(Photo via Independent)
Artillery Row

It’s not racist not to support Black Lives Matter

Ella Whelan explains why we all need to start talking, in person, again

It’s the height of summer. Legs are hanging out sweaty two-storey windows, a box garden becomes a coveted oasis, coughs are heard in the night through thin walls. There’s something in the air, and I’m not talking about coronavirus.

Along with the usual sticky feeling of midsummer days is a thicker, more uncomfortable sense of building tension in public discourse. Generation-Z youngsters are making flippant jokes on Instagram asking what 2020 can throw at us next: a global pandemic, an international race row, political breakdown, isolated citizens and a terror attack – all we need is a few natural disasters to turn this year into a dystopian novel.

We’re more isolated than ever before, and it’s having dodgy consequences

The good will of early lockdown solidarity seems to have waned. Clapping for carers faded away with the growing realisation that watching performative acts of state-sanctioned solidarity broadcast on the BBC every Thursday at 8pm didn’t do anything to help get people the aprons or masks they needed. Until recently, walking too close to someone felt like a crime against humanity – now getting on a bus without swaddling your face in fabric is even worse. Many of us haven’t touched our loved ones for a long time, we’ve only communicated through the glare of computer screens.

And yet, even as lockdown eases, and groups of people begin to congregate in parks and beauty spots without harassment by the police, there’s still a feeling of being stuck in limbo. Many people feel rudderless – with their jobs under threat listening to experts scoff that ‘normality’ is a fiction. No one is willing to talk about the future (except the BBC, which is running a series with radical insights like Jarvis Cocker moaning about the environment and the Pope talking about the poor). Politicians won’t plan any further than a week ahead, drip-feeding us information about zoos reopening instead of facing up to the consequences of what their lockdown has caused in terms of economic damage. Meanwhile, public figures and institutions are busy obsessing over cleansing their past and figuring out whether or not they pass the Black-Lives-Matter-approved racism test. Those of us who have been working have been dealing with increasingly snotty zoom calls, scared shoppers, dying patients, bored children or all four.

We’re more isolated than ever before, and it’s having dodgy consequences. We’re spending longer involved in bitter social-media wars on hot nights when we’d usually be having it out in the pub. Take the Burnley banner incident: at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester last night, a group of Burnley fans paid for a ‘White Lives Matter’ message to be flown across the sky as players ‘took the knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter. I’d wager if the stadium had been full of fans, that crass stunt would have been booed out of the sky. Instead, it’s taken as further proof by activists that the UK is mired in white supremacy and the spectacle of a police investigation (for flying a banner) is demanded.

The problem that no one seems willing to admit is that this is not real life – and yet this alienated world of social media has become the only ‘public sphere’ available to people, now that we have been forbidden from physically congregating for months on end. We forget how important face-to-face rows are, where you can gauge the mood and tone of where the other person is coming from. In contrast, social media often brings out the most polarised responses (like claims that a lolly-eating journalist’s ill-timed photo was a celebration of a terror attack this weekend). But more importantly, it’s stiflingly policed. An article published by Twitter’s global director of culture and community is a perfect example of how like walking-on-eggshells this quasi public space has become. The article listed ways to ‘show up in solidarity with the Black community’ for brands thinking about getting involved in the current debate on racism. Do’s and Don’ts included ‘Do: be thoughtful about whether it’s the right time to reach out or not’ and ‘Don’t: think your company’s history won’t be discovered and shared or pretend past hostile or detrimental employee experiences or company decisions don’t exist’.

This is the tenor of much of what passes for anti-racism today, telling people what they can and can’t say, raking up things that people or organisations might have done 10 years ago or claiming that all white people have inherent privilege and should be ‘thoughtful’ before they speak. On top of the isolation and distancing of lockdown, we’re now dealing with a tense political debate on race in which the main message from those calling themselves anti-racists is: don’t speak unless you read from the pre-approved script.

It’s cowardly to go along with things you don’t agree with because you’re worried about the consequences of cancel culture

Censorship is dangerous in tinderbox moments like these. And it’s cowardly to go along with things you don’t agree with because you’re worried about the consequences of cancel culture. The global response to the murder of George Floyd began with solidarity protests – some of which gave voice to genuine anger and dismay at police brutality and racism. But in the weeks since in the UK especially, with tv shows and public figures being torn down for the slightest infraction, this feels more like an identity-politics driven process of re-education by predominantly middle-class activists. Telling the average white, working-class person in Britain that they have to shut up and apologise for their privilege to this well-spoken black academic lecturing them on Channel4 News isn’t exactly the best way to build a movement to ‘dismantle capitalism’ as BLM UK claims it wishes to do.

We need to start talking again – really talking. That means risking stopping in the street to speak to your neighbour, going over to see your friend even if they won’t shake your hand and joining in conversations on the bus. More than that, we need to speak up and say this culture war masking as an anti-racist movement is having a devastating effect on solidarity. It’s time to point out that the emperor has no clothes on – it’s not racist to criticise Black Lives Matter, just as much as it’s not misogynistic to not vote for the Women’s Equality Party. There are real and lasting issues of racism and prejudice in this country – at the heart of government in the Home Office for a start. What any true anti-racist movement needs is solidarity, not siloing.

Most importantly, if we’re going to break out of this stultifying limbo, we need to talk about the future. ‘Normality’ is not a dirty word – we need to think and argue about what shape it will take. The longer we drift in this purgatory, from one political crisis to another, the more we’re in danger of losing touch with reality altogether.

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