How it hurts, this June.
This June, that carelessly ripens into high summer. In which we take tentative, twitchy steps over the scuffed grass, towards some of the things we did without thinking, back in February. Slowly, the weeks of April and May, all lemon-sherbet light and deaths in the thousands, get further behind us.
‘Where does it hurt?’ asks Warsan Shire, of the world, in her poem ‘what they did yesterday afternoon’. The answer comes: ‘Everywhere / Everywhere / Everywhere.’
I’d wanted to write about us all being cornered by this pandemic. (Pandemic: all people, everywhere.) About how, as the viral tsunami struck, every one of us had to pray that our human bodies, our fragile little boats, do not capsize. But, as The Atlantic argues, coronavirus has been far from being the ‘great leveller’ it should have been.
Instead it’s exposed the fault lines of injustice, the structural unfairness of our world. In countries like the UK, when freedoms are lost, they are not lost equally. You see it as lockdown restrictions lift, the protective measures loosened: not everyone has had the privilege of keeping safe.
The virus has had a disproportionate impact on communities of colour, who find themselves more exposed to it, overrepresented in the workforce that has cared for the sick and kept the country fed and functioning. And who are more likely to suffer serious illness and die; up to twice as likely for a black British male than his white counterpart. A Public Health England report leaked to the BBC has found that historic experiences of racism and unequal access to healthcare may well have had a fatal impact.
Last month, in Minneapolis, as people around the world fought to breathe because of Covid, a white police officer suffocated George Floyd to death by kneeling on his neck. Another black life ended by an act of pitiless white violence, in a long, disgusting history of pitiless white violence.
This June hurts in the skin.
We are all born innocent, into a world that is anything but. The webs of power we’re delivered into exert real, lifelong forces. The pain is sewn in; but the stitches pull unfairly. Black lives matter. That this truth needs to be a rallying cry shows how far there is to go.
When it comes to race, rage and fear are never far away. We take race personally. We have to: it’s one of the most personal things about us. And yet, it’s something we’re handed. Our race is not a choice; it’s never our fault. But there are systemic, unforgivable faults in how our racist societies work, with long, murderous shadows behind them. It is past time for change.
People reading this with my weak-tea coloured skin, so-called ‘white’ – you need to put down the ‘All lives matter’ hashtag and realise something. You’re the bad guy. Yep. You. (And me). You come from a long line of the worst kind of bad guys: the ones that told themselves – and the world – that all their stealing, murdering, slaving and profiteering were for good. Your forefathers were historical gaslighters, who pushed the shame of their atrocities onto the humans they hurt, who created a bullshit system that denied people their humanity based on the colour of their skin.
Whiteness needs to burn with shame. Its false innocence, its perverse amnesia, need to be toppled, thrown into the river with the statue of Edward Colston. White British people like me need to feel it, every day, the sin we inherit with our skin colour. Feel the claustrophobic truth: this is embodied, this culpability. You cannot peel it off, put it to one side. It is not invisible, it is not optional. There are no special exceptions. Take. It. Personally.
And then help take it apart. It’s on all of us to dismantle racist structures and attitudes: what the author NK Jemisin calls ‘lots of little biases at many points, forming a big Racist Voltron.’
Ideology is invisible. It’s like trying to see the inside of your own eyes. You don’t know what you don’t know. Begin seeking anyway. I’m made of books: below are some I’ve learned from. It’s no-one’s responsibility but mine, to begin to try to fill in my own blanks. It is a lifetime quest. It needs to start earlier. This petition calls for balanced British history to be taught in schools. Sign it. Get behind the efforts of The Black Curriculum. Our children deserve nothing less than the truth.
The writer in me knows that stories might just save us. Ever since we first gathered around the firelight, the night at our backs, weaving with our words, they have brought us together. Listening to them, telling them: this is soul transfusion; this is where understanding begins. When we are lifted out of ourselves. When we are humbled. When we give each other shining gifts, share the madness and grace of what it means to be human.
People’s experiences, all too often their fortunes and life chances, are unfairly shaped by their race. This must change. Then we’ll get to the other truth. Every one of us aches, deeply, with the knowledge that we are so much more than what the world sees of us. Our minds, our souls, are moths trapped within a lantern, crazed with longing, desperate to be free.
‘We are all visitors to this country called life,’ writes Ursula Le Guin. Our stay here is short. Don’t waste it. It must never stop, the effort to make things better, for everyone netted in this place, in this time, no matter how huge or hopeless a task it seems. Take it personally.
Brit(ish), Afua Hirsch
Dear Ijeawele, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Feel Free, Zadie Smith
I will not be erased, gal-dem
Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini
Taking Up Space, Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X, Alex Haley
The Lies That Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah
The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla and others
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge