“All my life I have had to see colour”

21 black people share their thoughts on the BLM protests, personal experiences with law enforcement, and how white people can help dismantle racism.

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

“I can’t breathe” were the infamous last words of unarmed George Floyd whilst police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, suffocating him for almost 9 minutes.

The racially motivated killing of Floyd tipped the world over the edge. On the 26th May, the day after Floyd was murdered, the first of many protests broke out in Minneapolis, USA. Despite the pandemic, masses fled to the streets with anger and urgency to make a final stand against racism and police brutality. Myself included.

Demonstrations took place in all 50 US states and 60 countries worldwide, making it the largest civil rights event in history. Almost 18 million signatures have been collected via Change.org, urging for the officers involved to be charged and for wider police reforms to be made. Even those who typically abstain from politics were seen sharing petition links on social media, imploring the public and governmental bodies to take action.

Reflecting on the impact of recent initiatives and collective action, the Justice for Floyd movement was undoubtedly successful. Not only have the officers involved in Floyd’s death been charged, but wider Police reforms have also been implemented throughout America. However, this particular case has been symptomatic of much more than long-overdue American police reforms.

Ultimately, the tragic loss of Floyd has forced the world to address the elephant in the room: the ceaseless cycle of institutional and structural racism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been pivotal in orchestrating collective action against these problems and spreading awareness of what you can do to help dismantle them.

Different dimensions of oppression

For those unfamiliar with BLM, it is a social movement that was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. The shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old black American called Trayvon Martin by police officer George Zimmerman acted as the catalyst for the movement’s creation.

The activists involved in the campaign confront cases and spread awareness of violence and systematic racism inflicted on members of the black community. Although BLM’s roots are in America since its inception BLM’s work and support network has expanded globally.

Despite the extensive work carried out by BLM activists, year after year innocent black people are subject to violence and systematic racism in America. Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, Botham Jean and Breanna Taylor, are just some of the names of black Americans who were killed by the police.

These individuals were murdered by the very people who are supposed to prevent murder and keep communities safe. As Critical Race Theory upholds, society failed them because of the colour of their skin. Unless adequate policy reforms are made and their killers do not face murder sentences, society will continue to fail them.

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For those who have not come into contact with Critical Race Theory (CRT), it upholds that within American society, the law and societal institutions are inherently racist. Instead of being grounded in biology, Race is a societal construction created to propel the white population economically and politically. What this often results in is a consistent failing of black Americans and other ethnic minorities. This failure is evident in the death of George Floyd.

As an advocate of CRT, I believe that the majority of Western media outlets favour the opinion of the white man. This means that even when people of colour are welcomed to express themselves via the media; which is very rare, their voices are drowned out.

As we have seen with the British media, there is an overwhelming focus on the ‘thugs’ and violence at the BLM protests, rather than the thousands of peaceful black protestors. The portrayal of people of colour in such a way only perpetuates the issue of systematic racism and prejudices.

Whilst the BLM protests were in full swing in the UK, Madeleine McCann suddenly reappeared all over British tabloid papers. This epitomises what CRT theory states about societal institutions benefitting white people. Despite the world being in the midst of a human rights crisis, in the eyes of the British media, one white girl’s life seemingly took precedence.

Again we can see how these choices made by the media are reinforcing internalised ideas the public may already have of white supremacy. Although such choices of media outlets are not ‘overtly racist’, we must not underestimate how dangerous they can be.

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The BlackoutTuesday trend that spread across Instagram on the 2nd of June also evoked great concern. Even though I appreciate the sentiment of showing solidarity and support for BLM, being silent is counterproductive. Black people have been silenced for centuries.

Instead, people should be spreading awareness, educating themselves, and discussing the issues. This is why I wanted to use my platform to hear from my black friends and acquaintances about their thoughts regarding recent events. I wanted to create a platform to ensure their lived experiences of racism are not overlooked or fade into the background of another social media trend.

Respectively, I have transcribed 4 questions and collected answers from 21 black people from the UK, US and Canada. I hope this article can give insight into how the current events are affecting members of the black community and how we as white people can help them through it.

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

What do the current protests in the US mean to you?

