How do you like your white middle-class guilt? Thick as mince? Strained through performative ‘take a knee’ piety? Stewed into self-hate-a-thons by events an ocean or a century away? The paroxysms of well-heeled progressive Britain to appropriate George Floyd’s cruel death are many and various but you can be sure that they are never far from a smartphone. On social media, white privilege abasement is the latest fashion. Sorry, it’s a disingenuous crock.
It ought to be clear that there is genuine and widespread horror at Floyd’s murder. Some years ago, the journalist India Knight wrote about ‘Stout Woman’, a British composite of decency and common sense often derided by the left. I like to imagine Stout Woman, seeing the televised destruction of a black life by a white police officer and the ensuing chaos, resolve to do something practical to tackle her own ignorance of the lives of people who don’t look like her. And maybe see if she could invest some of the luck she had in life’s lottery to volunteer for a charity or help mentor a colleague at work.
Whatever she did wouldn’t involve the narcissism of social media or competitive ritual humiliation. I’d say she also would be horrified by police officers losing ground to mobs defacing war memorials. But I imagine her desire to heal extending beyond a few likes on Facebook. I think in short, she’s emblematic of most of us. But how to bridge the gap between signalling and doing?
I remember some years ago coaching a black woman who worked for me and was facing an uncertain future after a work reorganisation. We didn’t seem to be making much progress until she eventually disclosed that several incidents of racism had destroyed her confidence, and left her feeling so violated and soiled that she couldn’t conceive of something as bourgeois as ambition. Helping someone find their self-worth again is more valuable than any number of solidarity marches. But it’s a lot harder and quieter work.
Meanwhile, the flames of a culture war are being fanned by the sort of preening self-conscious halfwits who Fair Trade at Waitrose, live in a Boden catalogue, love the idea of Jeremy Corbyn and flock like sheep to any flagellation of their entitlement, as long as it’s entirely risk-free.
Except the risks are becoming all too apparent. Far from helping to solve years of deep-seated discrimination, the kind of eager white fragility we are witnessing will only serve to further radicalise the extreme right who, believe me, are mobilising around narratives of a woke ineffectual police, desecration of war memorials and antifa anarchy.
I fear we’ve only just stepped into the foothills of violent disorder. Ahead of us is the real danger of orchestrated confrontations between political extremists who are out to exploit our national navel-gazing. They aren’t many, but they have captured the stage with worrying ease. The good news is that Stout Woman and her allies in the dismayed silent majority can dislodge them.
So don’t just kneel there, do something! Get involved in the criminal justice system where young black men are grossly over-represented in our prisons and crying out for role models. Give your guilt money to the enormous number of great BAME charities like the excellent, award-winning Peer Power, struggling on a shoestring during the Covid crisis. Give your time and your life experience to become a mentor for disadvantaged people.
Join the special constabulary if you want to see policing changed from the inside, or help tackle the chronic injustice of knife crime, which blights Afro-Caribbean communities. Support black entrepreneurs and start-ups with your custom. Get involved in politics and help find and enable more ethnic minority candidates to change the face of our local and national democracy. There are a million ways to put your empathy to work without the theatre. Be an ally without colonising the cause. It’s not all about you.
In the end, one of the most offensive aspects of this ABC1 sanctimony is that it denies black people agency outside that of anointed victims. This is primarily a defect of the left but there’s no room for complacency now the Conservative Party approaches its date with destiny on promises to fix the gross inequity that holds back black people in particular.
Is there anything more patronising than a white liberal telling a black person to submit to the designated helplessness of victim? That’s no way to build a country of equals.
Despite being Irish, I’ve never experienced racism in this country. Despite also being British I still sometimes struggle to assimilate here, so I can sympathise with the dislocation of prejudice at least. But I know it exists, how deep it runs and how corrosive it is to the lives of hundreds of thousands of our citizens.
If you love this country and you want it to succeed, now is your chance to shine. Get on your feet, bin the placards, ditch the faux humility and reach out like you mean it. Just don’t put it on Twitter.
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