For all that I might moan or complain about things, or write about lockdown life while being able to work from home/garden, I know I'm coming from a massively white privileged world.
I may have grown up the daughter of Irish immigrant parents in the era of 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish' but the advantage of having a white face has ultimately meant our family has thrived in the multicultural city of Birmingham. Discrimination has generally not victimised us through our fair, freckly skin, though childhood bullying was a feature.
This is why I have to make serious mention of the murder of George Floyd as part of this diary. It is the one news story that has cut through Covid-19, causing riots in the US, protests in the UK, a global petition of 10 million and counting. It has broken my heart to read about what happened to him at the hands of brutal racist police, as they knelt on his neck, ignored his pleas and let him die. I accidentally saw a few seconds of the video (autoplay should be banned) and have felt sick to the stomach.
I have little faith that much will change in the US. After all, if they can't change gun laws to stop mass shootings of white children in schools, then what hope is there for an innocent black man murdered in a divided country where systemic racism is rife from the president down?
My friend, Steve Lawson, a local musician who has toured in the US, posted something today that goes beyond the outrage and disgust over this crime. He likens white privilege to being tall in a society that stacks the best stuff on the top shelves. And he suggest some positive action we can take from our position of power in our white-biased societal structure.
He's been kind enough to let me post it in its entirety because it's as important as yesterday's warning over lockdown risks. Over to Steve…
Where to start? Well, today is our wedding anniversary. 12 years with my amazing, brilliant partner in… well, not crime, at least not often. And certainly not crime that would mean our life was threatened by the police. Because, of course, we're white. So we have far fewer reasons to be scared of police in the regular run of things. Sure, the police do occasionally tear gas white people (my mum got tear gassed protesting in Genoa), or tase people (a white friend of mine with mental health issues was tased to death by US police in a gas station a few years back), but if I get pulled over by the Police in a car, or I walk past a cop in the street I'm not routinely fearing for my life.
But that's the reality for so, so many black people. Every black person I've ever spoken to about this, in fact. And if your instinctive reaction is to try and explain it away, to go looking for stats to make it seem less of a problem, to conjure up some version of 'if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear', then hurrah! You're using your white privilege to do the work of white supremacy.
Wait, what? That's a bit harsh, Steve! Nope. White supremacy is the outworking of the belief that white people are inherently superior to other races. So if you are more inclined to question the testimony of a black person in describing their lived reality, and will run to try and corroborate it with information from a 'trusted' (read: white) source, that's white supremacy in all its masked wonder. Because there are decades of scholarly work from within black institutions and communities documenting their systemic oppression at the hands of law enforcement. There are absolutely white scholars – allies, truth-tellers – working on this too, but the vast majority of the work here is from within black communities. And we – collectively, white-led western society – haven't listened. We haven't changed – at least not enough. We've failed to shut down a bunch of racist bullshit about the 'good side' to the British Empire, about how the increasingly stressful situation of being poor and white in the US means that racism isn't real, that the US having had a black president means it's 'post-racial'. We've allowed fear of foreigners to land us with Brexit – some on the left placed their own economic concerns so far above the threat to non-white people in the UK that they happily partnered with out and out racists to push for 'Lexit'. If you're willing to endorse the opinions of racists to get your economic vision pushed through, your pragmatism is indistinguishable from racism.
But the voices are there, loud and clear, to tell us the real legacy of colonialism, the brutal impact of the UK's stop and search laws, the endless parade of black people being brutalised and murdered in police custody on both sides of the Atlantic, the ongoing legacies of slavery and the total lack of any serious response to multiple instances of far-right white-terrorism in the US while the media still goes on and on about 'islamic extremism', as though actual Nazis murdering people are just 'lone wolves' or misguided kids, but muslim youths watching their grandparents homeland collapse under US mortar fire wondering what the hell to do about it are evil extremists who need deporting to countries they've never even visited… It's documented what goes on in 'immigration centres' – we have first hand accounts of the atrocious treatment of people being held at Yarlswood, first hand accounts of the rape culture infesting the immigration patrols along the US/Mexican border. But we're still more vocal about a Target being set on fire than we are about the rape of undocumented migrants who have literally zero power to do anything about it.
So what do we do? The first and most important step for my white friends and family is to acknowledge that white privilege is real. It doesn't make you 'guilty' but it does absolutely mean you need to acknowledge being a beneficiary of its privilege and start doing the work of how to exercise that privilege in the service of dismantling it.
An analogy: a tall person who can reach a high shelf isn't guilty of being tall, but if they go round shops moving all the stuff to a higher shelf, then they're sure as shit guilty of making life worse for anyone not like them. A decent tall person would do a number of things – instantly, get things from the shelves for anyone needing it there and then, secondly, move the stuff back down to lower shelves for whoever's next, thirdly talk to the dickhead moving the stuff, and if needed stop them from doing it, and fourthly, work with everyone willing to help to take down the higher shelves and restructure the shop so everyone who needs to can get to the stuff they need.
We've been perfectly happy for successive governments to stack all the stuff on the high shelves for us, and we just pick it up saying 'well, I didn't make the shelves, I don't run the shop'. Not good enough. Time to remake the shelves. And if the shelves are immovable, build a new shop. In the short term, we can put in ramps, to elevate those who need access.
Right now, there are a lot of people in the US protesting. The arrest of Oscar Jiminez, reporting for CNN live as he was arrested shows just how ridiculous the situation is. The numerous corroborated reports of undercover cops and far right agitators infiltrating the demonstrations and weaponising the deep, righteous anger to start riots show us just how hard it is to both acknowledge that righteous anger at deep injustices CAN lead to the destruction of property, but that same destruction of property can be weaponised as a pretext to an armed clash between protesters and police.
So if you want to do something right now, donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund https://minnesotafreedomfund.org/donate to help those who are being arrested right now for protesting. Not all will have the chairman of CNN calling the city mayor on their behalf.
For longer term solutions, you can support the African American Policy Forum – aapf.org – "an innovative think tank that connects acadmics, activists and policy makers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality".
We don't get to stand by, we don't get to look away, we don't get to stay quiet. #BlackLivesMatter
(And yes, I'll write more about our wedding anniversary later, but right now this is what's important).
Today I am thankful for the many opportunities that are available to me and that my biggest problems right now are just a blip in the whole scheme of things.
Petition link: Justice for George Floyd.
To end on a blessing here is the most beautiful rose in my garden right now.
Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com