Since the killing of George Floyd there has been both a renewed opening up of consciousness to systemic racism and in other quarters an inevitable hardening of hearts and minds amongst conscious and covert racists alike.
In this piece my concern is with people of colour who are looking for meaningful ways to live, love and work as free beings and those who want to be allies in the struggle against racism for social justice.
I’d like to say that even while I may speak with feeling and conviction there is much about my thinking which is tentative emergent and provisional.
In particular I am very aware of the generational gap between myself and the young people you are now on the protest front lines against the Trump shock troops in USA confront the peaceful protests being sustained by all shades of brown and white, possibly for first time in their lives.
I speak also with my daughters in mind who are professional women in their 30s. It has only been since the killing of George Floyd that we have started speaking to each other about our experiences of racism. They only became aware of structural racism when they left home to go to University. Until then they had no idea that they were classed by society as belonging to a disadvantaged minority. I have a lot to learn from this generation and younger.
Racism is a form of trauma and we need to learn how to remain psychologically safe while at the same time navigate the shock waves that are created by systemic racism, and our resistance to it, through meaningful conversation.
How to we remain psychologically safe in environments that at times feel deeply unsafe?
How do we have conversations across the ‘racial divide’ created between human being when feelings of shame and denial, triggered in people who are called ‘white’ get in the way of tackling a form of oppression which imprisons all people.
A bit of biography
My social consciousness was first invoked when I decided to become a teacher in response to the Brixton riots that erupted into my then idyllic life as a university student in the summer before my final year.
My political activism began with the vote I cast in the General election of 1979 which brought in Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, Opposition to the war in Argentina, Struggle against apartheid in South Africa, through the miners’ strike 1980s, Struggle to advance the rights of the Palestinians during the 90s, Protests against wars in the Middle East attack on Iraq. And as an education professional dedicated to teaching from a social justice and empowerment perspective, throughout a 29-year career.
I Dropped out of political activism in my mid-40s but never abandoned my commitment to social justice… And return now in my 6th decade to use my voice in whatever way I can to create a space for difficult conversations in the knowledge of how difficult it is to have conversations about race.
These conversations are personal in a deep and raw way but need to move beyond that they need to become consciously social and political. That is be informed by an understanding of how racism is linked to politics and economics.
Coaching I feel has a unique role to play in helping to create such spaces and mediating such conversations.
RACE. OPPRESSION. FREEDOM.
In sharing with you my take on these three subjects there are three questions I have in mind
What does it mean to be white?
What does it mean to be black?
What does it mean to be free?
Those of us who had to be educated on this question Note that the history of racialisation as we currently experience it dates back to the era of European colonisation and empire building between the 1700s-1900s.
Race as an ideology developed in order to justify the brutalisation of human beings with Brown skins and to function as a source all the social and political control also population at home.
Thus, was born the socially constructed concept of white people, consciously built on deep and sublimated cultural association of whiteness with purity, beauty, innocence and of the colour black with things that are evil to be shunned or feared.
These associations tap into primal fears that can be reliably triggered for purposes of social AND political control. However, these responses can be overridden by critical consciousness. Consciousness developed and used as a form of resistance to the oppressive practises built on systemic racism. Thinking critically is a practice of freedom.
I can say this because of my own experience of consciously adopting the identity black as an act of resistance. I became aware of the black consciousness movement Through the work and words of Steve Biko a black liberation leader murdered by the Afrikaans state in the struggle against apartheid.
His concern was to free the minds of black people from the internalised oppression created when you see yourself constantly through the eyes off the ‘white gaze’. This term white gaze stands for the process by which people of colour come to see themselves as victims, as dehumanised bodies, alienated from themselves.
He coined the term – ‘Black is beautiful’.
Black is not a matter of skin pigmentation. It’s a reflection of a mental attitude.
For him to be ‘black’ was not a matter of skin pigmentation- it was an attitude of mind, “a reflection of a mental attitude.”
And the other side of that is the idea that being “white’ is not a skin colour, it’s a performance. A performance of privilege.” words I read in a book review of an interesting read – ‘How the Irish became White’ by Noel Ignatiev.
White is not a skin colour it is a performance of privilege.
