"It should no longer be the responsibility of people of colour alone to educate white people about racism..."Flickr

We should not applaud people in positions of privilege and power for doing what may seem to be the bare minimum: speaking. Nor should we entirely rely on those people to affirm the ubiquity of oppression. Nonetheless, earlier this month, Joaquin Phoenix attracted praise for his acceptance speech at the 73rd British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards (BAFTA). He was not only vocal about the need to understand and dismantle systemic racism within the film industry, but also provided a pivotal demonstration of the value of people in positions of privilege and power utilising their platforms to instigate progress and change. Frankly: we need more conversations about race that look more like this.

#BAFTASOWHITE was a trending topic across social media before and during the award ceremony. The awards drew criticism for the lack of people of colour nominated for awards in the main acting categories. This is a recurring problem – over the past decade only about 5% of Bafta nominations for best actor, actress or best supporting actor or actress were non-white.

“Often, when speaking to white people about any form of racism, no matter how amicable the approach, there is a risk of being seen as an aggressor.”

Phoenix had received several awards for his role in the 2019 film Joker, which in part explores marginalisation and its effects. The actor, who used acceptance speeches during this award season to champion a range of causes, used his BAFTA win for ‘Leading Actor’ to address systemic racism, stating that “I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.”

The audience’s silence and palpable discomfort during Phoenix’s speech resonated with the responses many people of colour have faced when trying to have conversations about race. Often, when speaking to white people about any form of racism, no matter how amicable the approach, there is a risk of being seen as an aggressor – the mere suggestion of race will inadvertently render you the antagonist. This often results in a defensive response which rejects any implication of racism or is derisive.

This resistance results in people of colour having to find ways of not only approaching conversations about race but of articulating them. Toni Morrison once said: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. […] It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” This results in the difficult conversations about race being, quite honestly, just tiring. If we cannot even converse about racism, we continue to stray further from actually addressing it.

“It is time for more people who hold privilege and power to have more uncomfortable conversations.”

Phoenix candidly illustrated that it is possible to have a conversation about race which does not speak for or over people of colour, but rather speaks as a white man to other white people. The small but powerful monosyllabic ’we’ displayed that it is possible to have a conversation about race which is void of guilt and smugness but involves self-reflection and self-criticism. He publicly interrogated his position within the system that proliferates racial marginalisation, calling attention to the importance of accountability. All he did was speak, reminding us that, sometimes, valuable advocacy is not always about gesticulation and lies in the quotidian: “This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive.”

Although speeches alone can be limited in their ability to drive change, Phoenix provided a useful template for how white people can and should engage with these topics and illustrated that people at every level, in every industry, can and should speak about these issues. Issues of systemic racism are not exclusive to the film industry and so these conversations are not reserved for this sphere . Racism is a ubiquitous experience for people of colour; it is a system that we struggle to navigate - from the film industry to Cambridge.

As a Black student at Cambridge studying English, amid discussions surrounding decolonisation, diversity, inclusion and representation, I have heard first-hand that many people think conversations about systemic racism are reserved for people of colour. My white, male peer once justified why he would not engage in conversations about race with other white people with: “I don’t want to seem like I’m preaching to people”. It is time for more people who hold privilege and power to have more uncomfortable conversations.


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This, however, is not to say that people of colour are passive victims who are unable to liberate themselves. It should no longer be the responsibility of people of colour alone to educate white people about racism or attempt to ‘resolve’ the racist history, incidents and curricula within the institutions in which we exist. White people can – and should – do the work too.

Joaquin Phoenix illustrated that people in positions of privilege and power have to hold themselves responsible for recognising, condemning, learning and speaking about different experiences of oppression – that this is also essential for progress. Echoing Audre Lorde: there is no straightforward, comprehensive solution for racism – there exists only the self-conscious, constant fight against it. This must be taken up by everybody, for apathy is deadlier than the battle itself.

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