It all started, rather innocuously, with a shared meme of Martin Luther King saying:
"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enables the man who wields it."
on a friend's Facebook wall. She is British and white - she posted it at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA on May 26 2020. A few of her white friends approvingly agreed.
I immediately replied with another Martin Luther King quote, one that I felt was much more pertinent to the discussion on Black Lives Matter protests:
"I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
What followed was a set of WhatsApp messages from this friend, furious that I had posted this on her public Facebook wall. I didn't realise it at the time but that was also the start of the end of our friendship too.
The times around Black Lives Matter were both a difficult time for me but also conversely, a fruitful time. Difficult because it once again showed how racism was pervasively, systematically and fully present in our society - still. But for me personally, it was enlightening. The movement spawned many books, articles, podcasts and other media which really came to evolve my own thinking on racism. In particular one book that served as a lightbulb moment for me was Layla Saad's "Me and White Supremacy"* - which I recommend to anyone who wants to understand the core of racism in our society and how to actually be an anti-racist and from which I will quote extensively in this piece.
The book moved me because I finally had words to express all those uncomfortable feelings I had long felt about growing up as a British Born Chinese in Britain. Terms such as - white privilege, white fragility, white centredness, tone policing, cultural appropriation, optical allyship… gave me vocabulary to express all the complex emotions I had felt growing up Chinese in Britain. I felt empowered with this language. It also did much to open my eyes up to specific anti-Black racism, which I (obviously) have no lived experience of.
It was with this mindset that this post on a friend's wall triggered me. I had come to feel as Martin Luther King did, that real bewildering disappointment towards the "white moderate". Those that said they thought racism was a bad thing whilst doing absolutely nothing tangible to combat it, other than to metaphorically clutch hankies and post on their Facebook wall about non-violent protest.
The message from my friend firstly assumed I was pointing out her ignorance (it wasn't). It went on to say that even if I had a criticism to make of her personally and about racism and was "trying to be helpful" that I should discuss this privately with her and not on Facebook. Getting this "public criticism from a friend" wasn't particularly pleasant (for her).
I replied to say it wasn't personal, that I was addressing the message in the post. That it applied to others who read that Martin Luther King quote and had agreed to it, not just her.
I accepted that it might not be pleasant for her, but perhaps if she didn't want to have those viewpoints challenged that she could have done the work to check in with those who are not white whether that viewpoint was valid. Or in fact, instead of a meme, have a real conversation about race. I didn't say it at the time but the act of anti-racism and addressing white supremacy is meant to be unpleasant for white people if it's truly working.
"This is a really tough time for me, in many different ways and I'm sorry you've been hurt by this - but what you're displaying here is "white fragility". I'm happy to have the discussion with you offline - feel free to take down the post but I'm afraid I can't agree with you that what I did initially was wrong."
She wrote back:
"You'll be pleased to know I have ordered the book [Saad's book] and will be finding ways of discussing it in a mutually supportive environment that encourages personal change and not with implied criticism. I'm sorry I caused you offence, of course I am, and I'm also sorry you're having a hard time right now but perhaps you need to think about how you go about educating people. I'm open to being called out on it. I know I don't understand it and recognise I'm probably guilty of it but have no idea how and why. But I'm not open to being publicly criticised by someone who I consider to be a friend. Of course it's going to make me defensive but it doesn't mean I don't want to learn more and improve my response to it. I don't agree with lots of your views but I would never and have never challenged you publicly. In fact you've never ever offended me in a way that would make me feel I needed to challenge you. I'm sorry I did that to you. I will read the book and will genuinely consider how I behave. I'm really open to listening to what I can to change. But I'm afraid I don't think that's a conversation we can now have."
This is the last she wrote to me. We've not properly spoken since.
For me, there's a lot to unpack in this - it's a conversation I still find triggering and upsets me, even two years after it happened. But it echoes so much of what was covered in Saad's book: almost like a real life textbook example of everything I had just read.
This conversation very quickly moved on from talking about racism - in fact, let's face it, it never was about racism, let alone anti-racism. What we moved onto quickly was white fragility - to paraphrase Saad - getting angry and defensive, believing themselves shamed. She was taking the position of a victim - as a white person - when actually they had committed or participated in an act of racial harm. (In case it's needed - here it was making a judgement as a white person, policing and having a view on what is a suitable way for Black people to protest - and then being called out on this by someone of colour).
It moved onto tone policing where she set out the parameters of how I might express my opinions (quietly, in private to her directly) and a pointed suggestion that I have a good think about how I go about educating people. To quote Saad, "Tone policing is a tactic used by those who have privilege to silence those who do not by focusing on the tone of what is being said rather than the actual content. It can be policing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) for using tones that are "too angry" when talking about racism or celebrating them over other BIPOC for using tones that are considered more soft, eloquent, and soothing. In both cases, BIPOC are expected to cater to the white gaze-the white supremacist lens through which people with white privilege see BIPOC-and the comfort level of a person's white fragility when talking about racism.