It doesn’t feel like a ‘US’ issue, it feels like an issue that we are all united on. Although it manifests itself differently in the US, institutional racism is happening here and within every other country in the world. The development of social media and the internet has brought everyone together on this so that an issue in the US is an issue everywhere.

The amount of news can be overwhelming though. That is not to say that it shouldn’t be reported on, it absolutely should! But it is important to recognise the effect it has on your mental health when you are constantly digesting things that are so upsetting and infuriating. This, however, is a small price to pay compared to generations before us.”

Vanessa, 23, UK.

Currently, I feel as if I am experiencing the loss of a loved one that was close to me. Despite the fact I have never met George Floyd he is a human being amongst all things who died in cold blood. A human being who died for no other reason than hate. I feel as if no matter where in the world you are, you can sympathise with this man and his family. Therefore, this is my business.

As much as some will say looting doesn’t help anyone if someone in my own family died because of their race I would tear the whole country down too”.

Anonymous, 23, UK.

The current protests mean a lot to me but I’m also very wary of them. I am extremely happy that people are finally starting to see the injustices that happen to people like me every day. I’m grateful that people are willing to risk their lives in the middle of a pandemic to fight for what is right. People are tired. People are angry. They want change!

I’m excited this is all happening honestly. However, I hope that the people that are going out there are going for the right reasons, and not just because they want to get out of the house or they see it as a “trend”. To some people, this might be temporary, but this has been a lifelong fight for Black people for hundreds of years”.

Kristina, 25, US.

It saddens me that it has taken so long and for many black people to die in order to get to this point. However, I’m thankful that as black people we are now waking up and making a change that will benefit black people in the future. Also seeing many allies of different races there in support of these protests brings me joy in knowing that we are not alone and they have a heart”.

Flavia, 23, UK.

The current protests are valuable and necessary. However, I am not convinced that will amount to any substantial change. Unfortunately, my view is that they will inevitably result in little change and that the sentiment/support will fade within a matter of months. In brief, the current protests mean very little in the grand scheme of things and will soon be marginalised for the next popular story”.

Hamza, 22, UK.
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

Can you tell me about an experience you have had with law enforcement that illuminated racial prejudice?

The experiences I have had with law enforcement has always had to do with stops and searches. I don’t see why when I am with a group of multicultural friends, I, as a black person will get stopped and searched.

“It’s always the same story about how I fit a description of someone who committed a crime in the area so they must run a check on me, but every time you ask the police to tell you the description of who they’re supposed to be looking for, you get no answer. You are then asked for ID by force, and if you refuse because you know you have done nothing wrong, it’s an instant arrest.

How is that fair?! A change must come. Profiling is the worst and it should be illegal because it’s racist. Simply racist”.

Kenya, 32, UK

A few years ago in Ibiza, a good friend and I, were the only two people of colour in a group of 10 people. We were all sat by the beach at night listening to music. Something that other groups were also doing in the same vicinity.

All of a sudden 2 police cars appeared out of nowhere and started flashing their lights on us. This led to mine and my friend’s speakers being confiscated. We were told we were not allowed to sit by the beach after a certain time at night. The other groups were not approached like us, just simply told to move on from a distance.

They asked to see my ID which I didn’t have on me. They then proceeded to search me and once they had finished, they moved on to intimidate my friend. Following on from him being searched, he was then escorted IN HANDCUFFS by this gang of police back to where he lived, so they could check his passport against their records. They didn’t find anything on his system.

Again, no one else we were with; all white, was asked to present their IDs. Nor were they were searched or forced to explain being at the beach at that time. This was so baffling to me!

Nuria, 24, UK.

My friend and I were in her brother’s car, and we got pulled over by the police. There was nothing wrong with his license, no criminal history associated with himself or the car, but we all got pulled out for a stop and search anyway.

My friend and her brother spoke in their own language to each other just saying to keep calm, but the police shouted at them to speak in English. We were kept there for a whole hour, even though nothing resulted from the stop and search.

We 100% felt that if we were white and “spoke English” we would have been treated very differently. This also highlights how important it is to know your rights when it comes to law enforcement”.

Anonymous, 23, UK

When I was 14 years old, my group of friends and I spent the day in London attending a movie premiere. Before going out my mother had packed me a full lunch, and a knife and fork to eat with.

