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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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ally

Allies and quick wins

I don’t like football. I never have. I would rather participate in my sports and I’ve never felt like I found a way to access the tribes of sport which seems to come so naturally to just about all of my friends (whether it’s rugby or football or tennis or cricket or whatever). That’s kind of on me but even I’m aware of the racist backlash against the young Black footballers in the English football team.

Like a middle aged dad I’m aware of Marcus (feed the kids) Rashford because he’s been pretty remarkable as a man and role model and, frankly, together with the rest of the English football team have left me feeling entirely and unexpectedly wholesome about a group of young men in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Having seen the abuse and heard tales of it and seen the ridiculous posturing from the government front benches whose dog whistles have gone in their pockets while they’re busy wringing their hands over how awful it all is I also wanted to say something about allies.

Look, I love you all but your allyship is a bit shit. (Yes, I know it’s not fair and that you do care and many of you reading this are not shit allies but bear with me because I have a point to make and it’s easier if I’m just a little bit polemical, m’kay?)

It’s fine to be performative and say the right things on facebook and twitter and wherever else you’re present. I love that and I like filters which make gammons choke on their stella. It also serves to move the overton window to a small extent and that’s a good thing too – demanding the boundaries of acceptable political and policy making reflect what we want and not what proto-fascists want. I’m all for that.

It’s also easy to feel like you’ve achieved something. (And hey, at this point I’m talking to myself as much as you where I am an ally of my LGBTQIA+ friends and family and my female presenting friends who face their own challenges every freaking day – no one gets off this challenge – not me, not you).

Look, as an ally it’s nice to say we’ve done something and it’s even nicer to feel like we’ve had a win – especially if that’s a quick win.

However. That is to miss the point of allyship. Or at least it’s to be, if you’ll bear with me, a poor ally.

As an ally, settling for a quick win and abandoning jobs which might feel more challenging or doomed to going nowhere (like writing to a brexit supporting, dog whistling home secretary) isn’t worth doing is not great. The problem with this attitude is it can too often come from the perspective of someone who’s not actually affected by the issues you’re being an ally on.

Racism sent towards footballers? I’ll post a filter on facebook but I won’t write to my MP because they’ll ignore me.

Please – the action should be the other way around, like 10 times out of 10. Why? Because your MP might ignore you but they actually make a difference to the world your filter won’t. Yeah, sure, you’re being ignored and I guess that sucks but welcome to my world where if I complain about racism, white folk look at my skin colour and say ‘you would say that wouldn’t you,’ before moving on to have their dinner.

So solidarity, yeah? We both get ignored. The point though is that you speaking up on my behalf (or on anyone’s behalf) does a huge number of ancillary things which remaining silent doesn’t just not do, but actively harms.

The first is that it moves the Overton window. It might do it be a terribly small almost unmeasurable amount but it still moves it. As a friend of mine said today, chipping away is big and clever.

Second – it gives you a momentary insight into what it is like far too often for those people you’re being an ally towards.

Third – lots of people saying what you’re saying, all of you voters? That really does move the dial and gets policies changed. The backlash against racism in the last couple of days? Huge. Tory MPs actually saying the party has it wrong. This kind of pressure can be sustained and can make a difference no amount of facebook filters can achieve.

Finally, when bullies are surrounded by a crowd? They tend to shut up and slink away because they only thrive when they perceive they have the upper hand. You talked to that person being abused in public? That moves the dial. It doesn’t make the experience any less dramatic but it makes it less likely to happen again.

When you look at this kind of action and avoid it because it feels pointless or thankless or useless or frightening it’s really about your own privilege at work. For those of us who wrestle with these disparities because we woke up this morning and got out of bed, there is no choice. It’s part of what living each day requires. You can walk away from that pressure literally because you’re privileged, because it doesn’t impact you. To do so is to be a poor ally because what you’re telling me is that you’ll support me if you can feel good about it, if you can achieve a tangible (and preferably quick) win.

I don’t have much more of a point to say – please be my ally. Please be help me be a good ally. Please do the boring, thankless, invisible thing because it’s that which changes our lives. I might not see your action but the lack of public performance doesn’t make it less powerful.

Can people who aren’t racist still be racist?

tl:dr yes.

