I was invited to take part in a discussion on the legacy of Stephen Lawrence alongside amazing panellists – Meera Spillett, Chris Murray, Rosemary Campbell-Stephens and Keith Jarrett. It was, for me, a stretch of my own comfort. I was used to sharing my experiences and thoughts in deeply personal and private situations. This was to be the first time I shared my own thoughts and experiences publicly. Here’s my talk.
I was born 18 months before Stephen. Out contexts couldn’t have been more different. I grew up in a white neighbourhood, in a white town, went to a white school in a white county in the UK. I never saw anyone with a different skin colour to me. Even in the movies or on TV everyone was mostly white back in the 1980s.
Seeing people with black skin was largely limited to visiting my great Aunt, who lived off Brixton Hill in London, looking at sights and sounds that were so different to my normal as we drove though London, or watching the West Indies thrash us at cricket.
From my distant vantage point Stephen’s murder was another tragedy on the news. It was hard to understand; I had no personal context that could help me make sense of it. It took place in a world that felt a million miles away from mine, and in many respects it was – geographically, socially, psychologically. I know, now, that’s a privilege I hold.
My work was to take me into local government in the late 1990s and I worked in some poor, white working class communities, co-ordinating work across the public sector to tackle disadvantage. I led work to develop and implement equalities policies and impact assessments, arising in part out the MacPherson Inquiry recommendations, when I first heard the term ‘institutional racism’. It was one of those times when I knew intellectually what it meant but couldn’t know viscerally through the prism of my own experience.
I saw the influx of people from eastern european cultures and countries and the response of the far right in stoking nationalism and division. But I was still a long way from the racism, discrimination and disadvantage suffered by communities, groups and cultures that are in the minority in the UK.
By the time I moved to London six years ago it’s fair to say that Chris, here on the panel, was the only black guy I’d met and got to know to any extent. That’s on me. I sure had a lot of learning to do – and still do.
MacPherson defined institutional racism back in 1999 as being ‘seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereo-typing”. It’s the use of ‘unwitting’ that makes this everyone’s issue, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. An obligation on us as a member of society. I sure was ignorant, and in many respects still am.
Sometimes in my work at teh RSA we talk about “proximity to the problem”. You can’t engage with an issue, or challenge from afar and still have legitimacy. It needs to be salient. I’ts why in health we talk about ‘no decision about me, without me’, and there is so much emphasis on co-production and engagement in public services.
In order for me to understand more about racism and discrimination and the extent to which I was unwittingly enabling its existence I have to engage with the issue and get closer to it.
Events precipitated this, to some extent; Brexit, Trump, George Floyd, the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on minority communities in the UK.
I’ve read, watched and listed. I was lucky enough to visit the National Museum of African American History and culture in Washington DC with my partner and alongside visiting Sachenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin, was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve had.
My partner is Indian and I’ve read about colonialism, discussed her experience s and learned so much from her family. Even hearing Chandni speak Gujarati is a source of fascination. Culture, values, world views are subtly, often obviously different. I share not as virtue signalling, but to try and be personal.
Is this enough? No. Not at all. I have a journey to continue on. It’s not a one-and-done proposition, not a destination to be reached. It has to be a live, continuous endeavour.
Remembering Stephen and his life and holding his emory in our hearts can me a constant reminder of this.
I remember sitting in a rural pub with Chandni and I had a moment when I suddenly realised she was the only brown person in the room – and I felt people were looking.
I’ve never known what that must feel like. I’ve never been the only white guy in the room. In fact this is the first time I’ve experienced being the only white guy on a panel.
It’s another step in my journey of trying to understand how racism and discrimination manifests, of engaging with people who are different to me, have wildly different life experiences, and have so much to teach me.
I don’t necessarily find this an easy tal to give, but in doing so I hope I’m able to encourage others on their own journey, too, as well as continuing to learn more myself.
Because we can’t be unwitting participants, perpetuating systems, processe and behaviours that are discriminatory.
Being nice isn’t good enough.
If I can get closer to the problem, if others can, perhaps we can in some small way address racism and honor the memory of Stephen Lawrence.