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In 2020, we’re all going through great, overdue learning. But while the first step is understanding you know little, the next step is taking the responsibility to educate yourself.
For the last week or so I have let myself be distracted by the news cycle. Politicians were ripping the heart out of universities, and particularly my part of it, because they couldn’t deal with historians calling out their ‘no slavery’ stupidity. So, I wasn’t paying attention, and for a moment, the Black Lives Matter movement slipped into my consciousness. Because, well, because I’m white and I can afford it, obviously.
Then, on Sunday evening, I watched Oprah Winfrey talk with ten very different activists, discussing the most pertinent question of the moment: Where do we go from here?
It brought me back into the centre of what I (and you) need to be thinking about right now. Because you might not have time to watch the conversation, I thought it might be an idea to give you some of my conclusions. I have divided them up into three categories: what I have learnt, what I am learning, and what I know. See if that helps.
What I have learnt – Because we needed reminding, Jane Elliott’s blue eye/brown eye experiment’s Australian version taught us that hatred is easily sown by playing one group’s invented superiority against another group’s imaginary inferior status. Humans love making distinctions, especially if those make themselves feel better.
Let’s keep thinking about that question: where do we go from here?
A friend of mine is from the (not-so) Democratic Republic of Congo, where her family were literally hunted because they were from the wrong tribe. Seeing the difference is part of the way our brain is built. Using it as an excuse to kill, rape, maim and abuse is learnt behaviour.
Oprah’s guests were in agreement about that: institutional racism is not proof that the system is broken at all. It is proof that the system was built this way and that it is functioning very well, thank you very much. Racism, or every differentiation that is used to treat people differently than others, is part of the way most of the world is run. By design. It is bigger than just policemen killing people on the street. They are the lowest cog in the machine that consists of capitalism, white nationalism, corporate power, militarism and economic inequality. And, often, gender discrimination. At the core are people, often white men, who not only think, but are convinced they own the world.
That includes people’s bodies. Women, obviously, who you can grab under the table. But also black boys, who are as certain of their lives in the white world as deer during the hunting season. Black men, too, who can find themselves thrown on the grass of their own backyard (knee in the neck), and black women like Breonna Taylor, shot by police in her own bed. Those are not mistakes. They are acts of racist, institutional terrorism aimed to lead to generational muscle memory: don’t forget that your body, your soul, your mind, your life, belong to the state. America, Australia, everywhere really. Our countries were built on the knee in the neck. It is our foundational sin and white communities are beneficiaries of that system. That means that racism and the regime that keeps it intact is a white problem, for white people to solve.
What I am learning – Is, first of all, that I don’t know what I am talking about.
Of course, as a woman, I know what it feels like to be prey on the streets and I know that almost everywhere else the cards are dealt against me. But I don’t usually die with my face against the tarmac and I don’t need to tell my children (my boys, in particular) to live on their knees because standing up might get them killed. I might be furious and annoyed at somebody grabbing my boob on the bus, but if I scream people will usually listen, instead of blaming me. I don’t know what it feels like to be so tired, so numb and exhausted of living this way that I can’t even get angry anymore when it happens again, and again, and again. My thinking has just started. About the casualness of the killing: the copper with his hands in his pockets, sunglasses on his head, while he chokes the life out of another human being. About what it means for me that privilege is a relative: I am up because others are down. And whatever my personal struggle has been, my white community has always been advantaged by other people’s disfranchisement. But most of all, I am learning that this is my own problem to solve. That it is not up to black people to help me sort out my white issue with racism. I have to do the work myself, learn my own lessons, put my own money where my mouth is.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou: now I know better, I have to prove that I can do better. And it is up to me to figure out how.
What I know – Is that white people are protected from war and violent revolution by the fact that black people only want equality, not revenge. I am not sure that is a good thing, and I am also not certain that I could be so generous were the shoe on the other foot. But there we are: I still have a throat that has not been cut. So, I can speak, and speak I must. Because momentum, as we have seen, is quickly disappearing. The news cycle is running away with itself and the hope, that this would be a tipping point, is fading fast.
That means we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is not over. Not in America, where Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back by police last week, was farewelled at the same church where Martin Luther King was a pastor. His youngest daughter Bernice, also a reverend, spoke about time and how little it had altered for good. She must have recognised herself in Brooks’ children, clinging to their mother alongside their father’s coffin. Things haven’t changed here, in Australia, either. At about the same time the bullet hit Rayshard Brooks, a young teenage indigenous boy in Perth was wrestled down the ground by two policemen. They handcuffed them, then smashed his head on the pavement. One officer pressed the boy’s face into the ground while the second pulled his leg up behind his body and leant on it. A witness, a woman who was passing by and decided not to look away, was arrested for obstructing the police. An internal investigation has already concluded that the violence was ‘not excessive’. This, of course, happens everywhere.
Two weeks ago it was Paris, where delivery driver Cedric Chouviat died the same way as George Floyd, with a policeman’s knee in his neck, saying ‘I’m suffocating’ seven times before he went into a coma and died two days later. His great sin had been ‘a dirty licence plate’. On his scooter. His real problem, obviously, was his colour. Let’s keep thinking about that question: where do we go from here?