· By Oonagh Simms
black squares and white privilege
It would be impossible to ignore the events of this week. The stomach churning reality of watching someone being forcibly and brutally killed. Or the heartbreaking aftermath of street protests, fists raised, knees on the ground. And knowing- in that way that you do- in the pit of your stomach, that watching that murder wasn’t really the worst part of it.
Because what we know- and don’t tell me you didn’t know- is that despite increasing understanding of, information about and official commitment to challenge it- racist hostility and violence continues to have an enduring presence in the UK. So when we talk about how it’s not enough to ‘not be racist’ we have to be ‘anti racist’ well, that’s the paradoxical nature of the racial crisis.
I’m writing this post from me today- Jenny- I’m co-director of The Marshmallowist. I do all the bits that don’t involve making beautiful marshmallows. And in a pre- mallow life I worked in political research. My first job was with The Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at Leeds University. I had specialised in this policy area as part of my Masters degree so when I was offered a job with them I felt pretty pleased with how very serious I was.
And it was serious- it was there that that I co-authored an extensive study into racist hostility in Leeds. The study was commissioned by the Council - after a long spate of both organised and spontaneous racist attacks of black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) families across the city. Due to the level of intimidation and harassment there were an increasing number of 'no-go areas' for black and minority ethnic families. And the attacks in question included firebombing, racist graffiti, throwing bricks, assault, threats and intimidation. You know, your average shit show of a situation.
It was my role to understand the drivers behind this hostility so over the course of a year I spoke with both the perpetrators of and witnesses to racist attacks. Not one person would say that what they did was racist. “I don’t want to appear racist here but…” was something I never really wanted to hear again by the end of it.
Because the stigma of being seen to be a racist raised much deeper issues of how bewildering it all is. There was a complexity of who appeared to be concerned about race and why.
Anyway… it was a long report but the general thrust was: evidence was given, a wide-ranging set of interventions were proposed and the establishment of an explicit 'racism reduction' strategy for Leeds was put forward with really solid grass roots, preventative and community-based interventions recommended.
So far so right on.
Reader, you will not be surprised to hear that this did not have the utopian outcome we expected. Something to do with budget cuts….
But what this experience did show was that the ambivalence in response to racist violence in Leeds were not specific to just Leeds. In the same way we know what’s happened in Minneapolis is not a vacuum. These are national, nay, global trends. In the UK, just look at how many people have lost their lives in attacks with a racial element since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Racist attacks regularly take place on the street, in people's homes in restaurants, pubs and bars…
Things were meant to change after Stephen Lawrence. There was a pervading ‘post racial’ narrative. But for change to happen, embedded tensions and antagonisms have to be challenged…and who’s doing that?
On Tuesday 2nd June Instagram began filling up with black squares and the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag dominated and I was unloading some boxes of ingredients with Oonagh.
Oonagh: ‘we should post a black square’
Me: [not having looked at instagram for 24 hours]
‘what? why a black square’
Oonagh ‘well, we should post something and everyone is posting black squares...”
Me: ‘I’d rather write something proper though can we do it this afternoon?
Oonagh: ‘well, unless we post something soon it’s looking like we’re racist’
Me: “Shut up, people won’t think we’re racist… Will they?... Do you think? Fine...let’s post the black square…show me, do you just screenshot it off someone else’s post or what…”
We posted the black square.
And that is how this endemic social media ‘virtue signaling’ has made us act carelessly, selfishly and without empathy. I added nothing to that action, I gave nothing to a movement, I showed solidarity with no one and the only people I cared about benefitting from that stupid black square was us. The idea that we wouldn’t be seen as a) racist or b) even worse…out of the loop. Because, I’m the one that matters here. My business. My reputation. And I would be even more surprised if I was the only one who posted that black square for exactly those reasons.
Now I’m the “I don’t want to appear racist here…” person.
Racism takes many forms; it includes mass societal aggression, structures of exclusion and discrimination, derogatory and abusive forms of behaviour, representation and language. It drip feeds into unconscious bias, micro aggressions or apathy. And until we recognise that and recognise our own actions in that. We’re part of the problem.
It’s not really enough to say that Black Lives Matter. Because it’s up to me as an individual and us as a business to use what privilege, what power and what agency we have to amplify for those who don’t. To take action. So here’s what we’re going to do:
1) Give money. We’re giving a donation this week to Southall Black Sisters - a campaign group who work to empower black and Asian women with specialist resources for women facing violence and abuse.
2) Actively seek to hire team members from BAME background. Make our business more diverse. Challenge every decision we make around race and the workplace more thoroughly.
3) Buy more consciously. Who ‘influences’ us on Instagram. Where do I shop? Where do I eat and drink? Which stockists do we approach? What's my contribution? How can I make fairer choices? Next week is going to be dedicated to making our feed, our contact lists and our tone of voice more inclusive.
And before I go… can I ask you to check in on us- I’ll take the criticism or feedback like a grown up. I want to think before I act. Talk less and listen more.
With mallow love,