Despite living out future pages in history textbooks, I, like most black people, am still a little cynical.
It’s been almost seven years since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet this time it’s supposed to be different. The previous lack of fervour begs a lot of questions. Why now?
The current swell was galvanised in March, after the failure to arrest Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers sparked an international outcry. Soon after we learned of Breonna Taylor’s death as a result of police incompetence. Then, the straw that broke the movement’s back: a viral video of George Floyd’s final moments and the painfully familiar words “I can’t breathe”.
When yet another video of a black person's final moments is shared, the trauma is all-consuming. Whether you like it or not, these moments sear themselves into your memory. What our non-black friends, family and colleagues are now learning is that these horrific crimes are not just painful to witness in and of themselves, but they trigger a reminder of centuries-old racial oppression that seemingly shows no sign of abating. Indeed, this is something that’s internalised from as early as childhood.
For years, the faces that haunt me have been those of Sandra Bland and Sarah Reed, who in 2012 was the victim of a notorious police brutality case and found dead in her cell at Holloway prison in 2016. Every story is as gut-wrenching as the last because they cut through the daily humdrum to reiterate one disturbing realisation: purely due to the skin I am in, I am currently not guaranteed a full life.
In the weeks that followed Arbery’s death, I waited for the inevitable sharing of brightly coloured infographics on white privilege (check) and slogans on racism being bad (check) alongside the few attempts by people like myself to further the conversation. However, in amongst the oversaturated news cycle of lockdown, I began to see a glimmer of change as online protest etiquette began to swiftly emerge. Within days, my social feeds became forums for black people to vocalise incidents of racial prejudice, while non-black people also rallied to sign petitions and make donations. Following anti-racism pages has become essential, and finally the hollow practice of virtue signalling has been exposed and discouraged.
Blackout Tuesday, an initiative that was initially a way for black people in the music industry to protest through rest, brought the concept of non-optical allyship to the fore. On Instagram, there was a scrollable sea of over 28.2 million black squares captioned with well-meaning hashtags that only served to bury the reams of anti-racism resources that had previously flooded feeds. But even when posts are useful, there are now calls for an accompanying commitment to do better. To support black-owned businesses, to amplify black voices and narratives, and for non-black people to do the research themselves when it came to education on black issues.
Of course, we don’t have all the answers, but the resources are more plentiful than ever. There are countless lists of books to read, people to follow, and documentaries and films to watch. Tough conversations are encouraged. The past week has shown that online activism works, but getting it right matters. A better use of hashtags in Blackout Tuesday, for example, would have been to caption the black squares with opposing hashtags (such as #alllivesmatter) so as to populate their feeds.
Now more than ever I’ve felt the need to be present at protests. On Wednesday, flanked by my closest friends and family amongst thousands of others we began the Selma-esque walk to Parliament Square and Downing Street. The mood was hopeful yet desperate. Online it’s easy to feel as though the conversations are merely words but as I saw signs with slogans such as ‘Racism is a very British Problem’ and ‘Silence is Violence’, heard chants of the name of those who have died, it was clear the traction had translated. Award-winning actor John Boyega gave a speech so impassioned he questioned whether “[he’d] have a career after [it], but, “fuck that” as he decided. I too worry - rightly or wrongly - that as a young black journalist, I could hamper my career prospects in writing about race.
So how can I be assured this wouldn’t happen? Through mentorship schemes for individuals, and grants for black businesses. Through the hiring of black people both visibly and behind the scenes. Whether the vocal allyship of corporations will translate into tangible gain for black people remains to be seen, but I am confident that, if it doesn’t, this generation will hold them to account.
This work has already begun. Emily Ames, co-founder of Sonder & Tell created a helpful post of UK black businesses to support that’s been shared nearly 80,000 times. Naeemah Lafond has made a helpful guide for how brands can better support black hair stylists. Cult beauty behemoth Glossier pledged $1,000,000 to the NAACP Defense and Educational Fund, and to black-owned businesses, respectively, while fashion brand A-COLD-WALL* pledged £25,0000 worth of grants to 10 black businesses. House of CB followed suit with a $20,000 donation to anti-racism charities, alongside 15% of this month’s profits.
While nothing is an overnight success, black people are now calling for multiple permanent seats at the table - not just singular tokenistic ones to be put away once the noise subsides.
Images | shutterstock