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Recognizing racial inequality and the tyranny of blind privilege

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A George Floyd mural in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Image: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

It's been a strange week, sitting in our homes consuming stories.

Much has already been said about the murder of George Floyd. We have watched as individuals, celebrities, politicians and organizations have commented, some proactively, some reactively, each bringing a different lens to the tragedy. 

What has hit home most has been how this story has started to feel like everyone's problem. For many, it is the first time speaking out, and there is clear discomfort. 

The majority don't know what to say. When you're the beneficiary of a structural privilege, saying anything could sound hollow or disconnected, or worse just plain wrong. Saying nothing could be mistaken for complicity; saying something could implicate guilt. 

"Thank you for your solidarity -- can you please show us a snapshot of your boards" has been a recurring theme on social media. Perhaps saying anything at all is just not appropriate at this time. Perhaps now is more a time for listening. Active listening.

I grew up in London and went to one of the top academic private schools in our country. Last week, precipitated by global events, a fellow classmate posted in an alumni group that a large part of the racial trauma he suffered as a Black man was during his formative years at our school. 

The post triggered a deluge of comments. Unsurprisingly, most of our white contemporaries expressed horror, ignorance and a total lack of comprehension. Many of those from minority backgrounds conceded a more nuanced understanding, including remorse at not having done more to stand up to the abuse, having often themselves been subjected to similar experiences, or felt pressured into complicity for peer approval.

The chimes of stamping out "evil racism" and moving forward rang loud and ubiquitous, such was the desire to put a box around the pain of the past. But what was telling was the ripple effect of the post -- as more and more minority alumni came forward to break silence on their own experiences -- Black, Arab, Indian, Chinese, Eastern European, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish -- until it became very clear that the tale of discrimination was no longer an isolated incident of the past some 20 years ago, but rather something real that was likely still happening in classrooms even now.

Academically, our school was brilliant, there is no doubt about it -- with many students going on to become leaders in their fields at some of the top institutions across the country. But in many ways our school was also a microcosm of our world. Some of the less gracious responses to my contemporary's post were a stark reminder of this. 

The fact that discrimination took place in our school and was seen -- often at times even by the victims themselves -- as "banter" or "casual racism" speaks volumes to the relativity of established power structures. Even the outwardly innocuous post from one member demanding alumni put aside their disagreements and pause to reflect on D-day and "the sacrifice of our forefathers 76 years ago" felt like the whitewashing of another truth and a lesson on where minority gratefulness should lie.

When I left school, I went on to study English at Cambridge University. During my time there, I read many of the cultural showpieces of Western literature including the entirety of Shakespeare's canon, but it was only in my last year when I opted for the post-colonial paper that I finally realised the magnitude of all that had been missing from my education. 

Others in my class underwent separate journeys. My best friend at school was the daughter of a French teacher and was often singled out for her Frenchness, with teachers and pupils alike calling her "frog," a phrase I later learned was a xenophobic slur popularised when Britain was enemies with France. 

My friend went on to study history at Oxford University (the school was excellent as I said) where she presented the proposition that the U.K. would soon leave the EU. Her peers thought it was an outlandish claim at the time, but she always maintained it was our school that made her so sure Brexit would happen.

Against the rising tide of far-right nationalism and a global pandemic which has served only to further accentuate the structural inequalities faced by many Black and minority communities, it would be wrong to "other" racism at this time. The very foundations of our society are constructed on systemic and historic inequities. 

Our propensity for racism runs in the grain. It is for this reason that many of us know full well that without real structural reform, our children's classrooms will continue to remain as vulnerable to prejudice as the highest offices of government.

It is hardly surprising then that many minorities who do reach positions of influence often feel the unspoken burden of being the responsible harbingers of change. Most poignant about my peer's measured and generous offer to facilitate positive transformation at our school was the sad refrain that not one of the white perpetrators who had inflicted the racism had stepped forward to respond to the invitation for reconciliation.

The harsh reality may simply have been that the offenders never realized their bigotry at the time. Many of those who did apologize admitted to not even knowing whether or not they were complicit in the abuse. How well do minorities know the feeling that racism for some is just a careless blind spot for others. 

It is after all quite likely that the memories from 20 years ago never left the same lasting impressions on the abusers as they did the victim. 

Or perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps it is not that simple. Maybe those individuals -- just like so many people today -- don't know what to say. Maybe they are watching for the first time as another story unfolds, one they were barely conscious of until now. Perhaps it is because they are listening that they are silent.

As we reflect on the George Floyd tragedy, it would be a mistake to think that the murder revealed something new to the Black community about the historical injustice stacked up behind that knee. Sadly this is not the first time a Black man has been killed by the very system entrusted to protect him. 

The difference is only that the killing finally shifted the eyes of the majority away from the institution to the suffering taking place on the concrete. When the news stories wane, let us not forget this. 

This is about so much more than Blackness. This is about recognizing where we stand in society and the tyranny of blind privilege. Each of us is in that video. While we may not all be watching from the same position, let us never underestimate the power of our gaze.

Shama Naqushbandi is a writer, lawyer and executive based in Toronto. Her first novel, The White House, won Best Novel at the Brit Writers Awards and explores the challenges of finding identity in an increasingly globalized world.

Image: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

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