STRANGE FRUIT

 

As I travel the world I can’t help but absorb different cultures and ways of living. Inevitably, some cultures delight and some fill me with fear. When I set out to write this blog, my intent was to share my thoughts with hopes of growing a community of like-minded people. I didn’t intend to become political, however if I am going to speak on what is right in the world, then I feel I should also be prepared to speak about what is wrong. I spend a lot of time in the US, so naturally I’ve observed and absorbed a fair bit there. The presence of sexism, of gun violence in the police force in the US and racism are three cases in point which continue to appal me. However much I try, I cannot ignore or accept these harrowing injustices. In this piece I will try and tackle the topic of racism, and separately in later posts I will cover sexism and gun violence. Whilst I know that both subjects are an issue in many other countries, I have tried to narrow my focus on the US, which is rather timely considering the comments coming from the Oval Office these past few days. Of course, racism most definitely exists in my home country (the UK) and globally, so please do not view this post as a ‘pick on America’ moment. I sincerely hope that wherever you are, this post will make you think.

 

I am a tall (if you know me well or have ever met me, you know just how tall), white, blond man. I am about as Nordic or Arian as you can get. I have always had friends from the widest reaches of the world – from my early school days to now I have or have had friends that originate from Malaysia, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Brazil, India, Japan, Trinidad and Africa to name just a few. My three older (and amazing) cousins are adopted Chinese. As a result of this diversity of ethnicity surrounding me while me growing up, I don’t think I ever considered the different skin colour to be of importance. I was raised to be both accepting and adopting of other races. Recent events around the world have been forcing my realisation that whilst I have continued to try to be an accepting person, others haven’t. While I never thought skin colour was relevant, I have always been perceptive to the energy of those around me, and indeed of the zeitgeist. Recently I’ve had the feeling that we are sleepwalking into a time of increasing racism and xenophobia. It is precisely this feeling that compelled me to write this post.

 

During one of my trips this year to New York I was watching the night-time news with The Oracle (my NYC bestie, see post NYC + THE ORACLE) when the ‘Black Lives Matter’ marches were at their height. I said aloud, ‘Why are they saying that black lives matter, surely all life matters…it makes me a bit mad!’ As a result I was called out on commenting on what I did not understand, and I’ve been gratefully hearing more and more about what it meant to my best friend to grow up as a black child in the US. I try to keep my ego in check at all times (yes I sometimes fail) and remember that unless I listen and feel, I won’t learn or grow. It turns out that despite my thinking that I truly saw the world equally, my eyes are still white. Part of our conversation led her to tell me about a term that will always horrify me. Its one that isn’t widely discussed, isn’t commonly known about in white communities, and one that I have been grappling to process and understand: Driving while black.

Let that sit with you for just a moment…’driving while black’.

What does this mean to you?

 

An ordinary commute to JFK last year – what if you had been pulled over and shot, just because of the colour of your skin? What if the person who shot you was found ‘not guilty’ simply because of his skin, regardless of his breaking the very laws that were put in place to protect all people?

 

At first I didn’t realise the potency of this term, and that every black household in America is aware of it even if they do not use it frequently. My horror at the existence of this oh-so-casual (but oh-so-gut-wrenching) expression was the thing that compelled me to write this post. It made me want to attempt to get into its true meaning, to bring light to the shivering dark depths of this collection of three simple words.

 

Founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement was created following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. I would like to focus on an incident that came before this, the killing of an unarmed (comment on this later in post) black man by a police officer. I had followed the chain of events from afar in the UK in 2011 when the shooting first took place, however the case had returned to trial in the US later in 2017 following new evidence being found. I have already highlighted the US police force’s heavy-handed use of weapons on both black and white citizens. Within this post I would like to highlight the work of Black Lives Matter, and indeed the seemingly daily occurrences of loss of black lives at the hands of the police.

 

It’s vital to note that institutionalised racism has simply always existed – society has never been without it. There can actually be no truth in the fact that people do not see colour, however seeing one’s differences does not make you racist. There are two ways to ensure a path to racism. Firstly non-engagement in dialogue that probes our differences, and secondly the lack of openness to admit that poor education and denial or what history has done to a minority group. Simply burying the conversation makes the racism fester. What we are witnessing in the US is a rising, or an elevation of not what was hidden (as it was always in plain sight) but rather ignored. The upsetting part is not the fact that the commander in chief can spout such bile into the world that is upsetting (what else do we expect from him? He is just one person, right?). The devastating part is that is that not only do many people agree with what he says, but they repeat it openly. The normalisation and acceptance is something that cannot be simply stamped out – it must be educated and discussed. How do you tell a person they are wrong by shouting at them? Yelling and berating doesn’t work – it will simply bury it for another generation.

