We have your attention that black lives matter. So what now?
Message discipline, allyship and inclusion are key to the Black Lives Matter movement. Without them, we can’t maintain its momentum and success
“What happened [with the murder of George Floyd] in America was terrible but I just think that’s America and this is England so I don’t think people should be going out to protest here”.
That was something a white British person recently said to me. It was said in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests and their concern that groups of people congregating might result in cases of coronavirus being spread. Although she didn’t consider the mostly white crowds that flocked to the seaside in May. Nor did she consider the mostly white VE day partygoers, gleefully launching into a conga line.
As someone clearly not engaged with Black Lives Matter, she viewed it as a movement that pertained to America and police brutality against black Americans. For her, the protesters in the UK, and elsewhere outside of America, were exclusively protesting against the murder of George Floyd. She perceived Black Lives Matter as a single issue movement. And one that had inexplicably drawn global support beyond Americans, who she thought were the only people it should truly concern.
Her perception of Black Lives Matter lives is not unique. I would say that view exists even within sections of the black community. The sense for many observers is that Black Lives Matter is solely about George Floyd and that the protesters are seeking justice for his murder alone. We cannot downplay the exasperated anger and heartbreak that his murder has attracted. Alas, for many, the notion of challenging systemic racism doesn’t even come into the conversation.
The brutally audacious manner in which George Floyd’s life was taken by former police officer, Derek Chauvin, was indifferent toward any consequence. Chauvin held no fear of reprimand as he callously kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for just shy of nine minutes.
He knew he flagrantly operated within a society where the price of a black life simply didn’t attract value to prompt any censure for his actions. This is what made it overtly apparent that systemic racism has created a status quo void of regard for black lives. Countless instances of police and white supremacist brutality against black people have previously provided a spark for subsequent protests. Yet the outrage and shock at the murder of George Floyd was the flint that created the most combustible response we’ve ever seen; it globally amplified the call that black lives do matter.
For many non-black people, it gave an insight into the black experience that they didn’t know existed, let alone one that many were unwittingly complicit in maintaining.
So now that we have everyone’s attention that black lives do matter, what do we do with it?
It’s likely that Chauvin, and the three other former police officers charged with aiding and abetting murder, will be prosecuted. Although that won’t signal a call for Black Lives Matter to be disbanded as a movement. The fight against racism doesn’t end there. Although without clear message discipline, there is a risk that Black Lives Matter will lose its momentum.
Understanding the boundless parameters of systemic racism, and the impact it has had on the black community, needs to be central to Black Lives Matter. The scope of systemic racism must be realised. As do the steps to address it through education, awareness, unlearning unconscious bias and open conversations. This needs to be clear, concise and consistent when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even within the black community, this needs to be clearly articulated. Those who encounter the movement need to understand what its aim is and the role everyone needs to play in achieving it. It needs to be understood that racism isn’t just manifested through police brutality against black people either.
It’s the microaggressions we hear in the workplace. It’s the racial profiling we’re subject to by police. It’s the socioeconomic injustice and disadvantage we’re subject to in every facet of our lives. It’s the racist stereotypes that society, media and governments continue to peddle. It’s undoing the enduring legacy of slavery that continues to scar the black diaspora and our communities.
We mustn’t forget George Floyd and we must fight for justice. But we also need to ensure we tackle the status quo that led to his murder and the murder of others.
The scope of systemic racism also needs to be realised as not exclusively an American problem or that ‘their racism is worse that ours’. Just as black America isn’t the custodian of the diaspora’s broader experience, systemic racism against the black community isn’t limited to the borders of the United States. This simply plays down the scale of the problem and belittles the black British experience and the experience of the diaspora elsewhere.
Lest we forget Britain’s barbaric colonial history and the fact that systemic racism is arguably the most enduring British export to leave the British isles. When you consider the black American experience with racism, and the parallels with the black British experience, it is nuanced only in how it is discharged via rampant, unchecked capitalism and a gun-toting obsessed nation. However, if we narrow the scope, we narrow the much needed allyship.
In observing the traction Black Lives Matter has received, I’m hugely encouraged by the allyship that has been forthcoming. It’s crucial to the movement and to the dismantling of systemic racism. Therefore it can’t be taken for granted.
There is a risk that the value of allyship hasn’t been appreciated. So many non-black people have shown humility, acknowledgement of their unconscious bias and a genuine desire to learn from the black experience. As the black community, we need to ensure we welcome allies and engage positively. This is where message discipline is so important.
We also need to consider the humility our allies have shown. Amidst our frustrations, we cannot greet this with hostility. Nor can we underestimate the damage this will do. When approached by non-black allies, we need to embrace and not alienate them because we feel the hue of their complexion may not validate their commitment to the struggle.
Our conversations need to strike a tone that do not instinctively present frosty undertones to anyone who isn’t black. Furthermore, we have a duty to articulate the fight as everybody against racists, not black people against everyone else. Black people are not the architects and proponents of systemic racism. Therefore we aren’t going to be able to dismantle it by ourselves.
Conversely, we can’t confound allyship with faux support for Black Lives Matter. If you take the social media attention the movement has received, this presents a serious challenge and distortion of genuine support.
When I recall Blackout Tuesday (which was actually an initiative intended for the music industry), where Instagram users posted a black square in support of Black Lives Matter, I was able to appreciate the solidarity. But let’s not pretend that for many, this was no different from the latest challenge or social media trend. The murder of George Floyd became a cause célèbre that people wanted to be seen to be reponding to. How many of those accounts posting black squares have already returned to sponsored posts promoting Fashionova?
These aren’t allies and they show no support whatsoever. Allyship comes from open conversations and demonstrable shifts in attitudes and action. It comes from people educating themselves and building their capacity for empathy, while championing the black community and wider equality. Nevertheless, social media response to the movement has erroneously become a barometer of support.
For that reason, I didn’t post a black square on Blackout Tuesday. My commitment in the fight against racism and equality for the black diaspora is evident throughout my personal and professional life. It can be seen in the content I produce and the conversations I have. I don’t need it measured by an Instagram post that became a fad.
Posting a black square or other social media offerings, cannot be assumed as a measure of support or a prerequisite of allyship. Nor can its absence from one’s feed be taken as an assumed lack of support.
Going to a protest is a great way to lend your voice. It isn’t, however, if you’re protesting for the ‘gram, or it’s fake activism, only to forget about the movement once you return home. We need a reality check on what constitutes genuine allyship and credible action as we build a support base with concrete, not straw, foundations.
In considering our allyship, it’s also necessary to ensure inclusion. If we say Black Lives Matter, do we mean all black lives or just the black lives we choose? Are we excluding black lives from the LGBTQ community? Or those in interracial relationships? Or those who are mixed race? All black lives matter and that’s the message we need to amplify without exception.
I hope George Floyd’s killers are brought to justice. I hope the immediate conversations around police brutality against black people continue in earnest and lead to meaningful changes in policing. But I also worry that many will deem that as ‘job done’. Black Lives Matter has captured the world’s attention but it’s how we harness that attention that will make all the difference.
Without carefully articulated aims, and building of an inclusive and genuine support base, there is a risk that Black Lives Matter will lose its momentum. And we mustn’t allow that to happen.