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Values & Covid-19: Feel the pain: systemic racism and the social conditioning of our values


Values & Covid-19: Feel the pain: systemic racism and the social conditioning of our values

This is a blog by Janice Gittens and Julia Oertli
Janice and Julia work for the Common Cause Foundation.

About a month ago, we reflected on what the pandemic has been revealing about the values on which our society is built. We focused on the fact that many of the “essential workers” who keep the country running, often at great personal risk, are also people who experience one or multiple forms of systemic oppression, making them even more vulnerable to contracting coronavirus. But, despite their “essential worker” status, our society places little value on their physical, emotional and financial health. As Gary Young writes, “it’s not the virus that discriminates; it is society”.

Even before the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last month, and the shooting of Rayshard Brooks a few weeks later, it was clear that systemic racism is a significant determinant of people’s health outcomes. With protests now sweeping across the world, this reality is becoming increasingly undeniable. These deaths were not isolated incidents, but consistent with over 400 years of violence against Black people, which the British were pivotal in helping to invent. They have elicited a primal scream of pain, grief and rage by so many people of colour across the world because it starkly symbolised what for generations has been an unspoken fact in our white dominant world – that the lives of people of colour, and Black people in particular, aren’t valuable.

Why were white people carrying guns being allowed to protest against the lockdown in Michigan in April, but multi-racial, largely peaceful protests against the daylight killing of unarmed Black people were met with the National Guard? The last two weeks have woken many people up to the understanding that systemic racism is not a matter of the past; it has pulled back the curtain on the values that drive American society. US racism was inherited from the British, so this very much concerns us in the UK too. Slavery was an economic institution designed for resource extraction and wealth accumulation for the white elite. Black people were seen as a cog in the machine; the human cost was negligible to the oppressors. The police force was created in part to quell rebellion and control Black bodies. The American constitution was written to protect property, not human lives. British and American racism are inextricably linked. So where does that leave us now?

Psychologists have long pointed out that a system of violence that considers Black people to be expendable was only tenable on the basis that they were seen as less-than-human. At Common Cause, we have talked a lot about the priority that most people place on compassionate, or ‘intrinsic’, values. What this doesn’t explain, however, is how these compassionate values can co-exist with the systemic dehumanisation of people of colour? This disconnect, or cognitive dissonance, is rarely mentioned in the discourse about values we’ve been a part of, including our own. Recognising this contradiction can give rise to a lot of discomfort, but it’s important to start peeling back the layers so we can see what’s underneath.

What we’ve realised over the past month is that there is a disconnect between how people see themselves and the systems of structural violence they normalise and benefit from without questioning. The social conditioning, which serves to minimise this cognitive dissonance in turn shapes the values of our (white) society. The way this functions is to maintain the safety and comfort of those in power. A great deal of energy goes into sustaining this separation – from the normalisation of violence against people of colour to the collective amnesia of Britain’s colonial history and the current negligence by the British government to protect people of colour from covid-19. To maintain itself, the system is reliant on the silence and complicity with the status quo of those who benefit, whether that’s intentional or not.

Throughout history, we’ve seen mass movements for change being led by those experiencing oppression, and this time is no different. People who for centuries have tried to carve out a life for themselves in a society that doesn’t see them as worthy of living have had enough. They are willing to pay the cost of freedom, which for many is high – more police violence, incarceration, trauma as well as contracting covid-19.

To those of us who are white, those of us with class privilege, educational privilege, those of us who are cis, straight, able-bodied, thin, neurotypical, in good mental health, those of us with secure immigration status, those of us who have a safe home and access to food, those of us not experiencing violence and trauma – this isn’t primarily an intellectual endeavour. Our response cannot be confined to reading and educating ourselves, although this is important. When we talk about dismantling systemic racism and oppression, we are dealing with over 400 years of social conditioning. Our emotions are the location of change, because one of the most powerful tools we have to counter dehumanisation is by tapping into our shared humanity and allowing ourselves to feel the pain of the thousands of people who are marching across the world.

The solidarity we’re seeing right now is showing us what is possible. It goes beyond the compassion and kindness people have been giving their neighbours and to strangers during lockdown. It shows that many more of us, in numerous countries, are starting to see the foundations on which our world order has been built  – and that to create a society led by compassionate values first requires the dismantling of the systems that systematically undermine them.

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