Anti-racism, solidarity and the language of our movement

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue globally, many people who were previously not political are entering anti-racist organising. Arjun Mahadevan shares his perspective on political education coming from a place of solidarity.

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London, standing around Nelson's Column with banners.
Photo by Jonny Jones

Racism has become an international talking point as Black Lives Matter protests take place across the globe demanding an end to racial injustice. It’s been fascinating to see so many people wanting to learn, challenge themselves and get involved in the movement. One thing that’s been particularly striking is a widespread acknowledgement of racism as a systemic problem and a deeply political issue, but recently I’ve come across a worrying discourse that I think needs breaking down. This is an attempt to counter some commonly heard phrases that I find problematic or unhelpful, that stand in the way of solidarity and act as obstacles to building a strong anti-racist movement.

‘It’s not my job to educate you’

People who are discovering a new way of looking at the world, who are beginning to challenge things they’d never questioned before and looking for help, should be supported and guided as much as possible. Turning them away rather than pointing them in the right direction achieves nothing, especially when those that are against us are freely preaching the politics of hate and division, and sharing resources that serve their interests. So if we have the tools, and importantly the energy to do so, then helping others helps the movement.

This doesn’t mean to dismiss the emotional toll that this can take, particularly on those who have suffered racism throughout their lives, so perhaps a better way of phrasing it would be ‘it’s not just my job to educate you’ as we should all take on this responsibility. Political education is a collective effort, and not something that should be embarked upon alone. We develop our politics together, through reading, debate and shared experience in struggle, and this is how we build an anti-racist movement.

‘Check your privilege’

Focusing our attention on our own privilege prioritises self-reflection over shared struggle. It comes from a neoliberal attempt to destroy the collective in favour of the individual, centring politics on oneself and one’s own experience and position in relation to a system of oppression, as opposed to the system itself. This means that we end up focusing on changing ourselves individually rather than changing society together.

On top of that, it is often reduced to a box-ticking exercise of things people have or haven’t experienced, creating a sort of hierarchy of oppression focused on guilt and moralism instead of solidarity. Whilst it’s good to be self-aware generally, if our focus becomes internalised to such an extent, we have to ask what effect this actually has on the struggle outside of ourselves.

‘To be good anti-racists we need to deal with our own anti-blackness first’

This is again related to centring politics on privilege and a fixation on guilt, but I’ve heard this particularly coming from other South Asian people. Racism isn’t caused by communities who themselves are also victims of it, and they don’t benefit from racism against others in any meaningful way. So in order to work through this, we need to start from a position of understanding racism as a system, not just a series of racist comments or thoughts. We need to acknowledge that race is a construct and that our communities aren’t inherently racist – to assume so would be to naturalise race. This isn’t to dismiss those racist attitudes we’ve all experienced, but challenging family and friends inside and outside of our communities is something we should all be doing anyway – being an anti-racist means going further.

Rather than starting with the ‘weakest links’ in our communities, our time is better spent organising amongst people with good politics, or who are now becoming politicised and taking an interest in anti-racism, in order to build a broader understanding of racism with the tools to confront it. People’s ideas are challenged through struggle, and building that struggle has to be our priority over fruitless one-on-one arguments. In any case, these arguments are most effective when they are part of a mass movement.

We need to understand racism as a tool of division, and not play into the hands of those that perpetuate it by further dividing ourselves. We need to focus not on our differences, but on our similarities in shared struggle. We need to learn from history and build a movement together in order to take on systemic racism and win. In the words of Fred Hampton, ‘We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.’

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