Sorry, I keep wanting to write a post on a fascinating idea about longevity that I’ve even gone and interviewed people about, but it isn’t quite ready in my head yet. Instead I wanted to talk a little about two ways racism (and other kinds of prejudice) can manifest themselves.

Racism can hit us two ways but those two ways can combine in some unexpected ways to provide odd outcomes. Those outcomes are always negative for people like me on the receiving end.

The first of these is where people are simply individually racist. This is your home grown racist (and probably fascist) bully boy who wants us all to go ‘home’ and to stop polluting his high street or parks with people who aren’t like him (aka brown). Although on the rise after years of being the kind of person who would get shouted down and be rightly afraid of being called out for what they are, they’re still relatively rare.

The second of these is systemic racism. Think the police, or publishing or the health system in the UK (or the US). Think education, access to benefits and social mobility. Systemic racism comes in two varieties.

The first of these is where the system is explicitly designed to hinder minorities from accessing common goods – such as segregation, Jim Crow or banning the Burka.

The second of these is where the system is designed FOR the majority on the assumption everyone thinks like them. Think facial recognition which doesn’t recognise BIPOC because it was never tested on them because all the coders were white. Think mobile phones which were designed by men and hence are designed to fit into the average man’s hand and not the average woman’s hand.

The first of these is always designed by racists for racists to protect their power and to oppress. Not a lot to say there except burn it and them to the ground.

The second of these is more insidious and much harder to tackle. It also gives cover to proper racists as they can hide behind the law – which explicitly, if inadvertently, favours them. It also gives cover to people who are prejudiced and don’t know how to think about people different to them. Systemic injustice and inequality allows the comfortable and powerful to legally punish those less fortunate or weaker than themselves and to feel morally justified for doing so. The mother who’d feel justified in using the legal system to get her kids into the school of her choice and deliberately exclude others but complains bitterly about asylum seekers trying to legally seek a better life is one stereotype I’ve met too many times for me not to feel sick just remembering those conversations.

It’s the intersection of people who aren’t particularly prejudiced with the second kind of systemic racism where we get negative outcomes that most involved struggle to justify.

Racist systems make those within them choose racist options even if they’re not explicitly racist themselves. Thhey provide incentives for police to stop and search young black men (or rich black people) disproportionately more than rich whites or young white men (can you imagine a rich white person being subjected to stop and search?). It’s why there’s so few books by PBIPOC getting published (and even then they tend to be about the ‘issues’).

It’s why BIPOC die younger, get poorer access to services and education. It’s why BIPOC have died in larger numbers of COVID while the government has tried to hide that fact.

It’s also why the majority line up to say ‘but it’s not me!’ because they can legitimately feel it’s not them. The problem is they operate in a system which creates a language and frames their decisions in ways which can only be seen as racist. It’s how good people make prejudiced decisions – like crossing the road when they see a BIPOC or telling an assertive powerful woman she’s talking too much or being domineering.

If you’re in the majority and you recognise you’re in this kind of system (and this means everyone because we’re all in them unfortunately) how can you be an ally?

  1. you can speak up and not let me do all the work of protesting
  2. you can protect me from punishment when I speak up (trust me, you might get a strange look or disgruntled humphs from arseholes but I’m going to be actively punished)
  3. You can assume that when someone like me talks about this we don’t need you to say ‘I’ve never experienced this/I only buy books by authors I like regardless of colour and sex/If they didn’t do anything wrong they’d be fine/if the police stopped them there was probably a problem.’ etc. etc. etc. Basically anything which casts doubt on their experience or puts your experience of the world ahead of theirs in judging what’s going on
  4. Do NOT play devil’s advocate. There’s a reason the devil is the devil in Christianity and it’s because he’s a massive tool. Don’t be that tool.
  5. You can find ways to change the system
  6. You can accept without comment that I don’t have to be perfect and nor does anyone else who’s protesting their situation. Literally no one is holding you to that standard
  7. Finally, but far from exhaustively, accept that you are going to be presented with decisions which are framed in a way which makes them racist and you don’t have to go along with it.

Oh, and as a throw away. I might not want to be like you. Ever. And that’s ok. However, I still, probably, want to be your friend, to get along and eat dinner together and laugh with you.

We have to stop seeing the fact that people want to lead different lives as an attack on our way of seeing the world. We have to stop seeing it as a threat and treat it for what it is – glorious.

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