Being anti-racist requires sustained reflexivity and commitment to lifelong learning. There is no template or formula to follow as each social period will have its own contexts and challenges. Language will change, attitudes will change, people … change. There are no short cuts, no answers, and no certifications that will help you become an ‘anti racist’. To be against racism, you must look within yourself, to question yourself, to process those difficult realisations, to overcome a narcissistic need to centralise yourself in the narrative through guilt, defensiveness, tears, or struggle comparisons. To really think about the part you have played consciously or subconsciously just by holding the invisible privileges you have been socialised into taking for granted.
Whether it is class, race, gender, or something else … we all hold privileges to some degree. Yet, it is our struggles that we use to define ourselves, not our privileges. Isn’t that funny? We are consciously drawn to our narratives of victimisation rather than empowerment. We look to each other for allyship but are often drawn into a struggle comparison disguised as relatable empathy. We find ourselves caught in social performativity, whether we are performing allyship or activism, our lives, and oppressions, are narrativised for us through the privileged gaze. If social performance is the status quo, then the alternative is usually physically inaccessible or framed as strange, paranoid, angry, or irrational.
Equating this point to racism as the socialised byproduct of whiteness, and whiteness as a model that upholds white supremacy – the ‘alternative’ to this would be anti racist activism. ‘Activism’ being the operative word. To be anti-racist, one has to remain active in their engagement and continue to do the work on themselves. This includes people from within our melanated communities who perform expertise but may hold unresolved prejudices or ignorances about the communities they claim to speak from, or for. Melanation is not a guarantee to holding anti-racist attitudes or inclusion expertise, no more than being a white liberal is a guarantee to holding allyship skills.
As individuals we occupy complexed positions that are informed by our experiences, cultural exposures, schooling, familial and social environments, personal socialised identities, and so on … as a people, we are not engaged in a battle of good versus evil but a battle of ideologies which determine our ways of being and social interactions.
In this context, this article returns to the earlier points raised around anti racist positions. To be anti-racist, one must begin by doing the work on themselves – because to not do so, is to hold on to a privilege that allows ignorance. It is only when we have truly begun to engage with this difficult dialogue with ourselves, that we can begin to interact and communicate on these issues more meaningfully as a whole. In the meantime, we risk performing anti racism, while those few communities, voices, and spaces that are committed to this work are left to hold the mantle of the expert, forever having their work and ideas basterdised for the profit of another. A racism within anti-racism …
Human pain and suffering is not a commodity, and activism is not a marketisation of pain. To be an anti-racist, you must decide on the values that drive you and use them to underpin your engagement. An engagement that requires lifelong learning, that emerges from humbly observing, listening, and then dismantling prejudice within self and beyond.
This post extends discussion from a presentation I did at the Privilege Cafe on the 25th of June, 2020, in response to the provocation of ‘How conscious is unconscious bias?’ Joined by some brilliant fellow speakers from a range of perspectives and sectors, it was wonderful to be part of this challenging and safe space facilitated by the brilliant Mymuna Soleman.
My presentation argued that sub conscious bias amongst melanated communities can be argued as a representation of the colonisers ‘divide and rule’ tactic. I asked, whether ‘we’ are too busy making assumptions about each other to mobilise and fight against a commonly felt issue of racism experienced in various degrees by our communities? – and whether this is what whiteness wants? For us to be infighting?
When first alerted to this provocation I naturally began reflecting on recent race orientated social narratives to the backdrop of a pandemic. In recent months, there has been a marked shift in the mainstream media to recognise and challenge racism. A shift that has straddled a strange mix of, a welcome awakening, performative allyship, and the commodification of anti racism. These reflections have brought me to consider the key issues affecting us as melanated communities in terms of perception, assumption, and social interaction. This post organises its focus into these three categories to extend discussion into colonisation and cultural hegemony.
