I’ve had a number of conversations with people about controversies exposed via social media or the news and the thing that quite often surprises people is that, regardless of how I ‘feel’ about the incident in question my overriding emotion is not shocked or angry, it’s glad. Glad that it’s reached a level of national debate and discussion.
Now there’s a few things to be said at this point. Firstly, most people from minority groups will not be surprised by these stories when they become public because we recognise it every day – whether through blatant or more hidden discrimination. Secondly, whilst I will of course feel an emotional response in the moment (the recent Liam Neeson story certainly got me feeling all kind of ways), once I’ve clocked my emotional state I have to park it in order to think about the situation more clearly and critically. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, as a country I think we suck at talking about these issues as well as the history that led us here!
No incident of racism, overt or hidden, exists in total isolation. The abuse of footballers reported on back in December, the #MeToo movement, or the rise of racist abuse following Brexit – when these stories hit the headlines some people will say it’s only a minority of people, that it’s not a reflection of our society as a whole. That may be true but what’s also true is that these individuals do represent something. They represent a wave of underlying beliefs which exist across society. To dismiss them as minorities alone is to ignore the deeper rooted issues in our society that lead to these eruptions and that create environments where institutional and structural discrimination can exist.
The difficulty is, when I start talking about institutional or structural discrimination with people not feeling the impact personally or working to create solutions, I get a glazed response. It’s one of those things – if you’re not aware of it’s workings then it can be really hard to comprehend. You may be living in a part of the world where people from all walks of life make up a fully functioning happy community – it’s not to say that these don’t exist and that on a societal level we aren’t ‘diverse’. It is to say that the larger structures we live within such as government and big institutions (universities, large corporations etc.) haven’t caught up with society. If they had then the make up of our politicians, university academics and CEO’s would look very different!
Elif Shafak talks about the opposite to goodness not being evil but numbness. That this is how atrocities like the Nazi regime were able to exist – not because every single person aiding their progress was evil, but that they were numb to the impact it had. It might seem an extreme example but I think this is a really interesting point. When we’re detached from something emotionally we can ignore it but when it becomes personal and taps in to our emotions it’s much harder to ignore. Take the Syrian crisis as another example; knowing that there were millions of displaced people making treacherous journeys in the hope of safety didn’t connect as much as the image of one child’s body washed ashore. Similarly you could argue that the lives of countless young black men dying on the streets of London has connected less than one mother, Doreen Lawrence, speaking of the loss of her child.
In a time when we are flooded with information at a phenomenal pace is it harder to penetrate this level of numbness or does it give us less excuse to be ignorant to issues? I think it’s a bit of both. Whilst there’s nothing we can’t research in seconds, there’s so much passing us by that we don’t always connect with it on that personal level.
So when stories hit the media in a big way or a documentary or TV series hits an issue and connects meaningfully (I, Daniel Blake for example), I’m glad because it just might help to penetrate through the numbness and make us feel something so strong that we are forced in to making change.