Black lives matter...right?
Over the summer, I spoke at an event organised by my undergraduate alumni association on my own racial blindspots.
I’ve got mixed feelings about this talk. What do I know about racism?
I don’t know what it’s like to have people look at me and see a diversity hire, a criminal suspect, or someone who can be killed for somebody else’s convenience.
But I do know is how hard it is for people like me to notice and acknowledge people other than me. And today, I’d like to tell you about my decade of learning about what I now know is systemic racism.
I hope this story gives you an idea how we all participate in racism regardless of intentions, and what to call out to benefit social change.
After AUC, I was primed to search for environments that had something to do with excellence and diversity in a global city.
Although the founding class wasn’t particularly diverse in terms of demographics, I was nonetheless sensitised to there being people who looked and thought differently from me and I felt somewhat lost in places with a strong single influence.
Of course, working in English in Western Europe, I couldn’t escape the domineering influence of American and British culture but I knew there was the “rest” of the world and I was intensely curious about its people.
I was also intensely naïve.
The identity course that AUC had created to get students thinking about social and cultural integration and to give us words for the phenomena we were seeing, thinking, and feeling, that course in my year did nothing.
AUC’s founding dean, Marijk van der Wende, later told me that the great challenge of this course was that white Western anthropologists were very keen to teach it only to learn that it wasn’t what they were used to.
In a diverse group of students that included science majors, white western anthropologists didn’t have their default credibility, and they opted out of teaching.
But even among the well-meaning students, there was a resistance to stepping outside of our comfort zones, to traveling across town, and to examining the lives of people we’d rather leave aside.
In hindsight, the biggest failure of this course was that it waffled so much, I had no idea what I was supposed to learn.
In the end, my ability to articulate let alone understand the pain of social integration and discrimination, it was non-existent.
And so, I left AUC a true liberal: less of a diversity activist and more of a racism denialist.
It was a very convenient world view.
I knew people of colour lived in Europe and the US. I knew many of them either didn’t arrive there by choice or were descendants of people who didn’t arrive there by choice.
I also knew that some of the people who did arrive by choice had been given that choice as a colonial gift.
By then, living in the West, I’d rarely been taught by non-white teachers. In the twenty years I spent at school not one required text came from a non-white author.
I’d never been treated by a non-white medic. I’d rarely seen non-white dancers or cellists. Until recently, all my bosses had been white, as had been most of my colleagues.
In the middle of this, I told myself that change was happening albeit slowly.
Young generations given opportunities needed time to take advantage of their options, to grow up, to take over. At that time, America had a black president; a sure sign progress was on track.
And yes, sensitized by AUC, I sort of knew that our culture was cruel to people of colour, but, surely, not now, not here, and not that cruel.
I was a science major from a country “recognized” for its whiteness and racism. But that was “there” and “here”, in the West, people were more evolved, more used to other types of complexion.
Besides, science needed diversity. Scapegoating and segregation must have been a thing of the past. After all, wherever I went, there was typically one non-white kid, just like on American tv.
This stance was so compelling that when a Middle-Eastern friend asked if I thought he was white, I laughed, without pausing to think about the meaning of his question.
When I first heard of European immigrants getting a “white people” status in the US, I thought, huh? And when the “Rhodes must fall” campaign erupted at Oxford, I wanted it to move on.
This Rhodes story was particularly personal.
My own AUC scholarship was part-funded by Shell and when my peers in the sustainability track called for the university to divest, I wanted them to stop. I needed that money to graduate.
Meanwhile, my immediate social circle was made up of as many white people as people of colour.
During that time, we talked mostly about things outside ourselves; our research projects, the news, mind-numbing reality tv, anything, really, as long as it didn’t disrupt the carefully crafted illusion of a world where hard work and drive were rewarded, no matter the package they came in.
I’m don’t know what my wake-up call was.
It might have been another formal dinner at Oxford, where white wealthy kids and their white wealthy parents remarked to an all-white room that if black Bobby from Jamaica raised on a council estate in Britain worked as hard as white William raised in Wycombe then and only then there would be more black people at the top.
Or maybe it was the year 2016, when we all found ourselves increasingly angry and surrounded by increasingly many angry people.
Between the refugee crisis, the rise of far-right in Europe, Brexit, and Trump, the hostility toward people who had “moved in” and “taken over” was palpable even in places previously considered open-minded.
Although this intensity of discourse wasn’t historically new, for me, it marked a transition into adulthood; I was now grown up enough to be politically affected.
So much so, in fact, that dinner conversations ended in outbursts and cutting people off for their “objectionable” thoughts seemed easier than interrogating their thinking.
Around that time,
I worked for a medical information charity, operated by an all-white office, serving mostly white middle classes.
My colleagues and I entertained many conversations about expanding our reach.
After all, 15% of the UK population are people of colour and our charity’s mission was to serve everybody.
As the only foreigner at the office, I was put in charge of this project.
As a person with a diverse friend group, I was thrilled.
I knew what to do and the ideas I had required no budget just a slight change in mindset.
I insisted much could be done by involving people of colour in our regular focus groups to understand what they faced when going through cancer. In the UK, despite universal healthcare, there is evidence of health disparities between ethnic groups.
In the many meetings I had with my bosses, I was repeatedly asked
why, in my opinion, black people didn’t care about their health.
