IMAGE BY Nechirwan Kavian
Crossing the Rubicon
Bloggers and commentators have rightly been asking the question as to where we are a year on from the murder of George Floyd. The answer to that question is that we are in liminal space. We are at a threshold moment. This is the moment before the moment and what happens next will determine whether when all is said and done, as in previous surges in consciousness there will have been a lot more said than done. We have climbed the ladders of consciousness, the challenge now is to take the next step in our ascent to the giddy heights to equality of access and opportunity and not tumble down the snakes of complacency.
The global conversation about racial inequality currently sits uneasily somewhere between the no longer and the not yet, and this at a time when the whole world finds itself in that uncertain space between the what was and who-knows-what post covid environment. The collective consciousness knows enough that it doesn’t want to go back, but it doesn’t yet know enough to know how to go forwards.
Whilst there is no cause for optimism there is reason for hope. The optimist believes that things will get better by themselves. They won’t. The authors of the CRED Race Disparity Report are naïve in claiming that they found evidence of dwindling White prejudice. I think it is more accurate to say that whilst legislation has had the effect of moderating what people can say, Twittersphere aside, in public it has not changed what they think in private. That requires a deeper work. We can’t leave it to government, or institutions, we must take personal responsibility; we must unite in hope, knowing that working together we can make a change.
The calcified problem of racism is as old as time itself. Seemingly, since it was ever thus that to be Black means be at the back and to suffer lack; to be: perceived as being inferior; lazy; lacking in intelligence; sophistication; social grace; beauty and trustworthiness. Today the target is Prince Harry’s bi-racial wife Megan Duchess of Sussex, but the first case of racism I point you to the Bible where in the Book of Numbers the Patriarch Moses, comes face-to-face with racism: “And Miriam and Aaron [Moses’ brother and sister-in-law) spoke against Moses because he had married a Cushite [Black] woman.” Num 12:1. By the way, it didn’t end well for Miriam.
The Axe Must Be Laid at the Root
To think less of someone and dehumanise them because of their colour is a shameful and repugnant thing; but to think less of ourselves because of our race is a tragedy that simply breaks my heart. But the reality is, that for so many of us the inferiority complex has taken root in our souls. Along with the movements to decolonialise the curriculum, we must decolonialise the cranium…
I was recently interviewed for a piece about unconscious bias training – one of the questions we explored was why unconscious bias training UBT can fail, and why the concept itself can be problematic. It is a good (and important question to consider). My answer was to say that we needed to agree that the definition of FAIL is “to not succeed in what you are trying to achieve or are expected to do” and then reframe the question to ask what is the problem that you thought that UBT was the answer to? To my mind, its sole purpose is to help build self-awareness alerting us that we all make implicit associations and have preferences that are the result of acculturation. Its purpose is to “consciousnessize” the unconscious.
If properly deployed (which, admittedly, is not often the case) it can make an important contribution to raising awareness that bias – dubious associations impede us all. It’s useful if it points out to us the problem of cultural systemic conditioning. Unconscious bias training is an invitation to rethink the way we think or to realise that we don’t think – we filter things through our perceptual lenses that screen out certain things and let other things in. We classify things into in-groups and out-groups.
Surfacing bias is helpful because you cannot take into account, and therefore cannot interrupt a bias that you are not aware of. Take the simple example of crown green bowling, being aware of the presence of bias allows us to compensate for it, being unaware just leaves you confused as to why the ball doesn’t run straight. Exposing ourselves to our bias gives us back our power because it gives us the chance to unlearn – healing is so often a matter of unlearning. We like to think we are rational beings but in truth we are emotional beings who post rationalise or more precisely we select the facts to justify them.
We cannot overstate the impact of cultural conditioning – the constant drip-fed learning process that has shaped us and formed our prejudices by being exposed to certain associations. Our emotional responses come from deep within us and operate a sort of emergency override of the mind. That override system is called the amygdala. It operates on a hair-trigger and is activated the instant it encounters what it has been conditioned to understand as being a threat. It is our reaction to a fear response – it exposes our biases. What is required is a sort of amygdala hack that rewires the brain to enable unwitting prejudice to be replaced by being intentional about acceptance and non-judgement; ignorance to be replaced by education; thoughtlessness to be replaced by thoughtfulness and stereotyping to be replaced by seeing everyone as a unique individual.
I want you to see me as a person who is mixed race not a mixed-race person. This is not semantic. Far from it. When we are identified as a Black man or Black woman we are all too aware that we are being identified by the stigma you have assigned to us. We know this because when we hear about a crime, and the suspect isn’t black they are described as being “a man” or “a woman.” This insidious messaging is everywhere a recent study of football commentary noted that when commentators talk about intelligence: 62.60% of praise was aimed at players with lighter skin tone and when talking about work ethic, 60.40% of praise is aimed at players with lighter skin tone ergo: Black people are stupid and black people are lazy. Interestingly when commentators are talking about power they are 6.59 times more likely to be talking about a player with darker skin tone and when talking about speed they are 3.38 times more likely to be talking about a player with darker skin tone ergo, Black people are dangerous, and can run fast. White people have the brains and the beauty; Black people have the brawn and the … well you decide for yourself.
