‘Here is a strange and bitter crop’
Today we proudly publish this open letter from our colleague Jada. She writes passionately about Black Lives Matter, how she’s feeling and how we must not let this moment past.
The last few weeks have left me drained, spent and wracked with so many emotions. It took me days to say a word once the news of George Floyd broke. People around me started to speak up, speak out, not only people of colour but white people as well. Yet I couldn’t speak.
I sighed instead, I sighed because this was something that didn’t surprise me, I sighed because here was another black man being slain in the streets, I sighed because racism is still strong and rife. It is not only in the obvious overt physical acts of violence but the casual racism, the systemic racism that is ingrained in society. Racism became something you learnt to live with, shrug off, assume that this is just how it is and how it will always be. It’s been so intrinsic in society, our own slow and deadly virus that we have just accepted as part of our daily lives. Accepted being followed round a shop, accepted when a table asks to be moved away from us, accepted the stares as we walk in a room where no one “looks” like us. Accepted being pulled over by the police, asked to change our hair at work, accepted that skin colour tights didn’t mean our skin colour and joined in the laughter at the exaggerated caricatures used to represent us.
I felt that heaviness in my heart grow all the more heavy. The last few weeks have left so many with widespread trauma, a shared collective experience watching repeats on the news, listening to people argue for ALL lives, argue that George Floyd Had been in prison in the past, arguing that this happened in America not here, here it’s different. All this after a lockdown which saw us showing solidarity together as we clapped on our doorsteps for the NHS, picked up food for our neighbours and talked on how the world was getting a reboot. How quickly we forget. Yet worse than the protests against BLM for me was the silence not just of acquaintances but friends and family. To be silent is in itself a statement, to say nothing after such a horror and during a time so many people of colour are angry, hurting, scared. What does this say as to your perceived place in society, your place in the world, your families, about you. What effect does that have on your psyche?
We have in many ways had to adapt without realising how often we have had to modify ourselves, in speech, in body language, making ourselves smaller, changing our very essence in order to be palatable. I couldn’t be ‘the angry black woman’, I had to be tentative in how I approached issues of race for fear of seeing the blank stare, the shutting down of the body and the defensive wall being erected by those who weren’t ready to accept your pain as in doing so they may have to recognise a societal responsibility.
A pain was unleashed in its full force that day
This may not be bodies hanging from the poplar trees but it’s the equivalent. We turn on the tv and see a black man being killed in front of our eyes, kneeled on, suffocated, begging for mercy, his mother, life, TO LIVE. People stand there watching, being held back and knowing this could be them, that they too like this man are nothing, mean nothing. So don’t say to me why do you dwell on the past, don’t tell me it’s all better now. It’s in the roots, it courses through the very sinews of a country and it needs to be torn out at those same roots. We need to change the system, from the law enforcement, to corporations, to the education system, to the home. I don’t want to see another person of colour dying on or off our screens. I am tired of it, I am tired of sighing and feeling this is what happens. This should NEVER happen, this should never have happened.
Those bandaids so many of us have slapped on old wounds have been ripped off. This horrendous act is something I cannot put back in its bottle, un-see, un-feel, forget. For years we have watched as our brothers and sisters linked not by blood maybe, but by history, shared experiences, a collective pain that runs deep and is in our very bones, suffer. Some people are lucky enough to say “well I’ve never experienced racism” but it is not enough to feel your life is comfortable and so believe all are as lucky. Your life should be that less bright, that fruit you eat that less sweet if your fellow man is still shackled by society, shackled by the system, shackled by their representation in the media.
This is the time to unite
We need a united front and we need allies. There have been times in the past few weeks I could not speak anymore, so turned to friends to take over the mantle. I cannot explain one more time why yes, There’s black on black crime and yes we care, but to discuss that you need to look at the social constructs that have placed people of colour in poor housing, poorly paid jobs, less access to healthcare in some countries, and with more hurdles to pull themselves over to get into that room, sit in that seat, eat at that table. These are all things we can’t alone change though we can try. We can’t, as it has been said, dismantle a system we didn’t erect. There is something different this time, new voices, more voices and people not letting up. If you haven’t spoken, speak, if you haven’t asked your black friend how they are feeling right now, ask, some may feel nothing, some may not want to discuss but some you may see a relief in their eyes and a lifting of their shoulders. Our pain should be universal, our disparities should hurt you too, our inequalities should leave you reeling and angry and crying out for change.
Making a change
I obsessively scrolled through social media on Blackout Tuesday, looking at black square after black square. Every black little square was one of hope, a feeling of solidarity, every square in its blackness validated people cared. Second Step in posting the square that day as a company were showing that we do not in any way condone what happened, that we stand up to racism. We will let our colleagues know by the publication of a report the government chose to omit, to highlighting a black Bristol based poet’s words on the toppling of a slave trader’s statue.
However we can and must do more. Making a change comes not only with words but with actions. We need to be open and transparent in the representation that is within the company, what is our makeup, how many people are there of black, and minority ethnic backgrounds? If this falls short then we commit to do better, draw up a plan of how we change this, the steps we need to take. Just as having and supporting an internal BAME Group is essential, just as we promote peer groups in the work we do! Recognising in order to make the changes you need to look to those that are affected and come from a place of knowledge.
Internally a platform is needed upon which we can feel heard, safe and acknowledged. This is the time to look at yourself as a colleague, as an ally and truly asking if you are helping this process and committed to the change that’s a necessity. The cycle needs to be broken in as many areas as we can. We cannot claim ignorance any longer as a society, as a friend, as a colleague, we cannot turn a blind eye.
A note to the reader: You may recognise the title of this piece, it comes from one of the first ever protest songs, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. This song has always haunted me referring, as it does, to the lynching and hanging of Black Americans. We must never forget George Floyd and the manner in which he died. We must not turn away from this injustice and the injustice borne by so many not just in America, but right here in the UK too.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Watch Billie’s powerful song below.