Systemic racism is the weed of equality and when it abides unidentified and uncontested – with inaction, media suppression, and white silence – it infiltrates our entire reality. Jo Lorenz, founder of Conscious Citizen Co, looks at how white people can fight from the sidelines by enacting fundamental changes within our existing institutions.
On May 25, in New York City, US, a black man named Christian Cooper asked a white woman called Amy Cooper to leash her dog. Affronted to have her white privilege encroached upon, this woman warned Christian that she was going to call 911 to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life”. All of this on film. All of this an entitled white woman weaponising her whiteness against a black man.
Later that same day, also in the US in Minnesota, a black man named George Floyd tragically died as onlookers looked on in horror, while a white police officer called Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for eight long, appalling minutes.
Two incidents – separated by 12 hours – that monstrously illustrate the mutilated state of race in America – and indeed, across our entire globe. And these atrocities are clearly not in isolation. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Corey Jones. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. These are not hashtags. These are human beings who were tragically and needlessly murdered. In Australia, where I am from, there have been 434 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991 – and the loss of these people’s lives is a part of a vile ongoing and institutional, individual and societal problem: systemic racism.
After the tragic murder of George Floyd, there is no denying there has been a palpable shift in the way white folks are thinking about racism. This change started with acceptance of their role within an inequitable system and the realisation that the society that benefits them so readily, is entirely and methodically against so many others.
Yet this small change is not enough. Not even close. The goal of social justice writers and educators is not simply to have white people simply accept that white supremacy and white privilege exist. Rather the the critical intent is about sustaining, celebrating and elevating the lives of black, indigenous and people of colour, while simultaneously having white folks comprehend how their lives support oppression and then actively changing that interaction.
But none of this is breaking news. We all know this. So why aren’t white folks doing more to address systemic racism?
I am a white woman and a big believer in the fact that we always need to amplify the voices of black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). Not just at this point in history, but always. However, amplifying the BIPOC voices does not simply mean censoring my own accountability to aid justice. It does not mean posting a performative black square on social media and thinking my work is done. Far from it!
For me, amplifying the voice of others and fighting for social justice in all facets of society means de-centring myself from the narrative, while still learning, unlearning and actively fighting to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive. It means recognising that the world is a stage and in concert with this, appreciating it is time for BIPOC voices to be choreographed front and centre. It means welcoming in the time for white folks to be supporting in the wings; continuously addressing systemic racism at the very core of our severed institutional structures; fighting oppression from the sidelines, with no expectation of personal gain.
To be very clear though: white people cannot let themselves fall into the trap of self-congratulatory white saviourism. White saviourism is a dangerous delusion, cloaked heavily in colonial baggage – and the world does not need another. Amplifying the work of others and working from the sidelines is about equality. It’s about humanity. It’s not about recognition.
To eradicate the proliferation of the abhorrent weed of racism we need to consistently teach our future generation about privilege, supremacy and to have honest conversations about race. This teaching must be done in the home and must be done within our educational institutions.
Each February in the US it is ‘Black History Month’, where students are taught about Martin Luther King Jr, about the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and where prominent black figures are celebrated. Yet what about the other 11 months of the year?
Black and indigenous history education cannot be limited to a watered-down version bereft of the painful truth. This erasure is white supremacy and black and indigenous history must resolutely be instilled into the entire curriculum, for the entire year. When students are not taught about black and indigenous peoples’ struggles and contributions to history, it affects the way we contextualise their existence. Thus, we all need to actively use our voices from the sidelines, to benefit black, indigenous and people of colour by demanding for systemic change.
Right now, you are all currently reading this on your phones or computers, that all have an active keyboard. So why not fight from the sidelines, by using that keyboard to email your State and Federal Education Ministers/Secretaries to demand that comprehensive black and indigenous history be taught in all our educational institutions? This education is vital for students to understand our deeply racist history and how colonialism and slavery construct systemic disadvantage. For those of you in the UK, take a moment to look at the invaluable work of The Black Curriculum, the social enterprise founded by young people to address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum, to amplify their work from the sidelines.
Our criminal justice systems are another area in desperate need of reform. Superfluous over-incarceration and absence of substantive investment in community diversionary programs, means our global criminal justice systems are beyond broken. In Australia, a report commissioned by the Keeping Women Out of Prison coalition, explains that the over‐policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women directly contributes to their higher rates of charging and imprisonment for minor offences compared to those same crimes by non‐Aboriginal women.
This systemic problem is based upon race, gender and the class dynamics created from Australia’s colonial past – and to fight this ongoing colonial oppression from the sidelines, white Australians need to write to the Attorney Generals to address this high proportion of Indigenous women and mothers in prison. They need to demand for urgent changes to bail legislation, to push for comprehensive community-led preventative programs, early intervention and alternatives to incarceration. All of this is a way for white folks to use their voices to combat the unique systemic racism faced by black, indigenous and people of colour – yet all without the need for reward for enacting their humanity.
And then there’s healthcare – an inequality that has become all the more apparent since the coronavirus pandemic began. We know that Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people in America – we know that British Black Africans and British Pakistanis are more than 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 in English hospitals than that of the white population.
On top of this, sections of a report by Public Health England into why people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background are more likely to die from Covid-19 were omitted from publication last week, meaning that crucial advice on protecting BAME groups had not been shared. The report is said to contain information on how historic racism contributed to both increased exposure to the virus, as well as meaning individuals were less likely to seek care or ask for better PPE. So if we’re truly all in this pandemic together – if Black Lives Matter – then why aren’t all white folks taking this personally and emailing their Ministers/Senators for Healthcare, to demand for systemic change?
White silence costs black lives. White suppression of personal accountability feeds continual black oppression. So before any white folks decide to publicly mute themselves, they need to ask if their silence risks turning into apathy – if their self-appointed muzzle actually just means in-action.
Can you use your voice to fight for systemic change? Can you use your keyboard to lobby for fundamental and significant change? Can you use your privilege without the need for thank yous and recognition?
Systemic racism is a weed and we all need to destroy it. Question our own thoughts around race. Lobby from the sidelines. Be anti-racist. Be in this.