Following Black Lives Matter, there's been a surge in interest in anti-racist literature – but what do you do once you've done all the reading? Banseka Kayembe, founder of Naked Politics, offers some pointers for allies in the struggle against racism.
In Britain, we’re terrible at even talking about race, let alone tackling it. Racism is often brushed under the carpet by politicians and the general public alike, with deflections like “it’s an American problem” or the standard line that “Britain is one of the most tolerant countries in the world”. My personal favourite is the statement “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” – like racism is some sort of bone deficiency rather than a dangerous ideology.
But, in the wake of the death of George Floyd – a black man who was murdered by US law enforcement in May this year – it felt like the conversation somewhat changed. The combination of a brutal, unflinchingly horrible death at the hands of a police officer, and most of the world watching on in lockdown, created the greatest movement for racial justice the world has seen in decades, with challenging anti-blackness at the forefront.
For many non-black people, and white people in particular, this led to an unavoidable conclusion: that most people have not taken enough steps to tackle anti-blackness in their everyday lives. In a country which, on a superficial level, prides itself on equality and abhors the individualised concept of being “a racist”, it feels as if more people started to understand that racism is something more complex. On my social media timelines, I suddenly saw a flurry of people buying anti-racist books, watching anti-racist documentaries, and talking about the ways that non-black people may perpetuate and benefit from anti-blackness than ever before.
But of course, simply engaging in ideas, or posting a black square on your Instagram, isn’t enough. What happens once you’ve read all the books you bought, and the articles you bookmarked? I’m sure there are some people who went to the trouble of buying seminal books on racism in a panic and then never read them at all. To quote an admission of a dear friend of mine, perhaps they are “sitting on the bookshelves, spines uncracked”. But even if you really immersed yourself with all the right knowledge, to what extent can small-scale actions like reading, thinking and talking to friends be truly effective in the fight against racism?
This isn’t to minimise the work we can do as individuals. There are of course, many good things well-meaning allies can do as individuals in the fight against anti-black racism. But there are also limitations to what solo actions can achieve; and well-meaning individuals can’t necessarily change how whole systems operate. For example, if one single white worker puts pressure on their organisation to hire a proportionate number of black senior staff, it’s unlikely things will change, unless that individual happens to be particularly powerful.
Similarly, in my workplace in the UK Parliament, there are limits to the power of individual lobbying. In the buildings, there are structural rules regulating the facilities that certain staff members can enter, depending on their rank. These rules are unwittingly structurally racist (as well as often sexist and classist) as higher ranking staff tend to be white. This has also led to an alarming number of black staff being questioned and having their passes checked by security upon entry, because they don’t fit the profile of someone they imagine to have the right to occupy these spaces. As an individual, I can complain and make noise about this, having read all the right books, with a deep understanding of why this is racist. But on my own, I’m unlikely to enact any tangible change that improves the lives of black staff in this respect. Individuals alone can rarely defeat systems of oppression.
The idea of communal action can sometimes feel like a bit of a foreign concept – after all, we live in a highly individualistic society. So much of our culture is about what we can acquire or achieve for ourselves, based on the idea of a meritocracy. But establishing solidarity and looking at the big picture is key. Open letters, petitions and online campaigns can be a great way to use a collective voice to demand policy change, particularly to those with political power, such as MPs and government ministers. Alongside others, choosing to commercially boycott individuals or companies that reinforce systemic racism can be a strong financial incentive to ensure it pays to be anti-racist. It’s also worth acquainting yourself with local groups that already exist within your organisation, university, or local community, and using those spaces as stepping stones to involving yourself in wider movements for change.
Starting community-wide conversations is a strategy that young changemakers are leading the way on in particular. Izz, a member of a new youth-led anti-racist activist group called Tribe Named Athari, tells me that effective activism involves challenging issues on an institutional level.
“Racism is in education, policing, media, the medical world. You need to challenge them. Having dialogues in your friendship groups is a good start, and having that dialogue in the community is also extremely important. You can use your privilege in other ways too – such as talking to MPs, the media, or other outlets with influence.” Tribe Named Athari are currently working closely with different communities, and setting up interesting ways to create larger-scale conversations.
“We co-hosted an event with the creator of Secret Cinema, where we screened a new anti-racist film called Les Misérables (not to be confused with the novel or musical), and used it as a platform to create a dialogue around racial justice.” It’s a great example of young people working collectively to create wider conversations and organise for change.
In an age where posting a black square was (briefly) seen by many as the height of activism, being genuine in your pursuit of making a difference feels extremely important. Izz affirms that “activism isn’t about you, it’s about using your skills for the movement and for others. It’s not about making yourself feel good, it's about being a catalyst for change”.
Social media doesn’t have to just be performative either. “We use social media to organise," Izz says. "You can use it to do great things. We’ve organised our Secret Cinemas purely through social media. You can use it to organise sit-ins, or create media attention, or create dialogue within a community.” He maintains that doing the reading is still important, as you need to have a foundational knowledge of racism before you can put things into action. But it’s not enough.
Allyship is a selfless act that is not about instagrammable moments of challenging the status quo. It’s a quiet, consistent form of daily work that seeks no credit or applause from the groups it’s supposed to be helping. It’s about realising that we have far more power working together than just as individuals. Ultimately, a true commitment to anti-racism can’t be about just yourself or reading a couple of books – it’s got to be about the collective power of all of us.
Banseka Kayembe is a freelance writer living in London and the founder of Naked Politics, an online platform that engages and empowers young people, and amplifies their views.