Feelings of numbness and injustice have collectively resurfaced following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota Police Department. Instances of police brutality should be becoming less common given the increasing awareness of the discriminatory treatment of citizens of colour, but it still continues to pervade the shared minority experience. Events as sickening as these should be highlighted so that those responsible can be held accountable, but the fact that the ubiquitous response is still, “I can’t believe this is happening in 2020,” is indicative of the crux of the problem.
The simple notion that these actions are unbelievable or incomprehensible highlights how far removed the broader narrative has been shifted away from the real suffering of ethnic minorities. The whitewashed portrayal of these deaths at the hands of the state as outliers is both disingenuous and carefully constructed to desensitise us to the reality; this is an everyday black experience that spans decades and continents. We are often trained to interpret racism as an interpersonal morality, rather than a carefully constructed system that has been used to suppress minorities. This means that officers like Derik Chauvin are characterised as a racist police officer that slipped through the net, rather than an agent of a racist policing system.
The implementation of this system has placed a perception filter on our reality. Many of us exist in a world where the police and prisons simply don’t exist where, in middle class suburbs, coppers aren’t patrolling the streets and people aren’t being frequently stop-and-searched or arrested with excessive force. Not seeing these two systems that disproportionately affect minorities means that the problem is not correctly identified, which means that the way that we solve it becomes misguided. An initiative to diversify the US police force, for example, was heralded to be a measured response to police brutality. However in 2016, Baltimore Police Department, one of the most diverse police forces in the US, were found to have engaged in unconstitutional, racist practices. This is clearly not a personnel problem; it’s a structural one.
Whilst this does not absolve the majority who are not affected from lacking the empathy and intellectual curiosity to try relate to those who live these experiences, it does explain why there are such polarised reactions to the subsequent rioting that has erupted in Minneapolis and other states. Rioting, involving civil disobedience, has been instrumental in affording freedom of speech, gay rights and countless individual liberties to our society. To suggest that the rioting in this instance is over-the-top or not the correct solution is to deny one of the most effective ways to guarantee civil rights that we all enjoy in modern society. It also implicitly plants the seed that the preventable deaths of people of colour are not worth fighting for. This attitude can be observed emanating from the Oval Office, with Trump’s contrasting reactions to the white nationalist and neo-nazi rally at Charlottesville and the riots currently taking place in protest to police brutality.
I started to lose faith in the possibility of significant social change in the US after the horrors of Sandy Hook. Whilst there have been a number of movements to tighten gun laws, the fact that the lobbying power of the NRA continues to supersede the preventable deaths of primary school children drained me of optimism. I feel the same about the UK too, only with a greater degree of shame. Police brutality has poisoned our soil too, with the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Mark Duggan, Habib Ullah and many others still fresh in our memory, but lost in the prevailing discourse. Where the US is finally starting to open up conversations surrounding institutionalised racist practices, us Brits are a lot less willing to discuss our traumatic history, preferring to live vicariously in a rose-tinted,’Dads Army’ fantasy. Too often these important debates are shut down over a lack of concrete evidence that the individual’s motive was a racist one or simply over a lack of patriotism. It feels bizarre that for all the veneration and glossy reminders of Great Britain’s glorious past, there is a palpable sense of discomfort when it comes to addressing the atrocities of the Empire and how it casts a shadow on all of us today.
Racism isn’t getting worse; it’s becoming documented for the masses to finally see with their own eyes. Whilst this is vitally important, much-needed conversations regarding structural changes to the system of racism, distinct from overt acts, are stuttering. I see my timeline flooded with sympathy, promotion of anti-racist material and an overall willingness to be a positive force for good, but given that these issues have been occurring for so long, I worry that we won’t be able to find effective remedies. I worry that, in advancing radical social change, these protests will not resonate with those who cannot relate to the lived realities of those in pain, which might embolden the views of those who still denounce the existence of institutional racism in the West. Ultimately, I worry that the possibility of greater division will make the healing process more difficult.
But right now, there is an opportunity for conversations to be opened, preconceptions to be challenged and progressive steps to be made. I wish that it didn’t have to take the death of an innocent man to table this agenda, but here we are. I am a firm believer in education and exposure in bridging the gap between cultures, and so to understand these issues is to understand each other. Hosting conversations around the history and remnants of racism, white supremacy and white privilege, and how they manifest in our society today will be uncomfortable and unrecognisable to some, but is necessary to opening minds. Reading into the history of this issue should be an educational process not just to learn, but to also un-learn our established ways of thinking that have contributed to the widespread acceptance of differential treatment based on skin colour. There are a number of grassroots causes that are doing incredible work (linked below), which provide a platform for ordinary people to be genuine BAME advocates and to actively engage in anti-racism. The culmination of this will enable people today and in future generations to raise the standard for how we expect members of our society to be treated, and not to tolerate idleness in the fact of such injustice.
For those of us that cannot directly relate to the black experience, it is important to acknowledge our own privileges (even if it might not feel like we have tangible benefits) and to act with humility. The lived reality of others does not cease to exist if it is ignored, and being sincerely ill-formed of societal structures that negatively impact on your fellow citizens is not a defence. There is no perfect emotional or practical response, and you might make a mistake, such as exhausting a person of colour by asking them to relive their trauma or by acting in insensitive or counterproductive ways. If you are held accountable for such actions, attempting to defend yourself and prove how much you are not a racist/an ally to the cause is futile and detracts from growing positively as a person and with the anti-racist movement. Believe me. Accept the consequences, explore the reasons for why it happened introspectively and use that to become a positive force for good.
George Floyd will, sadly, not be the last victim of police brutality. A symbol of hope cannot reside with complacency. It will need actions from people who were previously invisible to the injustice, and from those who cannot refuse to accept another innocent face on their timeline again.
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” – Angela Y. Davis
What if you’re right, and they’re wrong?