by Samir Sweida-Metwally
11th November 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests that captured the world’s attention following the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor put the spotlight not only on police brutality in and out of the US, but on structural racism more broadly. In response, so-called ‘allies’ have largely taken to advocating self-education about racism and ‘checking one’s privilege’ as the key ingredients to tackling systemic racism. The plethora of reading lists, lectures, petitions to sign, donation suggestions, and advice to ‘listen to black voices’ have burgeoned. A person following this advice has come to be understood as one who is anti-racist.

However, this emphasis on ‘self-reflection’, while necessary, is far from being a sufficient condition to being anti-racist. In fact, in the BLM context, it can be detrimental when it becomes the sole or dominant focus of one’s anti-racism philosophy. This is because it allows us to adopt a very narrow understanding of who the victims of racism are – blacks and non-whites in the ‘West’, but not those abroad. This in turn allows us self-avowed anti-racists in the ‘West’ to get away with endorsing surface change that doesn’t disturb our day-to-day lives, while at the same time taking comfort in the fictitious belief that we are enacting effective change to combat systemic racism, and are thus ‘one of the good guys’.

While empathy and self-reflection might help fight part of what Dutch sociologist Philomena Essed calls everyday racism, by perhaps making whites more attuned to the quotidian microaggressions committed against non-whites, alone, it does little to rectify social disparities born out of racist policies that have become institutionalised. The fact that ‘young black boys are nearly four times more likely to receive a permanent school exclusion’ in England than the school population as a whole, that non-white minorities in Britain are more likely to be unemployed and occupy low-status jobs than their white British compatriots, and that women of black and Asian heritage are at a higher risk of maternal mortality than white women (five and two times more, respectively) highlight just some of these inequalities. Much like US corporates who are co-opting the BLM slogan for marketing purposes while continuing to be one of the primary forces driving and perpetuating ‘racial’ inequalities by maintaining a business model that is predicated on exploiting non-white labour, those of us who affirm solidarity with anti-racist movements but do nothing to fundamentally change our consumption habits that reify systemic oppression are also only paying lip service to the anti-racism ethos we say we hold dear.

The crux of my argument is simple: as anti-racists, we cannot be against ‘racial’ inequality at home, while at the same time perpetuate ‘racial’ inequality abroad through exploitative consumption habits. Indeed, it is paradoxical to be appalled at the history of slavery, to lament the current levels of ‘racial’ inequality, and to call for the – long overdue – removal of statues of slavers while, at the same time,

These are just some practical examples of what steps we can take to transition from anti-racist philosophy centred around ‘self-reflection’ into one that places victims of disadvantage at the centre. This is much needed because ‘self-reflection’ and empathy alone will not redress the systemic racism that underpins our global economic system, which is built on the back of blacks and non-whites, both at home and abroad.

What are the practical implications of this? It would be misleading to suggest that it is always easy and straightforward to find alternative, ethical products. While many do exist, from phones to clothing to kitchenware, others don’t (laptops are a good example of that, at least to my knowledge). However, by buying those items second hand we can choose the best of the worst (and potentially benefit a charity at the same time); we don’t need to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In our search for alternatives, yes, it can sometimes be frustrating to have to constantly read labels at supermarkets, email companies before making a purchase to find out where their products are made, spend an hour researching a product only to find out you can’t buy it, and to charity-shop hop to find a winter jacket that is in good condition. But that misses the point, because anti-racism is not about convenience. Our desires and needs can never legitimise the oppression of someone else, no matter how strongly we feel we can’t do without a product.

To conclude, while it is important to educate ourselves about racism and ‘check our privilege’, we need to go further to ensure we are not only effecting surface change in our efforts to be anti-racist. In a capitalist system where how we spend our money is the tangible manifestation of our values, being anti-racist must include changing our consumption habits.

Samir is a quantitative social scientist. His ESRC-funded PhD in Advanced Quantitative Methods examines the ethnic and religious penalties experienced by Muslims in the British labour market. Alongside his doctoral studies at the University of Bristol, he has taught on the core module “Social Identities and Divisions” and on the Q-Step Programme. Samir is also a Cumberland Lodge Scholar (2020-2022). For Samir’s full profile, click here.

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