I’ve been planning this blog post for the last few days and I confess I feel uncomfortable about it. It feels inappropriate for me, someone who has indupitably benefitted from the racism baked in to the system, to speak up against it. I’m nervous that this post will make someone else’s trauma all about me and I fervently hope that’s not the case. Of course, it is essential to centre black voices and activism and experiences, but listening to those people has exposed a loud and clear message that the job of dismantling racism has to involve white people. We cannot let the work of anti-racism fall solely to those people oppressed, and traumatised, and killed by it, and we cannot expect people of colour to educate us on our own shameful history. I hope this post adds something of value in its own small way and I welcome comments if you feel I’ve got any of this wrong. I’ve added links at the bottom to some of the writers and tweeters who have influenced what I am writing.
The current explosion of police brutality in the USA and the Black Lives Matter protests in response are dominating my twitter feed. But it would be easy as a white person living in the UK to view it all as a distant phenomenon. Beyond donating to a bail fund or campaign group and retweeting black academics, what can I do? What responsibilities do I have?
The answer, on reflection, is a lot. Racism is not a distant problem on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a problem, here, today in the UK. It’s present in the Grenfell disaster, in the Windrush scandal, in the unequal effects of the coronavirus, and in the UK Government’s decision yesterday to postpone release of a report on those effects. It’s also present in my work: in the unequal opportunity given to black academics and the lack of population representativeness of autism research participants.
So, what can I do about that?
I’m a white academic working in a large-majority-white university in a large-majority-white city focusing on child development and autism research. What I can do to be anti-racist has literally been keeping me up at night – in fact I dreamt the other night that I was running around trying to deliver a speech about anti-racism but every room I went into was full of white people and so I kept giving up. If that doesn’t expose my white saviour complex then I don’t know what will. I don’t need to be surrounded by black people to be anti-racist! They don’t need to hear what we can do about race – especially not from me!
Rather, living and working in such a white-dominated space I need to recognise the additional requirement that places on me to be a good ally. White people will expose their racism when they feel they are in a safe place – surrounded by other white people. I have the privilege of being in those spaces and I need to speak up on behalf of those who are not. When a black or minority-ethinic colleague or student comes into this space they need to know that they are going to be safe from overt racism, that we will work with them to dismantle systemic racism, and that talking about race and their experiences of racism is not a taboo.
So, I’m speaking to folks like me. Here’s what I think black activists and historians and writers, like this, are telling us they need.
Invite and prepare for conversations about race
One of my most shameful memories comes from a meal I had with colleagues at work. I was sitting opposite a British Asian friend. Another person at the table – a white person – made a comment that suggested that families from India would have dirty homes. I was struck dumb. I was astonished to hear such overt racism and I remember clearly thinking very fast: “I shoud say something… but I don’t know what to say… perhaps I shouldn’t speak…?” and while I sat there in silence of course my friend spoke up. She took on the labour of challenging this person’s racist belief. What I learn from that is I need to be ready, I need to talk about race with other people and read about racism, and use this to prepare my replies. After all, if someone expressed a sexist or homophobic belief in a similar way I would have no hesitation in calling them out.
But there’s more to that story. Why was I so unprepared? I think there are two reasons. One is that, as a white person, I can move through life without having to confront racism if I don’t want to. And the other is that because racism is baked in to the system, because my education didn’t include an examination of the historical roots of modern racism, because I am white in a white supremacist world, I am racist. In a situation like the above, I can’t trust that the right words will come to me because I cannot trust that the things I think I know and understand (including this post) are correct. I have to work at unpicking the beliefs that my privilege have allowed to take root. I have to educate myself by reading work like the ones recommended here.
For a while now, I have had rainbow emblazoned stuff in my office to signal to colleagues and students that their gender and sexual identities are welcome. I now plan to post up one of these fantastic images to signal the same to black or minority-ethnic visitors to my office.
