First of all, I was wracked by a feeling of intense sadness at the senseless loss of life. Then I saw the video footage of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on Christian Cooper, a black man walking in New York’s Central Park, when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. That made me feel enraged. In the days since, I have been unable to shake a very specific feeling that will be familiar to black people around the world: that my life is somehow disposable.
I am lucky to have enormous privilege in my world, but as a man of colour, and as a gay man, I could not escape the sense that it doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved, or what you’ve contributed to society, your life can still feel worthless. When I step out of my door in the morning, to take a walk or to wander alone, I am always aware of increased personal danger because of the colour of my skin.
These past few days I’ve gone between rage and sadness and fear. What these racist acts reveal, among many other things, is that we have a lot more work to do. Anybody who thinks we’re there, that we have created a society where everyone is equal – well, they’re wrong. Racism is a global issue. Racism is a British issue. It is not one that is merely confined to the United States – it is everywhere, and it is systemic.
As a black person, you learn from a very young age that you need to have your wits about you. Children are born without prejudice, but when I started school in London, I realised that I was different. Name-calling is only the very first thing you have to deal with, and there have been worse moments. Growing up in Ladbroke Grove, I saw black people persecuted, arrested, abused – this happened all the time. My mother told me to watch myself whenever I left the house. I still feel that same sense of anxiety today when I step out of my front door. Forty years on, nothing has changed.
This is an evolving conversation, and it requires evolving education. We have to keep educating ourselves and our neighbours, or the atrocities won’t stop. I do not condone the violence that is breaking out across America and other cities. I am not condoning the lootings. I support free speech, and the rights of people to protest, though I would caution that people make adequate safety arrangements in the light of the pandemic. I am convinced that we need to fight racism, to convert knowledge into anti-racism. And we need to do it together.
Fashion has a part to play in this. It occupies a unique place in the zeitgeist, and it has a singular ability to shift mindsets. I implore fashion brands, publications and retailers to employ more people from diverse backgrounds – I truly believe this is the only way to effect real change. We need black people ingrained within the infrastructure of the fashion industry, not just on the other side of the camera or appearing on an Instagram feed. People need a seat at the table.
We can’t make any more excuses: this is 2020. There is a new generation rising through the ranks, and they deserve better. Get to know people from other races. Read books that challenge your preconceptions. Watch documentaries that inform your values. Be curious. And do not turn a blind eye when you come across a racist act, big or small. The time to act is now.