If you check on some of your black friends and ask them how they are this week, there’s a chance they might reply “I’m tired”. It’s been an exhausting fortnight for black people, watching the brutal killing of George Floyd, the subsequent protests and the endless discussions and debates on television and social media about racism in 2020.
Despite living in black skin – which means witnessing and experiencing discrimination on a daily basis – I wasn’t prepared for the fallout of this debate, and the unexpected ways it has caused division between myself and some of my white friends. The atmosphere in the wake of George Floyd’s death seems different to any other of the many deaths in police custody where race played a role. I’m amazed by the level of engagement by some of my white friends who have been horrified by what they see, to the point of either actively supporting the Black Lives Matter movement or simply asked me questions to gain more knowledge. However, there have sadly been some exceptions.
I don’t expect white people to fully understand my experience; they are not black. I appreciate that in any circumstances it is very difficult to fully comprehend another’s experience of discrimination. But what I would have hoped to see from white people I know, through our friendship or familiarity, is their support and an understanding, a knowing, that this movement means so much to me.
Earlier this week, as I scrolled through my private Facebook account, I saw a highly inflammatory meme posted by a white family friend of mine regarding the protests and riots in America. I was left bewildered, shocked and disappointed that someone I’ve known for so long could post something like that – and in full knowledge that I and other black people they know would see it. I expressed my disappointment. I encouraged them to watch the video by activist Tamika Mallory, who gave a powerful speech in Minneapolis. For me, her words encapsulated the rage that black people have been feeling for hundreds of years in relation to the discrimination we experience.
I suspect my family friend has not, to this day, watched this video or poised to consider my perspective. Nevertheless, they slammed back with the phrase “All Lives Matter”. Despite my desperate attempts, and those of other black and some mutual white friends to explain, there was just no reasonable debate or informed discussion to be had. Their mind had been made up.
I was left shocked by the highly inflammatory meme posted by a white family friend of mine regarding the protests and riots in America
What upset me the most was not that I could not win them over, but rather that an opportunity to educate themselves about an alternative world view and experience – mine – had been slapped away. They were disregarding the personal experiences of someone they’ve known for years. Their uninformed opinions and biases overrode any personal familiarity and warmth we have, any empathy our relationship might have produced had we been debating on another matter.
All Lives Matter is such an incredibly distasteful response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It seeks not only to to diminish but to quench the fire of black people who are simply asking not to be killed, to be treated like a human being. It does not mean black lives are more important than any other; on the contrary, it’s merely asking for a level playing field. The use of the term All Lives Matter indicates that you are either wilfully ignorant or, worse, wilfully racist.
Racism in 2020 is real. It’s brilliant that finally it appears the black community is being listened to. An atmosphere has been created in which we feel comfortable to speak and share our experiences. It’s shameful that it took an on-camera death to raise this level of awareness. As Will Smith famously said: “Racism isn’t getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” Black people don’t need pity or a black square uploaded to Instagram. What we need is for people to believe us when we describe our everyday lives. Know that we’re not exaggerating. Know that what we feel isn’t a theory born out of paranoia, but as tangible as the skin we live in.
Race relations cannot be fought and won by the black community in isolation. Everyone – the oppressed, the oppressor and everyone in between – must be on board and commit to stamping it out. Governments and corporate companies have a wider responsibility to tackle racism, but even this starts with the individual. So imagine how it feels when an an individual relatively close to you, someone you’ve known for a long time, just does not seem to understand and, worst of all, simply does not want to. What hope is there for social change?
The sad fact is not every one of our white friends will understand or support us – and that’s a painful reality to experience. Nevertheless, we cannot allow the disintegration of personal relationships to dim our beliefs. The fight for equality is bigger than any friendship. It’s for the hope for a future where such friendships won’t even need to have such discussions that potentially end them.