I have so much pride in this island and its community for countless reasons, no less so in the wake of COVID-19. After seeing how, as an island community, we have pulled together to meet this national challenge in defence of the safety of our neighbours has been truly inspiring to see. What has been striking however in the past week, is that this pride in our community is tarnished when such rife racism and intolerance is still so prevalent within it.
Growing up on the Island, I have always valued the incredible sense of safety and belonging on our beautiful green rock, and loved learning about our collective history. I grew up discovering tales of the legends of Mann, mostly from weekend trips to one of my favourite places, the House of Manannan (and from recent visits – yes, the robots in the Celtic Roundhouse are still as creepy as ever!). As a child, I felt both security and comfort from stories of Mannanan’s cloak shielding and protecting our little Island from the perils of the outside world.
It was not until I was a teenager that I started to discover my experiences were not the reality for all children growing up on our island. As an observer of the experiences of my friends and peers, it became clear that the security and shelter I experienced, offered by Mannanan’s cloak, cast a dark shadow across the Isle of Man for many others. While we as an Island are fiercely individual, this shadow continues to shroud us from progress when it comes to embracing diversity within our community.
It was not until adulthood that I have found the words, confidence and self-reflection to articulate what this shadow really is. It is, unequivocally and unmistakably, racism.
The sheltering cloak of Mannanan has also created sheltered viewpoints. Police violence may not threaten our community in the same way it does in the US, but this does not mean that racism does not permeate and cast its shadow through our community, in other, insidious ways. Being physically separate from the UK gives us our own unique identity, and power over our shores. Closing our borders has meant that we have been able to protect our community from an even wider spread of coronavirus, but we can’t use our external shield to protect us from something which is so prevalent within our society already. We need to look inwards.
The fact we don’t see a black man suffocated by police on Strand Street, in broad daylight, doesn’t mean we don’t have an issue. Studies have shown that subtle, everyday racism and microaggressions have been found to cause depression, trauma and PTSD in black people and people of colour (POC). The term ‘microaggression’ refers to “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalised groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.” I have often heard negative remarks or ‘jokes’ being made about race within our Island community, which are too regularly met with dismissal, excuses and denial. Think back to your own experiences and how often such statements were met with a flippant comment such as; “It was a joke”, “They are just old fashioned, and don’t know any better”, or “It’s generational!”
I have no doubt that you at some point will have experienced the same thing.
How did you respond? Did you stand up and call it out? Because I know I didn’t. This is a hard truth to come to terms with, to acknowledge your own complicity in perpetuating systemic and structural racism, especially when the very thought of injustice, inequality and intolerance, is something you vehemently oppose.
As a white person, even now, it’s hard to know the right thing to say. In fact, I’ll admit that I was initially reluctant to write this piece for fear that, in doing so, I was occupying a space which should be promoting black writers. But one thing I have learnt, especially in recent weeks, is how important it is to acknowledge my white privilege, and to use it more productively to prompt honest (and sometimes exposing and difficult) discussions about race.
If you feel uncomfortable to use your voice to speak out in support of justice and antiracism, ask yourself – why?
For me, I thought not speaking out was rooted in a fear that I would say the wrong thing, and that I didn’t think it was my place to comment on an issue affecting black people when I was, well, not black. The truth is that as a white person, I benefit from a society which is built for me to succeed, while the same cannot be said for black, Asian and minority ethnic people. But it is white voices (including mine) who need to speak out if we are to address the issue. This is our problem, as white people, to solve. How can the black community dismantle a system that they did not create?
Taking the time to learn about our global history is vital, and we have more access to resources than any generation beforehand to seek out information and learn from. We can research our history online, we can engage on social media, listen to podcasts, watch international news, Netflix series, and read articles and books. We must recognise that it is a privilege to be able to educate ourselves about racism rather than experience it.
Even more important than reading or watching, is listening to the experiences of black people in our own communities, and being open to discussion in the first place. Part of opening up to the discussion involves a willingness to acknowledge instances where we are wrong, or where we may have misunderstood the impact of our words and actions. The short clip below is from Renni Eddo-Lodge, author of ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, about the challenges she’s found when engaging white people in discussions about race.
Renni explains how part of the challenge in conveying her experiences, comes from white people undermining or delegitimising her own point of view; ultimately nullifying her opinion as a ‘chip on the shoulder’. Black people are often met with this dismissive, ‘you’re being sensitive’ response. Comments like ‘All Lives Matter’ and equivocating racist slurs with ‘fat’ or ‘ginger’ insults are clear examples of white-centric narratives which deny and dilute the black experience and are, at their core, racist. In the simplest of terms, ‘racism’ is any kind of prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity. Dismissing the point of view of a black person in regard to their experience is a manifestation of this antagonism. For you, it may be ‘straight-talking’, but for a black person, you are dismissing their experience and their pain.
I do not believe racism has a place in our Manx society, or anywhere. Do you?
In the clip, Renni discusses ‘the fear of being wrong’ as a barrier to more white people engaging in discussions about race, a challenge many of us face. There is lots we can do as a Manx community to ensure that we are initiating these conversations. Whether among friends, family (of all generations), in the public space, in schools, in the media and in parliament – we should come to discussions as open-minded as possible, but also to accept when we are wrong and to use it as a learning moment.
When I left the Isle of Man to go to university in London, it did not take me long to realise how ignorant I had been to the experiences not only of black people but all POC. As a history student, I learnt about the British Empire, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and the Atlantic Slave Trade in detail (if you check out the Manx Museum resources you’ll find that the Isle of Man profited from and was actually very active in the Slave Trade). Learning about these historical structures which underpin racism helped me to grasp how systemic and structural the issue is, and how our history still shapes race relations today.
But to be honest, it was through striking conversations with my friends outside the classroom (usually in the pub!) where ideas about race and racism became less abstract. Hearing my black friends talk about the things they experienced in school, at uni, and just in their daily lives were regular topics of conversation – and made it clear to me how often their race still defined how they moved within the world. Having these discussions became more normalised, and by listening to others and hearing their stories, I came to acknowledge that my silence was part of the problem. Only by using my voice and privilege to speak out and uplift the voices of POC, could I hope to be part of the shift in attitude we need to see.
This past week has disheartened me in a number of ways, not least seeing the underbelly of racism which has reared its ugly head across our Island, namely on social media. What I’ve also found striking, however, and has given me hope, is the growing voices of the Island’s young people in challenging the status quo, in making their voice heard – and ultimately, committing to our black, Manx friends that their voices will not be dismissed.
It is time that we cast light on the racism on the Isle of Man and no longer allow it to hide in the shadow of Mannanan’s cloak. Only when we open our eyes and accept we have a problem can we make a change. It is our collective responsibility to address racism even when that means calling out friends and family, even when that means looking in the mirror and acknowledging our own complicity.
I’ll finish with a quote from journalist Nesrine Malik, who’s point couldn’t be any clearer:
“True solidarity, the one that helps in the long term rather than merely buys a sticking plaster for the short term, is in those moments. It is in the daily discomfort of taking risks, of challenging a system that subtly but emphatically excludes black people, when there is no reward for doing so, and of making way and giving up space where it counts – at the table where power sits – and when no one can see you do it.”