I also picked up her defensive point that she didn't agree with a lot of what I said but had never challenged me on it - with the underlying suggestion that I should do the same to her. But I use social media politically (I am an elected politician) and I don't do it to gain sheeplike followers who agree with me. If I wasn't pretty robust at being challenged, I'd never have become a Cllr and especially not a LibDem one - we don't get it easy as the third party! But more importantly, how are we ever to be truly anti-racist if we never, ever challenge each other on our beliefs, on our biases, on our opinions - there's a reason we still live in a white-dominated, white supremacist world - because we don't actually ever talk candidly about racism as a society.
Finally, she deleted this post off her Facebook and never wrote to me again about it. She had set the boundaries of how we could no longer talk about racism. Despite saying she was keen to learn and understand and improve, we could no longer have that discussion between us, because she had been upset by it and it was not "mutually supportive". Though note there is no real support for me other than the protestation that she was of course sorry (but…your tone…). She was able to check out of the discussion and exercise her white privilege - where she lives in a world where her skin colour does not make her life harder for her. And I went back to mine, where shortly after, a fellow East Asian friend had a man yell at her "it's your f"cking virus you f*king Chink" whilst running along a Cambridge riverbank. My husband worried about me and the kids being racially abused too.
Ultimately the conversation was an example too in white centering - it became about how she had felt, how she had been attacked and how I had to be careful how I expressed myself going forwards.
Again from Saad: "So when we talk about being called out or called in, a common reaction by people with white privilege is to focus on their intention rather than their impact on BIPOC. This is a form of white centering, which prioritises how a person of privilege feels about being called out/in versus the actual pain that BIPOC experience as a result of that person's actions, whether intentional or unintentional."
There were token words of contrition (generally the very British way of forming sentences that go "I'm sorry…. but…." fall into this category) and a promise to read Saad's book. I'm pretty sure someone who had truly read Saad's book and done the exercises suggested would be opening a conversation with me about this exchange - and this has never happened.
There have been times when I thought I should try to revisit this friendship and that I had perhaps overreacted but instinctively I know that this friendship was actually imbalanced and superficial. We ended the conversation still very much talking about her victimhood and ultimately that is not a solid basis for a friendship. Being her friend would require changing myself, tiptoeing around challenging her views or being careful not to "upset" her. She showed quite clearly where the priority lay when it came to discussing racism - and that was with her and her own feelings. In the time it has taken for me to revisit this period in my life with this painful if cathartic article, I have unfriended her from my Facebook.
In this conversation, I also mentioned how I brace myself daily for the first time my children are racially abused and the difficult conversations I will need to have with them. I pointed out this is a fear she will never live with as the parent of a white child - it's one of the most tangible examples of white privilege. She chose not to respond to this: not even token words of sympathy.
My kids still live in this precious childhood bubble where they don't yet feel different from their white peers - but as every person of colour that lives in a white majority country knows - this won't last long. The best I can do as a parent is to ensure the need to surround them with positive role models and give them the opportunity of meeting children who are mixed race like themselves. Being mixed race is something neither me nor my White, British husband will ever truly understand. I remember how liberating it was to find "my people" at University, fellow British Born Chinese who grew up at the Takeaway counter like I did. This episode with my white friend was a tangible reminder that some 20 years on from feeling a sense of belonging was much more deeply ingrained than just shared childhood experiences, it's a profound understanding of growing up a minority race in this country. The episode did lead me to have a good think about white friends I have and whether I was sure they would not behave in the ways outlined here.
Other acts of racism dressed up as anti-racism happened during this period too - most often with Optical Allyship. One sign of this that Saad describes is "The intention behind the act of allyship is to avoid being called racist and/or to receive a reward through social recognition, praise, and acknowledgment." For me it would be where I would post something related to racism and people would pop up with instances where they had spoken to a person of colour and expressed disgust at what was happening e.g. I'm one of the good guys, look at me speaking to people of colour!
Tied within this episode was a frustration at liberal apathy, a term I've used as akin to white apathy, where a white person can voice support of a course - being anti-racist but doing nothing concrete on it because they're too busy, or too tired or it's not a priority. Liberal apathy is voicing concern at liberal values coming under attack, be it racism, civil liberties, helping the vulnerable in our society, for LGBT rights but doing nothing to actually actively change this. For Brexit it was saying, well I voted Remain and think it'll be bad for this country but I won't do anything about it. This friend firmly sat in this liberal apathy bracket as well and ultimately this is a privilege - because your life isn't actually impacted by issues that impact others, so you can afford to be "too busy".
For myself, I turned my anger and dismay into getting involved in politics and standing and getting elected as a Liberal Democrat Councillor. I am by no means suggesting this is the right path for everyone. But if you are reading this article because you're a liberal white person who wants to be a better anti-racist - firstly - fantastic, secondly, go buy and properly read Saad's book if you haven't already - but then show up, be present, be active, do the work - both internally and externally.
If you're reading this as an ESEA person - firstly solidarity! - and secondly - trust your own instincts on episodes like this and know you are not alone, we are all still learning and finding our voice - let's continue to all work together to be true anti-racists.
Quotes taken from: Saad, Layla. Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World
Sarah Cheung Johnson is a Liberal Democrat District Councillor in South Cambridgeshire and Chair of the Chinese Liberal Democrats. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her husband and two young children, works for the University of Cambridge and also teaches Knitting and Crochet. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @scjlibdem