For me then my black identity is not a form of I cultural identification or racial identification. It’s a form of critical consciousness, my strategy for exercising my right to be freely who I am.
Culturally or ethnically I see myself as Jamaican, British, European, and a citizen of the world. Which entitles me to engage as a free, thinking human being with all the riches that world culture has to offer me.
My history does not begin and end with slavery and the ongoing brutalisation, marginalisation, and discrimination against people of colour. It is a history of achievement, reclaiming things lost and of unbroken resistance.
When my dad was in the final stages of terminal prostate cancer he would disappear and reappear as a young man through stories from his childhood in Jamaica. I discovered from one of these stories that one of my ancestors, his great grandfather, was a Maroon. The Maroons are Africans who refused to be enslaved on arrival from Africa to the British owned Jamaica, who ran away from the plantations and set up home in the Jamaican hills. They fought a war in 1728 to ensure they would be left alone and were granted independent status within the colony.
Reclaiming my history – practice of freedom.
This section is led by the question: What form/s of critical consciousness do we need to develop today for the struggling as it has re-emerged during this pandemic? I believe it needs to embrace an answer to the question of what it means to be white and oppressed, marginalised and alienated in a systemically racist society? Because it does cut both ways.
We have Brexit and Trump as two very immediate ongoing examples of this.
In the UK the political right were able to trigger the ancient race hate tropes that successfully transferred a focus on the effects of austerity on the poor and vulnerable of all colours- including white- onto migrants, refugees and settled ethnic minority communities.
In the US the Republican right successfully trigger poor white working-class communities to shut themselves out of medical insurance in order to prevent access to working class people of colour. The only interests served by this are those of the already rich and powerful. So, a white racist can be relied upon to vote against his/her won interest, thereby preserving an unjust system. This is the economic and political dimension of the double-edged sword of systemic racism.
Of course, there is also the moral and ethical dimension to racist practices. But it is harder to argue the moral and ethical dimension in heated spaces charged with raw emotion, without triggering shame and denial, which shuts down conversation.
Because whiteness, as with blackness, has become complicated with issues of culture (and it you accept it) with ethnic identity. You question whiteness and you appear to be questioning someone’s identity and moral fibre. I believe that it is time that ‘white’ people need to find a form of critical consciousness that can free them from this guilt and defensiveness if they really want to dismantle white supremacy and the practices it feeds. Perhaps the work of
Dr Robin DiAngelo is it. That is not my job to decide or engage in. Like me, you need to want to educate yourself for this struggle.
What I am questioning is not identity but shining a light on an ideology.
Some ideas oppress and some ideas liberate. But we need to be able to see them for what they are and how they operate.
Critical consciousness gives us the tools to see and to choose.
Making conscious choices rather than emotionally charged reactive choices is a practice of freedom.
What does it mean to be free?
Asserting myself as a black woman on the basis of black consciousness has been a liberating act for me. However, I also feel its limitations. It is not full freedom.
The labels that lump us together in undifferentiated masses as of people of colour, black people, white people, do not express the rich complexity of who we are or how we live- or of our aspirations.
Yes, I am proud to be writing as a conscious, educated, privileged black women, confidently using my voice, as a practice of freedom. But I do not want to be ‘the black women in the room’ to satisfy the idle curiosity of those who see me as other. To be patronised or turned into an expert on race or be put into any other box, other than the one I chose.
I don’t want to progress by pushing others back. I just do not want to be pushed down, held back, dehumanised.
To achieve this, we all need to find those practises of freedom through which we will challenge practices of oppression because they are enacted through us, through how we interrelate with each other in our daily lives. The structures are not – out there- they are in our minds and hearts.
I am going to end with the words of Franz Fanon, A black psychiatrist who died, rarely for a freedom fighter, from natural causes, he dedicated his life to the fight for black liberation- lived and worked in Algeria during the period of struggle for independence.
He also saw a major source for mental ill-health the alienation created by systemic racism amongst black and brown people.
He was an incisive intellect and true fighter. The passion in his words is clear as he struggles, like me to articulate something real, deeply felt but at the same time uncomfortable and difficult to give expression to.
“I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny… In the world through which I travel I am endlessly creating myself. I am not the slave of the slavery that dehumanised my ancestors. Was my freedom not given to me in order to build the world…?
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