Two weeks ago a friend wrote a powerful post on her social media. In this post she spoke about how it has felt for her as a white woman to learn of stories about the brutality and mistreatment of black people by the police and other members of society. She has been repeatedly devastated by this, yet she ended with this honest question, ‘why does the thought of being a white woman speaking out about these things make me so uncomfortable?’ I don’t think she is alone.
I am speaking of black lives today but make no mistake, I am well aware of the repression many other minority communities continue to face and they too need genuine support. I do feel that it’s important to honour the conversation currently being had and right now that is about black people. I write the following words for a white reader, that is who these words are written for.
I am many things and one of them is black. I move through the world as a black person and though I am able to move through with an exquisitely greater ease than my parents and grandparents and their parents and so on, I move through the world as a black person and it is a different experience than that of a white person, that is fact.
When I went travelling for a few months last year I saw only one fellow lone black traveller and a number of people spoke of concern for me as a lone black woman in some of the places I chose to visit. Whilst I did not let these fears stop me, they exist for a reason. This is fact. I have black brothers, a black father and black male cousins who could easily be George Floyd or Christian Cooper. This is fact.
This may go without saying, but it’s not enough to think of yourself as ‘obviously not racist’, to have black friends, black partners or black neighbours and colleagues you love. The black community needs white people to truly educate themselves about the black experience and to fully understand and accept what white privilege is, how it predates these current times, how the degradation of black people from the start of time has set a foundation that still degrades, that still restricts and punishes. The black community needs white people to use whatever platform they have to speak out about the injustice the black community continues to face. Educate self, educate others and participate. That is what it means to support.
This may look like, sharing links to podcasts, talks and articles about the black experience that you yourself have found educative on social media. This may look like having an uncomfortable conversation with a family member you know is not as informed as you. This may look like signing petitions and following their development. This may look like challenging your place of work on their silence re the Black Lives Matter Movement. This may look like donating to black causes. This may look like volunteering your time or specific skills to black causes if needed. This may look like protesting. This may look like thinking about how you approach parenting. This may look like thinking about how you approach colleagues and those you line manage or mentor, do you fully know what they need? This may look like checking the innocent but offensive jokes or comments you might make - this is your unconscious bias, alive and well, like a hamster in the corner of a room relentlessly peddling its wheel ... This might look like reaching out to black friends about how they are doing right now and how, frankly, they have always been doing. It’s finding a meaningful way to do the work of being proactively in solidarity with the black community and this is work that needs to be done over and over and over again and it is work that may at points make you feel self-conscious and unsure. Take a step regardless of your fear, ask questions, trust they are better than your silence.
Every time I see a video of or read an article about a black person being killed by police officers, I think back to photographs of black men hanging from trees. These men are someone’s son, someone’s daddy, someone’s brother, someone’s friend and they hang there, heads and jaws slack and I think - that is my history, that is my community, how is this still happening to all of these beautiful black people? It’s unbelievably real and it hurts. Every time you feel tempted to stay in or return to that warm cocoon of privileged white silence, I ask that you think of black men hanging from trees, circled by a jeering white crowd, too.
There are many people in the US, UK and all across the world who feel significantly bolstered by the thought that however small, alone or insignificant they may feel, just by being white they are inherently better than many others. They cling to that thought like a lifeline and that is why they go in pursuit of black and brown joy and black and brown ambition and black and brown success, because to not do so seems to force them to face they aren’t living lives they are proud of or lives they want, lives they have ever wanted. Easier to create an enemy and savage them than to sit with the discomfort of self-loathing.
Things are far from over. And when I watched that video of George Floyd being killed, when I watched that video of Christian Cooper having a white woman wave her phone and white privilege at him like a sword, the prejudice I’ve experienced, that loved ones have experienced, rose inside me like water and I felt a grief unlike any I have known. I felt bereft. I felt angry. It’s what led me to see that amidst posts of cake, gin and tonics and sunny walks on social media, I needed to share how I am really feeling, I needed to speak to how the black community are feeling.
I am not inciting punishment of or even shame in white people and I am not encouraging a divide, that is what I want least of all, but I am saying that the truest form of unity will not be possible until those already safely at the table start asking why everyone looks like them, starts to notice that there are still so many that have never been at that table and begins making sure that changes and that those changes remain.
What does 'privilege' mean to you? Tell us in the comments below...
Tarnia Mason is a campaigner, educator, social care practitioner and aspiring documentary filmmaker. It all connects.