“We have to be truthful about the world we have, to create the world we want” Layla F. Saad says in online discussion on race and identity
White people need to “pick up the baton” and take responsibility for ending of a global system of privilege that feeds racism and discrimination, according to a best-selling author who told Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series that “just talking about unity and oneness will not create change”.
Layla F. Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy has challenged its readers to recognize how they may – even unconsciously – inflict harm on Black and indigenous people and people of color, and to change their mindsets and behaviors by understanding their own white privilege and committing to combating racism.
And in the latest online edition of Qatar Foundation’s (QF) platform for dialogue, titled Race and Identity in the 21st Century, she told an international audience that, despite the wave of protests that the death of George Floyd in the US has sparked, an opportunity for change may be lost – unless white people take responsibility for ensuring it is acted on.
“What is unique now is that we are in a time where people are no longer ignoring these conversations about race, when they felt very comfortable ignoring them before,” she said. “They realize they have to say something.
“But one of my hesitations and fears is that people see this movement as a moment that is happening right now, and when the steam runs out of it, people will want to go back to the way things were before. It shouldn’t be down to Black people and people of color to keep it going by saying ‘our lives matter’; it should be the responsibility of people who have white privilege to say ‘this matters to us, and it’s our duty not to let things return to normal’.
It won’t be easy, but when has it ever been easy to fight for human rights?
“It won’t be easy, but when has it ever been easy to fight for human rights?”
During the discussion moderated by Dr. Amal Mohammed Al Malki, Founding Dean of QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Health and Life Sciences, Saad voiced her view that avoiding taking action for change out of fear of stoking division will only retain the status quo, saying: “Talking about how we are all ‘one’ just keeps those with white privilege comfortable.
“The divide has always been there, and closing our eyes and just talking about unity and oneness does not create change. What creates change is naming things for what they are – the harm caused, the systems of oppression – and saying ‘this is what we are going to do about it’. That is the real path of healing.
“What we want to create is a world that has not yet existed, and creating it means telling the truth about the world we have. The onus is on those who have privilege. If white people want Black people and people of color to have hope, they need to give them reasons to be hopeful, and that means looking at how racism presents itself in your family, your school, your workplace, and asking yourself whether you are actively taking action. It’s not about being ‘not racist’; it’s about being actively anti-racist.
People who have white privilege need to see it as part of their duty to say ‘we have this privilege, so it’s our responsibility not to let things go back to how they were’
“People who have white privilege need to see it as part of their duty to say ‘we have this privilege, so it’s our responsibility not to let things go back to how they were’. As Black people and people of color, we don’t have the power to dismantle something we didn’t create and don’t benefit from.”
In her talk, Saad explained that “white fragility” can lead to white people becoming “angry, sad, frustrated, confused, and defensive” when conversations turn to race. “People hear the phrase ‘white supremacy’ and what comes to mind is neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists,” she said. “It is actually the belief and ideology that people who are white, or look white, or identify as white are superior to those of other races.
“There needs to be an understanding of the context of how white supremacy has shaped the idea of whiteness being superior and more valuable. With that context, people are empowered to have more nuanced conversations, think more critically, and work towards change. Without it, we have simplified ideas of what things mean, such as ‘racists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I’m not a racist’.
“When you are white, you are not used to seeing yourself as racialized. It is difficult to have that mirror held up to you and be told you have these privileges and benefits, and asked about what you are doing to do with them. My book says: this is the mirror, this is how you have been able to move through life, and whatever struggles you have had have not been about your race, so how can you change the ways in which you and those around you unconsciously perpetuate white supremacy?
If you really believe that everyone should be treated equally, the fact we live in a world where white privilege exists should make you want to do everything you can to fight that
“You must have emotional resilience to talk about race, and you get that resilience from having conversations about it every day – it’s not about being criticized for being white. If you really believe that everyone should be treated equally, the fact we live in a world where white privilege exists should make you want to do everything you can to fight that. It’s not a case of whether people’s feelings matter – it’s about how we can create the world we want to have.”