After donating to grassroots organisations and mutual aids funds, signing petitions and showing up at Black Lives Matter protests, one of the ongoing ways that we can be anti-racist is in the conversations we have with people. Whether it’s confronting a passing micro-aggression, challenging racist comments or trying to explain a complicated issue to a friend, sometimes it’s hard to find the right words, facts and arguments.
While there’s no magic phrase that can help open someone’s mindset and make them more empathetic to groups that face ingrained oppression, preparing for conversation can help you get your point across better. These are a few of the things that we’ve found helpful when trying to talk to people about injustice. And, no, nobody has to sing ‘Imagine.’
Police brutality and racism
Okay, this is a tough one to unpack. Depending on your own views, there are probably different ways that you would talk to someone about the ongoing and common occurrences of police brutality. If someone believes that police are an entirely neutral and just tool that simply uphold the law, something to point out is the evidence of continual racial biases and violence they display.
In Australia, the report produced as a result of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody concluded that of the 99 deaths that were investigated, the victim’s “Aboriginality played a significant and in most cases dominant role in their being in custody and dying in custody.” If someone was to try to say this is a problem of the past, and that it doesn’t occur now, you can remind them of the 432 Indigenous deaths in custody that have occurred since 1991 and the fact that nobody has ever been prosecuted. The Guardian‘s Deaths Inside resource is a confronting but extremely useful resource to examine this.
There’s also the graphic video of the treatment of a young Indigenous teenager who was slammed headfirst into the ground by a police officer in Sydney’s Surry Hills. In so many instances, our phone cameras have done more to protect and address injustice in our society than the police have.
If you’re someone with stronger views or are decidedly pro-police, having this conversation gets a bit more difficult. When someone says, “not all cops are bad cops,” you can try a number of different tactics. Explain that, ultimately, being a police officer is a choice. It’s a job. At it’s most gentle, someone has decided to join an organisation that has a history of violence—especially in the U.S. where the history of policing literally begins with slave patrols—and its most violent, someone is choosing to remain in and aligned to an organisation in which violent behaviour, racial profiling and thuggery are rewarded with desk duty or leave with pay.
No, not every cop kneels on someone’s neck until they die, but all cops do participate in an organisation that allowed that to happen, watched that incident and still put on their uniform.
Defunding and abolishing the police
In the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and the thousands of people who have died as a result of police harm, many activists are calling for not just the regulation of police, but their defunding or abolishment. On the surface, this sounds like a wild proposition. But the thing is, we know that reforms don’t work.
In the case of Floyd, who was murdered in Minneapolis, the police department there had already had training on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. Despite adopting the use of body cameras, police-community dialogues, more diverse leadership and a three-year, $4.75 million dollar project that aimed to fix the relationship between police and communities, an innocent, unarmed Black man was still murdered.
People are pointing to the way that police operate in our society and how their roots in racism and intimidation are played out today. Police are deployed in a systematically racist “war on drugs,” commonly employ racial profiling, and over-police economically disadvantaged and usually non-white communities. If the police’s true function and aim was to keep people safe how do you end up with a 12-year-old child, Tamir Rice, being killed because he was playing with a toy gun in an Ohio park?
The knee-jerk reaction to abolishing the police is usually “but who will keep us safe?” What’s important to note here is we’re not talking about evaporating every single cop into the ether overnight. Rather, we need a concerted and directed effort to shift bloated police budgets and resources to more effective and safer tools.
Advocates of police defunding and abolishing the police offer a variety of other models for ensuring people’s safety, usually centered around community services, support and prevention of crime, rather than just punishment. By focusing on early intervention strategies, robust social services and a proper social safety net you could stop the circumstances that crime happens in. Crime usually occurs when someone lacks material things (food, medicine, shelter, safety) and conceptual things (a sense of purpose, community, self-determination).
Problems related to mental health, drugs, homelessness and domestic violence are all surely better served by proper mental health services, addiction programs and education, high-standard public housing and support services. So why do we rely on men with guns, who are trained to view people as a threat, to address them?
The nature of riots
First of all, mainstream media does not exist in a vacuum. Media coverage of riots and looting is incredibly biased and doesn’t always show the nature of facts on the ground. This is especially true when it’s fuelled and funded by a President who characterises peaceful black people asking not to be killed as “thugs”, whereas armed white Americans protesting the coronavirus lockdown because they want a haircut are “good people.”
First, in addressing the idea that “black people are being violent,” we kind of need to acknowledge the gaslighting and respectability politics at play here. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem was met with so much racist outrage he was dropped by the NFL, so we know that even non-violent and peaceful demonstrations are met with hostility. There is an immense history of ongoing violence that needs to be addressed and the very point of protests is that they cannot be ignored. Human lives should be the things we are concerned about protecting, not Target stores.
Secondly, the narrative itself is false. There is a veritable flood of videos and photos that show police inciting violence, undercover cops damaging property and stealing, and opportunistic white people taking advantage of this situation to loot.
The idea of violence itself being morally unjustifiable is also hard to address. One argument that might help is by illustrating how we can’t measure all violence in the same way. When the riots that are occurring come from an oppressed people who simply want an end to the hundreds of years of violence that has been enacted on them, how can we call it unjustified?
A comprehensive examination of white privilege is beyond the scope of this article. Books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and the workbook Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change The World and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad are all fantastic resources that people can use to critically examine the role they play in upholding structural racism.
When you encounter someone denying that they benefit from white privilege, the first thing we’d suggest is assessing how productive you think a conversation you embark on them with will be. Casual racism and ignorance should be confronted everywhere that we can, but if it’s an online troll using an anonymous account, sometimes the best use of your energy is just the good old block ‘n’ delete.
If you’re trying to explain white privilege, one of the simplest ways to put it is that no, it doesn’t mean you didn’t have to work for certain things in your life, it means that your racial identity wasn’t actively working against you. It also doesn’t mean that your life has been exempt from struggle or trauma, but that your skin colour was not one of the things that contributed to it.
White and non-black POC also actively benefit from the privilege we have, and while we might face other forms of structural racism, our understanding of social issues is far better when it’s intersectional. Basically, we need to examine not only race but dimensions of class, geography, age and gender when we look at how things like privilege operate.
Further resources to save
If you need some quick anti-racism resources to save to your phone to pull out on short notice, we’ve found the below Instagram articles helpful for tackling common conversations.