Our silence will not protect us

New York Protest by KarlaAnnCoté

Out of the horror of George Floyd’s murder, a spark has been lit. The civil rights movement in the US has a long history of inspiring movements elsewhere, and the might of our siblings across the Atlantic has once again reverberated at a critical juncture for our world.

Comments from Ministers that Black Lives Matter protests in the UK are simply based on anger about prejudice in the US and that Britain is not racist, shows us just how far we still have to go to hit the message home. In the brilliant words of Musa Okwonga: “The murder of George Floyd has not been used as a moment for introspection but as a sort of wine tasting of white supremacy, where Europeans take a sip of vintage American racism and proudly declare that it tastes much more sour than theirs.” It’s time for the UK to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror.

The state of race relations in the US have long been used as a swaddle for the UK to convince itself that things aren’t that bad here. We are taught more in the British curriculum about the US civil rights movement than we are about struggles closer to home. Historical amnesia and a rose-tinted view of Britain’s colonial past has reinforced the fallacy that ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. But the systemic and institutionalised racism that killed George Floyd and countless other Black men and women in the US exists here. It was born here. As I saw brilliantly described in a Tweet, ‘America is the zombie mutant offspring of Britain.’

That’s the thing about racism in the UK – more often than not, it’s coded and insidious. It makes you second-guess yourself and self-censor. In our day-to-day lives, we swallow our discomfort in the face of microaggressions. We see things like the impact of Covid-19 on our communities, Brexit, the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment, Grenfell, the disproportionate use of stop and search/ force used against Black people at the hands of British police and countless reports proving that institutionalised racism and systemic inequality are significant factors and we see how these things are ignored. We are told to stop playing the race card, to get that chip off our shoulder, to move on and stop talking about the past. If racial gaslighting were a sport, the UK would be a world leader.

We are deemed ‘ungrateful’ for desiring equality and fairness. We are ungrateful for daring to desire a level playing field. We are ungrateful for wishing this country would be a little more grateful towards the contribution of immigrants and their descendants, grateful of the fact that much of the wealth of this country was built on our ancestors’ backs.

I haven’t written much of late – over the past couple of years in fact, as the topics I usually feel most compelled to write about are also among the most emotionally taxing to grapple with in the era of Trump, the Tories and Brexit.

When it comes to talking about issues around race I find comfort in safe spaces; platforms like gal-dem and Media Diversified have been so integral in building my confidence as a writer. Broaching race outside of echo chambers potentially opens you up to a huge amount of hostility and abuse, so preaching to the converted has always felt infinitely less daunting than pleading with the wilfully ignorant.

Being a very small fish in an extremely big pond, my initial excitement at occasional invites to take part in media interviews have been followed by dread. Dread that I would be expected to debate my humanity with someone who has little interest in what I have to say, only in how they can pick it apart and render my words and experiences insignificant. Clips of my humiliation snipped for social media, devoid of context and designed to sensationalise. The subsequent Twitter pile-on of rabid racists telling me to f*** off back to wherever I came from (Luton, actually) as they hide behind their Twitter profile picture of a Labrador. As a result, I have turned down more than I have agreed to. I convince myself I’m not eloquent enough, my experience isn’t valid enough. My skin is not thick enough.

As highlighted in a quote from Kimberly McIntosh in an excellent piece by Natalie Morris on the psychological impact of constantly having to explain racism: “If you do speak in such a debate, you will likely be pitched against a man who knows nothing about the topic but is good at saying inflammatory sound bites for socials. If you don’t, you’re left wondering – did your absence mean there was no one to make the case against racism based on evidence? Are we leaving the space vacant for toxic, false narratives, leaving minority communities worse off?”

As the Japanese saying goes, we see what happens to the nail that sticks out – it gets hammered. We watch social commentators like Afua Hirsch on TV debating the existence of racism with a pack of gammons, hungry for blood and determined to undermine her. Women like Dianne Abbott who, despite her success and longevity, is a dartboard for misogynoir, receiving almost half of all online abuse sent to female MPs.

We see these examples in the public eye and many of us decide that the price to pay for speaking up is too high. The toll it takes on our mental and physical health is too steep. Stay in your box. Don’t get above your station.

But what if there are too many of us to silence anymore?

Watching footage from the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, UK and further afield has been a beacon of hope and strength during what has been a traumatic time for so many of us. Seeing so many people out on the streets demanding to be heard and refusing to be ignored has made me want to be bolder, unapologetic, less afraid of my voice, more active. While there are undoubtedly elements of performative allyship on social media, people are speaking out, sharing experiences and having difficult but important conversations on a scale that is unprecedented. As my fingers hover hesitantly over this keyboard, I think of the protestors and the generations preceding them on this long march.

Protesting in person isn’t possible for everyone but ongoing mobilisation is going to be key in making sure this moment leads to structural change. If you’re unsure where to start in the short-term, check out this comprehensive resource put together by Nandini Mitra of practical ways you can get involved in supporting Black Lives Matter in the UK.

Whether you’re confronting or simply coping with Babylon’s bullshit, please take good care of yourself as a priority.

and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: poems


(Image: “New York Protest” by KarlaAnnCoté is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

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