Let me start by saying this: What you’ve been witnessing over the past week since news of the killings of more black people fanned the embers of a discussion we have continually failed to have in an open, mainstream, multiracial forum, is but a slither of a range of conversations, theories and actions that have taken place within a number of black communities around the globe for centuries.
Put in painfully clear terms: Black people have – as viral videos of generational trauma have freshly revealed to some – been talking about this all our lives.
You’re listening now – as some of you did during protests in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2017 – because of pressure. Pressure that has risen under ceaseless resistance against centuries of pointed attempts to silence and break us; and now, increasingly, pressure on white and non-black people to perform allyship on social media.
For some, it has helped. But once the guilt dies down and the rage inevitably reduces to a simmer, I know for a fact that for a lot of people, the urgency of combating anti-blackness will have disappeared entirely.
So with that in mind, let’s discuss Blackout Tuesday.
Like last year’s #BlueForSudan effort, or 2012’s #StopKony, there’s a lot of justified scepticism around social media campaigns for justice and equality. Yesterday, similar questions arose about Blackout Tuesday, which first sprung from a music industry initiative to “to disconnect from work and reconnect with our community", originally pushed under the "#THESHOWMUSTBEPAUSED" hashtag.
By the time I heard about this symbolic vow of reflection, it had already taken on a new meaning. What first seemed likely a relatively sensible decision for parts of the music industry and radio to spearhead such an effort, had quickly descended into confusion and fear, with vital means of communication on Instagram for protesters quickly being replaced by the deluge of posts under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
Who’s really behind this campaign? The feds? People asked, as footage of undercover police and white supremacists attempting to discredit the movement continued to circulate. Was this simply a covert mission to shut us all up?
We know the answer to those questions is no. But that hasn’t stopped the latter from happening anyway, instead of pushing the national conversation further than it – in my lifetime, at least – has ever been allowed to go in mainstream terms, we were once again confronted with white noise. And I have never felt so defeated.
Though there’s a small part of me that was comforted by the sea of darkness on my feed – especially from those who would ordinarily shy away from engaging with issues such as these – a larger part felt drained.
Why? Because still, even in the face of impressive displays of solidarity, we have largely missed the point. Creating lasting change is going to take a lot more than posting a black square, or simply saying black lives matter.
As attractive as catch-all slogans are to the Tories – or indeed most politicians – when the phrase comes out of the mouth of Matt Hancock, or anyone else bends over backwards to serve a prime minister who has called black people piccaninnies with watermelon smiles, it means absolutely nothing.
Black lives didn’t matter enough for the government to take the Windrush Lessons Learned Review seriously. They haven’t mattered enough to create the same outrage that Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham caused. They didn’t even matter enough for the electorate to refuse to reward said government with its current mandate.
Fighting institutionalised anti-blackness and racism of all forms is bigger than telling other people that you think racial discrimination is awful. It is bigger asking the one black employee in your company whether or not – because you’ve finally taken notice of that thing they keep banging on about, or have been too afraid to bring up for fear of punishment – they’re ok. They aren’t, I promise you.
When the very systems the world runs on seep racism from every crevice, wiping the exterior clean won’t stem the flow; tearing down the structures that encase and preserve it will. That means using your position to actively and consistently fight the beast you claim to abhor.
Not through appearance-driven, token diversity hires, even when many work environments retain the exclusivity that pushes marginalised people to the edge, or out of organisations entirely; not by attempting to perform your outrage for the sole purpose easing your guilt; and especially not by forgetting that the of despair you’re seeing now, is routinely felt by black people every day.
Blackout Tuesday isn’t necessarily the problem, I respect whatever comfort it has brought to black people who need it right now. I do. It’s the compulsion to revert to passiveness that makes me nervous.
There have been more than 1,700 deaths in police custody or after contact with the police in England and Wales, since 1990. In 2017, it was revealed in a government report on deaths and serious incidents in police custody that “of eight prosecutions of police officers in connection with a death in custody in the last 15 years, all have ended with acquittals [...] In fact, there has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter in such cases, despite unlawful killing verdicts in Coroner’s Inquests.”
Think about what such clear flaws in the system mean for those who are disproportionately targeted by police. Think about what that means for the likes of the family members who have never received justice for the slaying of their loved ones.
A year after police were cleared of any misconduct over the death of Sean Rigg in Brixton Police station, in circumstances that have parallels to George Floyd, Marica Rigg, his sister, has spoken out yet again. Try for a second to understand the exhaustion of repeating those calls for justice because there is no other choice but to keep going. Speaking to Elle, she said:
“I hope governments are watching, that Boris Johnson, the Home Office and police are watching. I want them to be thinking: ‘Marcia Rigg’. I’ve been quiet for about a year, but I’m so angry and I have the ability – and people are looking to me – to turn up the heat in the UK. That’s the mode I’m in.”
I have, as have so many other people of colour, watched with burning rage as people who have done little or nothing to use their positions to change things, mindlessly retweeted messages of solidarity. Enough.
If you know that clicking a button is the most you have done; if you know your decisions or lack thereof have directly contributed to the suffering of black people and non-black people of colour, then focus. You must focus – without falling into the trap of performative allyship – on making sure that you do everything you can to tackle these issues at the root.