With New Eyes

Returning to the UK has given me the chance to reflect on the last year and to look at what I have learnt.  On the world stage, the last year has been momentous: from Brexit, to the US election to the failed Turkish coup. But what has made this year different is the people I have travelled with.  Watching the US election results unfold or the result of the Turkey referendum with people from those respective countries puts a new personalised perspective on these historic events.
 
This year I have learnt more about the US than my previous 40+ years put together.  And one aspect that kept on rearing its ugly head was the senseless deaths of a number of black people at the hands of armed police.  Being from the UK where only a small number of highly trained specialist police are allowed to carry guns it is very alien to me that it is even possible that someone who is stopped for a minor traffic violation could end up dead.  But this blog is not about gun laws (although I will fully admit I cannot understand the US obsession with guns) but instead it is about what I have learnt from the amazing intelligent diverse Americans in my Remote Year group who just happened to have dark skin colour.  And it is about how I am starting to have different conversations with people back in the UK. 
 
I will fully admit that I live in a very privileged area of the English countryside where unemployment is very low and the vast majority of people are white British.  So for me just learning some of the difficulties there can be on a daily basis for a person of colour was a bit of an eye-opener.  Small things such as being spoken to in a different way, or ignored when you enter a shop add up.  These micro-aggressions in isolation may not mean anything but piled on top of one another can lead to a change in someone’s behaviour.  We have all seen the footage of US law enforcement approaching a car with a black driver.  How different is that from the approach to a white driver? If you are black you are now on constant alert to not move, be polite, don’t do anything until specifically told to and even then check, and don’t move too quickly.  All out of fear that this situation could escalate with deadly consequences.  And the reason given is that the ‘police are in fear of their lives’.  Why should this be so?  Why just because of someone’s skin colour does that put ‘justifiable fear’ into someone that they are essentially allowed to act as the judiciary as well as law enforcement.   
 
It can be quite easy to think that this is a US problem, routed in the relatively recent abolition of racial segregation together with the consequence of having such a large number of guns on the street.  But is Britain also guilty of intolerance and racism?  During our group discussions on Remote Year there was one ‘soundbite’ that came out that I will never forget: ‘Your Silence Speaks Volumes’.  Silence referring to the fact that white people often do not provide support when there is another atrocity against a black person. Simple things like sharing content on social media or providing a supportive comment could go a long way.  By not sharing, by not saying anything are we implicitly supporting the status quo? By making excuses that ‘the person who has been shot must have been doing something wrong’ are we legitimising that this is ok for the police to act like this in a democratic society?  But the silence also referred to conversations that happen when there are no black people around.  Who then will step up and provide support and a counter argument?
 
So in the last two months I have actually been surprised that the issue of race has come up in two conversations.  These were both with people I didn’t know, friends of friends or people sitting in the same pub as me.  The conversations were generally about race issues in the UK and one in particular about police ‘stop and search’.  The pre-conceived notion seems to be that statistically there is a higher proportion of black people who are ‘criminals’ compared with white people, therefore is it surprising that there are a greater number of black people who are stopped and searched?
 
I look back on my past self, of someone a year ago, who probably wouldn’t have actually produced a counter-argument.  Someone that didn’t see the damage that ‘not speaking up’ could do, that this helps to reinforce these essentially racist views.  That by not providing a counter-argument I’m essentially as bad as they are – my silence speaks volumes.  Because lets analyse what was said in the statement above.  Essentially, because of the quantity of pigment in someone’s skin this makes them more likely to commit a crime. I am hopeful that this was not what the other person intended by the statement but there needs to be an understanding that these statements are problematic, incorrect and detrimental to society.  If said enough times these statements can change how people feel.  There is enough research out there to indicate that society teaches us that there is a difference in perception based on colour alone.  Young children (black and white) pointing to white dolls when asked which is pretty or which is the good child or pointing to a black doll when asked which is the bad child.  These traits are taught, they are not inbuilt in our genes. 
 
So what is the counter-argument? In my mind it all comes down to how to analyse the statistics and whether there is a true cause and effect.  Do the statistics suggest that crime rates are higher in areas with greater socio-economic problems?  The answer is yes, probably. Do these areas have a greater proportion of black people living there compared with the UK average? Again the answer is yes, probably.  Do the statistics therefore suggest that crime rate is more likely to be associated with socio-economic factors rather than race?  Almost certainly yes.  I think that this is an important distinction to make.  This changes people’s perception as to why things appear to be a problem.  Instead of the problem being ‘the black community’ which fills people’s heads with negative connotations and a white privileged stand point of ‘this is not my problem’, it turns it into a society issue.  Why are there these socio-economic problems?  Is it to do with education? Why are all the ‘good schools’ in well off areas? To me these are much more healthy discussions to  be having and in all honesty it doesn’t take much to make the change.  It is society as a whole that need to change and this can only be done one step at a time.  But we do need to make the first step.
 
There are obviously a lot of different causes for societies problems and that there is unlikely to be a simple answer.  But what I am certain of is that we should not judge people just because of their looks or on skin pigment.  So therefore in conclusion, a challenge – will you provide support to change societies attitudes or are you happy with your silence?

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