Our perceptions are shaped by a range of external and internal factors such as our upbringing, family environments, schooling, relationships, professional and personal experiences, media consumption, and our identities. In instances where there are ‘othered’ factors to our identity, this inevitably shapes our social perceptions of the word and our place within it.
Examining this point through the lens of unconscious bias, it could be argued that this focus in a race context usually extends to the Black and White binary – with limited emphasis on the biases held within melanated communities in relation to each other. This is perhaps most aptly captured in a very strong culture of colourism that exists within our communities.
I have gone on record a number of times on the forthcoming point, and will do so again. Race dynamics in the UK are complexed and nuanced. There is a racial hierarchy that often operates within these communities, partly compounded by a toxic professional culture, and partly because of anti black sentiments that often exist and are left unchallenged amongst certain communities. The Black experience that comes out of salvery carries a trauma that is immense, and other racialised communities must acknowledge and respect this difference. While they may be a common experience of racism in the UK context, if you are Brown, you can never understand the pain of an ancestry seeped in approximately 400 years of genocide and identity theft that manifests as a constant reminder in a surname.
However, there is a commonality of some experience of racism amongst Black and Brown communities in a contemporised UK context. This commonality is perhaps strengthened even more in the face of blatant Islamoaphobia which impacts both Black and Brown muslims – but what of our perceptions of each other?
Well, to begin unpacking this we must engage with the difficult and necessary process of reflexivity and ask, where have our assumptions come from? Are we guilty of feeding negative perceptions of each other, that we would otherwise challenge if they were extended to us? If so, why?
This section connects to the assumptions that we form towards each other within our melananted communities. This point links to to the complexities of mass media coverage, which although we have a tendency to challenge if it represents us, we do not appear to extend the same level of cynicism to, in relation to representational coverage of other communities. In fact, it can be argued that our assumptions are perhaps rooted in the colonial practices of our ancestors, and now enforced through the media. Nothing perhaps represents this point more aptly than the fact that the nuance in Black and Brown identities is often overlooked when we eferencing these identities beyond our own comfortable frames of reference. This could in part be blamed on the ongoing decontextualising of ourselves as people of colour and in turn, our communities. For example, how much difference is really established between say a Bangladeshi community, a Ugandan Indian community, Gujrati Indian Muslim Shias, or Mir Puri Pakistanis? – I would be so bold to generalise and say, none! Instead, the representation is of one homogenous Brown, broadly assumed as ‘Indian’, sometimes if very lucky, grouped as ‘Asian’ in that rather pointless and offensive acronym ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic). The same goes for the Black community. How much of the identity nuance is really acknowledged? The different parts of Africa? The significant differences between East and North Africa, compared to the South and the West for example? The social narratives and migration timeframe contexts?
For example, there is a very specific migrational history shared between the Jamaican Windrush generations of the 50s and Pakistani (mostly Mir Puri due to the little known Mangla Dam arrangement) settlers of the 60s. A shared experience of post colonial British racism (i.e. famously horrific exclusionary bed and board signs were put up, and by the same sentiment the P word (playing off “Pakistani”) got established and used to aid ‘bashings’ back in the day). It is this shared experience between the Jamaican and Pakistani communities that frames differently in terms of history, to later Black and Brown migrations and divisions within the UK – i.e. the 70s Ugandan Indian and Bangladeshi, 90s/early 2000s Somali, 2000s Nigerian arrivals, and so forth – and while each community will have its own unique racism and oppression narrative, I raise the point to amplify that even the experiences of being oppressed have been homogenised like the acronyms. Worse still, we homogenise ourselves and each other, to accomodate the white lens and its positioning as the universal normative.
Broadly speaking, social interaction within melanated communities can be divided into two main categories:
Category 1: Subconscious Colonial Enactment
As post colonial ‘subjects’, our ancestors will have experienced or been party to the colonisers ‘divide and rule’ tactic. Clear divisions on the premise of not only skin colour, but skin tone, class, disability, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on. It can be argued that these behaviours or mistrusts of each other have perhaps inherently entered our subconscious. That we still play out the roles the colonised as our ancestors did. From a racial perspective, it can be argued that this manifests in the complexed dynamics of Black mistrust of Brown communities, or anti-black attitudes amongst brown folk.
