Words: Onyi N. Data Visualisation and Analytics Manager at Global.
This piece was first published on Onyi N.’s LinkedIn page on 11th June 2020.
This is a long read, so get yourself a cuppa and some biscuits. I recommend digestives, rich teas or perhaps even custard creams if you are feeling really decadent.
It’s 3am, and I’ve just finished feeding my two-month-old daughter. As she drifts off satisfied, completely unaware of what is happening in the world right now, I wonder about her future, when she will undoubtedly learn in school or elsewhere about the time we had a global pandemic and protests about racial injustice. Will she wonder what her parents did during this time?
As a black British woman living in the UK today, I know there are some people who are confused as to why something that happened in America has ‘spilled’ over here. Why are we protesting?
The news of yet more black people dying in America has undoubtedly caused a global response. One has to consider whether, because many of us are at home and our lives are less busy, it has caused us all to have more bandwidth to really sit up and finally have the chat we’ve been meaning to have for decades.
The situation in America has caused black people all over the world to relive their own encounters with racism. It’s like having a mirror held up to you; the similarities, the shared experiences. It’s a reminder that although there has been some progress, these shared experiences still occur far, far too often. What you are seeing is a communal post-traumatic stress event.
Many black people are sharing their experiences on social media to show that, far from being the exception to the rule, this is the rule. For the last week, I have been pondering whether I should do the same, as I relive some of my own experiences talking to friends and family. But there are many already out there, some that are very similar to my own. Apart from anything else, it’s raw and traumatising to recount such things.
So what else can I do or say? Well, we have more people’s attention than ever before, and while stories cement what was already known, we need to take advantage of this time to really see change.
Before I say any more, I want to make the following very clear. No one is born a bad person and I do not wish anyone any ill. I am not coming for anyone, I am not singling out anyone. No one I know needs to wonder whether they have done me any wrong. This isn’t about me. Black people don’t need pity; this is only part of our story. Bad things can happen and we can still get on with our day with a smile. Black people still love, get married, have families, laugh, cry and everything in between. Race is not all we are. Lastly, black people are not the only ones who are at a disadvantage in the world right now.
I would bet very good money that many, if not all, people of ethnic minorities working in well-paid professional roles have had a conversation with their parents that ran something like the one my mother had with me, and all of my sisters. She told us that we would have to work 300% harder than other people because we are black, we are women, and we are African.
If a black kid and a white kid in class both got 60% in a test, chances are the white kid’s parents told them, ‘great work’ or ‘good attempt’, while the black kid’s parents searched them up and down looking for the other 40%. As a black person, you’re taught from an early age that you can’t afford mediocrity.
My friends from ethnic minorities and I always laugh when we share such tales, but when you really look at it, it’s tragic.
I was in a focus group a few years ago whose aim was to understand the lack of BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) individuals in higher positions. I found it cathartic to hear people from across the black spectrum talk about their experiences in the workplace. (And just a quick note here: yes, blackness is a spectrum, not a binary characteristic and certainly not interchangeable with the word ‘urban’)
In these focus groups, we were split into two groups: BAME and non-BAME individuals. The results were interesting: the same comments kept coming up in the non-BAME group: “We don’t know what to do about racism, we don’t know how to help, and we don’t know how to talk about it.”
This got me thinking about what kinds of practical measures individuals can try out. For while many people are donating to various causes (and this is very important and shouldn’t stop), and there are hashtags, petitions and other initiatives to raise awareness and effect change (also imperative and shouldn’t stop), these actions still put a gap between us and the issue; they lack personal agency. People talk about ending racism – but what exactly does that mean? How do we go about doing that, and doing it so decisively that it is never an issue for future generations? What can you do as an individual, now that you can’t unsee what you have seen?
To help you work out the answers to that question, here is a playbook; a set of guidelines that you can follow if you don’t feel you know what to do or say, or how to act. A user manual for dealing with racism, from a black person, to a white person. I don’t claim all the answers are here, and nor do I claim that my suggestions will be correct for every black person. But I hope they will help you to start to see the world through my eyes. And as you start to see the world through my eyes, I hope you will also understand why we don’t just need to end racism – we need to eradicate it.