Whilst we were waiting, I wanted to cut off a piece of merchandise so I could take it home as a souvenir. So, I used my cutlery knife to do this. Technically, this was ‘vandalism’ and a member of security decided to punish me for it. They radioed for the police stating only that they had a “black female with a knife.

If I had been white maybe they would have also told the police that it was a cutlery knife and that I did not pose any physical threat. Perhaps if that happened, I would have one less childhood trauma to deal with now”.

Savarnah, 23, UK.

When I was 15 I was walking to go home with two friends. One was white, one was mixed race and I am black. A police car drove by and I smiled at them and they pulled over, stopped us and asked for my ID. They also asked for the ID of my mixed-race friend, however quickly handed it back to him and didn’t even speak or look at my white friend.

They then pulled me aside as if I was under some investigation as if I resembled someone who was wanted or something. After standing with them for a while they realised it wasn’t me and let us go. I was late home that day, my parents were very angry and I told them what happened.

To me, I thought it was kind of funny at the time and I didn’t even realise the racism that had happened. Looking back on it now, I see what happened and I can’t believe it!

Lauren, 22, UK.

I recall an incident when I was around 13. My father and I were pulled over by two police officers on a Sunday morning around 10 am. The officer asked my father to step out of the car on the accusation that my father; then in his early 40, looked ‘too young’ to be driving. Despite me being sat next to him in my football kit, clearly his son.

I was so confused that I asked my father why we had been pulled over. He responded saying: “This is what they do to black males in this country son, don’t ever forget it”.  

This was when my father was driving a BMW. Only a few weeks later, we were then pulled over in the same car, as my father was dropping me off at my secondary school. I mention this because when he sold the BMW and downgraded to a Ford, such occurrences seemed to stop almost instantly. He now has an Audi TT; may the Lord have mercy on us!

Hamza, 22, UK.

‘Random’ stop and searches. This happens several times, to too many black men. Getting stopped because you ‘fit a description’, and drawing blanks when you ask what the description is.

It’s even worse when they see you driving in what they think is a ‘flashy car’. They will stop you, try to ascertain how you can afford such a nice car before they search the car in hope that you have something illegal on you.

There was a time a friend got stopped because his brake light was not working, his vehicle got searched thoroughly and when they found nothing, they let him go. He got home and checked his brake lights; they were working just fine”.

Zacharia, 27, US.

I started getting searched more when I got to around the age of 20. I was a late bloomer. I was small and relatively unassuming until my early twenties. The difference from how I was viewed by society as a cute innocent kid and an older more athletic; or as some would say ‘intimidating’, black man, was almost night and day.

Walking into an elevator and purposely taking the bass out of your voice when speaking to the older lady just so she can ease up quickly gets tiring”. 

Calvin, 23, UK
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What do you want to see your own government do to address the issue of racism adequately?

Change the juridical system. They send more black people; more specifically black men, into jail for ridiculous charges such as a $9 robbery. Whereas a white male can rape an unconscious female and only serve 3 MONTHS?! Where is the justice? I want to see the system put away the people who severely broke the law, not put them away because of their skin colour.

Police officers need to be trained PROPERLY like how they train doctors and nurses to save lives. Police are supposed to protect the human race! Change the training program for them so they understand the law, and how to approach situations/altercations. It should not only take 800 hours to become an official police officer”. 

Judy, 26, Canada.

Decrease police presence in black communities. 

Defund the military and police and redistribute the money into educational and social programs that work to combat poverty, hunger, and addiction. 

Officially label Nazis and the KKK as terrorist organizations and ban any members or affiliates from obtaining jobs that give them power or authority over marginalized groups that they target. 

Abolish private and for-profit prisons and amend the 13th amendment, which keeps slavery and involuntary servitude as a legal criminal punishment. 

Overhaul the entire criminal justice system and actively enforce initiatives that prevent profiling, discrimination, and abuse of power from occurring unchecked without consequences”.

Tane’a, 22, US.

Lots more could be done about the school curriculum and how black history is portrayed. The positive history of black people being part of the British Empire. Fighting for this country but still being treated as secondhand citizens is not taught.