Promote black and minority-ethnic representation
Given that I know my own understanding is flawed, what I can do is make sure I promote BAME voices. Social media is an easy place to do this and I recently gathered up lots of new people to following from this excellent thread showcasing black and minority-ethnic scientists. I need to remind myself to make sure I retweet – and follow – the original tweeter of colour, and not the white person who retweeted them, who I already follow.
I can do the same promotion at work, when we’re considering membership of committees or nominating people to be featured in campaigns. And I can scrutinise academic events for their representation. While the debat about #manels is prominent in academia, I don’t think we pay the same regard to ethnic diversity at our conferences and seminar series.
In my research, I can work harder to make sure that black and minority ethnic perspectives are included in the work that I do, by building recruitment links with those communities. I can draw attention to this issue by making sure that I clearly report the ethnic diversity within a research sample and highlight it as a limitation. I can cite work that shows how ethnicity is linked to disparities in access to services and research inclusion. And while I’m at it, I can make sure I am citing scientists of colour in my field.
Buy from black and minority-ethnic owned businesses
I am not only privileged by being white but also by being financially secure. I can use this to make a contribution to anti-racism by supporting businesses and collectives owned or led by people of colour. My plan this year is to buy all of my Christmas presents from black-owned business. Using my consumer power in this way puts money into the hands of black people which then undermines systemic racism and disadvantage. At work, we buy a lot of things that have to come from specific suppliers – questionnaires and IQ scoring forms for example – but we also get birthday cards for research participants, toys for play-based research and gifts for colleagues who are leaving. I can use all these opportunties to buy from black or minority-ethnic artists and creators.
It’s nerve-wracking posting a piece like this but I guess that’s the point. It’s bound to be uncomfortable for me to confront things which I have had the privilege to ignore for years. I hope some other white, UK-based academics draw something useful from this – if nothing else, here’s a few sources that have influenced what I put down here:
On paper: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
As I write this it is Juneteenth – an historical day that marks the emancipation of slavery in the confederate states of the USA, and which I didn’t even know existed until recently. This ignorance is just one example of how I, as a White person, have been able to ignore racism and believe that it doesn’t affect me. But I am in the process of re-educating myself and part of that involves realising that because racism is systemic – not made up of individual acts of cruelty, though these exist – then for one group to be disciminated against another must be privileged. It is therefore disingenous at best for me to claim I have no experience of racism, because I am a beneficiary of racism in every part of my life.
So, since writing the post above I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking about racism and wanted to take this chance to add some additional resources to the post.
Holiday Phillips has created an incredibly helpful to the Dos and Don’ts of being a good ally for BIPOC, in this tweet and the next one. She also contributed to an article on how to talk to kids about racism and you can also look up recent clips from CBeebies, Blue Peter and Sesame Street which all introduce the topic of racism.
Professor Bhavik Patel has taken the time to create a share two helpful infographics about understanding the experiences of BAME academics and marking out a behaviours and terminology toolkit. I’ve copied those in below with thanks to the creator for making them free to distribute. For more on the experience of BAME academics you can look up the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory on twitter and read this blog post with recommended actions.
I’m currently reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and finding it incredibly helpful as a White person trying to get to grips with the barriers erected by my community that prevent anti-racist change. Note that this is by a White author, but has been flagged by Black writers, such as Bernardine Evaristo, as an example of White people doing the work.
Finally, I’ve been trying to expand the range of actions I can take to push back against racism in my field. These include:
- looking at the reading lists for teaching / tutoring and seeing if they are all / mostly White authors. Seeking out some relevant work by BIPOC to recommend to students in the future
- researching statistics on race or ethnicity-based inequalities in my field so I can be informed about these. For example, this paper reports on under-representation of BAME families in genetic autism research and this paper reports on racial and ethnic disparities in diagnosis of autism and finally this paper reports on race-based disparities in access to services for families with autistic children.
- looking at the ethnicity in the samples we have studied / analysed and comparing these to relevant population data – e.g. UK census data. Reflecting on how any imbalance might have shaped the findings and what we could do in the future to increase ethnic diversity in our samples.
- explicitly inviting lab members to feedback to me on how we can make our lab a more inclusive place