Reflecting on Racism

by Ali Amla

Reflecting on the global protests taking place by Black Lives Matters and the racist and misinformed counter protests has been an emotional rollercoaster and has triggered trauma to resurface. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, angry, and sad, and despair has been provoked by the personal conversations and public discourse. I have also found solace and camaraderie, knowing that I am not alone. I intend to reflect on my experiences of racism from a personal perspective, both how it is internalised and interpersonal, touching on the deeper and more prevalent issue of institutionalised and structural racism rooted in the history of colonialism and empire. My intention is to take you on a short journey, to briefly see the world through my eyes and to provoke a conversation. I am beginning to feel hopeful that change is possible, concluding with taking a solution-focused approach. I urge you to begin thinking about the role you will play in understanding and tackling racism.

The killing of George Floyd has caused shock, anger and protest. This is a significant turning point, akin to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. My 2005 Bachelor degree dissertation was on the Macpherson Report, researching the changes in policy and practice to counter the deeply-rooted institutionalised racism within the public and private sector.  Closer to home, I was disgusted and angered by a video which went viral in June 2020, of two young white people bullying a young black autistic person demanding that he kiss their shoe. The scene evokes a deep reminder of the racist abuse many of my generation experienced growing up in the 1980s and continue to do so on a personal, institutional and structural level. 

Racists have become emboldened in Brexit Britain. I grew up in an era of the National Front marching through my hometown. I have experienced verbal and physical racist abuse, being called Paki, having bricks thrown at me and my earliest recollections before I was eight years old are of being assaulted. In my teens in the 90s, I continued to face racism, experiencing racial tensions and being Nazi saluted. However, I felt racism became less socially acceptable, society then quickly moved on to believing that it had dealt with racism and therefore became complacent. However, racism moved from being overt to more covert. In my twenties and thirties in the 2000s, racism morphed into Islamophobia, became normalised and more acceptable. I was scared to talk about these experiences, often denying them, whilst being open to talk about my own prejudice driven by my desire to build bridges. I explore my drive to build bridges in the podcast, I is for Interfaith.

These memories of racism resurfaced a few weeks ago when someone shouted Paki at me from a car, whilst I was on a walk. It felt like I was being taunted again, like I used to be in my teens. At the same time, I have experienced a much deeper and sinister form of systemic and institutionalised racism - polite racism and white supremacy that is deeply embedded within the British psyche and society. Too polite and educated to call me a Paki to my face, it is instead the look of disdain; that look like you’re the dirt on the bottom of their shoe. I’ve grown up experiencing this from a young age, from police officers, medical staff, teachers, academics, politicians and even faith leaders. Often leaving me questioning and doubting my own experience and sanity. A common misnomer is that racism is simply in its overt personal form, often neglecting the existence of gaslighting, microaggressions, tone policing, privilege, internalisation of racism and unconscious bias. I have seen conversations on racism being shut down when fragility or guilt surfaces, becoming too uncomfortable for the conversation to continue. 

I’m not alone in experiencing racism in Britain, questioning and doubting if I belong in the country I call home. I’ve grown up being told by far right activists that a dog born in a barn does not make it a horse. The comedian Tez Ilyas responded to this perfectly on Twitter that it makes you a brown horse. I have constantly had my identity, belonging and loyalties as a British Muslim questioned. 

Social division has many causes in Britain, very rarely do we have the courage to talk about racism openly and honestly. In my experience, as soon as I begin to talk about racism and race you are subjected to comments such as ‘it’s not as bad as it used to be’, the distraction of ‘what-about …’ (fill in the blank with a whole host of issues considered less difficult to talk about) or colour blindness ‘I don’t see colour’ which is the biggest insult. I need you to open your eyes, acknowledge my blackness and play your role in making society less racist. I can no longer talk about race without provoking fragility and guilt particularly when someone complains that I am playing the race card and denial has become all too common. 

As a British Muslim of Indian heritage, I must acknowledge my own privilege. Indian communities are often considered the good or acceptable immigrant. This means that our experience of racism is somewhat different. British-Asian communities need to stand in solidarity with our Black communities, an attack on their civil rights is an attack upon all of us. Let us stand together in our fight against racism and support each other, addressing the anti-blackness which has become internalised in our psyche, doing so compassionately and constructively.

It takes courage to speak about experiences of racism, we should not need to seek permission or validation. It becomes exhausting sharing our experiences particularly when we have had to self-censor or have been undermined, belittled or it has been used against us. Burnout becomes all too common, feeling fatigued, overwhelmed and exhausted, therefore we need to focus on our emotional agility and resilience. 

The need to create safe and compassionate spaces for dialogue has become increasingly important, with the opportunity to delve into race, racism, identity and belonging in Britain today.

The journey to tackle racism begins with ourselves. Lockdown has been a great time for introspection and addressing our own biases and prejudices. The journey is better taken not only individually but also collectively through allyship. Understanding our privilege, unlearning racism and questioning how we have internalised racism. Only through this transformation can we begin to consider our role in tackling institutionalised and structural racism. The first step for many is to read ‘Me and White Supremacy’ and do the work as the author Layla F Saad suggests, which I have started to read collectively with a reading circle.  

At Solutions Not Sides our work focuses on creating humanising encounters and safe spaces to talk about Israel and Palestine without feeding Islamophobia and Antisemitism. It is important to note that Islamophobia and Antisemitism are forms of hate and discrimination which deprive people of their human rights and are examples of dehumanisation. It is by bringing the voices of Palestinians and Israelis into the same room that we can begin to understand the conflict, the realities of violence, the power dynamics, personal experiences and how we can work towards peace. This creates a powerful and transformational experience for students, to feel safe to ask questions, to foster critical thinking, learn from experience and think about the multiple layers of solutions required for peace. 

In tackling racism in Britain today, we need solutions at different levels and sectors, changes to policy, strategy and practice. One area is the need to focus on our future leaders and young people, creating safe spaces to explore race and racism, delving into identity and belonging, or often the feeling of not belonging, and challenging our internalisation of racism. This personal journey requires more opportunities for humanising encounters and fostering critical-thinking skills. Together we can explore our experiences honestly, understand racism from a personal perspective to the legacy of empire and colonialism in creating structural and institutional racism. The key must be for our young people to feel empowered with a voice, equipped with the skills, knowledge, values and confidence to create their own solutions to tackle racism today. 

I urge you to begin your journey to be radical in finding solutions and to be the change.