Tone policing is the subject of ‘Day 3’ of Layla F Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy”. The book is designed to be read, by white people, one section a day, but I am progressing at less than a section a week. There is not that much to read, but there is lots to think about – especially when I have over 50 years of ‘lived experience’ of my own ‘whiteness’ to reflect on. Also, times are so ‘heightened’ with C19, and the statue of Colston having just been deposited into the harbour where his slave ships used to dock.
There was a lot of anger and violence on display this weekend – at least – a lot compared to the usual reserved ‘Britishness’. We usually prefer our violence to take place on foreign shores or sports fields and to be state sanctioned and ‘lawful’ rather than ‘civil unrest’. There was the anger on the streets and the anger in the media that it provoked in response. Accusations of ‘criminal damage’ as graffiti on his statue labelled Churchill a racist and Colston was ‘got in the sea’.
We had discussed whether to join the protests in Leeds and decided on balance that we wouldn’t. Partly because we don’t want to risk contributing to a second C19 wave, but also partly because after many years of marching and protesting and so little to see for it I wondered if my energy and experience might not be put to better effect? To work on changing me rather than raging at the machine – again. And as I watched the news coverage of the protests unfold I do remember hoping that things remained ‘dignified’ and ‘lawful’. Tone policing in my own head? Yes. But also hoping for the promised land of a peaceful protest that leads to lasting change.
About as likely as hen’s teeth and unicorn poop.
For several years I had watched the campaigns in Bristol to rename Colston Hall and remove his statue, or least add a plaque to it describing the role of slavery in enabling his commercial and philanthropic largesse. But, as I understand it, a form of words could not be agreed. So nothing happened. Until this weekend, when neither tone nor direct action were policed.
I have not been comfortable with conflict. I avoid it. I minimise it. I believe it does not ‘help’. As a physicist I learned that every force is met by an equal and opposite force. Anger and hatred from one side induces anger and hatred from the other. No matter how righteous or justified the emotion is, it is unlikely to be helpful. That was perhaps the nature of my inner ‘tone police’.
And perhaps I am uncomfortable with conflict because I never really had to engage in it? Home was generally a calm and non-violent place. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I witnessed police brutality at first hand and saw in the coal fields of Yorkshire what conflict really looked like. And this perhaps is a part of white privilege. For many of us, most of the time, not having to fight to be heard? To be fed. To be housed. Being ‘reasonable’ was enough. We had to work hard. But for black, asian and other minority ethnic communities working hard and being reasonable was nowhere near enough.
Much of my work these days, especially in the Reciprocal Mentoring for Inclusion Programme is about discomfort. The discomfort of learning things about the impacts of our white British history. Who paid the price for our libraries and concert halls. And who continue to pay the price.
Over the last couple of weeks I have listened to the horrific stories of three muslims and a Sikh. All work in the NHS. All with awful experiences of racism in the NHS and in the communities where they live. These stories were difficult to hear – because I too want to Love the NHS – and hearing how ill it makes some of those who work for it is tough. I came away from the first two of those conversations feeling ashamed, powerless, unclear about what to do next. Not knowing how to help. The privilege of thinking I might be able to help…
As the third story came to a close I shared how I was feeling and how I had felt after the other two conversations. The shame, the powerlessness, the helplessness. And I was told that I would never understand how much it helped just to listen to these stories. To let them be told and to hear them without judging or denying – just accepting. Can that really be enough?
And I took that into my fourth conversation…