Yes, I do want White people to think before they say stupid s_ _ _ to people who are Black and Brown like:
Where are you from?”
“Where were you born?”
“You speak good English.”
“You are a credit to your race.”
“You are so articulate.”
For sure I am concerned about racism, but what scares me is that we as people of colour have got drunk on the Kool-Aide that here we are today still lactifying ourselves.
At The Centre for Inclusive Leadership, we talk about the need to be authentic and to model transparency. If, and I am, serious about having really uncomfortable conversations about Race then, I must be prepared to explore my own relationship with Race, which candidly has been an ambiguous one. When I was a child in the sixties, a cultural movement was gathering momentum in the United States that was crying out to me from afar, but its identity affirming iconic clarion call, “Black is Beautiful,” failed to register to my young ears such was the benign acculturation of my childhood. I am mixed-race. I was raised by White foster parents, who hid my ethnicity from me; so, to be clear it was not that I thought I was White, I simply didn’t know that I was Black.
For the first eight years of my life, I had been happily cossetted in the cloistered environment that was no. 9 Brighton Road, Addlestone Surrey, then one day the bulldozers arrived and men with digging equipment pulled down the lovely buildings behind our house and up from the ground came a sink estate. Looking back on that period of my young life, I wrote in an essay I wrote in 1974 (I was 14 years-old) at the point when I was bored of not being at school, I recounted that time in my life:
When I was about eight the new flats were put up and there was an adventure playground adjacent. All my friends liked playing over there – all except me. “Ah come on Paul,“ they would say. Reluctantly I would go but more times than not I would get beaten up and called Nigger and words to that affect. By the council office there was a pond which I often got thrown in by the big boys who would mock saying, “You should go in more, you might turn White.”
Aside from living in fear, I was confused. I didn’t understand. I didn’t think of myself in racialised terms – nobody in my family was Black. Black people lived in Africa. I knew that because in my school we were raising money for Black children in a place called Biafra. I could see that being Black was a problem, but I couldn’t see why it was my problem. But, as I was about to discover, it was very much my “problem”.
It was a Friday, the date was 31st July 1970. Mungo Jerry’s song, In the summertime, was in what we called back then was top of the hit parade that I found out that I am Black. Although as I would discover it was bit more nuanced than that I was what was called back then, half-caste. It may well have been the summertime, but the living (for me at least) was far from fine. The storm clouds had gathered over my life and the sky was “black.”
My “parents” had died in relatively quick succession, if that wasn’t traumatic enough, it turned out that my mum and dad, were not in fact my parents, they were my foster parents. The fact that they were both White should have been a clue, but it was not… Now that they had died, I was homeless. You don’t have a lot of options when you’ve been orphaned twice in your life. There’s only one course of action. You’re told to pack your bag and get ready for your Social Worker to spirit you away to your next temporary abode. In my case it was Kenton in Middlesex, after an entirely disagreeable six-months, I was packed-up again and this time taken back to the orphanage. I landed with a thud on the doorstep of The Crusade of Rescue for Destitute Children’s warehouse for unwanted, and unmatchable children, St. Joseph’s Orphanage Enfield Middlesex.
Have you ever been that person who doesn’t get the punchline of a joke and then sometime later that crucial element dawns on you? This was that day. I arrived there in Carmel House, 221 Holtwhite Hill that the other shoe dropped. I should point out that this was not the first time, the issue of my race had had a bearing on my living arrangements. Unbeknown to me my ethnicity had placed certain limitations around potential suitors for me. An extract from my admission records in which this is surfaced reads:
“… Mother states that baby does not look coloured and his hair is like hers, which is dark auburn. I have not seen him yet. Will not want to visit. Would have wanted adopted if not coloured.”
Being half-coloured was going to prove to be a whole problem. The shocking revelation had come to light because I had asked to meet with, Sr. Agnes, who was the Nun on duty the day I arrived. To add to the comedy, you should know was a Black woman. Having ushered her into the parlour I confided in her that I was not going to be able to stay in the orphanage. Without so much of a hint of a don’t-you-know-you’ve-got-no-options she earnestly enquired why. Without any sense of irony, I explained to her that it was not going to be possible for me to live with all these Black children. “Oh” she said raising a smile as she did so, “I think you’ll be fine … you’re right at home, here Paul, these are your people, your father’s Black. Paul, you are half-caste.”
