• Kiran Kaur

Don't shut down the conversation: Why Black Lives Matter to everyone

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

'Yes, I bought the Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I think its a good start. Can't wait to speak with you and everyone next week. Now just remember don't make it political'


That word again; Political.


I felt that familiar pang in my chest, the mixture of shame and anger. It was a painful feeling in the past that had always left me voiceless. Now, however, there seems to be a growing chorus of voices feeling the same, and more, speaking for change.


I'm used to being the only person of colour in many of my social, work and even family circles. I've never shied away from speaking about race. I've tried to keep the conversation as close to my own experiences and to be honest, authentic in explaining my story. But, given the topic of my PhD and previous studies, it's hard not to fall into lecture-mode. And, I'll admit it hurts, when those closest to me give me superficial platitudes and quickly turn the conversation away. Its never been comfortable, it's always left me with a mixture of shame of having experienced racism and violence in the first place and anger at my own powerlessness. The shame is also in part related to feeling like a victim if you speak up, like 'oops, I've shown you my vulnerability by admitting I experienced racism'. Or, worse 'it's my fault' or 'I must have been mistaken' 'it couldn't have been racism, could have been any other reason'. There is a sense of vulnerability opening yourself up to speak on race issues, particularly when you've experienced it yourself. This vulnerability is doubled when you're the only person of colour in the room.



Black Lives Matter is now a social movement and a beacon for all those who've experienced racism. The exposure of systemic racial injustice and privileged attitudes has been desperately needed for a long time. It is too late for many people; the 14-year-old George Stinney who was executed for a crime he did not commit. The stories of John Crawford III, Rodney King, Emmet Till,

and Black Wall Street, are hard but necessary to know. Unfortunately, acts of violence have not been limited to the United States as Stephen Lawrence's murder shows. Banaz Mahmod, who repeatedly went to the police to tell them her family were going to murder her was ignored. She was raped, tortured and then murdered, and the police never accepted wrongdoing for failing to act to protect her. These names, and many more, are important to know and remember. The violence of their stories is not the point. The fact they could have all been prevented by a fairer more just system is. Greater awareness and speaking out, holding our governments and system of justice to account is essential. However, the tide has not entirely turned in our favour.


In Britain today, the atmosphere of racism which dominated the 50s and 60s is back due to in-part to Brexit and the COVID-19 response. A British Indian-origin woman was beaten defending her British Chinese-origin friend from racist abuse, in what is a rise in hate-crime across the UK. Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) people are also more likely to die from the COVID-19. The reasons why are complex, but come down to the impact of long-term racial inequality which has led to increased poverty and overall less healthy communities with increased risks of co-morbidities. BAME people are also more likely to be front line care staff and have been hit harder by the PPE shortage than their white colleagues. Paramedics and doctors are far less likely to take the pain of women of colour seriously than they are of white men, leading to increased rates of death for not only COVID-19 but across the board. The intersection between race, gender and socio-economic class has never been more important to understand and act upon.


We, people of colour, from black and ethnic minority communities, are dying. We are being repeatedly failed by our governments and systems meant to protect us. This is global. This is real. This needs to stop. That cannot happen if everyone (Black, White, Asian and every ethnic community) does not speak up and act to hold people to account.


The 'world doesn't give a shit about what happened to you' - and other things said to keep me silent

It feels finally there is the tiniest sliver of a chance to end systemic injustice. It is wonderful that books on being anti-racist and systemic racism have sold out. It's great to have more open conversations. No one asked me how I've felt before about experiencing racism and seeing the Black Lives Matter movement. I value that, but it brings back painful memories. I cannot go through here all the things myself and my family have faced. But, I will go through 3 experiences (adapted to protect identities) with some of the responses I have had. These responses show what I call the act of silencing.


I remember speaking (in a room full of educated people passionate about human rights) about what it felt like being brought up as one of the few ethnic minority families in the town I lived in the UK. What it felt like to wake up in the middle of the night and see our shop window had been smashed in yet again (with a racist word on the brick) and see the worry on my father's face as he knew we didn't have the money to repair it. I pointed out the feeling I have in Britain today, post-Brexit, reminds me emotionally of that time. I spoke in the meeting about how the 'white British first' attitude is dangerous. That it had a long history going back to times of the British empire. And, that I felt the lack of education on the systemic racism of empire had led to Brexit and increased racially motivated violence in my own country. After making my point I was curtly told something to the effect of,


'But, you're British/educated/look well-groomed so you haven't experienced as much racism as the people from a Black background. The British empire was less violent than the Belgian empire, and the impact on India far less than on the Congo.'


