I’ve just returned from taking part in a vigil for Black Lives Matter. Twenty of us stood around the bandstand in the park in silence, one or two carrying placards while others took the knee, and there we remained for eight minutes and forty-two seconds. Even though I was standing and not kneeling it felt much longer, more like a quarter of an hour, so imagine what it feels like to have someone’s knee on your neck for that length of time. George Floyd called out ‘I can’t breathe’ about twenty times during that period – and at the end of eight minutes and forty-two seconds he died, while after my eight minutes and forty-two seconds I went home to my family.
I keep thinking about some sort of artistic response to this. I don’t want either to jump on a bandwagon or to do something which might count as cultural appropriation, since this is not my story to tell. But my response is my own, and is as much personal as it is collective. So it requires some thought – but I think a poem may emerge at some point. I also want to think about what was going through the mind of the police officer. Why do people think it’s OK to behave like this? What are they thinking? Or are they not thinking at all, only reacting?
A propos of all which, I was greatly cheered this morning to see this news item.
It is a moment of utter liberation when the statue of a slave trader is replaced by the statue of a Black Lives Matter protester, and this is what happened early this morning in Bristol. The statue is of course not official but if the authorities have any sense they will let it stand for a while at least while they consider what to do. I think the best use of the plinth in the long term would be some kind of memorial to the suffering of slaves – and while that’s in preparation they could leave the statue up. Or else use it for some public art, like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square which, as you may remember, I was lucky enough to be on (here’s the post about it.) Public art is the best response to injustice and I will always be glad to have been associated with that.
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.