I am happy and proud to introduce Sarah Emmerson, Group Operations Manager and Ally. Thank you for your support and writing the passionate and powerful post.
I believe that my experience is much the same as many others. I am a ‘nice’ person. I smile at the security guard as I go into the supermarket. I let the old lady get on the bus first. I buy my friends presents when they are sad. And I do all these things regardless of the colour of that person’s skin. Therefore I am not a racist, right?
The last couple of months have been a real wake up call for me and my comfortably ‘not a racist’ life. At intervals through my life I have seen stories in the news of black and other ethnic minority groups being the disproportionate victims of violence from police and civilians, of the lack of representation of those individuals in senior leadership and politics, of their increased rates of exclusion and expulsion in schools. But I have never stretched myself to question why that is the case, what causes these disparities and if there is anything I can actually do about it. I have been looking from afar, thinking that if everyone was ‘not a racist’ as I was, this wouldn’t be happening.
The last couple of months have shown me how wrong I was.
- Have I ever been nervous about walking past a police officer in the street? No.
- Have I ever considered that my teachers and lecturers might treat me less favourably because of what I look like? No.
- Have I ever been the only person with my skin colour at a business meeting, networking event or job interview? Of course not.
It is a much more pleasant reality to go through life believing that everything we have, we have earned on our own merit. But as white people, can that really be said to be true of us? For some perhaps it can, but we have to try to imagine how different our lives might have looked had the colour of our skin been different. White privilege doesn’t mean that your life hasn’t been hard, just that the colour of your skin hasn’t contributed to your difficulties. Would that teacher have given you a detention, or an exclusion? Would those police officers have watched you walk by, or stopped you because you looked suspicious? Would those interviewers have viewed you as qualified, or ‘not a cultural fit’? Sadly, there are a whole host of statistics available which show us that our white skin gives us the upper hand in all of these areas, and so many more.
As white people in the western world, we hold an innate advantage that we can neither escape nor deny, and with that advantage comes a responsibility. It is not enough for us to wander around being nice and ‘not a racist’, we need to take affirmative action in every area of our lives to begin dismantling the systems which have provided us this white privilege that we take for granted every day.
So what does this mean in everyday life? I am in no way claiming to have the answer to that question, and am, like many of you, in the process of doing my best to work it out!
One of the most obvious actions is to voice support for movements like Black Lives Matter on your social media channels. This is a great thing to do, but if you’re serious about being an Ally, that can’t be it. Your words of support need to be followed up by authentic action and personal change, or they will be worth nothing.
From what I have understood from listening to many people smarter than me (thanks Chikere!), the key is to educate yourself first. In the last two months I can openly admit that I have read, watched and listened to more content about systemic racism than in the last 27 years of my life combined. My social media feeds are full of activists, writers and artists who are speaking openly about their experiences of being black in a white privileged world, and from whom I am learning something new every day.
Become familiar with the terminology, the history, the issues we are facing now. Look at the statistics so you can understand how and where the systemic differences are separating us. Listen to black people when they talk about ‘micro aggressions’ (there’s a whole blog on that here), be honest and recognise when you have those tendencies so that you can root them out of yourself and call them out in other people.
Examine yourself every day to recognise where your white privilege has brought you, and how willing you really are to fight against it in favour of a more equal world for everyone, even if it means that your life might be more difficult as a result. Sign petitions and donate to causes that aim to bring justice, equal opportunities and support to those who would not otherwise have them. These types of contributions can seem too small to be significant, but if everyone thought like that, they wouldn’t be able to exist.
Speak openly to friends, family and those in your networks about what you have learned, debate with them and learn together. Elevate the voices of your black friends and connections, be vocal in your school or workplace where change is needed, call it out when you see it. Seek out new friends and connections with a different experience than yours so you can better understand what the world looks like from someone else’s point of view (this is the key thing burning up my to-do list right now).
Most importantly, do not continue to sit back and believe that it is up to politicians, educators or ‘the BAME community’ to fix. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to use our voice and our influence, however small we might believe it to be, to make sure that the generations who follow us have the genuine equality of rights, freedoms and experiences that do not exist for us now.