E R A D I C A T E
E – Educate yourself on the definition of racism
This isn’t meant to be condescending. The passage of time has diluted and warped the meaning for many of us.
What is racism?
Before talking about the definition of racism, it’s important to understand the difference between prejudice and discrimination.
What is prejudice?
In modern terms this can be described as holding derogatory views about a group of people who share a characteristic as a result of some sort of life experience, for instance a negative personal experience, views inherited from family members or unconditional bias fed by society at large.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination means taking action based on prejudice. It reduces a person or a group of people’s quality of life economically, psychologically, physically or in another way because of that prejudice.
Racism is a form of discrimination.
Someone can hold prejudice without being discriminatory, but someone must hold prejudice in order to be discriminatory. A white person can be prejudiced against black people, and still not be racist. The racism starts when the white person takes discriminatory actions based upon that prejudice.
We need to stop equating racism to holding prejudices. Indeed, if the white person is aware of their prejudice, consciously works to override it, and the result is that their prejudice does not translate into actions, they are not being racist. Racism requires action; prejudice does not. It goes without saying that I condone neither.
Therefore racism by its nature is systemic, structural and institutionalised. When you understand that, you can also understand that it’s really hard to be racist if the systems and structures are not there to support that behaviour.
Racism can be both overt and covert. It can be violent or nonviolent. It can be casual or formal. It can be anything from a snide comment at a checkout to a job application rejected on the basis of a black-sounding name, to a cross burning on someone’s lawn.
This 2018 study from the Equality and Human Rights commission shows that 64% of people from a black ethnic background experienced race-based prejudice in the UK. It explores what prejudice really means for many in our society today.
R – Read and Research
“I don’t see colour” or “That was then, things are different now”. We hear sentiments like these a lot. The problem with the first statement is that if you fail to see colour, you also fail to see the difficulties people of colour are still suffering. The problem with the second is that it isn’t really true, much though you might like to believe it is.
If my sister can be called a monkey at a bus stop at the same age my mother was called a monkey at a bus stop, things are not different now. So read about experiences that are happening today. Research the issues people of colour still face, and remember that just because it’s hidden to you doesn’t mean it’s stopped happening.
Here is a document with a growing number of resources to help you navigate on this journey. It’s an excellent guide for understanding what to read next and why as you learn more.
To start you off, here are two terms to really get to grips with; unconditional bias and microaggressions.
You can take the unconditional bias test yourself by following these instructions.
Here is a video that explains what microaggressions are.
A – Acknowledge that your world view may be changing
Technology means racism that has always been happening is more visible and less deniable now. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. Don’t feel guilty if you didn’t see it before; what matters is that you see it now. Once you were blind; now you can see. This doesn’t have to mean your world is falling apart – in fact, I’d like to think it means your world is growing.
D – Don’t hate the player, hate the game
It’s important to remember that while people of today may not have created racist systems, they still exist. I believe that means we shouldn’t necessarily blame the people who embody those systems for those systems’ racism.
Let’s not hate police officers who do not act in a racist way, but let’s question discriminatory policing policy. Let’s not hate non-racist civil servants, but let us question why successive governments are still struggling to tackle these issues. Let’s not hate the disenfranchised youth from ethnic minorities, but let us question the erosion of support and understanding from those in authority. It’s important to remember at all times that everyone, even the people you hate and fear the most, has a family, and loved ones. All of us just want to live, and live well.
If we ostracise and ignore and alienate and exclude good people from the conversation because they belong to an institution we deem to be racist, and not because they are racist themselves, they will find another tribe, and that tribe will be worse. That tribe will be where prejudices not only survive, but thrive.
This article is from 2000. The Metropolitan Police has improved since then, but it does illustrate how a culture or system can hinder without any one person being individually accountable.
