Before you read my story, I need to tell you who I am. I am a white, middle class, grammar school and Cambridge University educated 26 year old woman. I have a husband, an extremely adorable baby, and a comfortable life. It will therefore come as no surprise to you that I was (and, to a lesser extent, still am) overwhelmingly ignorant about social inclusion until embarrassingly recently.
When George Floyd died, it didn’t come up on my Facebook newsfeed.
I don’t often watch or read the news, so I didn’t see it there.
I heard about it from a friend, and I had to google their account afterwards to fact check it. Could something so brutal really happen in 2020 in the west? Could the police really act without the peoples’ best interests at heart? Surely this was a one off event, an awful mistake, and the kind of thing that would never ever happen in the UK…
I was moved by my friends’ accounts of their personal experience of racism – and shocked that people I know personally had experienced such abusive, neglectful, and simply unfair treatment in their lives.
After conversations with two incredibly patient and loving black friends, I learned that this was not only a common occurrence in the US, but the UK also has a horrific and shameful account of black deaths in police custody, with black people more than twice as likely to die in police custody than white people in the UK. Of course, deaths in police custody are only one symptom of the systematic and ingrained racism present in the UK today. Even more powerfully than through these statistics, I was moved by my friends’ accounts of their personal experience of racism – and shocked that people I know personally had experienced such abusive, neglectful, and simply unfair treatment in their lives. Lives which, I had always assumed, weren’t so very different from mine; lives which have been made harder by the simple fact of race, and the west’s reaction to race.
I had always assumed that I was a liberal and well informed person (in spite of my aversion to the news), but my research and self reflection soon showed me that I am guilty of subconscious racism through neglect and ignorance.
I had always assumed that I was a liberal and well informed person (in spite of my aversion to the news), but my research and self reflection soon showed me that I am guilty of subconscious racism through neglect and ignorance. I realised that I have never actually been in the home of anyone black within my memory; perhaps I have never invested the time and effort in a friendship with someone who looks different to me in that way, or perhaps it is because there were barely any black students in my year group at school or at Uni (which says a lot about the correlation between privilege and race in the UK). It never hit me at the time as strange, that in spite of growing up in Birmingham – a highly ethnically diverse city – I knew barely anyone who wasn’t white.
In my adulthood, I work at a high achieving school, with incredibly talented and ethnically diverse students; yet the staff body, and thus my friends at the school, are almost entirely white.
I work in the English department, and found that I was learning almost as much as my students when it came to preparing lessons on books from “Other Cultures”, such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, which is set in Mississippi in the 1930s. Researching the context to teach this text was the first time I had ever heard of ‘Jim Crow’. It was still very easy to assume that the world had changed since then; my white privilege enabled me to reach conclusions which were convenient for my own sheltered understanding of the world.
I have been a passionate feminist as long as I can remember. My own life teaches me that the world needs feminism. Feminism benefits me personally, and ensures my liberty and equality. However, I have had to listen to others to learn beyond my own lived experience.
Since hearing my friends’ stories and reflecting on my own sheltered and privileged life, I have made a commitment to be actively anti-racist, and to use my voice to promote social inclusion of all kinds.
When friends who are different from you know that you’re on their team and that you care about their wellbeing, there is a lot they can teach you.
As a start, I have broadened the pages I follow on social media to increase their diversity and ensure that I am not only receiving views from a white echo-chamber. Pages which I have found particularly helpful include “Chnge”, and “Truthout” (who shared the post I’ve attached below). I have learned that my black friends want me to ask them how they are doing in light of the BLM protests and news stories, because they are hurting right now and by not asking for fear of social awkwardness, I am showing that I don’t care enough about their needs to put myself in a position where I might feel uncomfortable. I have learned that I might not always say the right words or use the right phrasing, but that I need to be part of the conversation and be prepared to learn, listen, and endeavour to understand in order to be a facilitator for social change. And that actually, when friends who are different from you know that you’re on their team and that you care about their wellbeing, there is a lot they can teach you.
I will only ever really understand what it is like to be me; I can only ever experience my own life. However, by listening, learning, and engaging with real life accounts, I hope to grow in understanding of others’ lived experience. I hope to be a facilitator for real change in the world; to listen and then use my voice to advocate for others; and to help create safe spaces for people of all backgrounds and races to be part of the conversation.
Thank you to Dianna and Linda for your patience and your love as I begin to learn.
Thank you to Dorcas and Vickie for founding this platform for social change, and for creating Safe Spaces for people to listen.