A mockingbird slain
Roger Brydon, a Borders-based GP, urges us to push past accusations of virtue signalling, drop our defensiveness around the reality of white privilege, and stand up with those fighting inequality.
This article was first published on Roger’s own blog.
I’ve been struggling, over the last week or so of watching the hugely troubling and upsetting images from the US, to find an appropriate response. What do I, a middle-aged white GP living in a small town in the Scottish Borders, have to say about racial injustice and state-sanctioned brutality halfway across the world? Well, as it turns out, after a bit of thought, quite a lot.
The basic, emotional response to viewing the images of George Floyd’s restraint and death at the hands of a police officer – an agent of the state, charged with protecting the public – is unequivocally shocking and sickening. It should be no surprise to anyone that this act of unsanctioned violence alone should have demanded a robust response. But it has quickly become painfully apparent that this episode was simply the latest in a depressingly long series of such events. This has released years of pent-up anger and frustration at the systematic oppression, prejudice and subjugation experienced by black people at the hands of the state and society, and evolved into the counter-protests which have followed.
It can all feel to me, from my viewpoint, distant both geographically and culturally, remote; difficult to connect with, not exactly irrelevant, but seemingly depicting a life and existence very removed from my day-to-day. It’s easy, in these circumstances, to remain quiet; there’s a genuine ignorance of the issues which others are fighting over, and a sense that my uneducated perspective wouldn’t add a lot to the debate anyway. There’s also a concern over being seen as virtue-signalling – being seen to notionally support a currently popular or worthy set of beliefs, even on issues which don’t directly affect me, as a means of showing my more immediate friends and contacts what a decent person I am.
Well, tough. After a bit of reflection, I’ve decided it’s not enough to remain quiet, make disapproving noises when watching the news and post a black square on Instagram. Accuse me of virtue-signalling all you want, but these issues which are being fought over, having blood spilled over, define such basic, universal human rights that they affect me, and all of us, much more than just a shop being looted in Minneapolis – these issues are national, regional, local.
One of the things I’ve been struck by in the last few days has been some of the voices who have spoken out in response to the events overseas, about their own experiences of living and growing up locally – in Scotland, in the Borders – and the overt racism they experienced doing so. Their voices are incredibly important and I’d suggest listening very closely to what they are saying – some of it is truly shocking, and should act as an eye-opener to anyone who believes, naively, that the scenes on the news represent attitudes and beliefs to which we here are somehow immune.
Have a read at this post, written this week by a young woman who grew up locally – no matter how abhorrent you find the content, acknowledge that this is her voice, this is her experience, this is the reality that she faced growing up not so very long ago at all, and just stop for a moment and think about what that must be like, bearing in mind that this is a description of life in a small, unremarkable Scottish town, not the deep south of the USA.
Cognitive bias is a term which means, in basic terms, that each of us tends to believe that other individuals in society have broadly similar thought processes, attitudes, beliefs and feelings as we do ourselves – broadly, that everyone else tends to see the world the same way we do. It’s a mistake, of course – after more than a quarter of a century of speaking to countless thousands of people in the course of my professional life as a GP, I’m aware of just how different people respond differently to the same situations.
So anyone reading Hannah’s post above, and feeling incredulous that anyone could have exhibited such appalling, inhuman treatment towards her, because they are incapable of doing so themselves, is being blinded by cognitive bias. This kind of overt, unabashed racism is alive and well, today, even in our secure little communities here in Scotland. Hannah wrote about her experiences with racism, but I know of others who could just as easily have written about their own experiences with homophobia or transphobia.
I’ve spent my working life helping people. I do so without prejudice, priding myself on being accessible to whoever needs me, without judging – medical need is the only discriminant. For a long time, I’ve thought that that belief alone somehow protected me from challenging my own attitudes, just as my repulsion at Hannah’s story is somehow a vaccination against harbouring other, deeper, more unconscious biases.
White privilege is a term which I became aware of over the last couple of years or so. I was initially resistant to the term, and the implications of it. Privilege, to me, growing up as a child in a fairly unremarkable housing estate on the edge of Edinburgh, going to an unremarkable set of state schools, with a family background rooted in working class occupations, meant something else entirely – usually blazered posh kids leaving for their private school bus early in the morning, and dominating the best seats in the orchestras I played in growing up. Getting to university, and indeed medical school, was no mean feat, and it was easy to feel defensive when facing accusations of privilege.
Have a watch at this YouTube clip – it’s about four minutes long, but it’s well worth watching right to the end – which explains exactly why that belief I had, and which some of you reading this might still feel – is wrong. (I’m not religious, but the quote at the end still rings entirely true, no matter the attribution).
I reckon if I was in that race I’d have started somewhere in the middle – certainly not at the front, not with the ones who I’d have considered privileged myself, the public school perfect-teeth front-row orchestra born-with-a-silver-spoon-daddy’s-girl types, but definitely not right back at the start. Without realising it, I had the head start of growing up in a stable home, with two healthy parents who loved us, who weren’t alcoholics or drug users or who just out of bad luck had mental health problems or needed cared for. We were fed and watered and warm.
My achievements in getting into medical school, and everything before or since, aren’t diminished or belittled by the privilege afforded me by this start, and there’s no need for me to be defensive of it. Just as I know that there were those who started the race ahead of me, I also realise now that there were others, most of whom I didn’t even know existed at that time, who through no fault of their own, were stymied before the race had started. That, like it or not, is privilege, and once again, it is a factor which all of us need to acknowledge.
I’m fed up with saying nothing. The current comfortable consensus, comfortable at least for those of us who’ve done well in life’s race, can’t continue. So, in my little way, I’m speaking out, writing this. I’m committing myself, and I urge others to do the same, to stand up and speak out against injustices, against prejudice, against inequality. That anyone, in this day and age, is being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, their culture, their sexuality or gender, can’t go on. Change starts with each one of us individually – call it out when you see it, whether in others or in yourself, even when it appears unexpectedly.
I’m far from perfect. Each of us is a product of our genes, our upbringing, the attitudes and experiences to which we are exposed growing up and throughout our lives. I grew up during a period when it was perfectly acceptable for mainstream television entertainment to portray black people and ethnic minorities as objects of derision simply for existing, where being gay could get you killed or severely beaten, where being trans simply wasn’t comprehended (it still isn’t, not even remotely). Some of those attitudes still exist in me, unconsciously, but skewing my perspective. I have to remind myself, frequently, that my experience of the world isn’t universally-shared; far from it.
I don’t strive for perfection, to lead an ethically pure, unsullied existence – for the reasons I’ve given, I’d argue that that’s an unrealistic goal anyway – but I’d make a plea for everyone to respond to the events still ongoing by examining how their own world view, their own experience of life, the attitudes held in response to this, compare with others whose lives have been very different from your own. To do this without judgement, without defensiveness. Your own life, your own perspective, is still incredibly valuable, and you should hang on to it. But, as the great Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” If only more of us followed his advice, imagine the world we could make, together.