The revelation exploded in my head like a bomb. I was about to discover that there was (back then) one thing worse than being Black – it was being half-caste. Half-caste, Half-breed meant to be half pure. All of my cultural conditioning to date had left me in no doubt as to which half of me was not pure… I would spend my formative years wrestling the question of my half right-half-wrong; half-good-half-bad; half acceptable, half-unacceptable self. I was in crisis. Suddenly an awful lot of things fell into place – not least of which being that I now had the answer to why my hair grew up and out whilst others just grew down and long. The Fletcher Report published back in 1930 (some forty years prior) had openly stigmatised people like me as being “a problem and blight to the British way of life.” It felt like we had been some kind of failed social experiment – and perhaps that’s why and above the majority ethnic grouping in the orphanage were half-caste or half-breeds as they called us.
I was too White to be Black and too Black to be White. I have to be honest with myself, when I left the orphanage and was trying to find my way in life I had to overcome feelings of shame about some of the stigmatised aspects of my identity. I realised early on that as I “moved-up” or should I say moved-away, I’ve had to deal with self-hate and have had to manage the sense of embarrassment and, yes, sadly shame by association when “my people” reinforce negative racial stereotypes. I got to a place where my need for acceptance or need for avoidance of rejection from both my racial identifies led to a fissiparous existence, behaving and speaking one way when with black people and another when I was in the “refined” company of white people.
The Black is beautiful slogan was designed to break the spell that had been cast so wide and so far, and had worked so perfectly that even, Black people have been indoctrinated by the idea that the lighter you are the brighter you are. It takes a minute to get your head around the idea that even we seem to give preferential treatment to our own people on the basis of skin colour. There’s even a term for it – it is called ‘colourism’ what it means – is that there are Black people like me that benefit from light-skin privilege, and, let’s call it what it is, it’s rubbish. I will never forget the day I first overheard an ex-girlfriend’s mother encouraging the union between my prospectless self and her daughter on the basis that our children would have nice hair. Like I said – its rubbish.
Today, as I reflect on the events of last year, I am bound to conclude that we must fuse together the mantra of my generation with our young people: to White people I say Black Lives Matter and to my people I say … Black is beautiful and to be Black is beautiful. Let us add our voices to the Shumanite woman, the bride of King Solomon and declare: “I am black and beautiful.”
Shame on us if as in the Shumanite woman’s day our own people stare at me [us] because I am dark, for the sun has tanned me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me caretaker of the vineyards, but I have not taken care of my own vineyard.”
We must believe deep in our souls, and affirm our intrinsic worth as equals. So, where are we one year on? Now that the virtue signallers have taken down their BLM bunting, we the committed citizens must do the hard yards, the gutsy courageous, selfless work that often doesn’t draw the applause and seldom gets noticed but without which there is no lasting success. Those hard yards are clocked-up one honest conversation at a time.
Along with ubiquitous lockdown words and phrases like “pivot” new and “you’re on mute” the invitation to “have the uncomfortable conversation” has been a feature of the last 12 months. It has been a privilege to host safe spaces for people to start having that conversation about race. It’s still early and whilst the preliminary conversations have been helpful, this dialogue must continue and it must deepen. People on both sides of the lived experience, those who battle against the headwinds of inequality and who are carried along by the gusts of White privilege will need to learn to sit with their own and each-other’s difficult, upsetting, and challenging emotions, without seeking to deny or minimise them. Some say the time for talking is over – I am not sure we’ve done any real (or clean) listening yet. If we are to make progress then we will need to help the awkward advocates mature into appreciative accomplices.
What the hard yards means in practice is to develop the incredibly rare skill of listening to one another and even to ourselves in a clean way; that is to say, being out-of-our-mind. It will mean listening with our entire being, with the sole purpose of understanding and appreciating what the other person had to say? Committed to one thing, and one thing only – that you won’t contaminate the listening by mind-reading, assuming you know what they are going to say next or worse thinking you know how they feel; that you will maintain the necessary discipline to be able to interrupt your biases, prejudgements, and stereotypes. And that somehow, we would keep our advice, opinions and assumptions to ourselves.
It is not enough to stand-up, we must stand together. Anybody can do it – so let’s learn the lesson from the apocryphal story “Whose Job Is It, Anyway?” This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.
We must be the change we want to see. As Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The murder of George Floyd wasn’t the starting point, far from it, but it can be the tipping point for this generation. It was the moment generation Z, the “Zoomers” as they are known, crossed the Rubicon. The task now is to cut the Gordian knot. To do that my generation, the “Boomers”, must lock inter-generationally arms and finally put to an end the rinse and repeat cycle of racism and racial inequality and injustice. We who were yesterday’s revolutionaries, don’t have to become today’s reductionists – we can be reinvigorated by our children and our children’s children.
As I said, anyone can do it – a five-year old can do it as proven by our blonde-haired, blue-eyed, mixed-race five-year old granddaughter when questioned about her self-identifying as Black. “I am White on the outside, but I am black on the inside.” She knows she’s Black and that is beautiful.