June Sarpong explains why when it comes to inclusion everyone must play their part but white people can have the maximum impact
An era-defining and unstoppable movement was unleashed this year, outraged by the shocking and horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in the USA, the Black Lives Matter movement spread from the States right across the world. June Sarpong, broadcaster, author and BBC director of creative diversity confronts systemic racism head on in her latest book, The Power Of Privilege. June reveals why she’s making it her mission to educate powerful privileged white people what they can do to bring about positive change.
Challenging opinions on racism
Opinions about the wider severity of racism will usually depend on proximity and exposure. Generally, white people in majority-white countries will have had limited exposure to racism. Black people, especially from lower socioeconomic groups, will have had direct experience of it and a more pronounced view of its severity and prevalence. However, witnessing the same incident through the same mobile-phone lens meant that the racism experienced by black Americans suddenly became a visual reality for white people. There was no escaping it. There is no justification or narrative to present the killing as accidental or in some way caused by Floyd.
The full implications of white privilege were cemented by that murder and video coming only 24 hours after the circulation of another video. This one depicted Amy Cooper, a white woman, threatening to call the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park. All he had done was ask her to put a leash on her dog, which was running free in an area of the park where that was prohibited. As she grew increasingly annoyed at his request and the fact he was videoing her response, she called the police, intimating to them that a black man was threatening her. This is the latest in a long line of white women weaponising their fear of black men. And it leads all the way back to 1955 and a 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched after being accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant.
Threatening black people’s very existence
As the killing of Floyd the day after the Cooper incident demonstrated, interactions between the police and black people in the States are fraught with danger. Floyd did not resist arrest, instead doing everything he would have been taught to minimize his chances of being hurt, but he still ended up dead. And this is the reality for many black people, and why the issue goes much deeper than a few bad apples. If you are black, a white person has the power to threaten your very existence.
The subsequent demonstrations and civil disturbances have forced a very public conversation about race in which white people have had to play an active part. Normally these conversations are reserved for cultural celebrations, such as Black History Month, with white people taking a more passive role. But there is now an acknowledgement, especially amongst younger generations, that racism is pervasive and the responsibility to address it lies with majority white populations.
It’s no longer just a marginal, unseen issue for people of colour. The footage of both events coming so close together left no room for ambiguity about the reality of racism –and it became clear that it is a problem for white people too.
Engaging and not blaming
Admittedly, when we talk about ways to increase diversity, we don’t immediately think of straight white males. They are often viewed as the source of the problem more than part of the solution, with tags like ‘pale, male and stale’. Yes, much of the inequality we see has been the design of a small, elite group of mainly straight white men, whether that be in western society or former colonies.
But a shared identity doesn’t have to mean identical views or collective guilt, rather an opportunity to join a conversation. One of the main stumbling blocks towards greater inclusion is the inability to effectively engage those who are currently the most catered for in a discussion around inclusion and widening participation.
Yes, some of the most affluent members of this group have used their power to marginalise or exploit those whom they deemed as ‘other’, today and in the past. However, if we want this power and agency to be shared more widely and equitably, without conflict or casualties, then a productive dialogue needs to happen. A conversation with the focus on honesty and acceptance rather than guilt and blame.
Moving out of your comfort zone
Having spent the best part of the last four years researching, writing and then speaking about the benefits of diversity for society, the one question that keeps being asked by white people, often men, is: ‘I know I am seen as the main cause of the problem, but what can I do?’
I’d been toying with the idea for some time of writing about privileged people who want to create change and an incident at a diversity dinner I hosted made me realise there was an urgent need.
I’d been asked by a major consulting firm to lead an unconscious-bias training dinner for their senior employees and high-level clients. At my table, there was a young, white professional couple whom I really bonded with. I was waxing lyrical about the importance of workplace targets and goals as the quickest means of levelling the playing field. As I continued talking about race, class and gender, I sensed the husband’s increasing discomfort with my views. This wasn’t necessarily a problem; the whole point was for us to move outside of our comfort zones.
I wanted to make sure I understood his viewpoint in order to figure out a way to include him, and people like him, in my conversations around equality. What he said struck me and has stayed with me. Even with his discomfort, he was still eager to know how he could help in creating change. He also wanted to understand if there was a place for him in the conversation: ‘How do we move from accusation to conversation? That I’m not made to feel like I’m on trial because I am white and male?’
That evening was a powerful moment of revelation for me and confirmed there was a need to write in a balanced, meaningful way about what white people in positions of power and privilege can do to bring about positive change.
Breaking our silence on that meritocracy fable
The prevailing story we are all told is one of hard-fought battles for equality and an arc towards justice and greater meritocracy. Not a perfect arc but one that’s improving. The experiences of people of colour, especially those who are socially disadvantaged, meant this story was long ago discarded as a fable. Others who have made some progress in a white world buy into the story but see it as aspirational rather than literal. They are careful not to challenge it to avoid the potential cost of rocking the boat.
Now, the naked brutality of the treatment of black people has caused people of colour to break their silence, tired of playing along with the official story. Many white people are also outraged and marching with people of colour, demanding a fair and meritocratic society be delivered. But white people who have excelled under the current system also have to come to terms with the reality that they are the ones who have prospered from systemic racism.
* The Power of Privilege by June Sarpong (HQ) is out now
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