Surely, the argument went, if they did, the skin colour of the person on the cover of a book wouldn’t matter; if black and brown people took their health as seriously as white people did, they’d devour all that information, they’d speak to their doctors and they’d speak to us.
These arguments weren’t restricted to people of colour.
In fact, people with sensory loss and disabilities were held to an even higher standard by their able-bodied counterparts who insisted that people with disabilities weren’t asking for our help because problems they had, if any, were “theirs” and not “ours.”
After about a year of this, I was exasperated.
But, I also realised that, if I couldn’t make headway as a white, highly educated, relatively wealthy woman on the inside of a well-meaning organisation, then the people who didn’t share these characteristics the very people who needed this change to happen, they had no fighting chance.
At this point, I noticed that my 50-% non-white friend group had nothing to do with social change or increasing equality.
At this point, I realised that my friend group was a collection of outliers, the very extraordinary people who make it despite the odds.
I was still far from recognising racism for what it was.
Truthfully, I don’t know how to wrap my head around this part of human nature that makes white people see themselves as so much more than others, our wealth and convenience worthy of the sacrifice of black and brown lives.
But now, I’d rather be uncomfortable than in denial.
After this shift, I finally heard what people around me said about their lives.
A friend and I went into a major supermarket in the centre of Oxford to buy some apples.
At self-checkout, I said “no” to getting a receipt and was ready to leave, when he said,
“You know what? I’d never do that.”
I turned to him and said,
“I’d never decline a receipt because though you, a young white woman, are statistically more likely to shoplift, it’s me, a young black man, who’s going to get stopped and searched.”
White women partnered with black men told me about going to dinner with their partners.
They’d travel on public transport and stroll along the Thames,
when the police would stop them.
“They’d question my partner over something that happened somewhere where he couldn’t have been, except that guy was black and this guy was black, and that was the connection,” one woman said.
A Chinese friend who grew up in Australia told of other kids who’d look at him and pull outward the corners of their eyes, stretching their faces.
The incoming Chinese were expected to give up their “immigrant ways” and fully adopt to the local way of living.
The “strange” customs and flavours were best kept secret.
An Indian colleague confessed that her white boss delegates work to her and her predominantly Asian team, saying,
“let’s have the immigrants do it.”
Over lunch, this colleague, whose daughter had just started preschool, told me that the little girl had complained that teachers at school call her something other than her name.
“Her name is Poornima,” my friend explained, “but the white teachers call her Poornima.”
And when she corrects them?
“They call her trouble-maker.”
When I heard this last story, I was working for a global pharmaceutical company, where I sat through many teleconferences with international colleagues, who became subject to instant identity changes.
For at least an hour a week, Micha became Michael, Adebowale became Ben, and Quingling became Kim.
But it wasn’t just names, either.
Although my office was based in middle England, the company was headquartered in the outskirts of Paris and many colleagues spoke French and accented English.
Senior Anglophone colleagues remarked regularly that their French-speaking bosses should be subtitled when speaking English or that they should learn “proper” English.
This idea of what is “proper” and “worthy” and what constitutes authority goes beyond the pettiness of office politics.
You see it in the arts, where the white canon is the default and where non-white heritage is often approached in separation, like a museum piece, examined with a white lens during a dedicated course that makes it this “other” thing.
You see it in the sciences, where medical research has been done and continues to be done on young white men despite a growing body of evidence that different groups may be more prone to different diseases or have different mechanisms of the same disease or
that pharmaceuticals work differently in different bodies.
You see it in academia, where non-Western scientists are held to a much higher standard of research and language fluency than their Western colleagues, and where Western reviewers make comments to non-Western authors that have nothing to do with intellectual sparing and everything to do with bullying.
You most likely saw it with COVID, where recommendations from “lesser” countries were often dismissed by the West after the West had dismissed all the smaller outbreaks of the past decade, claiming infectious disease was just “backward” people’s problem.
Several weeks ago, I was on a date and at some point, I was caught staring into mid-distance. My date asked what I was thinking about and I said, truthfully, racism.
Black Lives Matter had just erupted on the news and my inbox was full of messages from
individuals and organizations reckoning with cruelty.
My date shrugged and said, “And why do you care?”
I said nothing. But I did think about it.
For me, in the past decade, racism stopped being a headline issue out “there” and became a local issue right “here.”
It’s on the news, but it’s also between me, my friends, my colleagues.
Racism might be political, but first and foremost, racism is personal.
Social change requires protest and policy. These things are important, of course, but they need a culture ready to support, defend, and enforce people’s mutual recognition, no matter the awkwardness or inconvenience.
This culture involves calling each other out on the blind spots we didn’t know we had.
In preparation for today, I sent a draft of this talk to two people whose judgment I trust.
The white woman called the talk “insightful” and “honest”. Based near Boston, she’s recently been witness to The Black Lives Matter signs resting vandalized in her neighbours’ front yards.
She related to what I had to say.
She asked some questions and corrected a few errors.
In the same version of the text, the black man highlighted a paragraph I’ve since removed
and said, "I get that you’re empathizing with your most likely White audience, but perhaps you should be empathizing with the victims of racism instead."
This comment stayed with me. It called for an easy change to the draft.
At the same time, it called for a transformative change of my mind.