Surviving the cycle of people ‘discovering’ anti-black racism

Medicine

Rex Features
Rex Features

Rianna Walcott has been doing anti-racism work for years. As co-founder of Project Myopia, an initiative that seeks to diversify university curricula, and a black feminist scholar, she has long carried the workload of educating people on racism and anti-blackness in society. But in the last month – since the death of George Floyd and subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests – a time that might seem (from the outside) as a breakthrough for such educators, Walcott has been too drained to engage with the online conversations. It has, in short, been exhausting.

Because Walcott, like many other black people, has seen it all before. “There’s a horrible sense of inevitability that it will end as all have ended and frankly, I’m very wary of how this moment always equates to more work for me,” she tells The Independent. “We know people will notice for a bit and then go back to not caring and we’re left with [trying] to make them care again.”

The last few weeks have felt especially hard to live and survive as a black person. From being confronted with how we’re four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people; to continuously grieving black victims of state violence, like Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the USA, to disputing the very existence of racism with the British prime minister. Historian Jade Bentil describes this persistent anti-blackness, as a “framework through which we can understand how societies are organised around black people always living in close proximity to death”; the world, as we know it, is organised by anti-blackness and it shapes everyday life.

Processing all this is traumatic for black people, but this trauma is further compounded by having to watch non-black people spending the same period “discovering” anti-blackness, in many cases seemingly for the first time.

This urgent need to broadcast their realisations spurned the posting of black squares on Instagram for #BlackOutTuesday, which ultimately took over the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and drowned out resources that have been created by black organisers, as well as the circulation and adoption of text templates for how to speak to black people during these times. Many of us received check-in messages from non-black people – some of whom we haven’t spoken to in years or, in some cases, never before – looking to have their guilt assuaged, letting us know they had donated to bail funds or asking for readings lists and recommendations.

Black creatives found themselves tagged on every kind of ‘10 black people you should be following’, leading to hordes of new non-black followers viewing us as resources who could offer them some profound soundbites, rather than people. We watched in real-time as brands and organisations developed their PR strategies to desperately highlight how they stand with black voices and communities; aligning yourself with Black Lives Matter is the new black.

But among all these lightbulb moments for non-black people and pleas to hand hold, coach and demonstrate patience during a moment of learning for them – where are the guidelines for black people on how to deal with the emotional and mental fallout from sudden sweeping interest into our lives? And where is the guide to dealing with the fact that this urgency will no doubt wane once the “moment” passes?

Rianna Walcott. Credit: Camilla Greenwell / Wellcome Collection
Rianna Walcott. Credit: Camilla Greenwell / Wellcome Collection

Since mid-May, activists like Walcott have found themselves with a marked surge in requests for interviews, podcasts and general consultancy – often for free: “You’ll get someone in your DMs [saying], ‘You must be so busy and overwhelmed but I’m going to ask you this request anyway’ or ‘You must be so busy but do you have time for a phone call?’ We could talk in August, we could talk in October – we’ll still all be black people in academia and medicine then, why do we need to talk right now? I have to clear my schedule because you’ve decided that racism matters right now.”

Walcott also highlights the ways that black people are living through more than one pandemic and how this panicked rush to demonstrate support means that it feels that only one form of anti-blackness can be spotlighted at one time: “Anti-black racism isn’t going away and neither is Covid-19 so it concerns me that people have stopped talking about how black people have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. People talk about racism as if it’s one big thing and that thing is police brutality. Other forms of racism become less important because people are unable to look at the totality of racism.”

If we consider the fact that there is an expected global mental health crisis due to Covid-19 alone, the amplified strain of dealing with racism is hard to bear…”

Lee Chambers, a psychologist and wellbeing consultant, says this multi-layered trauma is undoubtedly impacting the mental and emotional health of black people “If we consider the fact that there is an expected global mental health crisis due to Covid-19 alone, the amplified strain of dealing with racism is hard to bear. We all have our own personal journey with racism, and the current situation opens up our past experiences,” he says.

The emotional drain is only further heightened if you’re a black person who is active online and therefore privy to the periodic “awakening” of non-black people encountering anti-blackness without any awareness for the longstanding conversations that black people have been flagging.

“[Real engagement] is dwarfed by the sheer amount of non-black people suddenly declaring heightened self-awareness and compassion,” Chambers adds. “They’ve monopolised the conversation, drowned out the activists and those that live the cause, and most importantly for wellbeing, their sudden enlightenment isn’t congruent with their actions and how they live.”

Counsellor and therapist Richard Stephenson adds that, during these times of unrest, the pressure placed on black people isn’t just felt as part of a community, but as individuals too, with people having to make autonomous decisions around how to handle the limelight: “A common thought process (albeit unconscious) can be: ‘Part of me wants to push forward whilst the momentum is here and another part wants it all to blow over due to the fear of alienation and possible rejection.’ This creates an internal impasse.”

I’ve tried to protect myself from the inevitable hurt of this passing because that’s what it is: hurtful…”

For precarious workers and freelancers they may feel the additional burden of financial stability being tied with engaging, feeling it is the only real option they have. But as Walcott notes, these periods of piqued interest can actually do more harm than good: “I think it’s impossible to get involved in these conversations in a way that’s meaningful if it’s your year-round work. It’s not a moment for us, it’s for white people to feel comforted and like they’ve learned a little bit.”

The conversation will move on, the tweets and posts of support peter out, normal service will resume. “Through somewhat disengaging, I’ve tried to protect myself from the inevitable hurt of this passing because that’s what it is: hurtful,” Walcott shares. “We’re already watching the conversation shift and if you try to talk about these issues that specifically impact black people, it’s framed as a derailment of the conversation, as if these conversations are entirely distinct when they are actually pervasive and overarching.”

She highlights the phrase “allyship fatigue”, a term coined to describe “being overwhelmed and exhausted of the emotions that come with doing the work of being an ally”. Walcott says: “It’s incredible that terms have been coined for when inevitably non-black people stop caring.”

In order to combat the emotional and mental fallout of this, both Chambers and Stephenson stress the importance of seeking professional help, if you’re able, and specifically try to connect with black therapists; projects like Black Minds Matter UK and LGBTQIA+ Therapy Fund have been specifically set up to aid black folks with making connections with mental health services.

Alongside considering meditation, exercise and limiting time spent online, Chambers believes that, above all, we should try to commune with other black people, rather than emotionally isolate: “Connect and talk with those who understand. Find safe spaces to vent and express your emotions…let’s do what we can to keep ourselves well.”

The strain of anti-racism education is placed on black people 365 days a year, but at times like these – with timelines filled with violence against black people and state failures to protect black communities – it is particularly taxing. While non-black support should objectively be a valuable resource, it means little when it places additional strain on overworked black voices, or co-opts and waters down a message, before falling silent once more.

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