Wiseman Khuzwayo Scholarship PhD student
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white US police officer in May this year sparked wider and more vocal support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Those supporting the movement have expressed the lack of ‘innocence’ in nations beyond the US. International narrative has indicated the structural racism woven into the fabric of societies worldwide. This has prompted us to examine our role individually and institutionally in building a racism-free UK. That racism pervades throughout our society today, and continues to place Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people at disadvantage cannot be disputed. From education to socioeconomic opportunity, representation in the workplace to beauty norms, racial profiling to healthcare standards, cultural appropriation to covert racism, it is clear that we have a long way to go. What remains less clear is the most effective and appropriate ways to offer allyship to the BLM movement.
While demonstrations of support are certainly beneficial, many individuals and institutions have been quick to celebrate their role or self-view as anti-racist, or perhaps ‘colour-blind’ (See: Emmanuel Acho: Seeing Colour). But both the human mind and social structures are so innately complex that we cannot reliably declare either to be wholly any one thing. Thus the vocal admission and discussion of our culpability, from a personal to a structural level, is vital in preventing implicit denial of fault in our self-assertion as allies.
Allies wishing to demonstrate anti-racism must be careful not to do so in such a way that we distance ourselves from the reality of ongoing racial inequality and our role within it. Until 2015, the UK were paying off £20M of compensation to 46,000 slave owners for ‘loss of human property’. Tweeting about this, the Treasury framed the present day taxpayers’ contribution to the compensation of slave owners in a positive light, presenting the information in such a way as to encourage the self-congratulation of both the institution and the reader.
This was removed a matter of hours later after an outcry about the details of the payment agreement, which were omitted from the Tweet. Even discounting debates over malintent versus ignorance, this occurrence indicates just how easily our national history can be misrepresented and ‘whitewashed’. Focusing on abolition whilst staying silent on the centuries of slave-trading and slave-owning which preceded it demonstrates the risk we face when reducing an action which concerns human rights to its bare elements.
The question I feel we as individuals and as institutions should consider is the extent to which our denouncement of racism can achieve tangible change without open discussion of our own culpability in ongoing mistakes. Be it conscious or unconscious, it can only be through ongoing actions that structural racism continues. However, when we examine what admitting this requires, we can see all too clearly the challenges which we face. In admitting to ongoing ‘blame’, non-BAME people risk both their personal comfort and a degree of control over their reputation. In the first instance, individuals feel threatened when the image of themselves as ‘not racist’ is contradicted; secondly admission opens individuals up to scrutiny of their imperfections, not only in the past but the present. We are far more vulnerable in admitting these uncomfortable truths than we are in vehemently denouncing racism or declaring that we will now be anti-racist moving forward. Thus we see non-BAME people appearing far more comfortable with denunciation of racism which is in some way distanced, in their view, from their own lives. But to raise and discuss these same issues as having been committed, allowed, or unquestioned by themselves leads to far more personal and social vulnerability. It is human nature to avoid this risk and discomfort, but to do so maintains a firm barrier to social progress.
At the Wilberforce Institute, we seek to learn from historical slavery and related humanitarian crimes in order to reduce their existence today and in the future. What we can be sure of is that in seeking to address these issues we have to continue to question the stereotypes and assumptions that are embedded in our culture, and provide a platform in which admission of ongoing mistakes is exemplified and normalised. We must be open not only regarding the reality of the past but of the resultant situation of racial inequality in our society today. Fundamentally, it will be a willingness both to admit this and to learn accordingly which enables social progression.
Pushing against racism is a task that applies to everybody. By focusing upon a self-image we believe is not racist, we as allies risk prioritising self-soothing over the change we are outwardly pursuing. This practice sees individuals and institutions indulging in self-congratulation regarding behaviour we believe to be anti-racist, celebrating actions taken towards racial equality without acknowledging ongoing fault and trauma, denouncing racism without addressing our past culpability and ongoing mistakes, or distancing ourselves from the label of ‘racist’ when our behaviour has knowingly or unknowingly been so. Instead, we ought to seek vocal acceptance of not just past, but ongoing mistakes. Trying to distance ourselves from the label of ‘racist’ isn’t going to create an environment where we can call one another out, accept misgivings and accept correction without taking personal offence. Only through the cultivation of a culture in which this acceptance of culpability is normalised can we move towards genuine societal growth, learning and ultimately, change.