In the aftermath of George Floyd’s horrifying murder at the hands of several US policemen, a widespread sense of righteous anger burned through the minds of many and reinvigorated debates over racism at the level of politics, culture, and individual interaction.
Social media has been awash with ‘Anti-racism resources’, online petitions, and symbolic acts of solidarity such as ‘Blackout Tuesday’ as a consensus begins to arise that we must demand radical and imminent change.
In many ways, these kinds of reactions are a sign of a positive and necessary impatience with the overwhelming reality of systemic racism in both the United States and across the world. At the level of US police brutality, Floyd’s death painfully mirrors the killing of Eric Garner, another unarmed African American male choked to death on a New York sidewalk as several officers restrained him. Nearly six years later, Floyd’s murder proves that little has changed and more must certainly be done.
But beyond the American context, racism is certainly a global issue and reminders that ‘the UK is not innocent’ have been useful in this respect. From the Middle East’s Kafala system that brutally exploits migrant labour, to Charlie Hebdo’s disgusting exploitation of a dead Syrian baby for a racist punchline, to China’s banning black people from McDonald’s during the ongoing Covid crisis; racism is undoubtedly a global issue and an increased awareness of its being so is definitely positive.
Notwithstanding these genuine concerns, certain types of well-meaning progressive rhetoric that have been particularly encouraged in light of recent tragedies, often unintentionally indulge in damaging racially stereotyped forms of thinking.
For example, when one considers the phrase ‘listen to people of colour’, just one example of many catchy clichés reverberating across social media, the positive intent of the phrase is clear; it intends to encourage the inclusion of marginalised ethnic groups into conversations of racial oppression that directly affect them on a personal level.
The presumption that one can universally assess the validity of a person’s intellectual and moral contributions to any conversation on the basis of their ethnic background is deeply problematic.
One could protest that this categorisation seeks to demarcate those who are likely to have experienced some kind of racial discrimination, non-white people, from white people who could not have had those experiences.
Are those personally victimised by racism not fit to speak on the issue solely on account of their personal experiences? This naively assumes that in a categorisation as absurdly broad as ‘people of colour’ all those within the group will share the determined anti-racist intent felt by those who regularly brandish the call.
For example, should we listen to David Webb, tea party activist and US conservative commentator who denies the existence of institutional racism, or former US President Barack Obama who referred to slaves trafficked across the Middle passage from West Africa to the Americas as ‘immigrants’?
Or to Kanye West, a hip hop artist who notoriously claimed that the 400-year history of slavery and legal discrimination against African Americans ‘sound like a choice [they took]’?
If we move beyond the narrow realm of African Americans that applies above, taking this argument to its logical conclusion, there may be problems. If all we care about is listening to ‘people of colour’, perhaps we ought to be listening to Ayman Al Zawahiri (the leader of Al Qaeda since 2011) or Abdel Fattah El Sisi (the current Egyptian military dictator implicated in the Rab’a massacre amongst other crimes).
One of the most difficult lessons for progressives to internalise in terms of their discourse on racial injustice is that non-white people are individuals. Like individuals of any other race or ethnic background, they have the capacity to be kind or cruel, wise or foolish, learned or ignorant and it is through an acknowledgement of these dual capacities that one effectively affirms the humanity of ethnic minorities and not through patronising assumptions of their necessarily being wise or moral on any single issue.
A similar problem of inaccurate stereotyping comes into play with the careless use of terms such as ‘white privilege’ which explain very real trends of racial discrimination as universal truths which can be unjustly attributed trans-historically and trans-geographically.
Amongst the many white folks who have recently been moved to ostentatiously confront their ‘privilege’, the underlying evidence given to justify its existence seems to be that their basic civil rights are respected in a way that those of their non-white counterparts are not.
Upon hearing this, one cannot help but initially question the use of privilege as a signification for a discussion that is very clearly about rights, a word with a different and infact contradictory meaning.
In using the term privilege, rather than rights, our focus is drawn away from the trend of black and brown folks who are having their rights violated and towards the white guilt complex of Caucasian liberal activists who have somehow managed to make a conversation about other people’s rights being violated about them.
A further issue with the term comes in its promotion of trends to universal truths. It is evidently clear that institutional and cultural racism exists in many nations.
From the institutional racism of the US criminal-justice system, uncovered in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, to the cultural racism reflected in Italians laughing at a drowning African refugee; it would be folly to suggest that ethnicity does not impact upon the average lives of individuals of different races.
But average is the key word here. Just because police violence disproportionately affects African Americans on average, and this trend is definitely deserving of our condemnation and concern, this does not justify the propagation of universalising assumptions of white privilege and black suffering.
One surely cannot justify the attribution of ‘white privilege’ to Daniel Shaver, a white American male brutally murdered by a policeman as he begged for his life. Nor can it justly be claimed that Sheriff David Clarke, an African American male, is necessarily disadvantaged by the US justice system, as a man implicated in abuses of police power himself.
In essence, disturbing and serious trends of racial discrimination should never let us forget the primacy of the individual when it comes to moral or intellectual value and we must take care to resist carelessly universalising narratives that unwittingly undermine these principles.