This is a version of 'you look fine, stop complaining' and 'that's just casual racism, it's worse for other people'. The experience of violence has been historically worse for people from Black communities. The impact of colonialism in the Congo was devastatingly horrific. This should not be used to whitewash history, nor excuse the dismissal of the experience of racism in other communities. This devalues all experiences of racism including for the black community. It dehumanises their experience and places it further away, out of reach of the rest of society. We share a collective all too human pain. The form of argumentation I heard only succeeds in dividing BAME communities and preventing collective action.


In another conference, I asked the question of why the model used to 'create' resilience for refugee communities ignored the community-led practices that were already taking place (this was also the context I conducted my doctoral fieldwork in)? My question was dismissed by the (British) chair, who turned to the speaker and simply said, 'Please just remember some of our audience members are from developing countries. Now let's move on to the next question'. I'm from a British background, the speaker assumed I wasn't. I can only guess why. But, the response did not shock me. I spoke to a friend also a person of colour, a few days later. I said, 'let's start writing these experiences in a blog or Facebook group. Surely, there are other women of colour or other early-career scholars who had similar experiences. Maybe if we share we can raise awareness, share ideas or something'. Her response reminded me how isolating speaking publically can be,

'I haven't experienced that, so it's not racism or sexism. It's just you. You just can't speak well in public is why. And, you always speak on social issues. It's a legal conference.'


Finally, most recently, I posted a photo onto an art group. Previous members in the group had painted pictures related to Black Lives Matter. The paintings were beautiful. There was a tendency to show black people as vulnerable victims. I wanted to comment on the post but the admin turned off the comments as it was 'a hot topic'. So, I wrote a post with this picture taken from a Photo Voice planning project.


The aim of this photo is to develop better media relations in the presentation of images of poverty, race and refugeehood. So, I posted it to ask the question, 'how we can create more empowering images?' For the most part, the responses I received were respectful. But, some did also say,


'This page is for art, not race debates. I joined to be a better artist. I hate political posts like yours, this is why I don't want to go on Facebook anymore.'


Political.


Firstly, art - like life - is profoundly political. Art means something to the artist who made it and those who experience it. Taking the argument on face value, it is akin to saying, 'I want to learn the technical grammar of a language, but I don't want to learn what the words mean'. Art is a mirror of social life. My point was not to highlight racism but to see how artists can reflect the experiences of black communities and people of colour more authentically and with dignity. Not as victims. But, more than this, I feel the 'this is too political' comment comes from privilege. What the comment really feels like to those hearing it is, 'don't bring your problems into my safe space'. When violence and discrimination filter into every part of your life, there is no safe space from it. The silences, apathy and lack of action fuels everyday racism and is what leads to eruptions of violence, the movements of neo-nazis and the systems of law that protect perpetrators rather than those they should protect. I have much to learn on the intersections on race, gender and violence myself. I can only speak from my own experience and the lucky opportunities I have had with my education. I hope to continue to engage in debate to learn and to act.


And finally, to the person I love who said


'Yes, I bought the Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I think its a good start. Can't wait to speak with you and everyone next week. Now just remember don't make it political'


I can only say in response


If you want to know what you can do to genuinely support those who experience racism, then start by not silencing the conversation and valuing the people who speak up. Do not fall into the trap of performative allyship. Don't give me and the black communities who are currently mourning, your outrage. Engage in ways to confront your own biases. Start by giving more space for their voices in your daily life and relationships. Let's speak and act together.


For those who wish to read further:


https://www.alwd.org/resources/reading-lists


https://centerracialjustice.org/resources/reading-lists/


https://www.racialequitytools.org/fundamentals/resource-lists/book-and-film-lists


https://libguides.law.drake.edu/racialJustice


https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/events/solidarity-anti-racist-resource-round?fbclid=IwAR2D72e60u4z_rPOrj0K2ML-U16077jzkuUe0cK5HuN6mWCgNKwylKZ4fSU



Note: Some resources may require institutional access



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