Eight minutes and forty-six seconds has become shorthand for the killing of George Floyd by officer Chauvin (apt name!) in Minneapolis, watched by two of his police colleagues. It has become an ‘enough is enough’ moment for black people all over the world, and because it is their story I feel reluctant to say too much about it. But it is also our story; the story of white people confronted by one of their kind committing an unspeakable act. It’s the story of white people made to face our own racism; the story not only of the openly racist committing unspeakable acts but also of the silent prejudice which lurks within our own hearts.
I don’t want to do too much breast-beating about this; I don’t think it’s helpful. But what should we do? It’s easy to stick Black Lives Matter on your Facebook profile, to sign a petition, to write to your MP, to repost stories: what’s harder is to do the work involved in eradicating racism from our own bloodstreams – because I sure as hell know it’s in mine. I’ve caught myself thinking and feeling things I don’t want to admit, because I know my brain is full of largely unchallenged stereotypes. I’ve done the work in challenging sexist stereotypes because they affect me daily, but I haven’t done the work in eradicating racism from my subconscious.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I haven’t finished the work of eradicating racism. I’ve not been unaware of it, after all – and perhaps it’s always a work in progress. But work it most definitely is – and there’s the rub. It’s a lot of work to track down each of these thoughts and emotions, these ideas and stereotypes laid down over decades of film and TV and news and culture; these assumptions of whiteness Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about, meaning that we assume a person is white unless told otherwise (the example she gives is of Hermione Grainger being played as black in the latest Harry Potter and the Cursed Child giving rise to protest, but J K Rowling herself saying there was no indication that Hermione is white. *) To stop these automatic responses and tell yourself a different story: it’s all work.
And most of us feel guilty. We feel guilty by association, and we feel guilty because we know that all this stuff lies deep within us. But should we? If racism is for the most part unconsciously acquired, should we feel guilty – any more than we feel guilty about getting wet when it rains? I’m not sure that guilt is helpful in any case, because the first thing we do then is to start policing ourselves, to make sure no-one can accuse us of being racist. But policing oneself is not, in the end, a solution. In the end we must change the heart.
To topple a statue and fling it in the harbour is a powerful thing to do – but in the end the statue we must topple is the one that lives in the heart.
*as Lodge points out, it adds an extra dimension to the story of ‘pure blood’ and Hermione being Muggle-born.