Where did we go wrong? Three voices; shared ideas

I haven’t posted anything about black lives matter yet, but have spent a lot of time following links, new people, reading articles and trying to better educate myself on the issue. I thought it would be unnecessary to post about the protests and the movement hoping that my social media network is made up of friends and family that form an echo chamber of my own views. But then I thought, if it just so happens that there is even one friend or family member that has to think twice about their stance on black lives matter, then it would be worth having them read this. If there’s anything we’ve learned this week, it’s that being silent is being complicit. This isn’t about one man in America. Structural and institutional inequality is real and it’s everywhere. Racism is lived and experienced by our friends, neighbours, colleagues, teachers, doctors and in all our communities. It’s not good enough to say, ‘I’m not racist’. We must stand proactively. ANTI-racism. All together. That means calling it out in all its forms. No matter how uncomfortable the conversations get. It means standing up for racial equality, speaking out against racism, listening and educating ourselves to do and be better. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to have to fight to be listened to and treated equally. I can’t pretend I know what it feels like to be part of generations of oppression, to be judged by the colour of my skin or to be scared of being killed because of it. But I stand by you and I promise to continue to learn because black lives matter.

Julienne Zammit          Posted on Facebook 6th June 2020 21.30

This was written by a young friend of mine and it has inspired me to write. Like her, I had been reading about what is going on around the world, talking to my son in New York about the protests there and the action he has been taking but I had written nothing. I felt paralysed. What could I say that would help? What I can say is that black lives matter and we privileged people who are not usually the victims of racism have to stand up and be counted.

What has been going through my mind is where did we go wrong? I have been teaching for years. In the mid-eighties I was working in multicultural education, promoting and celebrating a multi-ethnic approach. In the late eighties I was training teachers to tackle inequality and promote diversity. In the nineties I was working freelance with education advisors, with teachers and students in schools, running workshops to recognise racism and promote anti-racism. In the mid-nineties I co-wrote Values and Visions: A Handbook for Spiritual Development and Global Awareness, setting out ways of working which celebrate diversity, tackle difficult subjects and enable students to envisage a world at peace. I thought we were doing a good job and making progress, laying the foundations for a an open and inclusive society.

Thus, when we first discussed rewriting Values and Visions in the summer of 2015 my first thoughts were that we no longer needed an emphasis on global awareness; twenty years on things had changed. I had spent most of those twenty years in an international school with a student body of over seventy nationalities and more than fifty languages. The many different cultures interacted respectfully and racist incidents were rare. I was in a bubble. That same summer I learned of the lack of cultural awareness among teachers on an in-service training day in UK. I learned of cultural insensitivity among mature students studying for a doctorate in education in USA. Things had not changed outside the bubble. They were at best static, at worst worse.

The realisation hit me then that our society is still racist and bigoted. All the work I and other dedicated colleagues had done in the past had not had a lasting effect. The co-author of this blog with whom I worked in the eighties has just said the same thing.

I have been in a racial minority for much of my life. I have been a ‘hawaja’ and a ‘mzungu’. I was the only white female in a remote Sudanese village for a year. Was I taunted and mistreated for the colour of my skin? No. I was mobbed when I arrived by the schoolgirls I was to teach so they could touch my blonde hair and see what it felt like but it was curiosity and wanting to know not hatred or rebuke. I was a white female living in Oman for over twenty-one years of my life. I was treated with courtesy and respect as a guest in the country. My dress, lifestyle and alien ways were often a matter of discussion and laughter rather than a cause for taunts and derision. I have spent significant amounts of time in North and East Africa, welcomed as a white family member, sharing stories and learning about each other’s culture. I never, in all that time, feared for my safety. I have never been mistreated by the forces of law and order for my colour. I have been complacent because I have not been afraid.

What is the difference? Some of this is about individual courtesy and curiosity but it is also about structural inequality.  A white person on their own in a situation brings a legacy of power and authority whereas a black person in a similar situation is vulnerable, seen as other and, at worst, victimised and attacked. Most people do not understand structural or institutional racism, and it has definitely not been tackled.  It was not new at the time of the MacPherson enquiry in 1997 and it is certainly not new now. MacPherson was a report in England following the racist and totally unprovoked murder of Stephen Lawrence and the failure of the police to bring his killers to justice. It identified systemic flaws in the UK police force, and these applied to many institutions – the justice system, the BBC, government, and education. In Britain and the USA, it is a legacy of slavery and other inequalities which have not been fully addressed.  It relates to failures of education systems where a distorted view of history places white people as saviours and the conquest of other nations is seen as having introduced a better civilisation.  It links to relative privilege across countries and continents, global poverty and differential impacts of social and medical failures, not least the current Covid-19 pandemic.

There have been some improvements in black representation at high levels in major organisations since the 1990s, but the key causes and effects of inequality still exist.  So, if the failure was not our commitment, what was it?  Was it our belief that by raising awareness of other people’s existence, both similarities and differences, people would understand and be kinder to each other?  Maybe some were and still are, but would they have come to this realisation anyway? 

The issue that has not been addressed is white privilege, a phrase that is prevalent and pertinent right now. As white people, we have a role, not only in standing alongside black people but in addressing our own success, brought about in part by our individual characteristics but also by our position in society. This is complicated by class and gender which all contribute to who can open the doors that lead to achievement and prosperity.

What are we as white people prepared to give up?  Do we accept our lot unthinkingly or gratefully because we have enough?  Do we recognise that the reason we are in a comfortable position financially is that we were well paid to put our multicultural policies into practice? Did we really commit to anti-racism?

Therefore, we still have soul-searching to do. We need to look at all the organisations we are part of, formal and informal. We need to consider their structure, the make-up of their staff, who the leaders are and what we can do about it if we don’t like what we see.  Perhaps we need to consider who our friends are and whether there are times that we collude by saying nothing, as Julienne points out; whether silence is cowardice.

We need to begin with Values and Visions.  What are its explicit and hidden messages and who are its people?

By Comments off June 15, 2020