Lightening the Load | Jem Henderson

It’s been an emotionally wrought few weeks. Since the murder of George Floyd, there has been a lot of self critiquing, introspection and conversations with friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, as well as arguing with the ill informed.

One of the big topics that I’ve been discussing is privilege. As many of you may know, I’m an active campaigner for diversity and inclusion, most often seen talking about class and social mobility as well as mental health. I did one of those daft Buzzfeed quizzes on checking my privilege this morning and came out with a low score due to my sexuality, my gender presentation, my experiences as a homeless person and my experiences with poverty. This wasn’t a surprise to me. However, I know I’m still privileged. I grew up in Harrogate, an incredibly middle class town, and I’m white.

One thing missing from the conversations I have had in recent weeks is about the responsibility of privilege. I had a few chats with middle class white people who are afraid to speak up on racism. This is because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, to appear to be speaking over black people, to be speaking for them, or to face repercussions because they don’t get it right or appear to be inauthentic. We’ve all seen this happen, and I get why it’s uncomfortable. I’ve been uncomfortable saying things. I’ve been asked to do a video interview on class and race and I’ve spent hours worrying that it’s not my place to talk and that I’m not educated enough on race to talk about it.

However, delving into privilege is important. Earlier in the week, I’d been having a conversation about virtue signalling. This insidious little phrase I personally don’t like. I think people do good because they’re good and also for the social capital. That’s why philanthropy exists and posting on social media that you bought a homeless person a sandwich is a micro version of that. As long as the homeless person gets fed, who cares?

But the conversation went on to talk about ‘virtue signalling’ in relation to talking about anti-racism. Are people posting about black lives matter to show they’re not racist? To say they’re better than you? Is it performative? Obviously black people are angry about structural racism, but are white people paying lip service and not a lot else?

There have been some performative statements made. These have mostly come out of corporations. An example of that is Lisa Frank, who put out a black lives matter statement after being accused of ripping off a black autistic artist, Studio Mucci, profiting by copying her work without recompense. That statement is obviously problematic and performative. Others have been better. I was particularly impressed with the Institute of Directors statement, and the top class sass of one of my favourite brands, Yorkshire Tea, who straight up called a racist out and told them to not buy their tea.

For the most part, where individuals have made statements, they have been from the heart and they have been mostly true. I have ground my teeth and bitten back frustration when I have seen white folks say ‘all lives matter’ and spend too many hours trying to explain why this and ‘I don’t see colour’ are problematic. Some of those conversations have been fruitful, some not.

Some middle class people or white people are experiencing a sense of guilt. They do not want to speak for those who are impacted by their lack of privilege due to race, sex or socio-economic status. However, what they fail to understand is that their privilege gives them the ability to absorb some of the burden that less privileged people have to carry. They have the psychological privilege to not be weighed down by the effects of racism and other ‘isms’, to not be kept awake by triggers and rage. That’s why I believe that white people have the responsibility to literally lighten the load, to make it our responsibility to talk about the impact of racism, to fight battles in the workplace and call out our peers and our families when they say things that aren’t okay. This is only part of it. We can’t speak up without being informed, so we have to read, to listen, to delve deep in ourselves and find those things that make us squirm uncomfortably. We have to turn over the rocks and expose the creepy wriggling things inside us to really be anti-racist and we have to make other people do that too.

Jem Henderson (she/they)
Entrepreneur Engagement Manager, Yorkshire at Tech Nation

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