Last October, I finished my MLitt. The focus of my Master’s was ‘Racial Representations in ‘US Mixed Media,’ with my dissertation focusing on the portrayal of Black Lives Matter on screen. My dissertation consisted of 24,000 words, and explored the importance of on-screen depictions and how those in power use these platforms to control narratives. More specifically, how white society uses film and television to promote narratives that free them of any racial guilt, and obscures their role in these systems of oppression.
Media manipulation by white society is evident throughout history. There’s the white saviour trope, which positions white people as heroes in the fight against racism. There’s the white racial frame, which actively portrays positive images of white people and contrasts them against negative depictions of black people. And there’s the perpetuation of racist stereotypes which are used to silence black voices and dehumanise them solely based on appearance; criminals, thugs, the angry black woman. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these at least once.
Not only are these portrayals unfounded, but alongside being racist, they have very real and dangerous implications in the real world. When stereotypes such as these are shown so repeatedly and on such a wide scale, they become part of our implicit bias. That is, that they affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in ways that we aren’t even aware of. I’m sure we’ve all heard examples of this in relation to race, such as the experiences black people have had with people holding their bag a little tighter or crossing the road to avoid them. However, these small actions all feed into much larger and more dangerous examples of implicit bias, demonstrated through police brutality.
When you repeatedly align a skin tone with false criminality, it means people will respond to that skin tone through the lens of that stereotype. This is evident in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black teenager who was murdered by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman called 911 and labelled Martin ‘suspicious.’ What was he doing you may ask? He was simply ‘wearing a hoodie and holding only a soft drink and some candy.’ Despite this, and despite being told by the 911 operator to keep his distance, Zimmerman initiated a confrontation that ended with the fatal shooting of Martin.
Martin was not acting suspiciously, nor was he doing anything to arouse alarm. However, the reason for his death is evident in the news reports which followed his death, which argued that Martin ‘must have been suspect worthy’ since ‘he was a black teenager wearing a hoodie walking through someone else’s neighbourhood.’ There was no justification for his death. The only thing Martin was guilty of was being black in a racist society that equates blackness to criminality.
Not only was Zimmerman acquitted despite the act clearly being murder, but this incident is not an outlier but the norm for the black community.
Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Stirling, Breonna Tayler, George Floyd, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones, Walter Scott, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Reason, Domonique Clayton, Aaron Bailey, Michael Brown… this list does not – and cannot – end until society changes and acknowledges the depth to which racism still exists.
This is why it’s so important to educate ourselves on racism and how it operates in society, because only through learning and reading and listening can we undo this internalised racism and unlearn this implicit bias. This is also why it is not enough to just be ‘not racist.’
We live in a world that likes to see itself as post-racial. Whether that be because of the first black president, the first black-lead Marvel film, or even just the lack of outright racism such as the KKK. However, racism is still very much alive and is continuing to grow:
- In the US, black people are 3x more likely to be killed by police than white people, they are also 1.3x more likely to be unarmed in these incidents than white people.
- Black Americans make up just 13% of the US population, but 25% of police shooting victims.
- Despite the legalisation and decriminalisation of marijuana, black people are 3.5x more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person even though rates of usage are similar.
- In the UK, racially motivated hate crimes are the most recorded strand of hate crimes.
- In 2019, the UK police recorded 78,991 racially motivated hate crimes, an increase of 11% from 2018.
- In the UK, black people are 7x more likely than white people to be targeted for stop-and-search checks
When we say ‘I’m not racist’ or respond to conversations on racism with ‘well I don’t do that,’ we essentially stop the conversation and distance ourselves from these very real and very current racial issues. In my research, I found that alongside the violence permitted by white society, the main way white supremacy is upheld is through performative activism/the facade of white liberalism. More specifically, the people who use ‘I’m not racist’ as an out for not dealing with (1) their own internalised racism and (2) the very real racism within society.
Whilst not entirely harmful or explicitly racist, the phrase allows white people to distance themselves from the issue and the ‘overt’ racists and view themselves as an ally and ‘good person’ without having to put in the work. It allows white people to feel good without having to challenge or address the societal structures and systems they benefit from.
This is why it isn’t enough to repost images, or tweet a hashtag. Instead we as white people need to be putting in the work. This means signing petitions, emailing/calling those in power, donating to organisations, and importantly, educating ourselves and speaking about the reality of white privilege and racial oppression.
Labelling white supremacy as more than racist violence but a lack of action by white society makes us all complicit, and shows we all need to be doing more.
It is impossible to say ‘I’m not racist.’ I can’t say it, no one can. Because – as demonstrated above – we live in a society permeated with implicit bias regarding racial identity, and we live in a society where whiteness affects every factor of life and indeed, gives us privilege. This is why we need to become consciously ‘anti-racist,’ and take the steps to create and promote change.
I myself am not perfect, but I am making more conscious decisions and actions, and taking the necessary steps to acknowledge my place in this system and how I can help aid change. When we recognise our role in this system of oppression, we take the first steps away from the ‘not-racist’ narrative and begin to move towards consciously becoming ‘anti-racist.’
Below this, you’ll find numerous resources to help you on your journey to becoming anti-racist. This list does not contain everything, and by reading or listening to these texts you aren’t automatically ‘anti-racist’ thats for the long haul, but I hope it’ll provide a place to start and contains something accessible for all.
Free Open Yale Course