in their eyes which screams “how has my career been reduced to this?”… and not only keep his job, but also look favourable in the polls to win a second term.
Obama, Stormzy, Sterling…every other single black icon in history, has had to bear the weight of this thorny crown. So, when you see a black person who’s achieved meteoric levels of success – Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce to name but a few – remember that their achievements were that much harder to earn, because systemic racism means they have to try twice as hard to do half as well, and when they’re finally at the top, systemic racism cannot wait to tear them down.