 

How can it be right for parents to teach their children that in the eyes of the people that are supposed to keep us safe, it is in fact an unspoken or silent offence to drive a vehicle simply because of their skin colour? Boiled down even further, this is as good as saying that being black makes you a criminal. I am told that most children of black origin are taught how to react if – or more likely when – they are pulled over by the police in order to avoid problems or complications, much like being taught how to tie laces or how to look both ways when crossing the street. I find this baffling. How can this be normal? While every parent gives advice and guidance on basic safety to their children, black parents have to give this additional and dire advice because they know the awful truth that their children’s skin colour can jeopardise their safety.

 

In the summer of 2016 I watched the million-times-viewed video depicting a police officer shooting a man by the name of Philando Castile (NOTE: Disturbing video). The entire turn of events was recorded by his girlfriend (NOTE: Disturbing video) on her phone, and witnessed by her child on the back seat. This 32-year-old man was licensed to carry a weapon, and in reaching for his licence and registration was shot seven times. Rather than helping him once injured, the officer held his weapon over him until back up arrived, and as a result he later died from the injuries sustained. The officer who shot Philando was at first found not guilty, and only in November 2017, after a huge amount of media attention and campaigning, did his girlfriend receive the relatively small sum of $800,000 USD in settlement.

 

What if the script was flipped and a white man or woman you know was pulled over, simply for being white? What if this was your white father in the driver’s seat? What if you were the white lady in the passenger’s seat and your white boyfriend was shot? What if you were the white child on the back seat and you witnessed the murder of your white mother’s white boyfriend?

 

Black Lives Matter was created in order to facilitate, ‘organize and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.’ It does not intend to create violence, nor does it intend to stir up hatred between races. It intends to reach deeper, to a neutral plane in which skin colour isn’t an issue and never will be again. It makes a noise in order to ‘support the development of new Black leaders, as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities.’ I am utterly blown away by the fact that this organization also strives to support the often-marginalized LGBTQ community as it does so (its interesting to note here how even the marginalised can marginalise others…). So if an organization is based on bringing balance to what is an entirely wrong situation, then it is perhaps ironic to see the advent of communities entitled ‘White Lives Matter’ in direct response. I imagine that the reaction from most black people is simply ‘yeah, we know they do’.

 

Until there is a true, definitive and lasting balance brought to the racial integration of black or other ethnic minorities into society as a whole (in the USA and internationally), and both an acceptance and acknowledgement of a traumatic history then unfortunately organizations such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ must exist. When off-duty black police officers, students and decent, law-abiding citizens can be shot in the US – almost freely – simply because they are perceived to be more dangerous only because of their skin, then yes, Houston, we do have a problem.

 

A vital point here is that crime is of course not even exclusive to any skin colour. If we associate black people with crime, then we can only ask ourselves why this is the case. Is it in fact the media that have given us this impression, or is it simply through fear that we typecast and judge? Why, when we think of the dark-souled, white-skinned likes of Charles Manson, Geoffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy or Timothy McVey do we not associate white people exclusively with crime? As such, where, precisely, does this ‘black = crime’ normalisation in society come from?

 

Perhaps, alongside the awareness and study of stereotyping and judgment of minorities in our society we should study, understand and finally address the bigger problem of why crime exists in the first place – in both black and white communities. Surely this is a worthy line of enquiry?

 

The differences and divides between both race and class seem to be widening rather than narrowing as we move forward. With this in mind, can I ask you please to pause here and reflect on the fact that the very fabric of a successful society relies on the wellbeing of the masses, not just the fortunate few? It is obvious the world over that white skin gives immediate advantages over everyone else. Why do we spend so much time and energy denying this simple truth?

 

We live in a world where more often than not, central governments are increasingly unable to afford to provide education and care for the less fortunate. I would like to identify a few of the key ingredients of a decent upbringing, namely safety and security, access to social welfare services and healthcare, access to decent education and healthy work/life environments, nutritious food, warmth and shelter. We live in a world where a person’s potential to thrive in a healthy, balanced life is inextricably linked to these things. These vital components to giving the young the best possible start are therefore inextricably linked to the individual wealth of each family. Painfully, it follows logic that if you are born into poverty then it is near impossible to get out of it. In desperate situations, crime is a perhaps an all-too-easy route to try and improve circumstances. The sad fact is, the imbalance of poverty isn’t the fault of the masses, it is the fault of just a small handful of people having far too much wealth.

