The global pandemic is lingering in the background of national news when Layla Saad and I first speak. "White people are not used to seeing themselves as a race," Saad, the author of the workbook Me and White Supremacy is saying. "From my own experience, I’ve been very aware of being a black person from a very young age because, when you’re not part of the dominant culture, you’re always the other. And so you’re aware of the thing that separates you from being seen as 'normal' like everyone else."
"White privilege," she adds, "means you don’t have to think of yourself as white. You just think of yourself as a person."
For the last few years, Saad has been placing important questions in the minds of white women – white feminists – all over the world. She launched a 28-day challenge on Instagram in response to an essay she wrote, titled "I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy". The piece went viral but Saad was left fielding questions from white women who were trying to understand it more fully.
So, over 28 days, the challenge asked them to seek out their own feedback: what have they learned about themselves, it asked; what is white supremacy, actually, and what does it look like in the everyday world? Furthermore, who is choosing to look away from the effects of white supremacy and their part in it and, importantly, why?
White people are not used to seeing themselves as a race. From my own experience, I've been very aware of being a black person from a very young age because, when you're not part of the dominant culture, you're always the other.
Arguably, the ensuing global crisis has made this question all the more pertinent. "People like to say that the coronavirus is no respecter of race, class or country, that the disease COVID-19 is mindless and will infect anybody it can," wrote Charles M. Blow for The New York Times in early April. "In theory, that is true. But, in practice, in the real world, this virus behaves like others, screeching like a heat-seeking missile toward the most vulnerable in society. And this happens not because it prefers them, but because they are more exposed, more fragile and more ill."
In reality, COVID-19 has laid bare not only health hierarchies but also race and class privilege. The death rate among black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) communities in the UK is "more than twice that of whites", analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed this month. Earlier in May, the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre reported that 33% of critically ill COVID-19 patients were from a minority background, despite accounting for 19% of the UK’s overall population – a figure that has remained consistent since March. Meanwhile analysis by Sky News found that 70% of frontline healthcare workers who have died from coronavirus are from a minority background.
Boris Johnson has faced mounting calls for an independent public enquiry into the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities in Britain.
Over in the US the situation is similarly abhorrent: the mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times higher than it is for white Americans. Racial inequality – coupled with a "culture of complicity akin to lynchings" around black violence, exposed by the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February – is killing people. Increasingly, the systemic institutional problems that allow inequality to thrive are becoming harder for those in power to ignore.
There are equally crucial conversations to be had on the ground. "The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism," declared The Atlantic way back in March, noting that pandemics – which also expose inequality at home and in gendered work – have "lasting effects on gender inequality". We know, of course, that any gender inequality will affect BAME women hardest. And problematic, unchecked white feminism is making that even harder.
Despite regularly paying lip service to issues like race and class and gender, real action from white people is scarce. Rarely do white people, including myself, analyse their own complicity and activity within the racist system we all inhabit. The emotional burden of fighting to be treated equally is predominantly left to those already disenfranchised by that system.
COVID-19 has laid bare not only health hierarchies but also race and class privilege. The death rate among black, Asian and ethnic minority communities in the UK is more than twice that of white people.
While more people are engaged in and learning more about racial dynamics, few are properly challenging the internalised ideas and structures we are part of, says Saad. White supremacy is something that we are all a part of – it is not restricted to far-right trolls and neo-Nazis. Writers and thinkers like Saad and Mikki Kendall, author of the newly released Hood Feminism: Notes From The Women That A Movement Forgot, are the latest to say: this, very clearly, needs to change. It’s time for us – white women – to do the work.
"I’d been having conversations on Twitter and at feminist events before writing my book," Kendall tells me, "and I wish I could go back now and record and then play for you how emotionally invested some of these women were that they were not at fault. There was no way that they were a part of the problem, because they were feminists."
"If I’d known then what I know now, I would have kept an archive of the repetitive nature of the things that were said," she adds. "You know how men are criticised for sexism – they have that running pattern of what they do or don’t do, it’s almost like a script? Well, I would predict that I would hear the same five or six sentences [from feminists], and I would hear them. And they all thought they were saying something new."
In 2015 Alli Kirkham published a comic titled How White Feminism™ Can Look Just Like Sexism which articulates this phenomenon perfectly: for all their protestations that men need to get behind the feminist movement, that we should tell our own stories however we see fit, that men should feel uncomfortable for once, white feminists often react in the exact same way to discussions about race.
It isn’t comfortable to admit that you are safe because someone else is unsafe, and that we (I) benefit from structural oppression in a very real way. As Saad says, anti-racism work is uncomfortable but that discomfort is insignificant compared to the harm that comes from doing nothing. These conversations among white women, white feminists – me, maybe you – are long overdue and they've never been more urgent.
"There are a few everyday things that white people do which look like everyday regular behaviours but which people don’t understand is also part of white supremacy and this, white-centring, is one of them," Saad explains. "The others are white exceptionalism and tone-policing."
"The way that white-centring shows up is when white people really believe that they are the centre of how everything else works. So oftentimes I'm interviewed about this work and a question that I get a lot is around how can white people navigate how uncomfortable this work is," she continues. "And you know what I say is, yeah. The work is uncomfortable, but the fact is that you have so centred yourself that you're not even thinking about how uncomfortable it is for people of colour to be impacted by racism, being harmed right here. And the two are not equivalent."
During our conversation – even writing this piece – I’m painfully aware that I am doing the same. I can see the scale of the work I need to do. Everyone asking these questions might believe that they are doing so with the best of intentions but that’s exactly the point. If you’re thinking about yourself, you’re not thinking about the real reason for taking this on and tackling your own complicity in white supremacy, which is to make life better for those affected by the systems you profit from.
It isn't comfortable to admit that you are safe because someone else is unsafe, and that we benefit from structural oppression in a very real way.
"I think there's also the misunderstanding around what white privilege is because people hear the word 'privilege' and their defences go up straightaway," Saad adds. "Because they feel like they’re not living a privileged life, necessarily, you know – I grew up poor or you may belong to the LGBTQ community or you're disabled or you're a woman.
"And those identities come with their own experiences of oppression and marginalisation. But the key thing to understand with white privilege specifically is that any hardships, or oppression or marginalisation that you've experienced have had nothing to do with your race."
The ideas we need to challenge in ourselves are built into the structures of how we live – our perceptions, where we spend our money, how effectively we hold each other and politicians to account. White women need to dismantle not only the system but the ideas we have accepted about it.
"It's not an action, it's not a checklist, it's not things that you do so that you can prove to the world that you're a good person or that you're not racist," Saad says firmly. "It is a way of life, it's a way of thinking about yourself in the world. It's a way of showing up every day, where this work is not separate, it's not like a project that you do on the side.
"And what I really want people to understand is that this is not a one-and-done thing, this is lifelong work. White supremacy is a system and it's impacted people of colour for forever. And so it's not going to be dismantled or overcome by people saying it as just a one-time thing or just a simple set of actions that they do, rather it's seeing themselves in the practice of anti-racism every day."
It is easy to watch the news and feel horror at mistreatment, violence and wide-reaching, fatal inequalities in the world. It’s harder to admit that we’re complicit. But there can be no doubt: now is the time to do so.