When I was at University a few years back now, studying history of art before it was the way to meet a future king, and grants were available for the non-monied, I was introduced to the concept of CRASH. Standing for Class, Race, Age, Sexuality, and Handicap, it was a basic tool for beginning to think about who had advantages over who and why and what impact this might have on life chances and the art a person might produce. As a young, straight, white woman it was likely I would have fewer obstacles than an older, wheelchair-using, black, lesbian, for example (cue political correctness gone mad tutting and all the eye rolling). All should have been well in my world – aside from minor issue of the list of risks women face for being women. I did have a black partner though. A privately educated young man from a respectable family, training to be a lawyer. Spoiler: that counted for little in many situations.
That one R variable made a ton of difference. Over a few years I lost count of the number of times he was stopped by the police for suspected involvement in a crime, even ones he’d been nowhere near. A citizens arrest, in one case, as he walked home at night from his shift at the call centre we both worked in during holidays. A pregnant woman had apparently been mugged and he was literally the nearest black man. The reason given by the white men who grabbed him was that even if hadn’t done it he could provide a direct link to the person who had. I found out about this when he called me from the police station a couple of hours later, when it was late and I was at home with an uneasy feeling again. Sometimes I was involved too, in case it all seems like hearsay. His nice car pulled over on the way to the cinema one Saturday afternoon. His incredulous laughter as he was removed from the vehicle taken as provocation. I was physically prevented from getting out of the passenger seat as they threatened him with made up drugs charges. Made up in the sense that no such crime existed, as he could tell them, reciting acts of Parliament and case law. That incident resulted in him going back to the station and making a complaint, which was rejected out of hand by the colleagues of the men who had lied to and humiliated him by the side of a busy road. The injustice and powerlessness of it was heartbreaking. His career suffered too, in lots of little ways. Walking into a solicitor’s office to be asked what his crime number was rather than who he represented. Being asked in slow, careful English by a very senior member of the UK legal system, still active today, if he intended to “go back to where he came from” now he’d qualified and their confusion at his answer of “Do you mean Yorkshire?” which was, of course, not what they’d meant.
My call centre job involved answering 999 calls so, while I heard lots of professional, reassuring exchanges between the police and the public I also heard those that were racist. All calls are recorded so the idea that a man calling 999 and asking for police to come immediately because “there’s an Asian man in the street and we don’t have them round here” and the response being “I’ll get someone out, sir” must have seemed acceptable to both parties. For every example I’ve mentioned here of prejudice towards my then-partner, our friends who were followed around shops while browsing or stopped for carrying their own furniture down the road while moving house or refused taxis or service or job interviews or promotion, I could come up with more. These are just a few from my limited perspective as a white person who happened to be closer than other white people, for a period of time, and could as easily been somewhere else while it was happening. I was only ever incidental. I also listened to racist nastiness being spouted about my partner by the nice, respectable white boys we knew who would smilingly invite him along for a drink when they realised they could be heard. “Woah, he’s not going to stab me, is he?” asked one, in fear, after hitting on me, dazzlingly unaware of his own stupidity. I didn’t let it slide but I was very aware that it was optional for me to blend back in and it wasn’t for my then-partner, his little sisters, friends, or fellow students who each had a memory of the first time as a child they were called a n****r or black b*****d and wondered why adults hated them.
Stephen Lawrence was “a generation ago” said a white, straight, educated man on twitter today, furious at Black Lives Matter protests in England, which is what prompted me to write this. Everything they stood for was a lie, he said. Well, he’d know, I’m sure. A firm grasp of the stats around stop and search, lack of convictions or accountability over deaths in custody, disproportionate prison sentences etc surely prove his point, not to mention his personal experience. Ahem. The dismissal of the shootings of black men by police, as though possibly being connected to a crime, or even taking part in one, justify summary execution without trial. We don’t have the death penalty here, much less one administered in the street in a split second. Issues of poverty, mental health, lack of educational and career opportunities all factor in to this situation alongside prejudice.
I have friends in the police, and friends who have been targeted by the police for things that wouldn’t have attracted any attention had they been white, and again I have the option for this not to be something that affects me if I make different choices about who I associate with, where I live, the media I consume and who I decide matters to me. Because mattering is what it comes down to, in the end. And while a trace of this is on the streets, in schools, workplaces, pubs, and in the justice system, I won’t dismiss Black Lives Matter or any other call for all of us to stop and listen.