How to deal with people who've been racist in the past now posting about racism

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Belly Mujinga, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Breonna Taylor in just the last few months have rightly sparked a global reaction to the unjust brutality faced by Black people.

Our social media feeds are full of people sharing useful tips, powerful messages, and practical advice.

For Black people and people of colour, it can be highly encouraging to see much-needed discussions of racism, police brutality and white supremacy.

Most of it is well-intentioned but it may be hard to shake the feelings of skepticism when certain activism feels performative.

It may feel especially uncomfortable when the people we see preaching have been racist or exhibitied problematic behaviour in the past.

But we don’t want to write people off for trying to engage – especially at a time when silence is compliance.

So should we say something to these people, or do we keep it to ourselves, lest we discourage them from speaking up in future?

It can be a difficult line to draw, especially as so many people take to social media to engage in the conversation.

But for many, discussions of racism were a part of their lives before the current high-profile cases surfaced.

For people who are seeing overzealous engagement in activism by the mainstream now but were mistreated by the very same people not so long ago, it can feel disingenuous and somewhat superficial.

Writer Habiba says she’s been committed to the cause since her teen years and would often be frustrated when people refused to listen or downplayed her experience.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I’ve been passionate about learning about race and racism since I was 18 and I remember trying to have conversations with people who would often gaslight or downplay the seriousness of racism.

‘Now that I’m seeing people engage in activism online, it makes me feel that some people are being performative because It seems as if they only care now that everyone is talking about race.’

Despite feeling uncomfortable around performative action, it’s hard for Black and brown people to call it out.

And it shouldn’t fall on the people it hurts to explain why something is wrong.

Sports writer Mim says this is something she is currently experiencing.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I’ve seen a few people posting anti-racism messages, who I’ve heard say racist things recently.

‘I fully understand that some people are ignorant but willing to change and learn and be educated – and that is great. But the thing that really frustrates me is seeing people jump on the anti-racism bandwagon when not too long ago I’ve called them out for racism and they’ve told me what they’ve said isn’t racist.’

Mim adds that calling out racism is a great feat in itself, especially in white-dominated spaces. So to have someone deny your lived experience and then post about how we should be fairer to Black and brown people can be disheartening.

‘But the very last thing you should do as a white person is to respond by saying it’s not racist and that I shouldn’t be offended,’ she says.

‘Someone recently told me I’d made her feel really awkward when I called her out on something racist she’d said. No one has time for your white fragility. Shut up and listen.

‘It’s honestly exhausting. I have this conversation with so many Black and brown friends. There’s a part of you that wants to tell them why it’s wrong, why something is racist and try to make them think differently.’

Mim says that those who react defensively and show their white fragility makes it harder to want to call out racism in the future.

But she says she’s giving people the benefit of the doubt and hopes they’re engaging offline too and won’t personally be approaching them.

‘If people want to post things on social media, I hope they’re learning and reading and donating to the cause as well. I also hope they’re checking in on their Black friends or reading about Black people’s experiences because right now that is what matters.

‘I know there’s pressure for everyone to post about this because “silence is deafening”, but if you’re posting something for the sake of it, without checking your own privilege and thinking about daily microaggressions and the structural racism that you’re complicit in, you’re really not making a difference.’

Another person who’s dealt with the microaggressions at work is Asif.

Asif tells Metro.co.uk that he’s used to occurrences like this.

He says: ‘When I’ve been at work and discussed issues faced by my community – mainly BAME, Muslim issues – I’ve been told I’m “going on about it” or “piping up about race again” and how it’s “not all about race.

‘And now, when the conversation on race seems prominent, people are virtue signaling and pretending they care.’

It’s a double-edged sword for Black and brown people. If they question these people’s commitment to solidarity, they may look like they have a chip on their shoulders and trying to discourage someone from engaging.

If they don’t, the people may only engage on a superficial level.

Guilaine Kinouani, a senior psychologist and founder of Race Reflections, says this kind of confllicting behaviour is to be expected from white people.

She says their reaction is a form of cognitive dissonance – mental discomfort leading to an alteration in conflicting attitudes. White people know they should say something right now while the spotlight is on racial injustice, they’re aware they haven’t said anything before, but also ‘silence is deafening’, so they decide it’s better to post after all.

Guilaine explains: ‘The reality of white supremacy can be overwhelming for people of colour and white people alike.

‘We sometimes forget that white people are equally damaged and traumatised by racism although it is a different kind of damage and a different kind of trauma. As a result, the denial of the reality of racism can be a way to cope with cognitive dissonance, shame or guilt, and other difficult emotional states or to maintain beliefs in meritocracy or justice.’

This kind of contradictory action – in other words, baby steps into activism while previously not being an ally – occurs because white people are so ill-equipped with the complex phenomenon of racism, says Guilane.

‘Our society does not equip white groups with the knowledge and skills needed to manage being white in a white world and most white people are just left to manage all the complexities this brings, often doing additional damage in the process reproducing without thinking what they have been socialised to do.’ 

Guilaine acknowledges that some people’s activism is merely performative but there is more at play than we may give credit for.

‘[White people] Letting go of these beliefs can induce a sense of powerlessness, despair if not terror. And while white performance or performativity are real it is important to remember it is definitely not all that is going on.

‘Switching from acknowledgment to denial, from engagement to dissociation is part of the white identity development, that ambivalence is to be expected.’

There is no one way to do activism and it may feel like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon but for some this will be the introduction they need to be better active in future.

Of course, it’s at the discretion of the person affected if they want to get in touch with someone who’s been offensive to them in the past and explain the situation.

It shouldn’t fall on the black or brown minority person to educate all the time but unfortunately such is the reality at the moment.

Anyone who feels generally frustrated with the seeming hypocrisy of people who appeared to be unbothered in the past, can expect to see in time just how committed people are to the cause.

If you’re someone who suspects they may have hurt a minority person in the past, hold yourself accountable, apologise where necessary, decenter yourself, educate, unlearn, and keep this energy consistend.

It’s the only way to make anti-racism sustainable and not just a meaningless social media trend.

 

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