"I wouldn't have considered myself a racist but I was complicit in and perpetuating racist stereotypes. I'm deeply grateful to Tine for his interruption, he was rightly annoyed with me and yet unnecessarily gracious to me in his response. I remember realising at that point thatno matter how I considered myself, I had a problem with racism."
I remember the moment when I realised that racism was a personal problem. I’d recently moved to Birmingham to study at the university having grown up in the south east of England and certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a racist. I wouldn’t have used racial slurs, I’d had and have friends from a range of ethnic backgrounds and enjoyed the increased diversity of the city to the town I grew up in. I can’t remember quite what I was saying but I’d been relaying a fear to my group of friends from my halls of residence as we went to the cinema. I remember that whatever the fear was it was abstract, hypothetical and a stereotype because as I continued Tine, a young black man, interrupted me and said “Why’s he black?” I can remember that moment almost to the brick I was standing on. There was no good reason the abstract, hypothetical person I was speaking about was black. I wouldn’t have considered myself a racist but I was complicit in and perpetuating racist stereotypes. I’m deeply grateful to Tine for his interruption, he was rightly annoyed with me and yet unnecessarily gracious to me in his response. I remember realising at that point that no matter how I considered myself, I had a problem with racism.
It’s been more than fifteen years since that moment and in the fifteen years that have passed I don’t think I’ve done as much as I should have done to confront racism. I’ve been slow to respond. I remember with the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 continuing to try to consider how best to respond, the right things to read, think, say, do. I wouldn’t have considered myself a racist, I was trying to engage with Black perspectives to inform my actions. I recognised more and more the racist stereotypes that were still part of my thinking for what they were and dismissed them but still recognising that they lingered on. I developed an understanding of the structures of privilege and the way they advantaged me and disadvantaged others. It was good and useful reflection but it was slow and largely abstract with little response.
In the last few months I’ve been spurred to action again. I’ve been trying to think through what the murder of George Floyd and the systemic oppression of black people around the world and particularly in the UK require of me as a husband, father, friend, neighbour, church member, manager and employee. People have rightly asked me, “Why now?” and I’ve stumbled through an unsatisfactory answer recounting the history above. I’ve tried to answer in such a way that points to already being on board as if that in some way excuses my slowness. It strikes me that my slowness is one more manifestation of my privilege. I can afford to be slow because these horrible realities will negatively affect people who aren’t me. Why now? Because it is the right thing to do and I should have been doing this already, certainly at least for the last fifteen years when I simply said I was sorry to Tine. I don’t expect that I will respond perfectly now but it strikes me that now is the time when many of us will find out whether the words we have said in the last few months were just words or will lead to meaningful action. The news cycle moves on, the injustice remains. Will our reflection now lead to a sustained response or is it something that in years to come we will merely remember?
Postscript – November 2020
After writing my original allyship statement I was asked to consider writing a postscript reflecting on what had changed in the months since I’d originally written it and consider what I’d actually done in the meantime.
I’ve read “The Colour of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby and “Black Voices” edited by David Killingray and Joel Edwards. In different ways these books have helped me to better appreciate black experiences in the United States and the United Kingdom particularly (but not exclusively) in the church. At the same time I’ve been reading Augustine’s “Confessions” one of the church’s greatest theologians who is frequently misrepresented as white. This has been well complemented as I’ve watched David Olusoga’s “Black and British: A Forgotten History”. In all of these I’ve been struck by the richness and longevity of black history and how that challenges my assumptions about history over all. The suppression and forgetting of black history (and so all history) is lamentable but it’s been worth the work to rediscover and enjoy it.
This has spurred further action personally I was able to attend the University’s Anti-Racism workshops as part of its Black History Month programme. I was encouraged to join with others who are committed to addressing systemic and structural racism at the university. We’ve implemented a standing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion item in our team meetings to publicise events and opportunities at the university to engage with and to provide space to open up broader conversations regularly and my manager and I have a weekly point to consider our privilege and how best to utilise it for the good of others in our one to one where we discuss what we’ve been thinking, engaging with, and doing with.
I’m sure that I’ve got a lot wrong in that time too, I’ve probably never felt more like I don’t know what I’m doing but I’ve never been more confident that, that is a good place to learn how to get things right.