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White Noise

The ‘justification’ of silence

“One day, we will meet together in the light of understanding” Malcolm X

Can an anti-racism stance be complicit to white silence?

Is a stance of silence complicit with racism? My previous work on silence stated how dangerous silence is and that it is in fact complicit with racism. Now that we have more voices at the table, we need more seats. This article refers to the misleading ‘non-racist, anti-racist oxymoron’ which appears to be allowing the justification of silence in anti-racism discussions. Through repeated nebulous interactions, those struggling to understand how to support the Black Lives Matter movement and their BAME friends, colleagues and students, are constantly hitting up against white noise. Can an anti-racism stance be supported through white silence?

After my conversation with Emma Kell during the NTLD event, a real reflection moment was sparked. ‘How can we incorporate white people into the anti-racism discussions?’ Many feel unease, scared, apprehensive and fearful of not knowing what to say, thus seeing this anti-racism sentiment as extreme, so how can we move forwards? Why does unease equate with silence? How can we address this silence? The silence is not healthy even though I can now place it in the realms of fear of causing more offence. I have to admit that I find it difficult to relate As I’ve always been one to create a racket. Perhaps we need to give this silence permission to speak with the tacit agreement that no offence is intended and any challenge in response is with the intention of clarifying a perspective. Perhaps this silence needs collaboration rather than the unintended be validation of racism. I am learning about my own anti-racism stance and how my allyship aligns with my principles, which I am also still reflecting on. But whilst I will not peddle hatred, I will also not excuse silence! Instead I need to educate myself and continue to reflect. There is another way in this journey, not silence, not aggression but collaborative healing.

Black lives matter and it is sad that it has taken a slogan to drag the majority population out of its apathetic state about the lives of black people, because their lives do matter and always will. This movement towards generationally supressed conversations about race has empowered BAME people in an incredibly inspiring way. I see good practice being shared, new networks being created, and some absolutely vital discussions being held. The power to transform society is all of our hands and I call for us to talk about race, to not make excuses and be open to dialogue in an inclusive forum. It has been interesting observing the response to this call. There has been denial, derailing, deviation and discomfiture and after much discussion, I do understand the unpleasantness of this experience especially for people who have been silent due to ‘colour blindness’. Facing the raw hurt and pain of people who are affected by systemic racism can render potentially speechless!

How did I miss this? How did I not know this? At this point the silence may be a place of processing. However, silence cannot pardon the killers of Breonna Taylor who are still at large, silence cannot pardon the venom of random, rampant and targeted stop and search of young black men. Silence should not excuse the review into Grenfell still not taking priority. Silence undermines the systemic racism that has caused the disproportionate numbers of BAME deaths to COVID19. Silence allows for the continuation of human rights abuses in Palestine, Yemen, China amongst others. Silence ominously blames the victims for their lived daily experience of racism. So how can we be silent! I understand that silence is not acceptable but without dialogue and an agreed way forward what starts happening is that our platform only serves to point out the flaws of others thereby pushing potential allies into a ‘choked’ emotive silence which renders them impotent. The victims of systemic racism also have a role to play in allowing hurtful and sometimes fractious discussions to happen without ‘stomping’ potential allies back into a voiceless silence.

White silence during the Black Lives Matter Movement should never be justified but anti-racism requires an inclusivity to help bind and unify rather than blame and mislead. Image: LA Progressive

I do not write as a divine man or someone who is sanitised of all biases. I am writing as an educator who believes in the equality of all and the supremacy of none. I am not a racialised gatekeeper or an apologist for white privilege. White privilege does exist. I am intensely moved by the standpoint of Malcolm X, I have always recognised my position and as a Muslim and sadly I have always been aware of the limitations of my potential due to discrimination. Amidst my continuous struggle with identity politics, and having an ‘anti-racism’ stance, I struggle with uncertainties around how to actively exclude power structures that profit from disadvantage when they also have the influence to create advantage. Must I be dismissive and worry only about my success (after all I worked hard to get where I am) and not use my position as an educator to promote unity and offer a helping hand? Allyship cannot be selective; those who jump bandwagons and paddle whichever boat they wish out of arbitrary preference need to be challenged about their true motives. We want equality, a voice, our seat at the table, a shared vision to move forwards and a chance to challenge the biases that are at the very core of social systems.

Late last night while listening to OutKast and eating cereal, a good friend of mine called and she sounded incredibly upset. She broke down in tears when explaining that after creating an anti-racism scheme of work, her Headteacher claimed this ‘was not his responsibility to approve’. After spending weeks of reading, educating herself and trying to understand the plight of minority groups, this at least deserved some acknowledgement. ‘Why was the Head so dismissive?’ ‘How should he have reacted?’ ‘How would I have reacted?’ ‘Is it my role to educate others on racism?’ My mind was in overdrive and there really was no easy answer to these questions. The really hard question was one for me and my friend; are we seeking praise and validation for something that should always have been happening? I considered the Head’s perspective as a member of the BAME community. Had he become disillusioned and tired of being considered the ‘token BAME person who has all the answers for all things BAME? I didn’t know how to reassure my friend, and I didn’t even know if it was even my role to reassure her!