Category 2: Buying into the Media Narrative
This point argues that the majority of us are in fact steered by the mass media narativisation of each others communities. That we don’t award each other the same level of nuance, humanisation, and are led by the representations that we see?
Bringing all of the stands together …
This section of the post draws on all of the points raised to argue that broadly speaking, we continue to self define and self validate ourselves with the aid of the white (colonial) lens – that this often involves a performing whiteness to ‘fit in’ or ‘assimilate’.
That many of these behaviours are held and enacted subconsciously and are a representation of a physical colonisation, which now manifests as an ideological one. That our ideological colonisation is reinforced through the cultural hegemonies communicated through mainstream media that we consume. That we do not extend humanisation and nuance towards each other (or even at points to ourselves). That we continue to understand each other and ourselves through the colonisers lens. That, we operate in a decontextualised states of existence, and are accepting of this. We never question en mass the absurdities of certain social narratives such as ‘black history’ … we never ask why ‘it’s not called history’ … or whether this dynamic is another example of the normalisation of the whitewashing of history? We don’t ask questions and we don’t try to know ourselves or each other.
Perhaps the first move towards removing bias, is for us to begin decolonising our minds and engaging with a shift away from subconscious colonial compliance, and a move towards establishing trust and mutual unity? – because in a landscape where we are constantly trying to justify our occupation of spaces, our humanity, and our very existence … the least we can do is treat each other humanely.
As I return to this blog and begin posting again, I realise that I never did bring closure to the PhD situ. I wish I could write a series of helpful and witty posts on the details of a VIVA, and the process of minor amendments, and the mixed feelings of loss and exhilaration at passing, but there is so much distance between me and that period now, that to recall it and attempt to re-live those memories and emotions would be triggering to say the least.
“Triggering”, a psychological reaction one might associate with PTSD or deep rooted trauma. Funny to be framing the PhD in this context. This framing is partially true, and partially subconscious. A PhD is no small step … It is a long and laborious commitment that requires sustained passion, resilience, and perseverance. Developing and strengthening these traits inevitably leaves one intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally strained to say the least. I am yet to meet a peer that has acquired one unscathed. The trauma of a PhD is perhaps one that is seldom talked about after its attainment, but I think it should be. We need to debunk the mythology around the qualification and allow ourselves to be honest about its pressures and our vulnerabilities.
Returning to my story, I had left off at the point of awaiting a VIVA. My VIVA was conducted by a leading scholar in an aspect of my research. What could have been a daunting process was managed beautifully by my external examiner. I was put at ease with her friendly and approachable manner, which allowed me to shed my anxiety and to fully engage with the process. After a lengthy and often challenging (in a good way) VIVA, I was delighted to learn that I had “passed with minor amendments”.
My amendments took 3 months and while I was pleased with the VIVA outcome, I couldn’t feel completely at ease until I had re-submitted and had a pass confirmed. I religiously made notes of all track changes and drafted detailed responses to how I had addressed each bit of minor amendment feedback. I received confirmation of my pass some months after. The relief I felt is indescribable.
I had a love, hate relationship with my PhD. While I would miss it as the safe and familiar constant, the welcome intellectual escape when things got too ‘same/same’, it felt good to know that I was getting my life back. That I had done it! That I wasn’t one of the statistics of non completions (not that there is anything wrong with this, but for me, after the amount of time, money, and labour spent, it was something I didn’t have the courage to consider).
My PhD was a beautiful, sad, sometimes soul destroying, but strangely rewarding journey. My advice to anyone considering one would be to think very carefully before embarking, and if you are, be sure to align with a focus you are likely to remain passionate about a few years down the line. As after all these decades of learning and teaching, I have concluded that learning is always so much more fun when you feel passionate about it.