 

On balance, its also an idea to look at how stressful it is in the police force, and double down on the fact that there is a current state of emergency in the US based on an opioid addiction that has hit the (predominantly white) ‘Rust Belt’ area. The use of prescriptive drugs are on the whole rising constantly – yet another part of the great wheel of consumption. Many communities are struggling to get by with low wages and rising living costs as basic healthcare is being stripped back. Whether in service or not, the public are constantly being pitted against each other as they are fed a rhetoric of fear and hatred by the media (and sadly even by the man currently sitting in the highest office in the US). Simultaneously, easy access to drugs (both prescriptive and illegal) is a go-to to handle the stress and unhappiness of daily life and the ingrained phobia of every new person. Perhaps an all too familiar fear/drug/gun culture is to blame for the ‘trigger-happiness’ of the police in the US? Are the police suffering from stress or the abuse of prescriptive drugs? Fear, laced with hatred and the right drugs, and all-too-easily-accessed weapons is surely the perfect formula for the mass-destruction that we see today.

 

For justice to be served, then we must rely on a judicial system that is based on balance and impartiality. If the US shootings against minority black victims (as the ones described in this post and the many more that are not) continue to result in not guilty verdicts when their guilt is so blatantly obvious and well evidenced, then surely it is just as good as saying that not only was the time of white hoods and ‘Strange Fruit’ absolutely acceptable, but that its here yet again, only this time on camera. How can this be ignored? The very existence of the term ‘driving while black’ is shameful.

 

Since embarking upon writing this piece, many thoughts have come to me about how black people first arrived in the continent of North America. Whenever these thoughts come, I am forced to consider an uncomfortable truth – that the forefathers of my home country were the champions of both colonialism and the slave trade. These times were of course a major part of what makes the capitalist west so dominant today. This most humbling thought only makes me want to embrace my friends, those effected by racism, perfect strangers to me, freely and with more regularity, further, deeper and wider. The only way is to try and make a better future, having addressed and dealt with a shameful past. What goes a lot further than denying the past, is to acknowledge wrongdoing and say sorry. If racism didn’t exist in the US, then the current president would not be in office. After all, his appointment can easily be analysed as a direct racist response to firstly his predecessor’s charismatic success, yet most importantly to the colour of his skin.

 

There is of course a bigger conversation to be had here about a myriad more issues than I can cover here. I invite your comments and feedback gladly. I am also by no means an expert in this field. What I write here is my opinion and take on a rather complex, crazy and infinitely contentious topic. As we know, situations can be looked at from a hundred or more sides. I sincerely hope that in writing this I have best represented as many as I have in this post. All we can do is try to speak out and make a change, if we don’t even try then our silence is just about as good as our acceptance: ‘You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say’. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

All I do know is that anger isn’t the way. If the orange man in office makes us all angry, then he will have succeeded. Taking a deep breath, and looking at the situation we have found ourselves in (yes, Republicans, the ENTIRE WORLD IS WATCHING), I feel like the only thing we can do is calmly and rationally pull together. I also feel sorry for Trump. Yes I do. He is clearly the most miserable, angry man – so much so that he has to inflict his sad ways and thoughts on the world. It can only be a tortured soul that causes so much hate and incites violence in the way he does. To try and deal with the reality of his office, I have been working hard at giving thanks to him, and the situation. He is not only giving us the chance to see that racism still very much exists, but I have no doubt that he is also giving the next amazing leader a chance to come into being. If the next great leader of the world is even close to Obama, then it will be worthwhile…just imagine if he or she were even better. Yes he is forcing out some darkness, but in doing so he is also helping to bring the the light.

 

In order for society not to disintegrate, then we all need to be a part of its integration. We are all – every living being – interconnected on this planet – our silence is as good as acceptance. The sooner we stop looking at each other as anything other than the same, deserving living beings, the better. As such, I ask you to be ‘part of the solution, not the problem.’ Leroy Eldridge Cleaver. If the boot were on the other foot, and black people behaved as white people have done all these years (from the slave trade to segregation and beyond) wouldn’t you want a little compassion too?

 

To every white or Caucasian reader: The next time you get in your car, start it up and pull away, just imagine we live in an alternate reality, one in which at the age of eight your parent taught you about ‘Driving While White’.

 

With gratitude,

Nathan

 

 

SOURCES:

Black Lives Matter: https://blacklivesmatter.com/

NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/us/police-shooting-castile-trial-video.html

ABC News: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-21/philando-castile-shooting-dashcam-video-released/8637514

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/22/st-louis-missouri-ferguson-protests-black-lives-matter

 

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