However, at the very core of this issue is a teacher who is actively learning, who is taking the time to educate herself thereby shifting her practice and having a positive impact on the next generation. It is a difficult one which needs that collaborative approach we spoke of earlier, one that recognises the steep learning curve but one we cannot dismiss or fail to recognise and include into our own practice.

The generational pain felt by BAME people cannot be conceptualised, equalised, homogenised and visualised through a tunnel vision. The white power structure and status quo are in crisis, with many of our white counterparts having their own personal identity crisis. Many are clenched up, afraid of getting it wrong, or simply don’t know where to start. White fragility is surfacing with the cracks in its foundation becoming chasms and canyons. We have to steel ourselves for it to become worse before it becomes better. As incredulous as it sounds, this fight for equality has reignited the lynching of black men in the USA! Amidst the denials of racism! With every moment of crisis, there is an opportunity for human connection, education, solidarity and mobilising a stance of challenge to all forms of prejudice. Developing an anti-racist stance takes time, and an authentic stance means averting token gestures. However, fighting racism with racism, with blasé and nebulous rhetoric and dismissive soundbites, only feeds into the silence. We need steps to move forward. We need inclusion and not hashtags. As Alison Kriel reminds us, “racism is everyone’s business”. A unified approach through education will mean it remains everyone’s business. Let us be judged on our unified future and not our divided past.

What is white privilege?

The Cambridge Dictionary provides us with the following definition of ‘white privilege’ as the fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

This is a banal and simplistic definition as white privilege does exist in a tacit and insidious way across all quarters of society. Many white people are uneasy with the term ‘white privilege’ as a normative part of their history as they have never been defined by their race. For others ‘privilege’ does not match their socio-economic position, especially those in poor rural areas who think such a phrase takes away our gaze from their struggles. Being white does not mean your life is or has been easy, it just means that your skin colour is not a factor or a cause of this struggle. It should be noted that amongst the socio-economic strata in this country, there are different shades of whiteness just the same as the different shades of BAME I previously wrote about. I remember walking through the streets of Kashmir as an 8-year-old, my light-skin complexion meant I experienced a form of privilege; local Kashmiris gave up seats, wanted photographs and even paid for our lunches, such is the impact and shame of institutionalised racism. An able-bodied, heterosexual, white, middle-class male is at the very top of the hierarchical structure in our society. These dynamics work together, all intersecting and forming a cage of inequality. However, at some stage, we are all likely to have experienced some form of intersectionality. Whether this is due to gender, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, age, ability, class or sexuality. Sociologists clarify these power dynamics as salient in our life experiences and potentially detrimental to life chances. Some more than others, but altogether they sustain inequalities.

The far-right anti-racism oxymoron

My three concerns with anti-racism sentiments are not exhaustive but rather personal reflection points. I do believe there is a far-right anti-racism, which in itself is an oxymoron. An anti-racist narrative that elevates the plight of some groups and relegates that of others. This position is nebulous, dismissive, built upon intellectual arrogance and implicitly or explicitly excludes people from the conversation. Thus, by default, this is a form of racism and inequality within itself. I am not naming any educators, but we need steps forwards. Again, I am not pardoning privilege, but these generations of subconscious biases cannot be erased through aggression and soundbites. We need to collaborate, heal and work together.

  1. How can anyone identify and accept white privilege? – As a male, I actually had no idea about my privileges until I read about the gender pay gap in a Year 11 Citizenship lesson at 15 years of age. I was stunned! That very moment I realised that I was not just Asian and that even with my own identity as BAME there additional stratification! Much later as an undergraduate I was challenged to ‘address my gender privileges’. What did that even mean? How do I ‘recognise’ something that has just existed without questioning? My biggest concern is with the statement ‘you need to recognise your white privilege’ as a valid part of the next steps. This statement is loaded, it is assuming an awareness of privileges. Just as was the case with me and gender, this awareness is not an over-night realisation, this is a sustained point of reflection. I agree, people need to be aware of the privileges they have, whether these are race, gender, age, sexuality, class, etc. Yet, to recognise must come first a willingness to face and live with an uncomfortable realisation then the need to embrace, challenge and use these privileges for the betterment of all. Asking someone to ‘recognise their white privilege’ has, for many, become a bit of a ‘telling off’ catchphrase for some or for others a mere tokenistic utterance to parade on their bio. This should not be brandished around like an insult nor should it be a designer label for the current trend. Anti-racism is a life-long venture for those who truly choose to be allies. So if you care to paddle any anti-discrimination canoe, you need the skills of sustained rowing; knowing how to reframe the discussion and incorporate all Injustices into that discourse, knowing when to move forward, when and how to turn, when to slow down and how to navigate the rapids! Hopefully, our next voyage will be more peaceful than our last. Don’t block people out of discussions. Give them a paddle so they can row with us.

