Black Men In White Spaces

We’re in the middle of a global conversation on racism and its insidious nature. I felt moved enough to present my stories and experiences of racism on a company-wide call along with 4 of my black colleagues.

Recounting my experiences and listening to my colleagues share their own was, quite frankly, traumatising and left me deeply troubled. After the call, several of my white colleagues reached out to me to thank me for my courage and to tell me about the profound impact hearing these stories from people they know well, had on them.

One colleague admitted to their own naivete on the matter and asked about the microaggressions I had been subject to at my current company. Below is my emailed response. I share this because I now realise the depths to which most well-meaning white people are mired in ignorance. Ignorance about their own contributions in making the spaces they control toxic for the black people who inhabit these spaces with them.

On this episode of the podcast, I’m joined by Daniel Peat as we reflect on these toxic interactions and try to find a way to both survive and thrive despite it.

Thanks for reaching out. I’m glad these conversations are moving into a more open forum.

To be honest, this is one of the better organisations I have worked at. I have always felt respected and seen as an individual by my colleagues. With that said however, there has been the occasional interaction with someone where they say something that makes me cringe. Often in those moments, there’s an internal dialogue I have with myself about whether to challenge their remarks or just leave it and move on because no one wants to be perceived as the ‘angry/confrontational black person.’

I can tell you about a few conversations I’ve had or overheard where I felt the need to speak up in the moment.

Someone mentioned to me last year how thankful I must be that Britain led the charge to abolish slavery. They completely overlooked the fact that Britain perfected the transatlantic slave trade and was its preeminent driving force. They also ignored the reality that one of the main reasons for ending slavery was the fact that cotton replaced sugar cane as the money crop of the industrial revolution. It was no longer financially viable to continue those voyages to seed the concentration camps in the Caribbean with bodies to keep an arduous agricultural enterprise with diminishing returns going. Also, slaves could be a rowdy lot sometimes and uprisings weren’t uncommon. Ultimately, it was more trouble than it was worth. Even then, it was the slave owners who were paid reparations by the British government. So no, I didn’t feel particularly thankful.

I’ve had conversations where people justify police brutality and extrajudicial killings by saying how dangerous a job it is, and if the black people in the videos had just complied, things would be okay. Essentially, black lives are justifiably dispensable when black individuals are disobedient. I could draw all kinds of connections to the history of the particular power dynamic, but you get the picture.

Conversations framing immigration and multiculturalism as being a blight on Britain’s social fabric and its public services, particularly post-referendum, rankle me. I’ve had many during my time here. In my experience as an immigrant, I’ve spent upwards of £20k on fees to the Home Office for visa renewals, solicitors to check documentation or act on my behalf, and to cover the NHS surcharge (despite the fact I’ve paid taxes all my working life). Also, every visa I’ve ever had allowing me leave-to-remain in the UK has the line “no recourse to public funds” indelibly etched onto it. I couldn’t claim benefits even if I wanted to. If you make a mistake on your Home Office application, it’s automatically rejected, and you have to pay the fee all over again to submit a new one. Add to that the emotional and financial weight of family or friends who may have somehow gotten into difficulties with their own immigration status, whether because of an innocent mistake on their part, or they unwittingly fell afoul of a system whose default position is to reject you unless there is no other option but to accept you. I comfortably earn more than the financial threshold required by the Home Office, but I still submit my wife’s payslips alongside my own because I can’t afford to take anything thing for granted.

People sometimes bring up other atrocities against people of other races to suggest black people do not have a monopoly on oppression. Obviously, that has never been the argument anybody has ever tried to make about why slavery and racism is particularly heinous, but to bring it into the conversation feels like little more than an attempt to minimise the tragedy of what tens and hundreds of millions of Africans and their descendants endured and continue to endure. Over 2 million Africans perished on the voyage to ‘the new world’. Whether due to the despicable conditions aboard slave ships, or because they were thrown overboard for the insurance money.

Then you have the Trump apologists. Enough said.

This week, someone mentioned to me watching 12 Years A Slave, and how they found it remarkable that despite enduring all of that abuse, the slaves still held on to their Christianity and faith in God… because worshipping a white Jesus is what religion looked like in West Africa before they were abducted and trafficked across the ocean.

I don’t believe people intend offence but there is an intellectual laziness that sits at the foundation of this whole paradigm. Every time I hear someone say, “I can’t believe this still happens”, is a reminder to me that life is such that you have the luxury of inhabiting its spaces without a second thought about your right to be there. It also reminds me that the ignorance itself is the poison that fuels these interactions. It doesn’t happen to them; therefore, it doesn’t exist. And if it doesn’t exist, then these people shouting about injustices over there are just making a fuss for no reason. This, for me is the real face of racism. It’s not being called the N-word or being told to go back to Africa. Most ‘good’ people don’t behave like that. It’s the assumption that the world is more or less fair because you get treated fairly… the implication being, your view is the only one that really matters.

Every black person knows they have to teach their children how to survive in a world that, every day, seeks to inflict little cuts on their soul. How many white people teach their children not to be the blades?

This goes nowhere unless people everywhere take responsibility for educating themselves. It needs white people to disarm themselves and invite these conversations with their families, friends and colleagues. More importantly, it requires their deliberate and consistent action to be agents of change within their spheres of influence.

Best wishes,

Jamie

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