Don't Be Like Keith
A helpful guide on what not to say when discussing race relations with your Black colleagues.
To all who need reminding, racism is still alive and doing very well.
I was recently reminded that there are still people out there who deny, or are wilfully ignorant to the fact that racism exists. As a result, millions are still to this day discriminated against based on the colour of their skin. Let me set the scene.
A few weeks ago I found myself staying late at work to listen to a zoom meeting in which Black jewellery industry members discussed the opportunities and barriers faced by Black jewellers in the UK. As the meeting neared the 30 minute mark, the only other employee left in the lab – let’s call him “Keith” – posed the following question:
“So what’s with this racism thing?”
The subsequent two hour discussion featured some of the many of ways in which non-ethnic people continue to invalidate the experiences shared by the majority of black and ethnic people around the world.
So instead of ranting about the disgusting ideals and theories shared with me that evening, I am going to try and make this as constructive as possible by highlighting exactly how some of the points raised by “Keith” can be taken as offensive, and hopefully provide some helpful, alternative methods for non-ethnic people to approach a similar situation. Please note that the following discussion was focused specifically on the Black experience.
1. "Racism is a control mechanism used by the top 1%."
PLEASE DON’T: USE CONSPIRACY THEORIES TO BACK UP YOUR CLAIMS.
I am not here to discuss conspiracy theories. If you are a non-black/ethic person, please refrain from using conspiracies to validate your arguments when discussing sensitive issues such as race. By dwindling the concept of racism down to a “tool” used by another group of people, whatever Keith was trying to convey was lost on me. I felt that his outlook completely invalidated both my personal experience as well as the experiences of my family, friends, colleagues and pretty much everyone else who isn’t white.
PLEASE DO: Acknowledge that racism exists and in many different forms. If you feel the need to share a particular theory that you side with, do so but with tact, and understand that the language you use will need to be selected very carefully. Think before you speak.
2. "It doesn't matter what colour your skin is, all that matters is what's in your pocket."
DO. NOT. COMPARE. BEING. BLACK. TO. BEING. POOR.
On some level, it is widely understood that money is the key to unlocking a multitude of opportunities available to us. We can also agree that poverty is an issue that affects the majority of the global population. The thing is, and bear with me, poverty can be fixed by increasing the amount of money one has. I am in no way saying that this is an easy feat, and of course I understand that the effects of poverty can be long lasting even once those affected have been liberated. But poverty can be fixed. You can’t fix being Black because there is nothing wrong with being Black.
PLEASE DO: Acknowledge that poverty is an issue that affects all races but know that poverty disproportionally affects ethnic minorities. In London, 70% of those affected by income poverty come from ethnic backgrounds.
3. "Racism isn't as bad as it used to be."
PLEASE DON’T: BE FOOLED INTO THINKING RACISM ISN’T A THING ANYMORE.
Imagine you develop a rash on your arm, like a really bad one. It’s itchy, swollen, sore and now its started bleeding. You leave it for a day or two and now the bleeding has stopped. Technically it’s not as bad as it was two days ago, but you still have a nasty arm and you should definitely see a GP. The same applies for racism. It doesn’t matter how bad it used to be if it still exists.
PLEASE DO: Recognise the progress that has been made over the last hundred years and understand that racism continues to be a major issue faced by millions worldwide. Accept that racism is still thriving and actively do something to stop it.
4. "The Black Lives Matter movement is funded by the same person who funded Anti-Fa."
PLEASE DON’T: CONFLATE IDEAS OR ISSUES THAT ARE UNRELATED.
Refer back to point one and miss me with this. Whoever is funding the Black Lives Matter movement is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. People need to understand that on a whole, this is a movement and not an organisation.
PLEASE DO: Understand the differences between an organisation and the views shared by an organisation. The recent anti-racism movement goes far beyond a singular body and shares core beliefs with the Black Lives Matter organisation as well as numerous other anti-racism groups across the globe.
5. "White privilege doesn’t exist because I’ve never benefitted from it."
PLEASE DON’T: DENY THE EXISTENCE OF WHITE PRIVILEGE.
I’ve never had the benefit of drinking champagne and eating pickles on a private jet but you best believe that someone out there has. Trying to explain the concept of white privilege to someone who sees themselves as underprivileged is incredibly frustrating but it can be done.
I used black, male colleague as an example. He dresses well, is very intelligent, well educated, friendly, earns a good amount for his age, owns a home and is an avid gamer. He is repeatedly stopped by the police here in London for simply walking around or for “looking suspicious”. Meanwhile Keith, a white, middle aged male, permanently stitched into sweatpants, old t-shirts and dad trainers, who openly sympathises with the far right, thinks Trump is a godsend and consistently shares harmful misinformation with anyone who’ll listen, can’t remember the last time he was stopped by the police. He reckons it was some time in his twenties.
It may seem unfair of me to judge Keith on his political views, level of education and personal appearance, but all of these attributes can be changed. My colleague can’t change the colour of his skin. Unfortunately, when he is judged wrongly by a someone with even the slightest bit of power, as recent events continue to show us, things can go left very quickly.
PLEASE DO: Accept that white privilege exists. Use your platform to help others. Speak up when you see or hear of injustices. Use your voice to bring attention to the struggles that your peers face on a daily basis.
6. "Have you considered that racism may be in your head?"
DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES: MAKE STATEMENTS LIKE THIS.
It was at this point that I excused myself from the discussion and left.
PLEASE DO: Say Nothing. If you find yourself entering into a conversation about race and these kinds of thoughts pop into your head, do yourself a favour and walk away.
People who think like Keith exist in 2020, and we as Black people need to remain vigilant. It is easy to feel encouraged by the recent changes (albeit small ones) and begin to relax, but our work is far from over.
It is incredibly ironic that the ideas presented by Keith during this exchange (which were raised with the sole purpose of dismissing racism as “a thing of the past”) were spurred on by the mere sound of people discussing the fact that racism is a problem within the jewellery industry. Keith was so wrapped up in proving his own beliefs that he didn’t notice that he is part of the problem.
He also didn’t notice the fact that I was finding it increasingly difficult to not throw a stapler at him… but I’m putting that down to nerves of steel and a decent poker face.