“How it feels to be a black woman teaching anti-racism courses right now”

Nova Reid is an activist, TED speaker and writer. With humility and humour, she uses her professional background in mental health to help dismantle racism from the inside-out and offers consultancy and online anti-racism courses designed to help people be the change they want to see. 

I’ve been feeling conflicted.

Since you’ve chosen to snuggle down in this cosy corner of the internet with me today, I’ll be honest with you. I take no joy in the uptake in my services as a teacher of a course on anti-racism being triggered by an abhorrent sequence of public and private murders on black bodies. 

It often feels like pulling teeth, getting people to engage in diversity and inclusion, let alone anti-racism work. I mean, when you break it down in black and white (pun intended) it’s not pretty work is it? How many good, kind, well-meaning liberals, who vehemently reject the notion of racism, want to pay to be told they have inherent racism in them?

It’s why the last couple of weeks have felt like a beautiful disaster. 

I wish it didn’t take such a nonchalant grand execution of father, son and fellow human being George Floyd to be sent around the internet, for entertainment, to motivate so many white people into action to help dismantle racism.

It’s not like we haven’t been speaking up about racism and campaigning for racial justice for decades and centuries before. It makes me wonder how many more tragic deaths and personal accounts of racism there need to be before the next wave of allies wake up. But alas, here we are. (Stay with me, these are the kind of truth bombs I serve to my students on my anti-racism course.)

The beautiful part? In all my years doing this work, I have NEVER seen or felt a momentum like it. My following tripled in a week. The speed at which people are waking up and galvanising is quite something.

My colleagues’ Layla F Saad and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s books sold out at exponential rates, sending a powerful message to the publishing industry (an industry that is 99.2% white) that perhaps there is a market for this type of work in the UK after all.

Despite the tumbleweed at times, I have always known there was an appetite for anti-racism for those who dared to look. The current climate is proving there are a lot more people who care about racial justice and want to be part of change than perhaps we thought and through the heartbreak that it’s taken so long, it’s also incredibly hopeful.

There’s an insatiable appetite. A desire to have all the language, tools and answers to end racism, right now.But what is often underestimated is that there are four key processes in anti-racism work: listening, unlearning, relearning and responsive action. 

Most want to jump from half listening to reactive action without doing the hard stuff. You know, the self-interrogation part, and that ends up being reactionary and performative – cue black out squares on social media. Sorry to break it to you, but unlearning your racism in a week is just not possible. 

The new wave of interest in this work attracts two types of students:

  1. Those who want to swoop in and rescue.
  2. Those who are hugely fearful of getting things wrong, not knowing what to say.

The latter don’t feel confident or courageous. They recognise racism as a system that exists inherently and beyond an overt act of intentional hate. 

They know they have inherent ‘isms’ and though scared, they are brave enough to ask themselves questions like, “What is it about ‘those racists over there’, the ones we’ve become so accustomed to dehumanising, what is it that I find so abhorrent in them, that is also in some way present in me?”

For example, not listening, not believing black people when they say they are experiencing racism, passing off racism as a joke, stereotyping, making an assumption based on race.

It’s the latter who are making incredible progress. They are even more courageous (because it takes courage to do this work), to self-examine and potentially uncover some behaviour that does not make you feel good and may even trigger shame and guilt. It’s those students that light me up and bring me hope. 

I am often asked why, as a black woman, I have chosen to take on this work. I felt called to do it. I truly believe at the essence of anti-racism work is collective healing. 

Whilst my work is mostly tailored for a white audience, it is ultimately for the black community and those of us impacted by racism.We have a lot of transgenerational trauma to undo and collective healing is necessary but we can’t do that until we really look at the enormity of the wound.

Recent graduate and founder of Project Love, Selina Barker, describes my course as having to take horrible tasting medicine that tastes awful at the time, but you know you will feel even better in the end. That sums this work up perfectly to me!

My anti-racism students are galvanising. Some are having conversations with their black partners about how white supremacy shows up in their partnership and it has transformed their relationships. 

Others have looked at how they parent, are now contacting MPs, campaigning for change in their workplace and are holding educational establishments to account. 

Some of my students go on to help ensure there is representation in clinical trials for Covid-19, volunteer their time to support black business owners (including me) and many now feel equipped to do what is often the toughest – challenge people they love.

The increase in far-right activity is not to be taken lightly or underestimated, but when you look at numbers, people who intentionally want to cause harm to another solely based on the colour of their skin are in the minority. People like my students, people like you are in the majority.

Right now we are in the middle of the history books. We have a chance to make a conscious choice in the role we want to play, that will determine how this chapter ends.

We have an opportunity to get curious about our ‘isms’ rather than feel ashamed by them, address them. To keep momentum, even when it gets tough and use our privilege in whatever form it comes, to create a tidal wave of change.

Main image: Sebastian Gabsch
Second image: Elly Lucas

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