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Niellah Arboine is tired of being constantly reminded her life is at threat.
“It’s coming from so many directions right now. Knowing Covid-19 is more likely to kill Black people than anyone else, and now we have protests where we –Black people – are fighting for our lives, it can all feel very overwhelming and scary.”
Like Niellah, I am someone who is very easily overwhelmed by the news. As social injustices unfold across the world, I have always grappled with the urge to close the tab – to distract myself – followed by the realisation that there is more injustice in the world than on the news. Being a Black woman, and a journalist, this process is very hard.
Niellah – who is 26, and a journalist too – feels that, when you are a Black writer, it can be difficult to find any peace or solace.
“I’m writing about this all day every day. There’s so little respite from it. I don’t get to just switch off – it’s my job to engage.”
The past few months have been hard for us. A global pandemic stopped everything – borders closed, businesses shut their doors and friends and families ceased to meet.
The premature Black death that is embedded in the structures of the state reared its head again – in the UK we learnt that being Black is a health risk, making us four times more likely to die of coronavirus than our white counterparts.
Then a Black man, George Floyd, was murdered by a white police officer in broad daylight, and a wave of ongoing protest and unrest swept the world faster than the virus did. Images and ideas of Black death were everywhere.
This double assault has taken somewhat of an emotional toll for Black people.
As a result of lockdown, many of us are consuming far more news than ever before. Social media has become a hotspot for sharing both protest footage and messages of solidarity; our Twitter communities bore witness to the realities of police brutality, and Instagram turned Black for a day.
Paulina, a 25-year-old biologist who has asked us not to use her surname, tells me that she feels worn down from suddenly following the news so intently.
“I have probably cried more this year than last year already – from anxiety and stress rather than feeling down,” she said. “I don’t feel like I can or should just disconnect, and I’m thinking about race constantly.”
This is the longest I’ve been physically separated from the majority of the Black people in my life. I feel extra isolated in a time when I could really do with that community and upliftingNiellah Arboine
Yassmin, a 29-year-old writer and broadcaster, emphasises how moments like this can feel for Black people: just one thing after another.
“I feel like I’ve been punched when I was already out for the count,” she said. “It’s not as if we arrived at this point with our tanks full. [Black people] were already depleted, grieving our friends and family, supporting our community through a once in a lifetime catastrophe made worse by our leadership [...] and all without our usual coping mechanisms available.”
This feels particularly pertinent – for many of us, particularly Black women and non-binary people, the creation of support networks offers us vital protection against a racist society.
Now, during lockdown, we can’t access them.
Niellah is feeling the effects of this. “This is the longest I’ve been physically separated from the majority of the Black people in my life,” she said. “I haven’t seen my family since February. I feel extra isolated in a time when I could really do with that community and uplifting.”
Some feel is exactly this combined frustration that has led to such widespread and ongoing protest.
Josephine Williams, an American living in the UK and studying to be a lawyer, thinks it is no coincidence that a pandemic served as the backdrop for the biggest wave of US protest since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“As Black people, watching [the murder of] someone who looks like us – who could be us – creates helplessness.
“Coronavirus compounds that helplessness we feel watching these videos. Suddenly, we’re sitting at home – Black people have more than 50% unemployment in the United States, no one’s been given a furlough, we were given a $1,200 cheque to survive a pandemic that could last between three months and two years.
“And on top of all of that, we get to watch videos of people with whom we identify getting murdered, arbitrarily.”
Josephine also points out that Black people are disproportionately likely to be key workers – particularly in the US, where 37.7% of Black people work in essential industries.
And, as we have seen time and time again throughout history, marginalised people whose lives are laid on the line for their countries have not been adequately recognised or compensated.
And on top of all of that, we get to watch videos of people with whom we identify getting murdered, arbitrarilyJosephine Williams
“My father, who is an essential worker for the city of Portland, Oregon, has been going out and risking his life. Meanwhile a lot of white people were going out and protesting the stay at home orders, and demanding their right to get a haircut – which puts my father’s life at risk.
“All of that has led to this unrest. It was a recipe for disaster from start to finish.”
It seems that both the pandemic and the death of George Floyd have served as a breaking point for so many Black people, in the US and on an international scale. As a result, it makes sense that we are seeing both a wave of action and a wave of exhaustion – as the rallying cry goes, Black people are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
There are still difficult questions on the road ahead for Black people – like what we do now.
Niellah tells me: “I really want to go to one of the Black Lives Matter protests but like many Black people I’m torn. I’m scared for my health and for my community’s health. I know there’s many other ways to protest, support and aid, but it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place right now.”
But the burden of all this mental mathematics isn’t just for Black people to carry. White allies need to take some of the responsibility – and now is the time to support the movement.
I really want to go to one of the Black Lives Matter protests but like many Black people I’m torn. I’m scared for my health and for my community’s health.Niellah Arboine
Josephine feels that, in some ways, this moment is unique, with an unprecedented amount of momentum having built in a week alone. “Unlike [the protests of] the 1960s, we’ve seen a cross-racial alliance of people taking to the streets, instead of just Black people.”
This has opened some white people’s eyes to police brutality in a way they hadn’t quite understood before: “We’re seeing white journalists beaten and attacked for the first time.”
Yassmin agrees that non-Black people may be finally waking up to the realities of both white supremacy and police brutality: “I’m not optimistic – I live life as a cynical realist.
“But what I do see is more engagement than I’ve seen for a while – maybe also because people are in lockdown, and have time, or because they have a sense of what it means to be at the mercy of the system for the first time – either way there are certainly ingredients for something potent to happen.”
With the ingredients laid out for them, white people must now step up their allyship – and Josephine explains why posting a black square and saying “solidarity” isn’t enough.
“I’ve seen a lot of non-Black people reaching out to me and others, I’ve also seen a lot of white people posting on Twitter saying ‘I stand with you’ type thing.
“I welcome that, but on the flipside I think the most important thing for white people specifically to comprehend here is that racism and race is not just a Black burden – it’s actually a white burden.
“Racism is something they need to engage with because it’s something they cause. It’s something they actively participate in. It’s something they benefit from every day.”
This means political, social and economic allyship: donating to bail funds, going out to protest as safely as possible, and actively practising anti-racism long after the hashtags have petered out.
“The notion that white people need to address racism for 10 days when they’re at a protest is a fallacy. White people need to address racism every day.”