This week I’ve seen lots of white allies publicly declaring their solidarity with people of colour on social media. I was nominated on Twitter to do this. I could spend 10 seconds cutting and pasting a tweet, add “hashtag Istandwith[…]” and then nominate some other white folks. It would not put me out much. But if I want to show my solidarity with Black people in the U.S. and elsewhere, and my opposition to structural racism, it’s important that my actions don’t begin and end there. Anti-racism is not a feeling or a political leaning; it’s not a brand or a tweet or an Instagram post. For white people to be true allies I believe we need to hashtag less, listen more to what BIPOC are saying about their experience, do more and talk about it less, and be willing to just sit with a whole lot more discomfort. White people tend to want to feel good about ourselves while we say we’re anti-racist. What we need to get better at is feeling uncomfortable.
I was born and raised in apartheid South Africa in the 70s and 80s, so racism is ingrained in me and it would be pointless to deny it. My frontal lobe developed in that racist medium and white privilege has been my lifelong experience. Which means that for me to be anti-racist requires daily awareness and commitment to challenging automatic reactions and thoughts.
I was 19 the first time I voted – in a referendum that asked those eligible to vote (white adults) whether apartheid should end or not, yes or no. I’d been to a segregated school with all white kids but at university I learned alongside people of all races and had new Black, Indian and Coloured friends (that’s how apartheid categorized racial groups). My Black friends’ futures depended on the will of a minority white electorate and I was all ready to be a white saviour. I voted yes in the referendum and the Yes campaign won, which made me feel virtuous. One of my Indian friends challenged me: “You expect us to see you as our hero?” she said, “It’s going to take more than voting in a referendum…” People of colour were not so naive as to think things would change overnight. At 21 I waited in line for hours to vote (euphorically) in South Africa’s first proper democratic national election that brought Mandela to the Presidency. But quickly I learned the work was not ‘done’. As a medical student and junior doctor working in Johannesburg’s public hospitals I could see this very clearly. You cannot end centuries of racist society simply by giving everyone a vote. In the late ’90s, as I watched the developments of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I began to understand the importance of oppressors listening to the experiences and pain of people long oppressed and feeling discomfort. It’s too easy to think, “I didn’t do the oppressing,” and want to just move on, until you hear and read the stories and understand that your white experience made the oppressed person’s experience possible.
Since the early 2000s I’ve lived in other countries that don’t have explicit ‘named’ government policies of racial segregation and subjugation but do have structural racism and prevalent ‘us vs. them’ thinking. It’s almost harder to tackle when racism is not overt government policy because people often just deny that racism exists, say “I’m not a racist,” and look away while they continue to benefit from a system that oppresses others.
Racism is a social construct that I and many other people who think of ourselves as ‘good’ people help to perpetuate every day by accepting the status quo and by not doing enough to break it down.
Of course my white guilt is not going to help fix our racist society, but I can do something more than virtue-signalling my white allyship on social media.
I can listen to what people of colour are saying about their experiences, learn something and feel uncomfortable, I can not hide from the discomfort. If others have lived under oppression for their whole lives, I can damn well sit with discomfort and guilt and become willing to act, to deliberately challenge the status quo the way I would if it were my own kids’ health and wellbeing that was being undermined by it.
I need to ask myself every day what actions I am taking to bring change to a system that privileges white people over others. Am I asking why the company I work for doesn’t have an explicit anti-racism and reconciliation strategy? Am I pointing out the lack of diversity in my workplace and asking what we are going to DO about it? Am I making doing something about it my responsibility?
In my role as a medical editor, am I actively working to ensure that the CMAJ includes, promotes and publishes the voices of people of colour and Indigenous people? Am I willing to do this even when we receive letters from Canadian physician readers saying that the CMAJ has become ‘too political’?
Am I prepared to listen respectfully to feedback from people of colour especially when they challenge me on what I am doing, tell me I’ve got it wrong or say I am not doing enough? Am I willing to lean in to the discomfort that criticism brings, confront my bias anew and change the way I think?
Am I taking every opportunity I get to point out white privilege to my white children and teaching them how they might dismantle it?
I can say with confidence that I have not done enough, that there is more work to be done and I need to do it.
Someone once pointed out to me that there is a difference between looking good and living, and that we spend far too much time engaging in the former rather than the latter – to our own and society’s detriment. If you’re white and you really are committed to ending structural racism, then I must tell you that ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ is not the action that will do it; find out what will actually make a difference and start living it.