The long read: For years, racism has been defined by the violence of far-right extremists, but a more insidious kind of prejudice can be found where many least expect it at the heart of respectable society
On 22 February 2014, I published a post on my blog. I titled it Why Im No Longer Talking to White People about Race. It read: Im no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. Its like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. Its like they can no longer hear us.
This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.
At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are different in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just cant engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.
Theyve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time theyre vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know that youve got it wrong.
The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings. Even if they can hear you, theyre not really listening. Its like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they dont get any further.
Thats the emotional disconnect. Its not really surprising, because theyve never known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own. Watching [the documentary] The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah, I saw people of colour break down in tears as they struggled to convince a defiant white man that his words were enforcing and perpetuating a white racist standard on them. All the while he stared obliviously, completely confused by this pain, at best trivialising it, at worst ridiculing it.
Ive written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. So I cant talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?
I can no longer have this conversation, because were often coming at it from completely different places. I cant have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they dont even recognise that the problem exists. Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We dont.
Not to mention that entering into conversation with defiant white people is a frankly dangerous task for me. As the hackles rise and the defiance grows, I have to tread incredibly carefully, because if I express frustration, anger or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their presubscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety. Its very likely that theyll then paint me as a bully or an abuser. Its also likely that their white friends will rally round them, rewrite history and make lies the truth. Trying to engage with them and navigate their racism is not worth that.
Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences. Its truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisals, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life. It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when youre finally asked to listen. It stems from white peoples never-questioned entitlement, I suppose.
I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself trying to get this message across, while also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism, lest they character-assassinate me.
So Im no longer talking to white people about race. I dont have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries. I can halt the entitlement they feel towards me and Ill start that by stopping the conversation. The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo. Im not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If theres something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what Im saying and feel less alone, then Ill participate. But Im no longer dealing with people who dont want to hear it, wish to ridicule it and, frankly, dont deserve it.
After I pressed publish, the blogpost took on a life of its own. Years later, I still meet new people, in different countries and different situations, who tell me that they have read it. In 2014, as the post was being linked to all over the internet, I braced myself for the usual slew of racist comments. But the response was so markedly different that it surprised me.
I was three years oldwhen the black student Stephen Lawrence was murdered, and I was 22 when two of his killers were convicted and jailed. Stephens mother Doreen Lawrences struggle for justice stretched out alongside the timeline of my childhood. Reports of the case were some of the only TV news bulletins I remember absorbing as a child. A vicious racist attack, a black boy stabbed and bleeding to death, a mother desperate for justice. His death haunted me. I began to lose faith in the system.
I used to have a feeling, a vague sense of security in the back of my mind, that if I returned home one day to find my belongings ransacked and my valuables gone, I could call the police and they would help me. But if this case taught me anything, it was that there are occasions when the police cannot be trusted to act fairly.
On the evening of 22 April 1993, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence left his uncles house in Plumstead, south-east London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks. As the two friends waited at a bus stop, Lawrence started crossing the road to see if the bus was coming. He didnt make it to the other side. He was confronted by a gang of young white men around his age, who surrounded him as they approached. Lawrence was set upon, and stabbed repeatedly. Brooks fled, and Lawrence followed, running more than 100 metres before collapsing. He bled to death on the road.
A day after Lawrences death, a letter listing the names of the people who turned out to be the top suspects in the case was left in a telephone box near the bus stop. In the following months, that letter led to surveillance and arrests. Two people were charged. But by the end of July 1993, all the charges against them had been dropped. The Metropolitan police had concluded that evidence from Brooks, the only witness to the crime, was not reliable.
Four years later, an inquest delivered a verdict of unlawful killing in an unprovoked racist attack.After an official representation to the Police Complaints Authority from Lawrences parents, the Kent police force was tasked with launching an investigation into the Mets conduct, in March 1997. The result, nine months later, would find significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities in the way the Met dealt with the investigation of Stephen Lawrences death.
In July 1997, Jack Straw, who was then home secretary, announced that there would be a judicial inquiry into Lawrences death and the subsequent Met investigation. It was to be chaired by the high court judge Sir William Macpherson.