  2. It is not my job to educate you about racism – To an extent, I agree. We all must take responsibility for our own anti-racist campaigns and reflections. It is burdening, consuming and very challenging to be the ‘spokesperson’ for the rights of minority groups en masse. From personal experience, being a token BAME teacher in an all-white school meant I was the go-to person for all issues and concerns around cultural sensitivity. It is not my job to educate others about racism as I also have personal learning to do but my lived experience may not be the same as someone else’s. Lived experience, especially of those we know is a very powerful entity and can really bridge the gap between the proverbial ‘them and us’ but their needs to be a willingness to listen. This statement of ‘it is not my job to educate you about racism’, can appear to be dismissive and may result in further unease again forcing others into a resentful version of silence. Remember ‘Silence is complicit with racism’. When fellow educators make this statement, I feel a bit conflicted even though I understand the sentiment. Engage the person asking in a discussion at least. If you can signpost them to a provide reading list, a podcast, a song or even a TV show, something that will ease them into a receptive frame of mind, please do! This will then mean they have the freewill and autonomy to engage with anti-racism content as it suits them and to educate themselves. This flippant ‘it’s not my job’ can be dangerous and misinformed and can also allow covert racism peddlers’ to gain ground and perpetuate divisive tactics. BAME people need to use their intelligence, be kind and loving in spite of the pain and hurt. We want equality and to make a difference for the next generation. Please be kind, signpost, leave all doors open and never forget your position as an educator. It is not our ‘job’ to educate about racism but with lived experience comes a unique story, one that needs sharing and one that can…well yes, one that can educate others. This is not to say you should put your name forward as ‘Diversity Lead’ at your school but we all need to be reading more, caring more and sharing more. This ripple effect is more powerful than a token gesture.

  3. You are a triggered white person/saviour – A dear friend was accused of being a ‘white saviour’. In some sort of Madonna-esque missionary way, she was told it was ‘not her place’ to challenge racism. She was ‘triggered’ and had ‘no idea’ how BAME feel. I want to refer to intersectionality here again. Does she not suffer from discrimination as a woman? Race is indeed the hottest potato right now, but can we deprive the dynamics of race of gender, class, age and other agents of intersectionality? Out of naivety, my friend was paralysed with fear, totally lost her confidence with her own deeply engrained sentiments of equality. She wanted to know what her next steps were and how she could avoid the ‘saviour’ tag. Whereas we do have those who want to jump on the bandwagon, BAME people do find themselves in a unique and perhaps once in a generation position to select allies for their battle against racism. The tag of ‘white saviour’ is built upon the implicit idea of an all-powerful Caucasian soul protecting the ‘other’. BAME people don’t need saving, they want a sense of equality and belonging to a world they have sacrificed so much for. My ‘triggered’ friend was sympathetic to this plight, keen to promote equality but shot down by an exclusive band of anti-racist personnel. If they are triggered by our plight, let’s incorporate them into our vision for a shared future. At a time where people are triggered by others wearing face masks and the tearing down of the statues of slave owners, the anti-racism movement needs the right type of ‘triggered’ souls. Calling someone a ‘white saviour’ is another version of ‘them vs. us’ and by default racist within itself. I am just glad my friend was triggered by the social structures that infringe on the life chances of BAME people and not Subway bringing in a halal branch of iced slushies! If they are triggered by inequality, make them an ally. No anti-racism movement can be validated by our own racist overtones.

Everyday should be Malcolm day.

In summary

I will never deny white privilege, but should it be met with white noise? Ultimately, I believe the current climate means BAME people are empowered to lead, teach and foster conversations about race. This is challenging, we need to protect our BAME friends and allies but many of them want everyone to be part of the movement for greater equality. What good do the three arguments we have considered actually do? Are we moving forwards? Are we actually helping others and ourselves challenge our internal biases? Or are we peddling a narrative that opens up wounds rather than cures them? We need pragmatic solutions and not to continuously assessing flaws. Not everyone is racist, not everyone is aware of their privileges and not everyone is an expert on anti-discrimination. This is fine but we can learn together through a phase a close friend of mine refers to as ‘collaborative healing’. My own point of reflection has helped me reframe my own stance and boy, I have some more learning to do. I just hope that despite our differences, we can someday meet in the light of understanding.

All power structures and monopoly’s are fragile. They won’t be dismantled immediately nor will they be overthrown by one group. Collectively, anything is possible.

Many of us are struggling to understand the buzzwords and narratives being farmed by anti-racism campaigners and not because we are not anti-racist. Many of us are keen to challenge our biases, be part of the discussion and learn more. Feeling clenched up, unwilling to ask questions and not making racism our business internally perpetuates silence. We cannot fight racism through dismissiveness and nor should our dismissive commentary be used as a veneer to justify silence. I hope this is a reflection point for us all. So, can an anti-racism stance be complicit to white silence? It can be if we are not careful but as diligent reflective practitioners, steps forward are important as we learn from our divided past and strive for a unified future. Please also consider intersectionality in your analysis and we can make this epoch in time a revolutionary one.

Anti-racism is a discussion we all need to be part of and one that can ill-afford to become white noise.

Finally, as my hero Malcolm X once said

“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”

Thank you for reading and a special thank you to Emma Kell, Dr. Valerie Daniels, Alison Kriel (the three Aunties) and El.

Shuaib Khan

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