I started writing this post in the middle of the summer of 2020. I wanted to give myself sometime to reflect on what had actually happened across the world, especially the global reaction to the video of the killing of George Floyd. How that had led to an eruption of protests, black squares on social media, updating of institutional diversity statements, statues toppling and the removal of some frankly tasteless and unfunny ‘comedy’ episodes. Some people did ask me for an immediate reaction, which I declined either directly or obliquely. I have not watched and will not watch the video of the killing of George Floyd. Yet it was still overwhelmingly traumatic to think about, as I wrote in Time and Place. So I needed to take some time to give my thoughts some clarity. I think I still need some time. But then Jacob Blake was shot. And here we are. Again. Again again.
Sometime during the summer, I was on twitter, and saw a tweet from one of the usual brigade, saying that ‘race relations’ have been ‘put back years’ due to the events of the past few months. It may be surprising to some, but I agree with this tweet. Because, firstly, I suspect for the tweeterist, ‘race relations’ means some sort of comfortable silence in which the unjust suffering of people who are not White is kept out of the news and out of his/her consciousness. And so yes, I agree, ‘race relations’ has been put back years due to the events of the past few months. And may ‘race relations’ never return. If you are the sort of person who thinks in terms of ‘race relations’, then any action directed at actually ending racism, will entail acknowledging racism and is therefore going to dent your feelings of comfortable ‘race relations’. Thus, we must always interrogate such use of language that avoids direct mention of:
We must ask; who benefits when we use euphemistic language? Language like, ‘unconscious bias’, which Tate and Page argue, ‘is an alibi to diminish the recognition, analysis and salience of white supremacy in order to maintain it.’? Unconscious Bias. White Fragility. White Privilege. Diversity. Race Relations. These words are, in the words of Sara Ahmed, performances whose sole purpose is to ensure that their performers are happy. I ask again, who benefits from these performative ‘speech acts’? Watch the un-rippled water, the leaves unbothered by the tumultuous breeze. Who finds comfort in the silence? You should NOT find comfort in the silence. But even if you think about the last few months from the perspective of people racialised below the abyssal line, ‘race relations’ is itself a revealing phrase. There is nothing in what has happened in the last few months that could possibly incite warm cordial feelings [race relations] in those racialised below the line. After all, we were witness to an execution.
So what should happen next? What exactly should we focus on now, in questions of racial justice? And again, no, the answer is not acknowledging privilege and banning episodes of Fawlty Towers etc. No. There needs to be a reckoning with societal violence and its sectors that wield state tools of immediate violence. No matter what you think of calls to defund the police, it must be accepted that we cannot hope to effectively reform a sector without fundamentally changing the society that produces the composition, need and impact of that sector. We must confront the question of what form of order the state requires and has always required. [I argued this point exhaustively, in a different post, in relation to the Nigerian police.] And it is on this inextricable link between police and society that I personally frame the question of defunding the police. Ultimately, we are calling into question what we as a national or global society, place the most value on. What society we want. In a world built on commodification and valorization by financialization of everything and everyone, thinking in terms of defunding the police asks us not only what we should take money out of, but also what we should put money towards. What part of society do we put value in? Brutal order or true justice? Defunding asks us to take greater responsibility for the ways in which state-sanctioned activities lead to ‘group differentiated vulnerability to death.’ I mean, after all, we were witness to an execution.
The timing of George Floyd’s killing meant that for me, dwelling on the trauma was unavoidable. It happened in the middle of pandemic killing non-White people at faster rates than White people. A pandemic which attacked peoples’ ability to breathe. It happened during an ongoing climate emergency. An emergency robbing us of oxygen. It happened in the middle of a stretch of restricted movement. So I was left with my thoughts. Occasionally interrupted by other Black people who talked through their trauma with me. Sharing thoughts helped. But you can only talk on the phone or on zoom for so long before you have to get back to the rest of your life – or in my case, designing classes to fit in with whatever world COVID brings us in the Autumn term. So in the quietness, I thought of breath, confinement and mortality. I thought of futility. I thought of silence. I thought of value. I thought of greed. I reflected on how we have been talking about ending racism in the same way, for as long as I have been alive. I thought of how far we have NOT come. I use a lot of historical analysis in my work, and you may be surprised at how similar ‘not racism’ sentiments, that were expressed hundred of years ago, are to what we hear now. On questions of freedom from slavery and colonialism. On having the freedom to vote. On all questions of freedom. It is amazing how far we have NOT come.
‘How much justice is too much?’
‘I am not personally responsible.’
‘I agree with your struggle, but not the way you choose to wage it.’
‘Progress. Takes. Time.’
They all mean:
Justice only comes tomorrow.
And today never becomes tomorrow.
Racism is a thief. Of breath. Of peace. Of time.
Time we could spend doing other things. Laughing. Dancing. Living.
Lives that never will be lived. Dreams stolen before they are fully birthed. Thief.
In some ways, despite my bouts of idealism, I have come to accept that maybe the world will never change, maybe injustice is a virus that we cannot isolate and destroy. A virus not susceptible to herd immunity. A virus which will eventually destroy us. And to some extent, I can actually live with that. I can live with that. But what I do know, is that I cannot live with myself, if I do not try to do something to bring an end to injustice. So I ask you, if you are reading this, what are YOU prepared to live with? What version of yourself do you want to be remembered on the other side of this babbling brook? When your silence finally comes, what will you leave behind? Because, I do not think we should want a future world where our children would say, ‘yes, we were witness to an execution’. As we live through tomorrow’s yesterday, what future do we want to give to those who will walk these same paths tomorrow? Will they still ask the same questions, respond to the same violent silences and loud violences? Or are we prepared to live today, in a such a way that tomorrow’s children will never say, ‘We were witness to an execution.’?
Ahmed, Sara. “The nonperformativity of antiracism.” Meridians 7, no. 1 (2006): 104-126.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Vol. 21. Univ of California Press, 2007.
Tate, Shirley Anne, and Damien Page. “Whiteliness and institutional racism: Hiding behind (un) conscious bias.” Ethics and Education 13, no. 1 (2018): 141-155.