On the second of June last year, in the face of global protests in the Black Lives Matter movement, many people took to social media to post black squares. This simple gesture was designed as a mark of solidarity and a small gesture of protest in favour of a cause that many seemingly agreed with. There’s a good chance that a lot of you reading this did it too. It seems fairly likely that if you came to our blog, you’re probably the type of person who would. We did too:
This was a nice gesture, but like everything on social media, it drifts further away and gets forgotten about. We all made our point, we told everyone that we think racism is bad and the people who think like us gave us all a pat on the back.
The problem with this kind of social media protestation though, is that it’s easy. And when we say easy, we really do mean easy. It’s really, really easy. Take a screenshot of a black image, crop it to a square and post it. You don’t even need to write a text to go with, because the image says it all. But the problem with real social change that this image is arguing for is that it’s difficult. And when we say difficult, we mean it’s really, really difficult.
The first women’s suffrage movement in the UK was formed in 1865 but not all women could vote until 1928. The modern Civil Rights Movement in the USA started in the early 1950’s, and seventy years on, no one can seriously say that this is near its conclusion. The Stonewall riots happened in 1969, the British charity of the same name was formed in 1989, same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK in 2014, and LGBTQIA+ people are still invisible in ELT coursebooks in 2020. We’re talking about decades of getting out there, campaigning, getting knocked back, and making incremental progress year-by-year.
So, a year on, we have to ask ourselves what have we actually done? As Nesrine Malik wrote in the Guardian in the immediate aftermath of the protest last year,
Everyone is on board with the principle, but when it comes to the change that is required, the idealistic passengers the movement picked up along the way suddenly come down with a case of extreme pragmatism.
Part of the reason for their belated reluctance is that the course of actual change is unflashy. After the first moment passes, the supportive ally has nothing to show for their continued backing for the cause: there are no public high-fives for your continuing solidarity. You can’t post it, you can’t hashtag it; most of the time you can’t even do it without jeopardising something, whether that’s your income, status, job prospects or even friendships.
But the main reason for the ebbing support is that change is just hard. If it wasn’t, the long arc of history that allegedly bends towards justice would be a very short one. And change is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to be political.
So for us, especially us supposed ‘allies’, this is the question. Do we really mean it? Are we prepared to do the hard work? Are we prepared to dismantle a system that works to our advantage? And are we prepared to have the difficult conversations, especially with ourselves?
If we aren’t prepared to tackle the systemic racism that you find in our lessons, in our school, in our curriculum, in our materials, in our education system, in our society, and most importantly, in ourselves, then that square we posted isn’t just blank, it’s hollow. We need to ask ourselves what we need to learn and then do in order to achieve this, and then ask ourselves if we’re actually prepared to do it, because it won’t be easy, it will be difficult. If we want to do the right thing, we have no other choice. This is our fight, it’s all of ours, so make a decision, learn, and act.