Updated: Jul 27
Over the weekend, Joaquin Phoenix stood up at the Baftas and delivered a very moving speech. It was obvious from his demeanour as he walked onto the stage, he was possibly nervous and uncomfortable. It became clear there was something other than the generic 'thank you God' on his mind. After thanking everyone, he spoke about feeling conflicted being there. He then courageously brought up the uncomfortable topic of systemic racism. Joaquin speaks about people of colour not being welcome to the Baftas historically albeit their huge contribution to the industry in ways that we all benefit from. He said the most important thing he recognised was that we are part of the problem. White people have to understand systemic racism because we are all accountable to help change it.
‘We have to do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism, I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuated and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us’. You can watch it in full here.
I, for one, was moved by his words. I have always wanted to speak up more about racism but like everyone who does, I fear the response. People are so quick to get on the defence. Joaquin has already received backlash, many stating he shouldn't have even gone to the BAFTA awards. I think what matters here is that he used a public platform to use his voice. That's what people need to hear so let's echo his words and not criticize him for God's sake.
White privilege - the societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.
I know I have white privilege because I have not been exposed to even the tip of the iceberg of what many of my black friends have been, and I never will. I feel accountable more and more for using my voice and whatever platform I can to start the conversation. People of colour are exhausted from trying to explain their struggle to us, very often to be met with a blank expression or defensiveness.
This article, by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, was the first really well-written piece I read that summed it up. It's not that us white people aren't working damn hard at what is already a difficult life, it's just that understanding our black neighbours, what they have been through and what we haven't been exposed to can lead to small changes in the way we see things which is so desperately needed. In writing this, I did my usual research mostly watching youtube clips and documentaries and what is most flooring is not only the information itself but the comments underneath. People who can’t believe how ‘reverse racist’ this show or clip is simply because it points out systemic racism in action. There is no such thing as reverse racism. Racism is racism. White people have not only had the upper hand for thousands of years but have oppressed black people directly and indirectly and still struggle to see our privilege. That is the problem, your privilege is not what you have been given but it’s what you haven’t been exposed to. How are you supposed to understand if you never step outside your bubble to listen to someone else's plight?
Race can be an awkward topic, no matter what ethnicity you are. It’s as simple as, we, of course, don’t know what others experience because we are not black and white folks never will be. We have to accept that we will never fully understand the plight of a black person, but we can try to get an idea. We connect with people on similarity, what we have in common. White is often the ‘default’ race and it’s time we recognise our shortcomings and knowledge gaps and be more deliberate in our actions. I’m not writing this to be controversial or spark any angry defence in people, I just want people to try and see things from a person of colours’ perspective. Almost everything you see written about race or inequalities in the system is done by a person of colour.
I think about race a lot because I just want people to be treated fairly. Maybe I relate a little more because I am ‘other’ or ‘white Irish’. Irish people were quite literally on the same boat as Africans to the West Indies all those years ago. If you don’t believe me, watch this. The white Irish slaves, however, could work seven years to eventually get their freedom (involuntary servitude) and the black slaves had no way out. I used to think (incredibly naively) it was like for like between Irish and black people, maybe Irish shared the struggle. I was so wrong. When you are white you are accepted without bias. You are not a threat. You are not feared. You are not going to ‘pull the race card’ (I think we all need to pull this card a bit more).
I am lucky to have some incredible black people in my life who help me understand their perspective in the truest form. How they are looked at by the world. Recently I read the book ‘Why I no longer speak to White People About Race’ a very well written and sobering book by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Among the many important topics, Reni talks about wanting to be white as a child. I couldn’t help but find this amusing because I so badly wanted to be black from a young age. Although I grew up in a small and very white Irish town, I so wanted to have brown skin. She and I are the same age and it’s strange to think neither child at that time understood what black or white really meant once you hit the real world. How does a mother protect her black child? How does she explain the way the world works and how it will see this child? It shouldn't be this way.
When you are young you are very impressionable. If you’re a young black child, and all you see is white faces on TV, it must be extremely difficult to imagine yourself progressing. As they say ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. What you see around you growing up will inevitably shape your beliefs about yourself and your ability. Until I had black family members (my nieces, the little lights of my life) I had no idea how difficult it was to find black dolls with curly hair, or storybooks with black kids in. I became super aware of what ads were on tv, all the ‘full’ white families. How the black character in a movie was always the 'sassy sidekick' or the bad guy. How did I not see this before? We as white people live comfortably in our own culture and rarely have to step outside it. It’s embedded in our media, our schools, our institutions our places of work etc. We have limited awareness of it.
