As global protests continue over the death of George Floyd, millions are finally waking up to the deep racist divisions that exist in our societies. And whether you realise it or not, says Me And White Supremacy author Layla F Saad, if you’re white and privileged you’re probably helping to uphold an oppressive system, so it's time to change.
Interview by Marisa Bates
In June 2018, Layla F Saad, a life coach, writer and speaker, launched a 28-day Instagram challenge that invited people with white privilege to examine – really examine – the myriad ways in which they’re complicit in upholding a system that oppresses people of colour. Within days, #meandwhitesupremacy had gone viral and 90,0000 people went on to download her digital book, Me and White Supremacy Workbook.
Two years on and Saad’s work seems more timely than ever. Even before the death of George Floyd and the protests, things were not looking good. Since the EU referendum racist attacks have risen 11 per cent and the British establishment is still overwhelmingly to white. So what can be done? According to author of Me And White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change The World, And Become A Good Ancestor, out now we need listening to start talking and listening again. Here’s what she had to tell Marie Claire…
‘I moved into the work of educating people about white supremacy when I saw the far-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. There was something about the images being shown on the news of those men marching. They had so much hate in their eyes. It made me want to address what was happening in my own industry.
‘Around that time, I’d been working as a life coach to mostly white women and I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy. Many were saying they wanted to change the world but everything they were saying was separated from race and their only audience seemed to be other white women. So I wrote a letter addressing that. I called it: “I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy,” and it went viral. I had to deal with a lot white women who were really struggling to understand what I was saying and it took a huge emotional toll.
‘But then, over the course of the following year, I noticed things started to change. Conversations became easier; there was less resistance. And so, one night when I couldn’t sleep, I began reflecting on why it wasn’t such a struggle to talk to white women about white supremacy anymore. I grabbed my phone, and started writing some notes: What have they learned about themselves? What is white supremacy? How does it manifest? I quickly realised that I wasn’t writing a single Instagram post – I was writing about a journey that I wanted to facilitate. The entire 28-day process, with topics including white fragility, white exceptionalism, tone policing, and the prompts to these topics, came to me between 2am and 3am that night. The following morning I posted it on Instagram and asked people to join me in the challenge of addressing their own white supremacy.
‘By the end of the 28 days, my follower count had more than doubled. We saw new people coming into the challenge every single day. The openness surprised me. After all, it’s not an easy process. But we continue to have tens of thousands of people who are willing to have a look at their own lives and behaviours so we can crack that door open and take the first step.
‘I was made aware of white supremacy from a very young age. My dad is from Kenya, my mother is from Zanzibar and they both have roots in Oman. However, I was born and raised in Wales, where my parents had met as students. It was a very white environment and my parents sent me to Catholic schools. I was always aware of my otherness: I’m black; everyone else was white. I’m Muslim; everybody else was Christian. I can still remember my mum sitting me down, when I was around seven-years old, and saying, “Layla, you’re black, Muslim, and a woman: you will always have these three things working against you. The world hates people who are like that. You’re gonna have to work three times as hard.” And, as I watched those images being broadcast from Charlottesville, it was a full-circle moment. I remembered what she had said and thought, ‘Oh, it was true. Those screaming men really do hate me.’ Now I’m 36 and I have to prepare my ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son for the world, and I know that I have conversations with my daughter that her white friends are not having with their white parents.
‘Right now, in the UK and America – but also globally – there’s a movement towards nationalistic rhetoric and right-wing leaders, which has led to a rise in people vocalising their racism. This isn’t new. In fact, Peggy McIntosh, an American activist and scholar, wrote an article in 1989 that defined white privilege. She wrote that one of the elements of white privilege is that when you’re taught about history, you’re taught that it is shaped by people who look like you; by white people. At school, I was taught about the Tudors, Stuarts and Vikings. But I never learned about Britain’s history of a violent colonisation of countries – countries like the ones my parents are from. And so the UK will often point the finger and say we’re not the racists; the real racists are the Americans. And while nobody denies America’s history of enslavement, that doesn’t afford Britain the right to turn its back on its own history. The racism we’re seeing today is simply an outpouring of what has always been there.
‘Many people of colour feel the impact of racism on a daily basis. For the most part, we try to ignore the microaggressions but the system of racism still exists. Just because you don’t hear racial slurs, or see outwardly racist behaviour, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
‘When I look at the situation with Prince Harry and Meghan, I think it’s difficult because – particularly in the UK – there’s this understanding that if you’re racist, you’re a bad person and if you’re not racist, you’re a good person. But that binary thinking stops the conversation; it prevents people from putting the work in to truly examine their own behaviours.
‘I believe there has to be something that’s greater than just pain and shame to motivate this work. You need love, because this work is really hard. And then you need commitment. For others, it might be that you have friends and family members who are people of colour and you want to do better by them, or that you’re committed to being somebody on this earth who does more good than harm. The commitment for me is to be a good ancestor. That is my driving force. Yes, this work is hard, but the impact will be that, when I’m no longer here, I’ve set people on a different trajectory to help create a different world.’
* Me And White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change The World, And Become A Good Ancestor (£12.99, Quercus) by Layla F Saad is out now.