January 30, 2016
Societal issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia regularly flood headlines of news outlets and social media platforms, making it nearly unbelievable for anyone to vow complete ignorance of any of them. Yet plenty of people seem surprised when they witness intolerance firsthand.
Well-meaning singer Sam Smith is an unfortunate example of this. The white pop star recently tweeted about the racist experience of a black friend in London. The intention of calling out the story in and of itself is fine, important even, but the way he framed it is what got him into trouble. He referred to the incident as a shocking and rare occurrence, when in fact everyday racism still holds a firm grip on society (as it always has).
Twitter went crazy over Smith’s tweets, fans and critics alike called him out and I have to agree with them. His tweets read like a man running a painless-childbirth campaign learning that women actually experience excruciating pain during childbirth.
Yes, with over four million Twitter followers and more than a few Grammy and Brits awards, Smith stands in a better position than most to “shine some sort of light on it [racism],” as he put it. But caring doesn’t mean that he knows what he’s talking about.
Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account who follows the news in London knows knows the reality of racism today — because they’ve seen it themselves.
Like New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, police stop-and-search efforts on the streets of London predominantly target black youth. In fact, nearly every black kid in inner London can expect to be searched at least a few times before they reach Smith’s age (23-years-old). Even Britain’s own Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe himself, has come out publicly speaking about institutionalized racism in the United Kingdom; that’s not to mention racial bias and name discrimination demonstrated throughout Britain’s workforce and studies that show a rise in racial prejudice among UK citizens in recent years.
The truth of the matter is that racism exists in London and everyone knows it.
Racism, of course, is not unique to Britain, it wreaks havoc and spreads injustice all over the world. Across the pond in the United States, racism has been (for a long time) and continues to remain in the spotlight. The Black Lives Matter movementhas been front and center of mainstream media calling out issues of police brutality from Ferguson to Baltimore to Milwaukee. Racially-motivated mass shootings like the one at a Charleston, South Carolina church, water crises (that disproportionately affect impoverished black communities) like the one in in Flint, Michigan, and racial injustice protests led by black students at university campuses across the country all are proof of racism’s enduring presence.
But do these things resonate with people who do not experience them? Does one have to experience racism firsthand to believe it? Police brutality and campus protests might feel far removed from some white people’s lives, but race issues within the entertainment film industry certainly aren’t.
Generally, there is a controversial lack of roles for black people in Hollywood (and recognition for the ones that do exist). This month’s overwhelmingly white Academy Award nominations alone prompted an #OscarsSoWhite boycott and protest from black and white actors alike. It led to the Academy’s governing board announcement that the institution will make changes to address the problem — by doubling the number of women and academy members of color by 2020.
But with more diversity comes inevitable backlash. Waves of criticism attacked the casting of a black man as a stormtrooper in Star Wars, a black actress as Hermione in an upcoming Harry Potter production, as well as Rue and Thresh in The Hunger Games.
With so many examples permeating so many parts of society — along with mainstream media’s coverage of them — it’s hard to believe people like Sam Smith can claim to be surprised when they see racism in their own lives. If they are truly surprised, it’s because (whether they like it or not) their skin color allows them the privilege of overlooking it — this does not make them bad people. When I think of Smith, I think of a man I have come to admire for his courage and his music.
At the same time, white people like Smith must realize that they are witnessing a long history of a complicated problem and that their observations must be put in context. Racism won’t go away just because someone new suddenly understands it and shines a light on it. That said, shine on!
Black people have to deal with everyday racism in order to survive, and we challenge it whenever we can. So how can allies help fight injustice against people of color? Listen to us. Listen to all of the racism stories your black friends tell, not just the stories you witness yourself. Don’t act like what you know is new information if indeed it is not. And above all, support anti-racism efforts, challenge your own white privilege and help amplify voices that need to be heard but often are not.
Adebisi Alimi is an LGBT advocate, an HIV activist, and the first person to come out as gay on Nigerian television. He is a 2014 Aspen New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.
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Originally published on Slant