Whatever you think about racism, it exists. It’s not only an individual thing. It’s not just your conservative granny who’s ‘just a bit ignorant’. It’s not only the KKK, the white supremacist groups or Neo-Nazi parties we see on Netflix documentaries. It’s the institutions and all that we see as societal norms. It’s the unspoken things that make it even more difficult to prove. The micro-aggressions. It’s trying to get your point across in an argument with someone who doesn’t believe racism exists, but you don’t have tangible examples of current-day systemic racism, therefore, you just can’t. In the writing of laws, perhaps it doesn’t exist, but in practice, it does and we have all have seen it.
Racism today is the black person turned away from a role without feedback because they weren’t a ‘cultural fit’. It’s the person with an ethnic-sounding name who wasn't even invited to a phone screen. It’s the idea that black people in the workforce are known to be more ‘aggressive’ so they hold their tongue even if something is really bothering them, for fear of losing their job. It’s having to be someone else in your place of work to meet the social norm. It’s Brexit making it ok to tell a British born black or brown person to 'go back to your own country' or to spit at someone on the street for wearing a Hijab. It’s black people making up 12% of the US population but almost 40% of the US prison population. It’s Stephen Lawrence’s family waiting two decades for justice and then getting a mere apology from the Met police. It’s Colin Kaepernick being kicked out of the NFL for choosing to take a knee against police brutality. It’s young black men in gang-related stabbings being killed on the streets of London every weekend. It’s Eric Garner, an unarmed black man pulled over for selling untaxed cigarettes then choked to death by a police officer despite shouting ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times and the outcome is the officer losing his job. It’s Sandra Bland being pulled over for a minor traffic violation and ending up dead in her prison cell 3 days later. She just so happened to be an activist who was hell-bent on stopping social injustice in the South. Another case in which the officer ‘was forced to step down’ and her family still have not had justice. It’s Philando Castile who was pulled over by a police officer then shot and killed while reaching for his ID (what the officer had asked for) and then the case being dropped despite Castile’s girlfriend live streaming the entire thing and it’s Botham Jean, an innocent black man eating ice cream in his living room of an evening after work to be shot and killed by a white policewoman who claimed she thought it was an intruder in her home. It was a different floor and different apartment completely.
These people robbed of their future can’t just be forgotten. These just a few names of the hundreds who are killed each year because the police officer claims they ‘feared their life’. We have to acknowledge these things are happening not just in the US but also on our doorstep. Again, imagine explaining these happenings to your black child? Why they need to avoid police for the sake of their lives, the police who are there to ‘protect’ us. How will you explain to them that they are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white friend? What will you say when they ask you why?
I am a recruiter and I have been for the last almost 7 years. I have worked for agencies, a large corporate and most recently a start-up. I have seen many incidents of systemic racism throughout my career and very often it’s difficult to put into words. It’s not written down, or spoken about openly, and very often it’s what is not said. I have to admit, when I moved to London I was pretty naive. I didn’t understand the class system at all. I had no idea what ‘middle class’ was until I googled it. I never associated people of different races being a different 'class' to me. I didn’t know much about gang crime, I didn’t think racism could possibly be an actual thing and if it was, it was only people who were from really right-wing families or perhaps had terrible parents. I was so young and naive.
I started in a role in London with a small agency. A very nice place to work with wonderful people and a very diverse workforce. A large proportion of the company served clients from financial services, this is the area in which I started off. We had this one client, a small investment firm in the west end who hired lots of graduates for entry-level sales roles. These grads needed good academics ideally in economics as they were selling to high net worth individuals. My colleague on the account made a passing remark that they were known to be a bit racist, I didn’t really know what to say to this and it clearly bothered her but they were a great client to our agency, there was no real way to prove this and hey, money talks.
