Since the 2010s, we’ve collectively become aware of countless activist movements. Occupy, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, The Living Wage, Never Again Action, #NoDAPL, March for Our Lives, Queer Liberation. An unfortunately evergreen topic, and arguably one of the largest movements of all, is Black Lives Matter.
The sheer explosive coverage and participation it has attained has meant more solidarity against racism in our lifetimes than ever before. But on its flip side, we’ve also seen a whole lot more ignorance, malicious behaviour and backlash right out in the open. It’s become crucial for many of us - those already in the know with social justice and the themes spoken about; such as abolition, defunding and institutional oppression - to step up and have all the hard conversations with those around us. The sorts of conversation that teeter up into the surface just a half hour too long into a family dinner.
De-programming society’s messaging is hard enough, and not everything that led us to our own realisations will work on others. And moreover, it can be an emotionally fraying experience to argue about the validity of the struggle entire groups of people face.
It’s been repeated an awful lot lately, when observing such conversations between people I know and on the internet about how ‘racism isn’t about politics, it’s about being a good person’. I have an issue with that statement, because I don’t think racism is an individual issue of morality. Calling it that would be letting people off the hook, in fact.
It’s understandable why someone would make the argument. There are a lot of people out there who call themselves ‘apolitical’, who say that it doesn’t matter. As if it’s just a game of sports they have no interest in. But the way to placate or appease these people isn’t by keeping to their terms and preconceived notions - it isn’t by saying racism is apolitical and instead to do with someone’s decency as a person. Everyone thinks that they’re right; decent, even more so. It’s just not a good angle to come at, as satisfying as it may be.
We come to these arguments because racism is so real and alive for us, and ‘Politics’ is this strange far-away place, an amalgamation of old white men in suits surrounded by old white columns on old white marble floors. They talk in industry terms we don’t understand, they have an air of importance about them, they dine in country clubs and speak on podiums. And that’s most people’s understanding of it. It’s simply a place they have nothing to do with day to day.
A loose definition of politics, which is an area of study even beyond the politicians we know, is about groups of people and individuals: how and why resources and status is distributed among them. More or less, the distribution of things we need and want.
‘Politics’, capitalised, dressed in a suit, may sound like a dirty word to us; but political, lower case, something that affects all of us, is not. Legitimacy cannot be given to not caring for something that is so important to everyone’s lives. Unseen or seen, politics is everywhere, and is wrapped up not just in policies and laws, but whether your children get free lunches at school, or how likely you are to afford to send that child to university someday.
Racism, as one would expect, is something that skews that distribution of resources and status greatly, and is in turn, a political tool. As a political tool, it may be used at the individual level, but its purpose will always be institutional – where distribution occurs the most. For instance, racist bullying in the workplace is harsh enough, but it contributes to being locked out of promotions and staggers someone’s career for the foreseeable future. Unchecked and enabled racist abuse is an extension to systematic financial racial barriers.
It is only by demystifying politics as a system of attributing value, that racism can be tackled effectively – seen for what it truly is, and what it tries to do. By linking it into this wider system, not based on individual moral failings of many people simultaneously, people can truly understand that they’re part of it. When a person comes to understand this, there’s no being ‘apolitical’ without admitting they’re sticking their head into the sand and not taking control of their lives, or in fact politics works so well for their singular interests that they need do nothing whatsoever.
Our conversations now, and our conversations continuing this historic moment in time, will never be easy. Removing the great curtain over the world’s inner workings takes knowledge and persistence. If we wish to change those around us, at an individual level, we need to make sure they know what politics is before we deal with what is a learnt political tool.
We can’t put the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse. ‘Politics’, capitalised, must become ‘political’, lower case – something that moulds us whether or not we know it.
Written by Penelope Helbest