i say ‘we’, and this is the crux of this piece. at its heart, this movement is obvious. of course it is. ‘black lives matter’ - of course they do. anyone, with the exception of maybe white supremacists, will tell you that. because it’s obvious. but. contrary to popular belief, there is a difference between not being racist, and being anti-racism. and now, in these dark & desolate times, this difference is more apparent - and more important - than ever. desmond tutu’s famous quote has understandably been doing the rounds this week: ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’. not being racist is not enough. not being racist does not demand a change. not being racist is the same as being complicit, but with a clearer conscience. and this is where a seemingly obvious movement becomes complicated to some people.
race is a sensitive issue to speak of - or it is, at least, when you’re white. being white and speaking about race is a minefield. not because the attitudes of PoC are unforgiving, but because - unless you are aware enough of your own privilege - you run the risk of inadvertently expressing your ignorance. as a result, it's a topic of conversation which a lot of white people - particularly the ones who do have enough self-awareness to realise the potential for miscommunication - avoid. and, to an extent, i think this is justifiable. to me, growing up as a white girl, being black was as much about culture as it was about race. and it was a culture that, as much as we strive for equality, white people will never truly understand, nor, as a result, lay claim to. i always saw this as a positive thing - after centuries of oppression and, latterly, appropriating - there are fundamental aspects of growing up black that white people can never take for themselves. and this, perhaps, is the source of reluctance in some white people to avoid any involvement in ‘black issues’.
some women would rather men did not get involved in feminism, and some men think that, in doing so, they will be treading on toes. similarly, there are racial issues that white people don’t, and arguably shouldn’t, concern themselves with. these ‘issues’, however, are more often than not the ones that can used by PoC as ‘in-jokes’ in a colloquial, culturally observational way. but while we rightly have no place in the ‘struggles’ of, for example, black hair, or trying to find a high street beauty brand that has as broad a foundation spectrum for dark skin as it does for light, or having to put up with white guys thinking they’re smooth by trying to use the word ‘chocolate’ seductively, there comes a point when ‘staying out of it because it’s nothing to with me’ becomes irresponsible and lazy, rather than perceived as being respectful.
i can understand the reluctance to join a fight that you know isn’t yours. i can understand the hesitancy in involving yourself in injustice that you know you will always be exempt from. but being able to recognise your privilege in these situations should also mean being able to recognise when to speak up. this is not about black people needing white people’s help. it is not about PoC not having a voice that is heard. it is not about minding your own business, or letting people fight their own battles, or thinking that getting involved is patronising. it is about standing shoulder to shoulder with people who have been fighting this fight alone, and tirelessly, for a very long time.
black issues become all of our issues when they are no longer cultural, but systematic. this is not a problem with one specific oppressive person, or group of people, or culture - and when the problem is with a system that governs us all, failure to speak up is the result only of the selfishness that comes with knowing that this system does not affect us in equal ways. if you distance yourself from an injustice because it doesn’t affect you, you are a coward. of course, it's human nature, upon hearing of a tragedy, to comfort yourself with the knowledge that it can't possibly be you next because you’re not who’s being targeted. it is easier to be the sympathiser than the empathiser. it is easier to secretly feel relief that a terrorist chose to slaughter LGBT+ people, than it is to think that you, a straight person, might ever be at risk just for existing. it is easier to feel sorry for black people being ‘lawfully’ murdered, than it is to think that you, a white person, might ever be shot on the pavement for no discernible reason. we try to distance ourselves from being implicated in tragedies because, if we didn’t, we’d live constantly in fear of being next. so now, please, understand your privilege. understand that if you do not add your voice to this cause, the only reason is because you know you’re not at risk.
growing up, there is a code. the code may be implicit, unspoken, but it exists. it exists in the form of every telling-off your mother ever gave you, in every lecture you ever got, in every rule that is ever drummed into you. the code tells us how to be safe and happy. it may not be obvious, especially as children, but our parents are trying to teach us how to get through life unscathed. more than just looking before crossing the road & wearing our seatbelts, it’s why we know to obey the rules, and to behave, and to not break the law. in its most basic form: if you do what you’re told and you don’t step out of line then you’ll be ok.
so, tell me, how do black mothers teach their children to get through life unscathed when the code doesn’t apply to them? when the code is broken. when you do what the policeman tells you, but he shoots you in the back anyway. when you’re unarmed, but he shoots you anyway. when he tells you to get out your ID, and when you reach for it, he shoots you. when obeying the rules and doing what you’re told isn't enough anymore, because the danger to you isn’t breaking the law - but the law itself.
one year ago today, sandra bland was in a texas jail, after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. two days later she’d be dead. the usual traffic violation warning that was written for her by the officer turned into her face-down on the pavement with his knee on her neck because, when he demanded she put out her cigarette, she asked why she should do so while sitting in her own car. america so loudly preaches its moniker ‘land of the free’ - but if only that also extended to a PoC’s freedom to express, and demand, their rights.
this has become a long piece and, realistically, i imagine any power it may have potentially held has been diluted by a great extent of redundant prose. truthfully, i was nervous writing this. it would’ve been easier, and less risky, to just post an aesthetically-pleasing, yet meaningful, #blacklivesmatter graphic. but, as always, i want to try & quietly urge people to understand. i don’t want to shame them on the internet because that’s indicative of those who can’t understand that, often, those expressing ignorance do so because they don’t know any better - and that publicly calling them out on it will make them less willing to listen, and more likely to oppose you. and on that note, if i have offended anyone with anything that i’ve written here, please don’t shout it from the rooftops, drop me a message and explain how i can be more aware in future.
race may not be an easy issue - but #blacklivesmatter is. don’t let your privilege get in the way of that. we may never understand the struggles, and we will certainly never face them, but that does not mean we are not a part of this. we may never relate to the fear, or the pain, or the anguish, but that does not mean we are exempt from this. we may never know what it is to be black, but that does not mean that we will bear witness to those who do being butchered in the street by the people entrusted to protect them.
‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.