The weight of the white body

Mural showing George Floyd and text 'I can't breathe!!' with caption Stand United and Stop the Violence

Reading time: 7 min.

The weight of a white cop’s body, all of it, bearing down on a black person’s neck, held there for eight minutes, all year, for decades, centuries, since the first black slave was sold into American servitude.

I’ve never been more aware or more ashamed of my own whiteness, and I have something I want to say to white readers. But please, if you only read one thing today about the killing of George Floyd, read a black writer on the subject. Try Roxane Gay in the New York Times or Siana Bangura in the Independent, or listen to George’s brother Terrence. If you have a bit more time, Arathi Sriprakash has something to say about the imperial damage of white Western hopes. And if you have any money, the Minneapolis protesters are calling for donations to help with legal fees, and the Independent has recommended anti-racism organisations in the UK in need of support.

I was midway through James Baldwin’s Go tell it on the mountain when I heard about George Floyd. In grief and rage I watched the events leading up to his murder, as presented in this short montage by the Washington Post. As I watched that police officer’s knee on the neck of an unarmed black person, even as bystanders were shouting that he’d stopped breathing, my impulse was to take bricks and smash every window in the white Western world. I wanted to smash the windows in my own damned home. Burn it all down.

Later that day I turned back to James Baldwin’s book and read this:

‘She looked into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all – the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humour, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.’

That’s Elizabeth, sometime between the wars, sitting desolate in a New York coffee shop after her lover has been beaten up and thrown in jail for something he hasn’t done. Elizabeth’s New York could still be our, old York, or any city in the Western world. Her brutally punished lover could be George Floyd in Minneapolis, or Adrian McDonald from Huddersfield, who died of asphyxiation in the back of a police van in 2014. What’s for sure is that the white people she wants her God to humble include me and you.

If you’re a white reader then I expect that, like me, you’ve been socialised into the norms of our white racist society – norms that, if we sleepwalk into them, culminate in phrases like some I’ve heard in the last few days: Racism is bad but it’s not me, If only American cops were more like ours, All that looting won’t do them any good. And then there’s that most colonially racist of white liberal refrains: ‘Why can’t they be nonviolent like Martin Luther King Jr?’

I’ve heard George Floyd’s murder discussed (as I might once have discussed it) as if it were a moral problem to work through with the chilly rationality of a liberal ethic. It’s not, it’s an outrage fit only for mourning and repentance. His death – ‘I can’t breathe’ – is an indictment against every comfortable white person, it puts us all in the dock.

I’ve been writing about ‘society’ a lot, and I’m often told, ‘Don’t say “us”, speak for yourself but not for others.’ It’s something I’m trying to be more careful with, but today I do mean us, as all comfortable white people everywhere. We are the social group that gets to win, over and over again, and then excuse ourselves from the fate of everyone who’s been made to lose for our sakes. Opt yourself out of that ‘us’ if you can – but can you? I can’t.

I can’t because I’m involved in racism as one of its beneficiaries, and I’ve let it pass unchecked too often. George Floyd is the latest in America’s very long list of men and women of colour killed by white people, and I haven’t really written about it before. I’ve been sleepwalking, too, trying not to be racist but not trying to confront racism as a culture and system of violence.

But let’s not imagine for a minute that racism is a particularly American problem, though the record of that deeply troubled country is appalling. Nor is it a ‘black problem’. It’s a problem everywhere in the world, and more than anything else it’s a white problem. Here in the UK, our ancestors looted the land now called America from its native peoples. They looted Africa too, taking its people and selling them into slavery. In fact, the British nation has invaded, colonised or otherwise looted most countries in the world, to get its tea, its gold, its oil – to get its way. All told, Britain, under the racist, fig-leaf pretence of ‘civilising’ cultures that it was incapable of understanding, let alone respecting, has more blood on its hands than any other country in world history. That kind of chronic, greedy, entitled violence is more than a crime, it’s a disease at the rotting heart of hard power.

And let’s not imagine for a minute that the deeds of our ancestors have nothing to do with us. If those of us socialised into a consumer-capitalist Western society had any sense of living in common – a people belonging in a place and abiding through time – then we would never imagine that our ancestors’ violence yesterday was not our responsibility today. But we’re said to be all individuals now. We can watch the rich white men in suits loot people of colour all over the world, say, ‘Not my fault’, then go buy those stolen goods on Amazon.

But we’ve come a long way, right? Racism’s so uncool now, right? But who made the clothes we’re wearing and the phones and computers we’re using? People of colour in the dollar-a-day factories of Indonesia and South Korea. And who will suffer most from our carbon profligacy and plunder of the earth’s natural wealth? Will it be white you or white me, or will it be people of colour living in slums or forced to flee their dead soils and acidified waters? And we know who’ve been blown to pieces in the Western world’s gang violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. ‘Not in my name!’ we shout, but that’s just it – it is done in our name, and whether we agree with the war or not, we still rise with the economy when the oil flows westward.

The white middle classes of the Western world are sitting pretty on a politics that pushes people of colour to the bottom every time. That’s white supremacy. It’s not only the white fascist’s knee that’s on that black neck; it’s ours. Most of us, I think, mean to be better than that, and not be defined by the deeply harmful norms in which we’ve been steeped. We can choose to let go, stand up, and face up to the culture of racism that has adopted us from birth. But the white police officer who killed George Floyd didn’t do that – he kept his knee right where it was.

I’ve been thinking again about solidarity’s relation to hope. I’ve always thought that solidarity means walking with people who face violence of all kinds, so they don’t have to face it alone. For white allies, I think it means challenging racism every time, so that people of colour aren’t left to face down white chauvinism alone (or to unsettle white liberal self-congratulation, for that matter). I know that I, for one, am not doing enough, not yet.

But I’m starting to think solidarity means something else, too. After listening recently, more than I used to, to people of colour talk about what it’s like to live in a white supremacist society, I’m starting to think solidarity as a white ally mainly means getting out of the way. Not to abdicate white responsibility, but to abdicate white power – be ready to be brought low so that those who can’t breathe can, finally, rise up where they belong.

Added on 9 June… Kimberly Jones on what it means to struggle against centuries of racist economic oppression in America (video, 7 min).

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‘To hope’, from Old English hopian, to trust, to hold faith. Origin unknown, poss from hoffen, to hop, to leap.