I – Insulate your emotions from the issues
As you research more and consider your place in all this, you are going to feel some powerful emotions; guilt, sadness, regret. That’s natural; you are human. But it’s easy for those feelings to cause you to put your shields up; to go on the defensive. This is a mistake many people make, and it prevents them from having honest conversations about race and being able to learn.
Being called a racist has become a slur akin to being called a pedophile or a rapist. And when black people try to talk to white people about race, they often feel they are being accused of being complicit; of being racist themselves. As a result, their instant reaction is defensiveness. People think they are being personally blamed for slavery, colonialism, imperalism, segregation and other injustices. A shared, expected accusation of guilt seems to have arisen over time. It stops people from taking a step back and addressing how they interact with others. It’s the reason we have things like #alllivesmatter #menrights, ‘political correctness gone mad’ and White History Month.
No one is blaming you as an individual. No one is blaming you for the sins of your forefathers. Don’t shut down just because the alternative of facing up to the full, unabridged reality of racial injustice is unthinkable and overwhelming. That will make you part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Instead, try to compartmentalise. This is a skill that is useful in every part of our lives. Separating your thoughts from your emotions can allow positive realisations to make it through.
This article might help you work on this separation.
You might want to also check out this video which talks about unconscious bias and how it relates to emotions and defensiveness. Don’t be put off by the title.
C – Charity begins at home
Parents and guardians, you need to talk to your kids. If we want to end the cycle, things that you may have assumed to be understood might actually need to be spelt out. Black youth of today are still experiencing the same things their parents did 20 or 30 years ago, from children who don’t realise the significance of their actions. Nine years ago, an intelligent, kind, gentle eight-year-old boy who was white asked me ‘Are you black all of the time?’ His innocent curiosity speaks volumes.
It’s also OK to say we are black. You’re allowed. It’s how we identify ourselves, for the most part. As long as it’s not being used in a negative way, don’t be afraid of that word. In fact, it’s probably worse to tiptoe around the issue of a difference in someone’s skin colour than to note it straight out. If your children ask about blackness, or people with darker skin, don’t shush them for fear of embarrassment, as that will only perpetuate the myth that talking about race should be taboo.
This video from a Youtuber who has children of mixed race shares some ideas.
Vice versa, adult and adolescent children, you need to try and have that conversation with your parents. This is so hard. The risk of losing your family, and the love of your parents, is strong. We don’t want to rock the boat, and we want their approval.
But people are living longer. Our parents aren’t going anywhere and more often than not, they are in positions of power, whether it’s being a hiring manager, a local business owner, a public servant, or just someone who consumes a lot of news. Here’s my advice: lead by example. Try using allegories and analogies wherever possible. Avoid being confrontational or making it personal. Avoid saying ‘you’ at all, in fact, if you can.
Use the ‘I’ statement model instead. ‘I am seeing what’s happening…’ , ‘ I think…’, ‘I feel…’, ‘This has made me…’. It holds up a mirror without putting people on the spot. It starts a conversation on a more positive footing. Good luck, I wish you all the best. Here are some links on how to have ‘I’ statement conversations and why it’s so much healthier.
In a professional environment, offer advice and mentorship if you are in a position to do so. British culture can be hard to navigate when you want to get ahead. We exist in a culture of professional self-promotion and this might feel very alien to people from certain backgrounds. If you can advise people on this, and how it really works,, this alone could really help with social mobility.
Work with your university or school alumni organisations. Offer work experience in local schools. Reach out and offer your time on social media. Offer to have lunch with someone so they can ask you some questions. Here are some links to mentoring programmes and the UK government’s guide on providing meaningful work experience.
- UK Government – Employer guides to work experience
- Meet A Mentor
- The 30 percent club
- The Girl’s Network
If you work in HR, consider interview quotas, per business unit per year, and measure the results regularly. It can help to tackle unconscious bias while still making sure the right person gets the job. Use social media to invite people struggling to break through into your industry to Q&A nights, so they can ask people who work there how they can get ahead.
If people of colour aren’t applying for these roles in the first place, band together with other companies in your industry and create widening participation programmes. Amongst ethnic minorities, many are taught by their parents that only medicine, law, accountancy, engineering and teaching are viable, financially stable careers where prejudice has less affect because they are needed regardless.
