Calling out racism close to home


It’s been a horrific week of American racism showing its ugly face to the world – again. Nobody could watch the sickening video of George Floyd being crushed and choked to death without concluding that the society is broken. Law enforcement in a normal, functioning democracy does not look like this.

We’ve seen it again and again in these videos of police killings over the years. A black man who does not immediately obey sparks a dangerous white rage. It’s an old rage, hatred of the oppressor for the oppressed.

In the midst of all the grief and anger being expressed, I try to listen and learn, and interpret what’s happening behind the headlines. I hear George Floyd’s brother Terrence appeal for peace and justice. ‘Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote!’

I hear young black women begging white protesters to stop spraying slogans. I hear black Irish women speak about their experience of racism. I hear three generations of black American men pouring out their pain to each other on the street.

And I hear Human Rights Watch with the statistics. In recent years, US police have killed around 1,000 people per year. This is NOT normal. A quarter of those killed are black, although black people make up only 13 per cent of the population. But it’s even worse in killings of unarmed people. In those cases, 36.8 per cent of victims are black. This is NOT normal.

I listen to Musa Okongwa, a black British writer living in Berlin who would like to talk about his speciality, football, but ends up having to comment on race all the time.  In his latest podcast, Musa asks white people to speak out. ‘Try and talk about this in your most intimate settings, the dinner table, your family WhatsApp group. Just start it.’

I usually have no trouble starting this conversation because I feel very strongly about racism. I remember hearing jokes about the Ethiopian famine as a schoolgirl and calling people out. I challenged a Swiss man sitting in front of me in a football stadium who made monkey noises when a black Irish player touched the ball.

But I did, to my shame, once find myself in a social situation where I did not speak out. It was at a gathering in someone else’s house where I was a bit of an outsider. There was a family there with a boy of about 13 and at some point in the evening, his parents asked him to tell everyone the joke he had told them recently.

He was clearly reluctant but the parents encouraged him and he told the joke. It was a man-walks-into-a-bar joke, in this case a black man with a parrot on his shoulder. The punchline of the joke is that the man belongs to the parrot, not the other way around. In other words, a slavery joke, in Switzerland in the 21st century.

My disgust showed on my face and I looked around in vain for an ally. But I did not speak out and neither did anyone else. There was enough laughter for the moment to pass without incident. I’m no longer in contact with that family, thankfully, but I regret my cowardice on that day, which really amounted to complicity.

Anti-black racism is alive and deep-rooted in Europe too, make no mistake about that. I’ve heard it from black people in all the countries I’ve lived in: Russia, France, Switzerland and Ireland. I’ve seen and heard it displayed by white people too.

I covered the topic in The Naked Irish, including an interview with an Irish citizen of Zimbabwean origin who nearly had her spirit broken by the racism she has endured in Ireland. And, as I say in the book, hers is not a triumph-over-adversity story. The adversity is not over; it may never be. Now she worries about her children’s future.

I have no words of hope or consolation. America looks more and more like a failed state under the worst leadership imaginable. Trump can wave around the bible as a prop but America does not protect its innocents from guns, not does it care for the sick or love black neighbours.

These are dark days. May some good come out of this pain.

Black lives matter.

3 thoughts on “Calling out racism close to home

  1. Everything you have said is right on, Clare. What I keep asking myself isn’t just how one policeman can commit murder in a supposedly left-leaning city in the North of the US, but how THREE other cops can help him do it, two by actually kneeling on the man’s back and one by doing nothing about it. And all in broad daylight, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. No, this is not normal.

  2. After days of watching the protests only from the American point of view, I really appreciated reading the broader perspective you present in your post. Racism is alive and well all over the world.

    And thank you for your “confession” about not speaking up at a gathering when you were “a bit of an outsider.” I think we all recognize that sort of situation. And if we don’t speak up, we do our best to forget about it afterwards. Love may be the most important virtue, but courage is a virtue we seldom fully appreciate.

    1. Thanks Nicki. The worst example of racism I ever witnessed was a gang of Russian youths chasing two black men at an outdoor market. They were yelling, ‘Kill the N-word’ in English and it sounded like they meant it. Terrifying. I heard from black students and immigrants in Moscow that they felt in constant danger. That was in the late 1990s. The whole thing is so depressing and ugly. So much for European civilisation.

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