There was one candidate who had been through the full interview process with this company. A young black man from London, Oxford-educated, highly intelligent and articulate in the way these companies liked their employees to be (speak the queens, another thing I had to google). They stalled on offering him the entry-level sales role. They needed to ‘think about it’ because they weren’t sure about his cultural fit. This made me so angry. They didn’t tell us the reason, but they didn’t have to. Imagine how proud this child’s mother was when her child got into Oxford University, only to then work his ass off, graduate and then be dragged through a process and kept ‘on hold’ at the end of an entry-level sales role because of his ‘cultural fit’. Of course, some of these companies will hire you as a black or brown person to meet their diversity metrics, but, only if you speak as if you were privately educated. If you don’t, you’re just not a ‘cultural fit’.
Next experience for me was a manager I once had, again at an agency in London. She was a nasty human being and quite an unhappy person I imagine. Once when I referred one of my best candidates to join our team. A London born Nigerian woman. She had a warm personality, high energy and acute sharpness you needed for this role. We didn’t offer her because both us and she herself knew she didn’t want it enough, and in recruiting you need to be very sure you want it, as it’s a hard slog at times. That was a perfectly valid reason to reject her, and I was in agreement with the outcome and she also knew this herself. After the interview, my manager at the time who I previously mentioned, said (out loud) ‘well we wouldn’t ever have one of those on our team’. I looked at her. ‘What do you mean?’ (which I often find is the best way to call out someone’s ignorant comment.) There was no way she just said that and means what I think she means. Then, under her breath, she whispered, ‘a black person’. I was completely lost for words. I went to the bathroom to take a breath. I had absolutely no idea this sort of thing really happened. I couldn’t tell if I was upset because I was so naive, because I didn’t react or because I just felt so sad that people like her are in senior positions and can not only say things like that about people but of course, she would have influence over hiring people. She had candidates careers’ at the tips of her fingers. Sadly, the reality is there are lots of people like her out there. I felt awful for not saying anything at that moment, and a few other people near us heard that comment too and said nothing either. After a few days (and a few conversations with my sister who helps me with all life throws at me) I went to the company MD and made a complaint. There was an investigation, the manager knew it was me and obviously made my life hell but a small price to pay. She got a slap on the wrist and the company made us all do some very basic ‘equal opportunity’ training. A 45-minute programme ticking boxes which had nothing to do with race and equality. She kept her job and didn't even do the training it transpired.
My experience in recruiting has taught me a lot. Many companies love to hire Heads of Diversity, usually to tick the box and show their clients that they are on the D&I bandwagon. Companies really love to talk about it, but they don’t like to ‘do’ or spend money on it. It’s not really a burning priority, not in my experience anyway. Most of them do it because they think they’re being smart and they know it’s what some of their clients want to see. At the least, in the interview process, you can uncover someone’s integrity and treatment of others. How would they treat the cleaner? How are they going to act towards their colleagues from a different religious, race or cultural background? My experience working for a large corporate who were hiring like crazy was pretty interesting. There was no emphasis on diversifying the workforce or measuring data on hires, even giving it as an option to fill out in the process. There was little to no training on the unconscious bias (which all of us have) and it’s sad that a company of this stature and size cares so much about growing with monetary numbers and so little about creating equal opportunities for people and making an impact on the greater good. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really inclusive and nice place to work, but by not doing this by default the majority of leadership was white men, and it seemed they had no intention to change that.
In summary, racism exists today in many strands (and is rife especially with our current world leaders). Take time to check your biases, understand your stature and how you can make a difference. How you can use your voice. We need more people like Jaoquin Phoenix who speak up even if it’s scary. Everyone has a different platform and everyone has a voice.
February is Black History Month so a great time to pick up a book (see below) or even watch a few Ted Talks. If you are a hiring manager or a recruiter, check your biases. Try and make some positive changes. Read books from a person of colour’s perspective. I recently watched one of the ‘explained’ series on Netflix about the Racial Wealth Gap, it’s not available in every country but here is a similar clip explaining it, it’s truly shocking. Learn about the history of black people. Learn about slavery and colonialism. Learn to never use words like ‘ghetto’, ‘half cast’, ‘hood’ or The ‘N’ word. EVER.
I have said ignorant things. We all have. Human beings are not perfect at all but it is really important to at least try and be understanding and sensitive to others no matter their background or what they look like. We are all the same behind our skin colour.
Why English Class is Silencing for People of Colour (Jamila Lyiscott is incredible)