Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor
I was recently one of three middle-aged students to attend an outdoors, socially distanced yoga class in the countryside near my home in Somerset. We set out our mats and before the class started, the teacher, a white woman, asked us each to say how we were feeling. My two fellow students, both white women, said that they felt happy. One remarked that she was enjoying lock down but had not done much exercise. Then it was my turn.
I am a mixed heritage woman. My father was Jamaican, my mother Spanish, and both were migrants to Britain. One of my sisters works on the NHS frontline in London, my other sister died of Covid 19 in New Jersey last month. Travel restrictions meant we were unable to come together as a family to mourn her loss, and even if it had been possible to hold a funeral for her in the States, my older brother would not have been able to travel there. He arrived in the UK in 1958 aged nine from Jamaica legally as a Commonwealth citizen. He has lived here ever since, paying taxes and national insurance all his working life. His wife, children and grandchildren are all here. But watching the Windrush scandal unfold, he realised that he too was vulnerable to deportation to a country he has not seen for more than 60 years, and where he knows nobody, simply because he had never applied for a British passport. He and his British wife spent almost a year grappling with the bureaucracy to regularise his status. His British passport has now been issued, they are told, but the Covid 19 lockdown means it has not been sent to him.
I have been closely following news of the disproportionate impact of Covid 19 on black people in the UK and the US, the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the wave of protests against institutionalised and endemic racism. I high fived my daughter when I heard that Colston’s statue had been torn down and thrown into the river from which his slave-ships once set sail. Racism is not an abstract issue for me. My life has been and is framed by it. As well as living with my own experiences of racial violence and harassment from both white women and men, as an academic in a British university, I have supported many colleagues and students who have experienced racism on campus.
So even though I lead a middle class life and can attend fitness classes in a beautiful rural setting, I couldn’t say I was happy that morning. I briefly explained this to the other women present. Then we started the class. Afterwards, the teacher offered some advice on dealing with anxiety. Then, instead of rushing off, the four of us started chatting. We talked about race. The other students started by explaining that they find it difficult and uncomfortable to talk about race. They want to engage, but don’t know what to say for fear of saying the wrong thing. They were worried about the anger that discussions of race can bring out. The teacher told a story about having been at a spiritual retreat where a black teacher talked about racial inequality. She described him as a loud and angry speaker and said that his talk had interrupted the white audiences’ expectations of the flow of the retreat.
I was struck by the idea of “interruption”. It’s one I can relate to. Racism interrupts my life and the lives of everyone racialised as black, brown, or Other as we go about our daily routines in a white dominated society. It gate crashes your day, stops you in your steps, makes you enter a world you would not choose to go to. Racism comes in unpredictable, random patterns and is unsolicited. It just happens. You are at work, in the classroom or shopping, or driving, or doing any one of the things that you do every day, and suddenly, you are interrupted. You don’t know when or if it will happen. It’s completely outside your control. And you don’t always know how to respond to this random, unwanted, upsetting thing that has suddenly interrupted you.
It is rare for white people to experience such disruptions, although gay and disabled white people and some white migrants will probably know what I am talking about. To live smoothly, without interruptions, is a mark of privilege. The Covid 19 pandemic and lock down has changed this. It has interrupted all lives, even those of the most privileged. So the current focus on racism and Black Lives Matter is interrupting conversations at a time when everyone’s lives are already interrupted and disrupted. None of us are looking at the future in the same way, and this is opening new spaces for talking and thinking.
Speaking openly and honestly about racism and its impact interrupts white liberal people’s comfortable narrative about multi-cultural Britain being a “colour blind”, post-racial, tolerant and inclusive society. But the BLM protests have touched the lives of many people around the world, black and white, and people who have never spoken about racism are engaging in discussion about it, and seriously considering what it is and how is it reproduced.
I came away from my yoga class pleased that my experience had not been silenced and ignored as it so often is. Our discussion started with race and instead of being quickly diverted to more comfortable territory, it stayed on topic. I felt for once that my interruption had opened the door to an exchange of experiences and ideas on the difficult topic of race and how to make a more inclusive society, an exchange that was empowering for all of us. Time will tell if this conversation will continue. I hope it will.
Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester.
Image: Adam Meek