12 Jun Things that matter
I rarely write a blogpost about politics, at least not in a direct or explicit way. It seems best to leave that to others. Let them scrawl in huge letters across the papers or shout from the airwaves on news bulletins, chat shows or phone-ins. I avoid phone-ins and hear them only in a passive way when my husband has his radio on louder than usual or has forgotten to close the door of the room at the top of the house where he spends his days satisfying his two addictions, painting and current affairs radio. How he keeps his sanity I have no idea. Though, as I write, it crosses my mind that maybe what I’m taking for sanity is something else…
In any case, it can take me a while to weigh up the arguments, get to grips with enough detail, arrive at an opinion, see beyond the slogans – even the ones I find appealing. Sometimes it’s impossible to see, let alone challenge my own prejudices. So often the issues are just not black and white. Sometimes I’m swayed by a well-written piece only to be swayed in the opposite direction by something even more persuasive. A sucker for good writing, clearly. Or maybe just indecisive. Oh, how easy it would be if I knew instantly what to think and feel, how to react and didn’t have to do any of the hard work myself or bother with all that doubt. I can see the attraction of dogma but it’s never been my thing.
Sometimes, though, the politics stuff is unavoidable. It was from time to time with Brexit; more recently with the government’s feeble defences of its actions on COVID while the bodies piled up in morgues and funeral parlours, while we listened to the breaking voices of grieving relatives and looked on the exhausted, tearful faces of carers, nurses and doctors. How could I write about a quiet walk along the river (when I did that kind of thing) or the silver birch in the back garden (which I know features frequently) and just ignore those two, especially when I felt angry?
There’s another issue now, of course. It’s not new but it’s newly raw. After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resounding response of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s stuff we all have to confront. This is much more difficult to write about, to know where to start to even think about. I find myself asking: Why?
I suppose my first thought was that it doesn’t affect me as directly; it’s not as personal as, say, COVID. I feel a sense of rage at the injustice of an unequal society where these kind of acts play out but is this just an intellectual response? Because it feels distant from the physical and emotional space I inhabit day to day. After pondering this for a while, I realised I was wrong to think it doesn’t affect me, to feel the rage and then put it away. Perhaps that kind of thinking is the nub of the problem.
I haven’t woken up every morning of life feeling conscious of the colour of my skin. I haven’t ever really had to think about what it means to be white. Until now. I see now that not needing to be conscious of a basic aspect of my humanity, not really having to give it a second thought, has provided me with a sense of safety and belonging, privileges that are not a given for everyone. I have no way of knowing what it feels like to be a person of colour in a hostile place, to be perceived and treated as ‘different’ and how that affects an individual’s experience of themselves in the world, how it might create an ever-present undercurrent of anxiety and hyper-awareness. I try to imagine what this must be like day in, day out, the uncertainty, the sense, while doing normal everyday things, that they may not be perceived as normal or everyday by people and institutions around me because of the colour of my skin. To feel that people are looking at me suspiciously not because of something I have done but because of who I am and how I look. I try to imagine this kind of thing reinforced daily in every aspect of my life, in my parents’ lives, my child’s life, the lives of my friends and neighbours – and I can’t. Simply can’t imagine it. I don’t even know if these kinds of imaginings are anywhere near the mark. And maybe trying to imagine or identify is the wrong thing to do and what I need to think about is my whiteness and start from there.
The second thing that came into my mind was words. What words to use; what words not to use. Was it OK up there in that second paragraph to talk about issues not being ‘black and white’? How words become loaded with new meanings so rapidly and how you can be so out of touch. How terms of reference change or become shorthand for something quite different from what you intended to say. There are risks. I need to be prepared to be called out if I get it wrong. I know people who will do that calling.
A book I’m reading suggests that anyone who immediately answers: “I’m not racist” is undoubtedly racist. If someone challenged me now about whether I have any racist feelings, I would not be able to say, glibly as I have likely done in the past, I’m not racist and then trot out the usual tropes, feel the comfortingly virtuous emotions of outrage and repulsion at acts like those of the Minneapolis policeman and leave it there. I would not be able to claim this because I realise now that I, frankly, don’t know enough about myself in this regard because I have not been forced to do the thinking. Until now.
I would have been with the young people last weekend demonstrating in London, adding my voice. COVID means I can’t. Two of the things I’m angry about coalesce and instil a sense of powerlessness. What can I do when I can’t even join a march? This is a question that repeats these days in lots of ways. I used to feel I had agency, I could participate. Suddenly, there’s a sense of that being elusive, of no longer having a role or, if I have one, not being able to exercise it. It isn’t going to be easy but what I can do in this time of confinement is think about this, try to properly open my eyes to what it all means and what I have to change in the assumptions I make about being white and how that makes me see the world. And then, maybe, there will be things I can do.