I chose to study Religious Education as one of my GCSE’s at high school, partly because I liked the kind, motherly nature of Mrs Stewart, but mainly because I knew it was one of my best chances of getting an A. And I was right. I can’t say, however, that I remember much from that particular educational achievement, besides the month or so that was spent watching the film ‘Cry Freedom’ in our Friday afternoon lessons. For four or five consecutive weeks, a television, as deep as it was wide, was wheeled into the classroom, the blinds were drawn, and we all settled back into our uncomfortable, perpendicular plastic chairs to watch a movie about racial injustice in South Africa in the 1970’s. Cry Freedom tells the true story of Steve Biko, (played by Denzel Washington), a charismatic leader in the equal rights movement, who spoke outwardly against the injustice of apartheid in his home nation. Biko was killed in police custody in 1977. The circumstances leading to his death caused international outrage and garnered worldwide press attention. Biko became a martyr and a symbol of black resistance, 17 years before apartheid eventually fell, and the hopeful emergence of Mandela’s rainbow nation.
I’m still not sure why Mrs Wright chose to show us that film, it had almost no relevance to the syllabus whatsoever, but I’m glad she did. The film moved me deeply and has remained one of the few things from my high school education I can still remember today. The story caught me by surprise. It just wasn’t something I was conscious of, as a 15-year-old white boy from East Sussex.
A few years later I was at college, and three of my close friends were walking by the road when someone launched a milkshake at them from a passing car, accompanied by an aggressive racial slur. I remember being as confused as I was enraged. I couldn’t understand why anyone would do something like that. I hadn’t even realised that my friends were ‘people of colour’, any more than I had red hair and glasses. I’m not sure how much of that was innocence or ignorance. Possibly a bit of both.
Years later, I entered into a conversation with a colleague at work. He was black and lived in London and I recognised a hostility in the way he spoke about the police. I wanted to understand why. I had been a Police Officer for five years and resented being considered in any way prejudice, simply by association. My colleague was university educated, had zero criminal record and bravely served his country as a soldier for over a decade. He shared with me how he had been repeatedly stopped and searched by Police Officers in his neighbourhood, for no apparent reason, other than the fact he was black, male, and in a tracksuit. This was why he didn’t think much of the police. His opinion was informed by his experience. I wanted my colleague to know that not all Police Officers were racist. I wanted him to understand that Stop and Search is one of the only ways of getting knives off the street, and how a police presence in London communities is an essential means of reducing gang violence and the ever-increasing murder rate. But what was more important to communicate to my colleague in that moment, was that I was sorry. I was sorry that officers hadn’t been more sensitive, empathetic and professional. I was sorry that we lived in a world where he had suffered the injustice of being treated with suspicion, for simply being a black man. I was sorry that I will never know what it’s like to be in his position and to experience this treatment, by consequence of my skin colour.
The May killing of George Floyd, by Police Officers in Minneapolis, caused international outrage and has led to demonstrations and protests being held all over the world, calling for justice and change. The Black Lives Matter movement has called into question the story of our country’s heritage and brought light upon the injustice that still exists today, predicated on our rich history of colonialism, subjugation, and slavery. It feels quite easy to vilify the injustice of the past, where it remains static, sterile, and exposed. It’s far harder, however, to identify the perfusive inequity that exists in our present.
I have come to learn that simply not being racist, isn’t enough. I need to do better than that. And that any innocence or ignorance to the experience of people in my community, is no excuse at all.
One of my favourite speakers on this subject, the Harvard Academic, Dr Cornel West, writes:
“Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”
I hope that history will not judge me as being part of the problem.
I want to resist the temptation to keep quiet and say nothing. I want to move from empathy to action. I want to fight racial inequality in the honest held belief that “injustice anywhere, is an affront to justice everywhere.” (Martin Luther King Jnr.)
Written by Bryn Frere-Smith
Founder of Blue Bear Coffee Co.