The Magic Ingredient in Fighting Racism
While People of Colour across the world continue to fight racism, those that benefit the most are, unsurprisingly, the people less likely to join in the fight. While marginalised groups use their anger to fight, the oppressive group often lack that fire, that motivation. By dominant, oppressive groups, I don't exclusively refer to white people. Any collective that assumes superiority needs this key ingredient to overcome such inequality. This includes those with lighter coloured skin who discriminate over those with darker coloured skin, also known as colourism. It also includes those who discriminate based on their caste, as seen in India or Nigeria, for instance. Indeed, any group who maintain social dominance over others (e.g. men over women, able-bodied over disabled, straight over gay, cisgendered over trans, young over elderly) all need this something to reduce disparity, and increase fairness. That ingredient, of course, is empathy.
I will be exploring empathy in this article, and will be focussing specifically on the correlation between the lack of it, and racism.
Why the lack of empathy?
Anti-immigrant sentiment has been allowed to flourish in the last few years. Back in 1968, the Conservative Enoch Powell gave his most famous of infamous speeches. As David Lammy writes in his book Tribes: “His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 articulated the racially constructed concept of the nation. He warned that by embracing mass migration, the country had gone ‘literally mad’ and that ‘in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. Although this is just one of many moments in our recent history that appealed to racial hatred, this one feels particularly monumental in that some of its sentiment still resonates with racists even to this day.
Lammy goes on to point out that "In fact, ahead of the 1955 general election Winston Churchill privately told his cabinet that ‘Keep England White’ was a good slogan," and that "Just one year before she became prime minister, in 1978, Margaret Thatcher said ‘the British people who have given so much to the world’ were understandably afraid of being ‘swamped by alien cultures’." And let us not ignore the most racist of election slogans, used by Conservative MP, Peter Griffiths, who in 1964 said: "“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
Similar scare tactics have been employed by many politicians we see around us today. Who can forget Nigel Farage's "Breaking Point" billboard, Theresa May's 'Go Home' vans or any of Boris Johnson's racist remarks, such as 'Muslim women look like letterboxes/bank-robbers'? For the record, the original photograph used in Farage's poster was showing refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border to a refugee camp. Not illegal immigrants entering Britain as the poster suggested. The 'Go Home' vans were part of a campaign that saw 170,000 people, many living in this country legally, receiving alarming text messages with warnings such as: “Message from the UK Border Agency: you are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain.” And our prime-minister, Boris Johnson, has harboured racist feelings for a long time. When he was editor of The Spectator he wrote that British colonialism in Africa is "not a blot upon our conscience," adding: "The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more." Writing a list of recent parliamentary racism is a job I don't have time to complete but I will just point out that UKIP, at various times, called for the end of laws that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race or colour. Given the internet, the media, and the instant accessibility of such views, it is unsurprising that British people have often absorbed and espoused anti-immigration, often-racist opinions.
Why is empathy the solution?
Just think about the ignorant views so often vocalised by outwardly and inwardly racist people. They are generated and allowed to fester because they are often unchallenged. If someone wants to challenge their baseless views on the Holocaust, of slavery, of the intelligence or superiority of certain races, of the behaviour of certain races, or of the current state of equality, one only has to read accredited, well-cited books. If, however, someone wants to actively seek opinions that support only their views (confirmation bias), then they will also be in need of learning critical analysis. But as much as reading books about race/racism/antiracism helps to improve awareness and understanding, and as much as critical analysis helps to questions the validity of spurious information, these won't necessarily encourage empathy. And I believe it is empathy we need. One could recognise and learn about the facts about Jim Crow laws, for instance, but that won't necessarily provoke action. And for as long as there is inaction, racism prevails.
Collins defines empathy as:
...the ability to share another person's feelings and emotions as if they were your own.
If we arrived at a point where the dominant culture shared another person's feelings and emotions as if they were their own; their anger, their grief, their struggles, then they would be more inclined to actually do something about it. I don't think that anyone would have racist views if they were empathetic towards People of Colour. Nor would anyone let racist views manifest into policy or violence if they were empathetic towards People of Colour. Indeed, institutional racism can be remedied by Empathy. Empathy will get police, teachers, health professionals, judges and employers to look at situation from different perspectives and to think about their actions more. Empathy will stop the reactionary, ill-informed conclusions that often shroud a racist's logic or a racist institution's motivations. To all of those people and institutions that perpetuate and practise racism, either consciously or subconsciously, it is empathy that encourages education, encourages listening, encourages learning and, ultimately encourages action.
How do we become more empathetic?
In the last 6 months especially, I have tried to inform my journey towards antiracism as much as possible by reading books and articles, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, and watching documentaries and TED talks. Although this has in no doubt been helpful, most of this media was specifically about antiracism. Although this was profoundly important for me to deconstruct and relearn what I thought I knew, I think I gained most of my empathy from, and will continue to gain empathy from, media that isn't necessarily about antiracism explicitly.
Listening to music made and performed by people of colour, reading novels written by people of colour, watching comedy by people of colour, supporting business owned by people of colour, and watching television and film with protagonists who are people of colour are all essential. Rather than treating people of colour as the group of people to go to help with your antiracism, treat them as you would any other group of people. Listen to their stories. Normalise the absorption of their culture. And If it becomes second nature to watch, listen to and read material by people of colour, it will start to become second nature to see situations through their perspective. You will begin to empathise. You will see their struggles as your own. And you will join in their fight.