Recently, three African-Americans died at the hands of white police brutality. Their names were George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and they are not the only ones. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, police brutality is the leading cause of death for young black men in the United States. Violence committed by police against people of colour is rife all over the globe.
Here in Australia, we are not immune from this. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community have endured a long history of mistreatment by the institutions which are supposed to protect them but which inevitably cater first and foremost to white people.
When people think of racism, they often picture a white person yelling the “N” word at a person of colour, or shouting at someone to “go back to where they came from.” Indeed, these occurrences are prevalent. But its more pervasive, more insidious counterpart is institutionalised racism. This form of racism is implicitly committed by members of an institution, such as the government, the media, the education system or the criminal justice system. Institutionalised racism can appear in the form of passing over a person of colour for a job due to their “unusual” name, or selling foundation where the darkest shade is “medium.” Another example of this is police brutality, particularly against black and brown men. Feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak speaks of the concept of ‘White men protecting brown women from brown men’. Men of colour are so often depicted as dangerous and violent due to the history of Western cultures considering non-Western cultures to be “savage” – remember Pocahontas?
Racism, in the form of institutional discrimination and vilification, is alive and well. When I heard about the recent events in the United States, I felt deeply sad and helpless. But, there is something we can do about it. Institutions were, after all, created by humans. So, humans can destroy them, too. Sure, no one individual can single-handedly bring down white supremacy. But if we all do our little bit, we can begin on a journey towards a fairer, safer future for everyone.
Check your privilege
Being asked to “check your privilege” is guaranteed to make you roll your eyes. But there is a reason why you are, and should be, asked this. Whiteness, in many respects, makes your life easier.
Of course, there are white people who are also poor, disabled, women who have been sexually harassed or queer* people who have experienced discrimination. White privilege doesn’t negate any of these other experiences. Middle-class, male, non-disabled and cishet privileges also exist. But in the fight to end racism, it is whiteness that we must focus on. In the specific case of police brutality, African-Americans are three times more likely than Anglo-Americans to be killed. This is due to the stereotyping of black men as “dangerous” and “uncivilised,” a stereotype to which white men don’t fall victim. If you are a white person, or even a white-passing or light-skinned person of colour, the risk of dying at the hands of the police is relatively low. Once you can see this, you will also be able to see just how far we really are from true equality. And only then will you be able to make a change.
Another part of checking your privilege is working creatively with said privilege, and ideating ways to uphold people of colour. Unfortunately, people of colour are taken less seriously than white people when speaking about race. If you are white, people will undoubtedly listen to you. So, speak up! Try not to speak over people of colour, but in spaces where there aren’t any people of colour in the room you should take up the responsibility of advocating for the community.
Check your biases
We are all biased. You might think, ‘I’m not racist’, but the truth is, you probably are. This is a hard pill to swallow – no one likes to believe that they’re a bad person. But being racist doesn’t automatically make you bad, nor will your past racist attitudes necessarily define what you’ll believe in the future. You can change how you think about the world, so long as you put in the work.
If you see a black man walking down the street, do you immediately swerve sideways? If you meet someone whose skin colour is different from yours, do you feel the need to ask them where they’re “from”? If your law lecturer is of Chinese heritage, do you automatically think to yourself, ‘Jee, their English is good!’? If so, that’s okay – I, despite being a person of colour, sometimes think these things too! What is important here is to be mindful of what you think, and why. If you think black men are dangerous, this might be because of the media you have consumed and the things you’ve heard certain politicians say that are untrue. Always be critical. We can all change. We can all do better by ourselves and by our community.
When you hear a person of colour talk about their experience with racism your instinct might be to say, ‘But racism is over! You can vote! Slavery is over!’. This is understandable. There are certain experiences that people of colour have had which white people haven’t had. This can make it hard for white people to empathise with a person of colour’s life. But it isn’t impossible!
If you feel yourself becoming defensive after hearing a person of colour talk about racism, stop for a second. Listen to that voice in your head, the one that says, ‘They’re wrong and I’m right’. Read what they’ve written, or listen to what they’ve said, properly. Try and put yourself in their shoes and if you still don’t believe them, ask them to clarify. They might not respond to you – after all, people of colour aren’t responsible for educating others. But if they do respond, listen again without judgment. This is how empathy is built, and empathy is necessary to fight racism.
It’s worth mentioning here that at this point in time, the focus of discussion is on the black community. They are the people who are suffering the most right now. If you’re like me, a person of colour who isn’t black, you might feel the need to advocate for your own community. Again, stop and think for a little while. There’s no question that all people of colour have their unique challenges that come with living in a white supremacist world, and we will talk about these challenges eventually. But for now, in respect of the people who’ve recently lost their lives, try to keep the discussion to the black experience.
I believe that a significant contributor to racism is ignorance. “Ignorance” simply means, ‘A lack of knowledge’. A lack of knowledge is likely to come from a lack of education.
You don’t need to take a sociology class to learn about society! In the digital age, there is knowledge everywhere and if you have access to the Internet, you can find it all. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch TV shows…whatever you fancy. One of my favourite books is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. In this book, Eddo-Lodge discusses politics, history, feminism and more, all through the lens of anti-racism. While the focus is mostly on racism in the United Kingdom, what with Eddo-Lodge being a Brit herself, much of the content is applicable to much of the Western world. It’s important to note that Eddo-Lodge has requested via Twitter if you were to buy her book that you should match what you paid to donate to nonprofit organisation Minnesota Freedom Fund.
Other great resources include Instagram account @nowhitesaviours and YouTube videos ‘why black people are angry and tired’ by Vee Kativu and ‘White Moderates, Cowards, John Boyega + Black Lives Matter’ by Claudia Boleyn, both British people of colour.
For more resources, go here.