Last week I had an argument with a close friend about the existence of reverse racism. It got emotionally intense very fast and ended with her leaving and me needing to internalise tears so that I could become present again for the friends who chose to awkwardly laugh, change the subject or say they weren’t getting involved.
Some of my friends in Australia consider my regular amount of anger towards the continuous oppression of Black and Brown people ‘a sensitivity’ – as though I enjoy baiting an argument rather than having constructive, helpful conversations about how to be more proactive in the struggle for equality. The friend I argued with, who religiously blasts Lemonade like it isn’t a letter written to Black women telling them that they deserve equal rights but something fun to learn the dance moves to, believes equality has already arrived.
Two days after our argument, Alton Sterling was murdered by members of the Baton Rouge police while selling CDs outside a store in Louisiana. Six bullets shot into his body while he was on his stomach, hands outstretched and empty. I cried a lot this day. Watching a man die on an Instagram feed is a terrifying thing.
The argument with my friend had come about during our discussion of Orange is the New Black. I mentioned the heated debate around the show, which has a large cast of Black characters and no Black writers, and how it had pissed people off when the line ‘Black people can be racist’ was given to a Black character in a recent episode. But my friend didn’t seem bothered that the voices of Black people were being silenced by white writers. What’s more, she agreed that reverse racism – that people are discriminated against for being white – is an actual thing! She said, ‘So Black people can be arseholes to people for being white and you don’t think that’s racist?’
Systemic racism – like abuse by police – and oppression – like being routinely stopped and harassed by police – still spread and fatten, casting their shadows over all of us, but their influence is invisible to the people not willing to consider how life is experienced in a white body compared to in a Black body. Contrary to what my friend believes, we are not all the same. People need to start understanding that race, as a social construct, plays a crucial role in how you navigate the world, and how the world treats you.
I was barely able to collect myself from sadness for Alton Sterling, when 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot four times after he was pulled over for an alleged broken tail-light in Minnesota. He was riding in a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter. In a Facebook livestream video taken moments after the incident, Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds said, ‘He’s licensed to carry; he was trying to get out his ID out his wallet pocket. He let the officer know he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm.’
Castile later died in hospital. I watched the nine-minute video on my Twitter feed and my heart broke for this woman, who had to keep her hands in the air as her boyfriend lay slumped and bleeding beside her. All she could do was plead with him to stay with her. When her dying boyfriend was taken away, she was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car with her four-year-old. This considerably distressed, bound woman melting in anguish, being comforted by her daughter, was one of the most painful things I had ever heard. I cried a lot that day, too.
Social media has morphed into a confronting and important tool to have these tragedies recorded, heard and shared in anger, in sadness, in solidarity, but mostly in comprehension. Watching the moment that a man is murdered by the embodiment of systemic racism should change you. Knowing he was already profiled before the police arrived, knowing he was in severe danger because of his Black body should enrage you. We cannot hide from these issues when they are confronting us over and over in our newsfeeds. We must consider the lives being taken and we must address the way oppression operates and how we can continue to allow this to happen. Because not addressing them is the same as saying that these Black bodies are somehow worth less than our own.
It is not a new argument, the one I had with my friend. She has struggled to understand my unapologetic need to point out every racist flaw as it happens around us. She doesn’t understand that I need to do this in order to remain sane in a society that has constantly let me down. A society I watch create barriers around people because of the colour of their bodies so effectively that it is invisible to people like my friend. When I let things go unmentioned, it hurts everything I am. Allowing this white supremacist society to continue and flourish cannot be part of my existence. I feel a responsibility to myself and to my own Maori people to be a strong voice. I feel a responsibility to stand beside Black people and share their pain as if it is my own. Because it is my own.
And I want better with a deep urgency. And I want my friend to want better too. To be more accepting towards these hard facts and fight the narratives fed by the media and the racist histories – and present – of settler societies. Because the world can’t change until my friend, and others like her, are willing to change first.