Time for white people in the UK to talk about racism

racism and rioting
No, not Minneapolis this week, but London in 2011.

I write every day here. Most days the words simply flow out of me, but some days are harder than others. Some days I can’t think of what to write about. On those days I simply open up my computer and open the blank page. Typically, an idea then appears and I start to write. Pretty soon it is flowing easily again. However, some days are harder than others.

Today is one such today. Today I wake up feeling sad, angry, frustrated, powerless. At what? Today it is about seeing the ever-present and systemic racism in our world come out of the shadows and erupt once again into violence. Today it is America, but it could easily be right here in London.

So, today it feels hard to write, and it feels pointless to write about my usual topics. And yet. And yet there is something to write about. I’m going to write to you about how it is high time for white people in the UK to a) educate themselves about racism in this country, and b) to talk about it.

Yes, I’m angry. Yes, this an unusual post for this blog on leadership, and yet, I am reminded of the words of Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Superbowl:

Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage. Integrity is keeping your word. Integrity is that internal compass and rudder that directs you to where you know you should go when everything around you is pulling you in a different direction. Some people think reputation is the same thing as integrity, but they are two different things.

I moved to the UK three years ago and found racism to be systemic and deep-rooted, yet bring up the topic with white people here and the typical reaction is discomfort and the classic reaction in such situations of using deflective humour then hurrying to change the topic.

So, some may be uncomfortable with me writing this today. Heck, I’m a little uncomfortable using this audience, this focus on leadership to write this. And yet, today I do. This matters, all our voices matter.

This blog has a global audience, yet today I focus in on one segment, white people in the UK. If that is you, please consider where you sit with this. Please think, please consider talking about it, “even when it may work to your disadvantage”. Integrity is not a popularity contest, it is about doing the right thing, always. Consider what is the right thing for you to think, say, then do.

Choice and Frankl

Whatever we feel is driving us to feel such things as being sad, angry, frustrated, powerless, making some days are harder than others, we always have a choice.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor Frankl, from Man’s Search for Meaning

Earlier on in the pandemic, I wrote: “Own your feelings so that you can act from a place of choice“, sharing how I had been struggling with the lockdown in some ways but not voicing it. In that post, I once again referenced this favourite quote from Frankl. As Maria Popova said in this Brainpickings post on Frankl:

For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful worklove, and courage in the face of difficulty

This morning and in recent days I am feeling so much. However, I’m already shifting to the choices I will make from this.

In fact, as I wrote this section of the blog reflecting on Frankl, I immediately shifted to feel in more of a place of choice, hence I radically rewrote the title and opening of this blog post to be more pointed, clearer. The original title was “some days are harder than others”. but, as you see, in reflecting on Frankl I went right to what I truly wanted to say. So,

It is time for white people in the UK to talk about racism

I find this to be a conversation other white people, particularly in the UK are uncomfortable with. Racism is real, systemic and deeply embedded into the fabric of society here. For things to change, white people must first educate themselves (as the UK education system doesn’t do this) about our history and our present.

I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who allows themselves to be comfortable getting uncomfortable with this. A starting point for conversation for me is to read some leading commentators. Here are three books to begin:

Each of these brilliant thinkers and writers has repeatedly gone on UK television talk shows, articulating clearly and calmly what is truly happening on the ground.

However, often they are patronised by white people on the panels telling them that whatever incident of the day being discussed is not racism and that Britain is not racist.

About a year ago a leading comedian working often with the BBC switched out a monkey for the then newborn baby of Meghan Markle. This clip is taken from a panel discussion where the rest of the panel spent their time trying to convince Afua Hirsch that this was not racist. I remember her tweeting this and hoped then as I hoped now that she will keep talking.

However, I do understand that it is exhausting to talk to white people who aren’t open-minded enough to accept that this racism is real in the UK.

It is time for white people to first educate themselves then get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about race.

It is up to all of us to change things, but there is a massive and so far largely abdicated responsibility among white people in the UK to first own our historical and present racism, then, from that place of responsibility, to take action.

Also published on Medium.