8 minutes and 46 seconds: A time to reflect

By James Omolo

No soul with a modicum of consciousness would refute that racism, a system that promotes domination and subjugation, has been a human problem for centuries and rose exponentially.

Even though many people have spent considerable time indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions on movement and gatherings, it comes as no surprise that people from all walks of life, including in Poland, defied the odds to show solidarity with Black people in expressing their apathy towards racism and police violence in the United States.

Eight minutes and 46 seconds is what it took a white police officer to take the life of an African-American man, George Floyd, as angry witnesses watched the horrible incident. With his left hand in his pocket, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, watching as his life slowly ooze out of his helpless body. His last words: “I can’t breathe.”

What has been called Floyd’s public lynching on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked a spate of nationwide and global protests. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets around the world to express their anger towards the incident and other acts of police brutality against Blacks, galvanizing Black Lives Matter movements all over. The protests are not only a show of solidarity, but also to protest the ubiquity of racism, which is a global issue.

The rage is flaring around the globe; systematic racism and inequality are making headlines all over. Black Lives Matter protests are highlighting racism and its manifestations against Black people in different countries, evoking past unresolved police killings. In light of what is going on in America now, these protests have elicited a global discourse on race relations. How does being Black here in Europe and elsewhere measure up to being Black in the U.S.?

The virus of hate

People of African Descent (PAD) have expressed concerns about the various manifestations of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination at both societal and institutional levels which affect virtually every aspect of their lives: unequal access to education and employment; racial abuse and violence in public places, such as on public transport; restrictions of movement due to overzealous policing; and hate crimes, among other occurrences. These experiences are further exacerbated by the insidious systematic racism by many law enforcement officers and other public officials targeting Black communities based on racial stereotypes and prejudice. This includes police, security guards, and immigration officials at borders, as well as travel carriers (mainly transport inspectors) who presume they must act as auxiliary police officers and target specific people.

With the mushrooming of nationalist groups across Europe, the political discourse and narrative openly embrace and express hate speech, and propagate negative, prejudicial, and stereotypical information about PAD, among other non-white groups. The intolerant discourse is facilitated by the use of social media and a variety of internet sites and portals that fan the flames of hatred and intolerance across all sectors of society.

White privilege

Looking at white privilege from a standpoint of someone who is not part of it sets a tone towards understanding the racial inequalities prevalent in our modern society. To understand the adverse ramifications of white privilege, it is essential to grasp its impact on those who do not benefit from it.

The word “privilege” makes many white people uncomfortable. The reality is that if one was born white, whether in Europe, Africa, or America; that person was born privileged. Many people may not feel comfortable with this statement.

White skin privilege does not guarantee a perfect life nor does it imply one comes from an affluent background, nor gets whatever one wants, to some point. It simply implies that one generally has an advantage over the rest of us who are non-white. The whiteness guarantees a free pass through many obstacles. It comes with many benefits that are not shared by any other race.

White privilege is a contentious topic and often met with a lot of resistance and defensiveness. Trying to explain white privilege to a beneficiary is a recipe for strong opposition. It warrants white people some incentives and opportunities that are not enjoyed by non-whites, especially Black people; it gives white people leverage over a whole spectrum in life. White people are impervious to a set of challenges that non-whites face. The incentives and leverage that white skin privilege enjoys considerably remodel the way the world views other races.

Incentives of white privilege

The quintessential nature of white privilege is that it gives white people an advantage over a vast set of life’s realities. There are myriads of life chances that white people do not have to confront, tackle, or notice. For instance, whiteness does not affect people’s perceptions of how they dress, their job performance, and social and economic responsibilities.

They are immune from random police searches on the streets – they do not experience police harassment and profiling due to their “perceived” race. White people do not have to tell their children how to behave when they are pulled over by the cops. They are not followed around the shop by security guards suspecting them of stealing merchandise because of their race.

It shields them from people’s expectation that they typically represent a variety of crazy stereotypes: hard-edged masculinity, to be athletic, long-suffering and oppression, not very well educated, sexually prolific, smoke weed, and a father to many children.

White skin privilege does not enslave them to another person’s idea of what it is to be white.

They enjoy these privileges because there are institutions created to protect them.

A look at the school curriculum in most European countries, the textbooks are full of praise of white people as the sole contributor to the world’s advancement. Black people are often just footnotes, and, in many situations, their history is Blacked out completely. And when African history surfaces, it always starts with post-independent Africa.

Whites control the media and use it to reinforce the stereotypes about the continent. Rarely does anything positive about Africa come out of the western media. The media portrayal of the continent is marred with negative information. White people are widely represented in public space while Black people are kept in the dark. No wonder they call it a dark continent.

Paradigm shift

With the wave of unfolding events in the U.S., it is essential to focus also on the ubiquity of racism across Europe. It is important to show solidarity, but we also need European society to acknowledge and work with people of colour to fight this scourge. We need a cogent framing and articulation of policies that uphold the fundamental rights of everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. It is a daunting task considering the mushrooming of the far right-wing and white supremacy ideologies, however, this is a moment that a collaborative effort is profoundly essential in order to take advantage of the circumstances, to reflect on what action should be taken to address structural racism and its manifestations.

Protests are unequivocally important because they create awareness and exert pressure, but we also need more formidable action plans with political acknowledgement and structural development. Otherwise, this wave of protests would wind up as another hashtag.

If everyone who took part in the process, particularly white people, could go beyond the need to show solidarity and engage in constructive discourse with their governments, friends, parents, students, neighbors, etc., there would be a likelihood of a better outcome of the situation. Unfortunately, many are likely to get back to their normal lives, while Black people continue with their daily predicaments. ALL LIVES MATTER, BUT NOW, BLACK LIVES MATTER. There is an urgency to find a solution and everyone should be part of this solution.

James Omolo is a writer and author of Strangers at the gate: Black Poland and Crossing the Colour Line: Interracial marriage and Biracial identity.