Also an understanding of how our mental health has been affected by our history and current circumstances that trigger those feelings again and again”.

Lorna, 54, UK.

I believe consent must be acquired by police for stop and searches. Also, black prisoners must stop being held in custody if there is no evidence pointing to their involvement in the crime. I understand there are a lot of factors that can lead officers to perform stop and searches; i.e. knife crime, but it is important that everyone is to be treated with respect regardless of their race.

I also believe front line jobs should be conducting psychological evaluations on the workers regularly to check their mental health and how it can be affected by their job. We must not hire people who, on a social level, show disregard or passive-aggressiveness towards people of colour”.

Anonymous, 24, UK.

As a teacher, I want to see the government addressing the need for a black curriculum. One that celebrates and educates students about black culture”.

Anonymous, 22, UK.

“Although there are many things the government should be doing, ultimately no real change will come about until there are people in government who aren’t racist”. 

Vanessa, 23, UK.

I would like to see a complete overhaul of systemic and institutionalised racism. The UK is fundamentally built on capitalism, in which the capital was black bodies. I would like to see the government offer reparations, to cease colonising and occupying foreign countries illegally. To return the cultural artefacts within British museums, and disband the commonwealth.

Racism in the UK is insidious because it prizes exceptionalism and makes it seem normal that the lowest in society live on crumbs whilst the upper classes exploit the poor for all of their worth. Social services such as local recreational spots, schools, transport links need to be improved, stop and search should be banned, the prison system abolished in favour of actual rehabilitation and community-based initiatives to prevent crime”.

Anonymous, 21, UK.
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

What do you want white people to do to help dismantle racism?

Many of my white friends have expressed the fact they find speaking about race uncomfortable. I think it’s important to understand that just because you are not a card-carrying member of the National Front, EDL or KKK, does not mean that the buck stops there. Passivity will always be a key enemy of progress.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that a system exists that is unfairly weighted towards a certain group. White Privilege is not necessarily an overt show of aggressive racism. Acknowledgement of the fact that this Privilege exists is the first step towards challenging the system. The very admittance and understanding of its intrinsic link to institutional racism will act as the conduit through which positive action can be taken.

Do your homework and do not expect comfortable conversations over a coffee, expect to challenge presumptions and views. This is a constant process of reflection and there is no endpoint. Place expectation upon yourself that now you understand the problem, you are an active player in the solution”.

Tolu, 26, UK.

“I want white people to be more sensitive and carefully choose their words before speaking. Racism in the UK is a lot more covert and I feel some microaggressions can be perceived as racist remarks particularly in the workplace that people are unaware of.

I also want people to know that black lives matter is not a trend. It is not a tickbox activity for people to post a black square on Instagram and think that they’ve done their part. I want them to realise it is a way of life and we must continue fighting for equal rights regardless of race, gender, sex etc”.

Oyin, 23, UK

I believe white people need to stop pretending like their history is pristine when it comes to black people. They must admit that this is a problem that was pioneered by their ancestors, who have never truly accepted people of colour as equals.

Making jokes that hurt people of colour and then blaming them when they get offended needs to be avoided. If someone tells you they are offended on a personal level by something you said to them, it is only right to apologise as you would anyone else.

Stop saying you are not racist because your kids are black. Stop saying the N-word and blaming it on black rappers, their lyrics are not meant for you”.

Anonymous, 24, UK.

Challenge your friends and family, if you want to truly change you cannot allow racist views to be expressed by your loved ones unchallenged. It means uncomfortable and awkward conversations will be had, but black people have experienced awkward conversations from a young age. I was 6 when my mum told me there are people that will not like me just because I am black, imagine how I felt hearing that as a 6-year-old child”.

Zacharia, 27, US.

Many of my white peers associate racism with large, pointed white hats and segregated schooling. Comments that were sadly often meant as signs of acceptance or compliments would shed light on the fact that the way to address and accept my race, was to mould it into theirs or simply pretend that it didn’t exist.

“Yeah but I mean you are basically white anyway”. I am not basically white. I am half black. I am half white. I am coloured and will never be considered ‘their’ white. All statements I am accepting and proud of, and so they should be too.

