In light of global events and the atrocities that have been brought into our consciousness through the deaths of George Floyd and others, I have been trying to educate myself on the current racial climate of our world and the impact it has on individuals and groups who are physically different from me. As has been said by many writers, whilst we are physically different, we are part of one humanity, and injustice against any of us is a blow to all of us. I am realising that growing up in a society that is predominantly white, I am more ignorant than I should be about what people of other ethnicities have been experiencing. This has been a lack of insight rather than a lack of compassion. Now, however, the opportunity has arisen for me to learn and to change, and I am grateful.
This is a very delicate subject and I know that as a white woman, it is unlikely that I will ever fully understand what it is to be a person of colour. The evidence of this is that until recently I naively thought the situation for people of colour was much, much better than it turns out to be. Nonetheless, even without possibly ever being able to understand, it feels important to do the best I can to support this long overdue societal transformation in the direction of harmony, equality and respect for all people.
In the process of seeking better information, I came across an interview with Layla Saad, the female, black, Muslim author of the book ‘Me and White Supremacy.’ She was talking about prejudice and how, in her words, white supremacy is ‘not the shark – it’s the water’. What she means by this is that white supremacy and prejudice is not just the pointy end of the spectrum – the violent acts that have recently been brought into our consciousness through the media – it’s also the implicit reality of race-based discrimination that we live in, and that gives rise to those atrocious actions.
Whether we like it or not, people of white skin are seen and treated differently to people of brown and black skin. This shows up in the common scenario of people of white skin traveling to foreign countries and being treated as somehow elevated in comparison to the local population. It’s not necessarily the fault or intention of the visiting white tourists that this happens, but it is a bizarre and unnecessary imbalance representative of this ‘water’ Layla is talking about.
A heavier example is that in this Corona Virus pandemic we are currently facing, African Americans have been dying at three times the rate of white Americans. This discrepancy of colour in survival rates is reflected in the UK, an historically white society, but in Africa, there is no evidence to suggest that people of African descent have any more predisposition to succumb to the illness than people of white ethnicity. Some of the difference in black and white recovery rates are of course connected to socio-economic factors. However, most of these factors are systemic and can still be traced to racial divide, and to this insidious ‘water’ we are talking about.
‘The water’ also refers to job opportunities, and the fact that after all this time, black and white applicants with equal qualifications are not equally hired or promoted. It refers to assumptions made both consciously and subconsciously, accidentally and deliberately by people of white skin about people of colour. And it refers to the sad reality that there is a whole group of people who have trouble being seen and heard for who they are, because they are already being grouped into a one-size-fits-all generalisation that is in many cases based on prejudice rather than truth.
What was confronting about this video, was that Layla was suggesting that we are all part of this ‘water’ of prejudice. Every person of white skin is part of the race that is currently (though not justifiably) on top. As a person of white skin, it is hard to even know what that means, because we take for granted all of the liberties this brings us.
I am not for a moment suggesting that anyone should feel guilty about the colour of the skin they have been born with. What I have found helpful in my own deeper exploration of this issue is to have greater empathy and appreciation for how many incredible human beings out there don’t have the luxuries I have. These luxuries - like walking down the street without fear, never doubting that the medical system will look after myself and my family, trusting that I have a voice and can be seen and heard - are so normal to me that I take them for granted. But I am beginning to realise that they are not normal for everyone. What I assumed was everybody’s birth right is currently not available to all. And it should be.
Even though I didn’t consciously identify as being part of the problem before, now that I have begun to face the truth of the inequity, within myself as well as society, I can more effectively work on how I can be part of the solution.
Right now, we have an opportunity to change the water, but only by realising we are part of it. It is time for us to listen with open ears and see with open eyes and not hide behind our shame or discomfort but let the truth in. Having the courage to see, feel and experience that truth, no matter how uncomfortable, empowers us to stand beside our friends of colour and support them in claiming their rightful place in the sun.
There is enough room for all of us. No matter what anyone’s skin colour or cultural background, everyone should have the right to express their truth, and to be safely seen and heard for who they are. How can we create that kind of water?