Emily Hotine, NDS Athena SWAN Coordinator, talks about the importance of anti-racism (and why it is not enough to simply say you’re not racist), the power of white privilege, and why we should all be saying, “black lives matter.”
The death of George Floyd is one of the most recent examples of the murder of an innocent black person in America and many are deeply angry at such a flagrant display of racism and brutality. This murder has brought anti-racism and white privilege to the forefront of discussion, so I wanted to talk about the importance of anti-racism (and why it is not enough to simply say you’re not racist), the power of white privilege, and why we should all be saying, “black lives matter.”
I should begin by acknowledging the fact that this post is framed within my lived experience as a white person. I would therefore be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that mine is a voice of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, not one of authority. I cannot share the experiences of black people in the US or UK, and I cannot understand their lived experience. If you only listen to one voice on this matter, then it shouldn’t be mine. That being said, I will use my voice to speak in support of anti-racism, because to stay silent is to be complicit in a racist society.
What is white privilege?
White privilege is the direct result of a society where white is the default. White is unsurprising. It is expected. Non-white is the anomaly, and it’s significant. For example, if you see a non-white character on TV, that character’s non-white status often means something, because there has to be a reason for that character not to be white. If a character is black, their race is mentioned far more than it is for white characters. To be white is “normal”. To be anything other than white is not.
White privilege is living in a society that was designed by people who look like you. It’s being educated by people who look like you, going to university with people who look like you, being interviewed by people who look like you and being managed by people who look like you. The impact of this begins early, with ethnic minority children being more likely to be assessed more harshly by their teachers than white children, and continues through university, with 84% of academic staff in UK higher education and 93% of university professors were white. It results in most positions of power being held by other white people with only 3.4% of the UK’s top political, financial, judicials, cultural and security figures being from ethnic minorities. Because our society is dominated and driven mostly by white people, our culture caters to their needs and their lived experiences and dismisses the experiences of minority groups. This perpetuates a system that disadvantages those from ethnic minorities and favours white people through unconscious bias and prejudice.
White privilege is living without the burden of being viewed as a representative of your race, because your actions as a white person won’t be weaponised against other white people. Being white gives you the freedom to be viewed as an individual. White privilege is learning white history in school, while the history of minorities is largely ignored unless it intersects with white people. And when those histories do intersect, they are whitewashed so as to minimise the atrocities that have been committed against non-white communities. White privilege is being free of racial stereotypes that would paint you as aggressive, threatening or criminal; in a survey for The Guardian, 38% of people from ethnic minorities said they had been wrongly suspected of shoplifting in the last five years, compared with 14% of white people. White privilege is being able to say “not everything is about race”. White privilege is being able to walk down a street without having to worry about being murdered by the police.
Pointing out white privilege is not an attack designed to erase a white person’s struggles. You may be white and disabled, you may be white and LGBT+, you may be white and impoverished. But whiteness is still a powerful advantage in determining how you will experience your surroundings and live your life. The benefits of whiteness may not always be obvious to a white person, but when you are not white, that lack of privilege is glaringly apparent.
This is why anti-racism is so important. It isn’t sufficient to label yourself as “not racist” as a white person because we live in a society with racism embedded in its structure. When you decide not to get involved, you accept that racism and you tell minorities that you don’t care about them, about their safety, or about their chance to live a life of equal opportunity. Anti-racism is not colourblind. Instead, it acknowledges race as a powerful determinant of a person’s journey through life. It acknowledges structural racism. We shouldn’t be attempting to include everyone within the already racist structures that exist, we should be attempting to dismantle those structures and rebuild them.
Why you should be saying, “black lives matter”
So why is it so important to be saying, “black lives matter?” Because it needs to be said. Nobody needs to be told that white lives matter, because society says it every day. Each day that white people don’t need to fear that they will be murdered by police without seeing justice says that white lives matter. We are told that white lives matter by the disproportionate amount of attention white women and children receive when they go missing compared to black women and children. But the deaths of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the countless others tell us that black lives don’t matter, which is why we need to speak up and enforce the idea that they do.
“All lives matter” is a vague, obvious statement. Of course all lives matter. But right now, the Black Lives Matter movement is responding to the wanton disregard that is being shown for black lives. To reply with “all lives matter” is to deflect from and diminish those deaths and to downplay the seriousness of the issue. “All lives matter” may be a well-intentioned (in some cases) attempt to wrap everyone together in one faux-egalitarian blanket statement, but in effect, it draws the eye away from the violence that is aimed at black people and perpetuates racial inequality. After all, you wouldn’t attend a breast cancer fundraiser and say, “but all cancers matter.”
The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t detract from the inequalities faced by other ethnic minorities; it simply draws attention to the horrific violence black people face. There are many issues requiring attention and intervention and people can care about more than one thing at a time. But when you respond to one horrible thing by asking, “what about this other horrible thing?” then what are you achieving? It implies that unless we can fix everything, we shouldn’t try to fix anything. This issue is a pressing one. These protests are happening now. These deaths are happening now. The time to speak up and act is now.
Next time you feel like saying, “I haven’t done anything wrong” ask yourself, “what have I done right?” instead. No one has control over the circumstances they’re born into. But you can control how you respond to the world around you and how you engage with the discussion. You can listen to people and you can ask yourself why the Black Lives Matter movement makes you feel the way it does. Because the burden should fall on white people to do more in the fight for an equal society. Don’t ask your black friends and colleagues to educate you, educate yourself. Do the reading and listen to the people who know the issue better than you do.
What can I do to show support?
Donate. There are so many charities that need support at the moment:
There are further charities you can support listed here.
Sign a petition. There are many petitions you can sign to show your support. This article has a list of charities you can donate to and petitions you can sign.
Do the reading. There are so many books, articles, and resources you can read to broaden your understanding of the issue. This article has a reading list that can get you started, and this one lists things you can watch/listen to as well as read!
There are also demonstrations happening and black organisations and charities you can follow as well, the details of which can be found in the articles linked above.
Racism is an issue that affects our department deeply. From the lack of ethnic minority staff in academia, to the racist misconceptions many medical students still possess, racism is prevalent in higher education and in the medical field. We want to amplify the voices of ethnic minorities and advance the careers of our BAME staff. We are researching reverse mentoring, which will allow our senior members of staff to gain a broader understanding of diversity issues and will give a platform to less represented members of staff. We will also be considering how we can encourage more students from ethnic minorities to pursue a career in academic surgery through our outreach programme, and we will continue to seek ideas and suggestions in what else we can be doing to make our department a place of equal opportunity for all ethnicities.
My intention will be to follow this blog with a look at the pioneers and the heroes who stood up in the name of equality through history. I want to temper the darkness of the events we have witnessed with some hope. There is hope in the protests that are taking place internationally, there is hope in the momentum that the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining, and there is hope in the legacy of those who have stood up against systems of oppression before.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge