‘This struggle should matter to all of us’

Downed: Protesters in Bristol threw a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-Century slave trader, into water. © Getty

Is protest against racism a duty for everyone? As Black Lives Matter protests swept across the world this weekend, the focus is turning to the role of white people in fighting injustice.

This weekend, despite the cold and bursts of driving rain, thousands of people stood united at the largest UK Black Lives Matter protest yet.

Armed with home-made placards and raincoats, they defied both the British summer and a pandemic to march against the racism they believe is endemic in society.

Their voices are being heard far beyond the UK. After the death of George Floyd in the US in May, protests spread first around the USA, and then the world.

This is not the first time protesters have taken to the streets against police brutality. But this time, there was another message: the call for white people to join in.

In the UK, one protester’s sign quoted Martin Luther King Jr: “A time comes when silence is betrayal”.

“White silence is incredibly powerful,” said lawyer Savala Trepcyznski this week. “The people of colour who are around a silent white person, they hear the silence. And they feel it. And they feel what it means, which is: I don’t have your back.”

People often talk about the duty to vote, but do we also have a duty to protest?

Terrible injustices happen every day, point out opponents. It would be near impossible to speak out about all of them.

Activists say that what drives white people to silence is often fear – of what their friends will say or of saying the wrong thing. They talk about a condition they call “white fragility” – a term coined by the academic Robin DiAngelo to describe white people’s inability to tolerate racial stress.

Yet by remaining silent, activists believe that white people become complicit in a system that promotes inequality.

Black people have been uprising in the US for centuries, historians point out. If this were enough to drive change, it would have happened already.

For writers such as Trepczynski, the missing link is white people examining their own relationship with white supremacy.

“These protests are being led by our black fellow citizens, but this struggle for a fair society benefits everyone and should matter to us all,” says Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian.

He believes it is impossible for any American, no matter their skin colour, to disengage from the country’s history of oppression.

So, is protest against racism a civic duty for everyone?

Silence is violence

No, say some. Protesting is not a part of civic duty. The place to enact change in a democratic system is at the ballot box, not on the streets. It is not the responsibility of everyday citizens to fight against racism – but the duty of politicians elected on their behalf and organisations, such as the Minneapolis Police Department, that allow it to flourish.

Yes, say others. The current system is not working. Parliaments are rarely representative and voting alone is not enough to cause change. Protests are needed to bring new ideas and new causes to the political agenda. It is not the duty of the victims of racism to fight against it: everyone should care about creating a just society. By remaining silent, white people are complicit in inequality.

You Decide

  1. Does everyone have a duty to speak out against injustice, even if it does not directly affect them?
  2. Are protests a necessary part of democracy?

Activities

  1. When was the last time you witnessed a protest or campaign (big or small)? Write half a side of paper explaining who was protesting and what they were protesting about. Did it lead to change?
  2. Take a look at the latest election results in your country. How representative of society as a whole were the people elected? List five things that could be done to increase the representation of minorities.

Some People Say...

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968), leader of the American Civil Rights movement

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know from past protests that when people work together, it can lead to meaningful change. In the 1960s, Californian Cesar Chavez led a campaign to demand the end of exploitation of Filipino workers on American farms. He eventually convinced more than 17 million people to boycott California grapes, helping to secure better wages and unions for farm workers.
What do we not know?
We do not know when, how, or even if the Black Lives Matter protests happening this week will improve the lives of people of colour in the US and elsewhere. It has been seven years since #blacklivesmatter was first used online, but the deaths continue. Barack Obama said on the campaign trail, “Don’t boo – vote.” Increasingly, younger people are doing both. We do not know if, when change finally occurs, it will be thanks to voters, protestors, or a mixture of the two.

Word Watch

Black Lives Matter
The international human rights movement began in 2013, when a Californian woman called Alicia Garza wrote a Facebook post in response to the acquittal of the man who shot dead black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Endemic
Prevalent, regularly found amongst a certain group of people or in a certain area.
George Floyd
George Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who died on 25 May in the US, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Martin Luther King Jr
The American minister and activist who advanced the Civil Rights movement through nonviolence and civil disobedience. He was assassinated in 1968.
Robin DiAngelo
An American academic and lecturer. Her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was published in 2018.
Complicit
Being involved in, or knowing about an activity that you know is wrong.
White supremacy
The racist belief or idea that white people are superior to people of other races. Some people also use the term to refer to a political or cultural system where white people control power and resources.
Civic duty
The responsibility to do certain things, such as reporting a crime, as a member of society. Politicians disagree on whether or not voting should be considered a civic duty.
Representative
One in 10 of the 650 MPs elected to the UK House of Commons in December 2019 are from an ethnic minority, but 14% of the UK population are non-white. In the US, 78% of Congress is white versus only 61% of the general population.

Subjects

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