Obviously, donate to the causes that are working to bring about change. Crowdfunding platforms for social mobility and equality are popping up everywhere. I recommend Beam. They help many people from ethnic minorities and from white working class backgrounds get back on their feet after being homeless.
A – Avoid distractions
Don’t let the media or otherwise distract from the true conversation. Stay on topic, and stay focussed. Too often, anti-racism protests achieve little because a minority of protestors resort to violence, which is condemned by the rest. Yet the entire protest becomes tarred with a reputation for violence and disreputable behaviour. Then the narrative becomes “Yes, racism is awful, but the way those protestors behaved is atrocious”. I’m not saying it isn’t – but don’t make the behaviour of the small minority the big issue, when it isn’t.
This video explains further how the conversation can get derailed.
There are other distractions, too, in the form of ‘whataboutery’ – this means arguing by using a statement which starts ‘but what about…’. There are many other types of injustice, personal and public, macro and micro. Having this conversation does not invalidate any other type of injustice. It does not invalidate your own personal suffering or hardship. It doesn’t mean you’ve worked any less hard to get to where you are. Don’t let whataboutery derail a conversation that needs to be had.
T – Truthfully apologise
You are scrolling through your social media feed and you come across someone with whom you have interacted in the past, explaining their experiences, and you think you may have been involved. Take a moment. This can hit hard. The defensiveness might creep in. I refer you to I for Insulate.
“I’m sorry if I ever caused you any pain…” or “I’m sorry if my actions were perceived as…” or “I’m sorry if I directly or indirectly caused…” – these are not genuine apologies. These are requests for absolution without true self awareness. How can one be sorry when one doesn’t know what one is sorry about? How can we learn from our mistakes if we don’t know what the mistake was? The non-apology benefits neither party. Prejudices and discriminatory behaviour go unchallenged when we don’t challenge ourselves.
“Did I contribute to this experience and if so how?” This is the harder, but truer, way to start making things right.
You will need to be prepared for the possibility that the person you’re asking may not want to discuss the matter, as it’s too painful and brings up too many difficult memories. If they are, you will need to steel yourself and prepare to hear something that you weren’t expecting to hear. You will need to be prepared that what you’re about to hear may reveal things about yourself that you aren’t comfortable with. What you thought was OK may turn out not to be. But this is what true healing feels like, for both parties. Sometimes, healing can be painful. I refer you to A for Acknowledge that your world view may be changing.
Here is a great article from a psychologist explaining the nine rules of an apology.
E – Enlighten yourself through others’ experiences
The original transgression was that, a long time ago, one group of people saw another group of people as ‘less than’, ‘other than’, ‘subhuman’. The second group fought back for hundreds of years, trying simply to say “We are the same; we are human just like you.”
Well-meaning folk from the first group heard this and spread the good word. “We are all the same,” they said. Many have been brought up with this mantra today. It’s a good thing to instill in future generations. Here’s the issue, though: that statement was about survival. What it fails to capture is that while we are all the same humans, our experiences of life are not the same. This difference needs to be accepted if we are to move forward. It’s how we can better understand all the statistics, the disparities, and the misunderstandings, and ultimately how we can truly close that gap and eradicate racism. This article is a good starter for 10 towards enlightenment, although the book that followed may be a little alienating for some readers.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say we need to remember Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals in this story. They are often forgotten. Native Americans have stood up for many other groups throughout history, but we fail to come to their aid time and time again. Here are some links to great causes helping first nation peoples.
It’s now 5:30am, my daughter will need more milk soon. I wrote this mostly for my own sanity and so that I can enjoy the little sleep that I am privy to as a new mum. Although I would love to engage with the comments on this post, I won’t, mostly for my own mental health and so I can enjoy my maternity leave. I hope you can understand that. If this post helps others, I will be thankful, but whether it does or not, I now know that when my daughter asks me “what did you do, mummy?” I will be able to look her in the eye and tell her.