I ask of my white friends, my white family members, and my white fellow humans to stop and think. Do not generalise, do not divert or desensitise from the simple, harrowing and yet the very real fact that black people are being killed because of the colour of their skin. You do not need to be black to acknowledge this wrongdoing. You do not need to be a scholar on the topic of the Civil Rights Movement, or endlessly apologise for the actions of your ancestors. Acknowledge this wrongdoing, stand with us, support us, speak out and spark change”.

Rosie, 22, UK.

The most important thing for white people to do in terms of helping the cause right now would be to entirely accept their privilege, not get defensive over it. All this leads to is an excessive dragging out of the issue and no progress. Educate yourselves, accept your role and be willing to call out all forms of injustices. It’s no longer enough not to be racist, you must be willing to call it out. If that’s making you uncomfortable, chances are you are a significant part of the problem”.

Anonymous, 23, UK.

Self-reflect, self-educate, weaponize white privilege for the betterment of black people and help dismantle white supremacy. This is the time for white people to take a good hard look at how much of their preconceived notions of black people come from a place of stereotyping and disrespect. It is time for those people to challenge microaggressions alongside institutionalised racism.

The onus shouldn’t be on black people as we haven’t created this issue, especially as fetishisation and cultural appropriation has meant that Black American culture, Jamaican culture and Nigerian culture, to name a few, are now intertwined and conflated as mainstream ‘urban’ culture. Ignorance isn’t an excuse anymore and it is the designer suit of disrespect.

Therefore, if there is energy left to research baby hairs, gold grills, and box-braids, I think there is ample enough time to research how not to be offensive and racist, meet us halfway”.

Anonymous, 21, UK.

Microaggressions for white people to take note of and stop doing:

White people assuming that you smoke or sell weed/cocaine, just because you are black. Do not ask me how you can get cocaine at the Christmas party. 

Not bothering to learn my name.

Being asked where you are ‘originally’ from because God forbid you were born in the UK and not a hut in Africa where the closest well was 3 kilometres away.

“Can I touch it”? they ask as they dig their fingers into my hair, not giving me a chance to respond to the silly request. 

Telling the only black woman and man in the workplace that they would look good together as a couple.

Getting told I speak good English, or that I am articulate because Lord knows no one can be as intelligent as the white man. 

Being told you look like Stormzy/Eddie Murphy/any other prominent black celebrity. 

“I do not see colour” this statement is the worst, because not only are you denying my racial characteristic, you are also gaslighting me for thinking that you did. All my life I have had to see colour because I am treated as a result of my colour”. 

Zacharia, 27, US.
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this project. Thank you for taking the time to write to me and share your personal stories, even when they may have been difficult to tell.

When checking in with my black friends, they have expressed that the past few weeks have been very taxing mentally. Memories of being discriminated against have been forcibly upheaved and naturally, it has left members of the black community feeling overwhelmed.

Despite going through a very upsetting period, everyone who contributed to this article made sure they stood up and used their voice. Your collective strength through your pain is admirable and that courage is what will make real change happen. I am so proud to say I know you all.

It is also important to note, through this project alone I have learnt so much. Education was my main purpose when writing this. I could read all the books on race in the world and learn political theories. However, I believe personal anecdotes are the most important to hear. They reflect what is going on the ground level and how policy reform affects black people in their day-to-day lives.

People must remember the important roles that listening and reflection play when helping to dismantle racism. There are so many elements as a white person that I take for granted daily. I hope other white people will read this article, acknowledge their privilege, and feel inspired to join the fight against systematic racism.

In case you are wondering what you can do next, I would encourage you to find out more about the BLM movement and how you can help change black people’s lives for the better. It is not their duty to fight for something they never asked for in the first place.

I would recommend starting with the BLM website: https://blacklivesmatter.com/.

For supporting your local black community, here is a website that lists the UK’s black-owned businesses that you can support directly: https://www.ukblackowned.co.uk/.

TIME Magazine’s books to read on how to become anti-racist: https://time.com/5846732/books-to-read-about-anti-racism/

TIME Magazine’s films to watch: https://time.com/5847912/movies-to-watch-about-racism-protests/

Keep reading, keep talking, and most importantly, keep fighting.

Published by Lucy Rowan

24-year-old Writer and Editor from South West London

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