The internet has undoubtedly revolutionised the way in which we talk about social issues. Hashtags have helped create transcontinental online communities that discuss, denounce and rally against injustices, share personal stories and celebrate each others successes. Social media has helped unite people globally; just think of the rise of Black Twitter and the multitude of hashtags and campaigns that have stemmed from its voices – #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName and #BlackGirlMagic to name a few examples.
Yet race and racism are topics that (white) people often still avoid talking about both on and off line. From my own experiences, I’ve found that discussing racism and white privilege can often leave white people feeling personally attacked. The role of victimhood is reversed, POC’s feelings and voices are silenced, as white tears shut down conversations that people may find thorny or uncomfortable. Silencing conversations prevents any learning from taking place, and yet education is key to dismantling ignorance. On the flip side, in some instances white voices drown out those of POC – speaking over POC experiences, taking up a space that isn’t theirs through feeling entitled to give their opinions.
Yet, race and racism are such complex topics and people are bound to have questions, right? Right! We should all be encouraged to explore our own privilege, turning a self-critical eye on our engagement with or perpetuation of discriminatory systems. We all had or currently have questions as to how or why a certain behaviour is damaging. No one is born woke. The term itself infers a process, that of ‘waking up’, signifying a trajectory that inherently involves self-reflection, questioning and reimagining previous thought processes and behaviours.
However, the onus is most definitely not on POC to educate others. It is not our responsibility as individuals to educate, explain or find solutions to problems that we are victims of. Nor is it our job to explain or validate certain aspects of our culture to others. For some, being asked to explain issues such as cultural appropriation or microaggressions or recount personal experiences of racism is extremely invasive. It feels like you have to prove racism exists by explaining all the times that you have personally been a victim of it. Explaining to white people why something is racist takes time and can be emotionally draining – that’s why it’s called emotional labour. For example, I’ve been asked to explain countless times why it’s offensive for white people to have dreadlocks or why it’s racist to only date a certain race. Personally, I’m tired of explaining and now kindly tell people to JFGI (Just Fucking Google It) – google is your friend, and it’s free. Also, I find that there is often an underlying ignorance that POC are a one dimensional and monocultural group. We are not all experts on all cultures. I’ve had people ask me to explain or give my opinion on things that are completely culturally alien to me. I am not a spokesperson for all cultures. Simply, not all POC want to talk about race and not all POC can answer questions about all cultures.
That’s where @askapoc steps in! @askapoc is an Instagram account ran by Shakerah Penfold. She describes the account as a ‘safe space for Non-POC to ask questions to a community of POC’. Non-POC can submit questions via private messages which are then anonymously posted out for followers to answer. POC followers are then invited to give their opinions and responses in the comments section. The account simultaneously takes the fear out of asking a ‘stupid question’ or causing upset, whilst creating a pressure-free space for non-POC to engage with topics around race and learn. Non-POC are not shamed for asking questions, which can focus on a broad topic or a specific personal situation. Importantly, the conversations that ensue are always centred around POC and their voices – questions are posted out to a community of followers who can choose whether or not they wish to engage. Shakerah asks for a £1 donation to her start-charity FoodforThoughtSL via Paypal from all those who ask a question, which reflects the time and emotional labour she puts in to running the account.
I spoke to Shakerah about @askapoc via email…
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself…
I am 25, I currently live in Manchester and I am loving it at the moment. I am really passionate about human rights, food and Netflix. I have just started my career within the charity sector as well as being a co-founder of my own charity called FoodforThoughtSL which aims to explore the topic of critical thinking within young people. So, life is pretty full speed ahead!
What was the initial inspiration behind setting up the account?
So, I guess the initial concept was born out of my distress of having to answer questions about my culture or hair in inappropriate settings. I felt like I was the black girl Google. I appreciate that the questions are not from a malicious place, but they always seem to be asked at the wrong time. I love you Barry but you asking if my hair has been stuck on in the middle of the office is not appropriate. Or being on a girls only lunch and being asked “which bit is your real hair?” while 6 pairs of eyes stare at you, is still not appropriate, no matter how curious you are! I became anxious to début new hairstyles in an office environment (it didn’t stop me from unleashing banging styles) or being asked questions relating to my culture. I don’t mind answering genuine questions, I love being part of the learning process, however it has to be in the right setting. So, taking all of that in mind, I was scrolling through Instagram, minding my business and I come across a post by @trueblacksoul, asking all the white people to comment a question they have always wanted to know about black people, and then black people should answer. I loved it! People were replying and there were some great questions alongside equally great answers. I then had the idea to create an account solely dedicated to these types of questions.
Do you feel that people ask questions that are often linked to a particular topic or theme?
Yeah, definitely. I get a lot of questions about cultural appropriation regarding different types of cultures, which I think is great. Cultural appropriation is now only just being spoken about more and a lot more people are choosing to be conscious of it. It’s beautiful to see the progress that’s being made. So yeah, things like that and why can’t you say the ‘n word’ is a big topic.
What would be your advice for non-POC regarding being an ally?
Hmm this is a difficult one, mainly because every situation is different. You want to stand up and protect POC whenever possible, but you don’t want to speak over them. So, I would say, police and call out your fellow non-POC friends whenever you see an injustice happen. Don’t go in all guns blazing, but find out why they have said or think that and explain why it’s wrong. Let your POC friends know that there is no such thing as ‘the race card’ and that their injustice is valid.
I can’t encourage you all enough to follow, support and engage with @askapoc on Instagram – have a scroll on the page and see what questions have already been asked and then submit yours via private message! You can also follow Shakerah’s personal accounts; her insta is @queenshakerah and her Twitter is @hishakerah. Finally, non-POC, please don’t take up space in the comments section with your opinions or personal anecdotes – know your space, listen and learn!