When I was a student working at a supermarket, I set up my own blog talking about how racism affects my community.
Aggrieved that I would make such bold comments, a white (male) colleague accosted me on the shop floor to ask why I would write such a thing that ‘divides people’.
Four years later, this ‘dividing’ remark and how we’re contributing to racism by talking about it, is still one of the most prevalent comments I get when I and many other Black or another ethnic minority people write about racism.
And these kinds of conversations are not just personal ones but also reflected in political affairs.
The preference of arguing that racial discourse separates and divides us is echoed by Munira Mirza who became the new No 10 advisor to head up the commission on racial inequalities.
When she was appointed earlier this month, many claimed that she isn’t a believer of institutional racism.
On the Today Programme, she criticised previous race audits, commenting that ‘constantly talking about institutional racism and racial bias and unfair treatment is stoking grievance and deterring ethnic minorities from engaging with public services’.
When people in such powerful positions stand by this view, it’s not surprising that others also believe that talks of racism are a disruption to society.
Also accompanying this ‘dividing’ rhetoric is a slew of other common responses which seem to be part of a racism manual that people are reading: ‘why should you have Black-only things, what if we had white-only things?’, and ‘I experienced racism as a white person’.
The latter two comments centre the white person and can be dismissed with facts and figures – in the UK’s creative industries, 88.8% of jobs were done by people from a white ethnic group, 92% of judges are white, and journalism 94% – you get the idea.
In regards to reverse racism – prejudice against white people might exist and make individuals feel bad, but prejudice against ethnic minorities can lead to structural, systemic, and lasting disadvantages. In short, there are no institutions that discriminate against white people as there are systems that oppress Black and brown people.
But ‘you’re dividing us’ is the comment that is sure to aggravate as it places the morality of a person of colour in opposition to peace.
So what makes this remark so enduring, and what are its real implications?
Though it might look like the person issuing this statement is the arbiter of peace and decorum, telling someone they’re being divisive is actually a form of tone policing and depending on the speaker, white fragility.
Tone-policing is an anti-debate tactic that detracts from the validity of a statement by attacking the tone it was presented rather than the message itself.
When a person says ‘you’re dividing us’, they actually mean the sentiments you’re expressing are uncomfortable – a key component of white fragility – and not in line with the status quo (the status quo which has placed Black and brown people at the bottom of the racial hierarchy).
Kelechi Okafor, an actress and founder of Kelechnekoff Fitness Studio, has had plenty of experiences with people uttering these rhetorics to her.
She is often asked from well-meaning white people to educate her on matters of race or, as with plenty of other Black women, deemed too provocative or ‘angry’ when she expresses her genuine and lived experience of racism.
But, Kelechi tells us, this attitude from the interlocutor is counterproductive in dismantling racism.
‘Black and brown people are expected to keep the peace in situations of racial inequality,’ she explains to Metro.co.uk.
‘We are asked to be “patient” because change takes time but nothing is changing and if things are, they’re moving at a pace that is embarrassing for those in power because more marginalised people continue to be failed by society.
‘Where there is injustice there can be no peace. Anyone who demands that Black people educate, coddle, or explain anything at this time is only aiming to maintain the status quo and ultimately distract marginalised people from the very radical act of continuing to exist despite all that history has thrown at us.’
As Kelechi explains, expecting people of colour to take the time to gently, carefully explain why something is a problem takes time and energy away from the more pressing matter of disrupting racism.
And while that might look like leaving white people out to dry, it’s actually an opportunity for them to learn on their own terms, seek out the abundant resources, talk among themselves about how they can be better allies.
It seems being reminded of divisiveness is a bit of an epidemic, no matter what level of seniority you’ve acquired.
Professor Randall Whittaker is Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Leeds Arts University and is one of the only Black senior uni leaders in the UK.
Unfortunately, Professor Whittaker has faced this retort many times.
He tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Conversations about racism are difficult to have and thus easy for people without lived experience to dismiss. It is not divisive to talk about racism or racial injustice, in my opinion, this phrase is used because there is no desire to make the significant structural changes required to address racial injustice.
‘People with lived experiences are not visible around the decision-making table about matters that affect them. Not talking about, derailing or shutting down discussions about race preserves the status quo providing the ideal environment for the toxic racism to thrive.’
But, he argues, it’s important to not just roll your eyes at the commenter but to also fight against their position.
‘It is truly exhausting. It took me a while to be fair but seeing such little progress with diverse senior appointments in the UK I am much more confident in challenging this now. I simply say that it would be irresponsible for me not to have the conversation. I make the point about meaningful structural change and lived experience. I can’t say I am listened to but I will not be silent!’
The Institute of Race Relations says that talks of being ‘divisive’ are just another way to stifle Black and other minorities by asserting that they have a personal chip on their shoulder.
A spokesperson from the Institute tells us: ‘It is worrying to see a pattern developing where attempts to open up discussions on racism are quickly turned around in a way that blames those individuals calling out racism by suggesting that they are following a “victimhood agenda” and are immersed in a “grievance culture”. ‘
In relation to Mirza’s comments about institutional racism being more of a perception than a reality, they say there is hard evidence to suggest otherwise.
They add: ‘Characterising institutional racism as an internalised “perception” or a “feeling” trivialises and denies the experiences of those who have experienced injustice – it’s so resonant of the 1950s when black people were constantly told “you’ve got a chip on your shoulder”.
‘But unlike in the 1950s, we have all the evidence that we need to show up this kind of structured denial of racism. Covid-19, for instance, has exposed the deadly consequences of structural inequality with disproportionate BME deaths.
‘The over-policing of young black people is well documented as are the disproportionate number of Black deaths in police custody. The tragedy is that just when people are coming together to counter racism, policymakers seem hell-bent on taking us backwards, and in a way that is, quite frankly, insulting.’
One area where ‘whataboutery’ comes up is in relation to positive discrimination or any movement, scheme, organisation that caters to or supports Black, Asian and other minorities instead of the white majority.
Some white people have spoken up in resistance to these movements, feeling an attack on their group as brands attempt to address the historical racial imbalance in their makeup.
It’s usually at these intersections, people iterate and criticise these organisations for specifically seeking out Black and brown voices, telling them they are ‘being racist’ and divisive by only wanting marginalised voices.
Fashion retail analyst Anusha Couttigane wasn’t surprised to hear this comment when she went searching for BAME-specific businesses.
She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I was on a local Facebook group asking for recommendations of BAME-owned businesses in the area and the “you’re only dividing us brigade” came out to play.
‘Then the admin deleted the post altogether, saying we’re not allowed to ask for recommendations based on ethnicity(ies). It literally shut down the conversation. The world continues to disappoint.
‘What I had said in response at the time was that minorities are at a quantifiable disadvantage and it isn’t causing division to want to redress the balance. So yeah, the racists aren’t undercover anymore.’
Time and time again, we’ve seen variations of these types of comments when talking about, redressing, or attempting to unpick centuries of overt and insidious racism.
People of colour hear these slurs from bold racists, from colleagues, peers, and even friends.
But truly tackling the problem is going to require unsettling, uncomfortable speech and action.
It might be divisive but solidarity can be sought – by being an ally and getting out of the way, not expecting people to just live with it and keep the peace.
Because the world hasn’t been peaceful for Black and brown people.