#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege

In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

March 9, 2017
5 min read

I grew up knowing every other black person living in my hometown: Bangor near Belfast, population 13 thousand. Including me, my dad and two brothers, at peak we reached sixteen. Looking around in a sea of white I always knew I didn’t look like my friends, my dolls or the people on TV. My first memorable experience of feeling truly uncomfortable in my own skin was aged eight. My teacher had just informed the class that despite the images plastered around the school that would suggest otherwise, Jesus was in fact not white.

The kids all rubber necked curious to see my reaction. Some sniggered. All eyes were on me. Palms sweating, I lowered my head and waited eagerly for the moment to pass. Using this opportunity for a crash course on racism, Mrs S hushed the class and said “Sheridan, how did it make you feel to have the class all stare at you like that?” The class stared again. It’s strange to think that this was the model for the power and privilege education I would experience into my twenties, even in social movements: using the oppressed to heal the oppressors.

My first memorable experience of racism was again in school: “eeny meeny miny mo,” my teacher rhymed, “catch a nigger by the toe”. My classmates again turned to see what would come next. Even from a young age I had been taught that the best way to deal with racism was to ignore it. So I shrugged, like I didn’t care, even though my insides were churning.

The first in my family to go to university, I was more than excited by the prospect of evading my tiny bubble and moving to London, where I could have black friends who ‘got it’, find black role models beyond Beyoncé and could be more than just my skin and hair. I moved to Islington, and soon realised it wasn’t the black paradise I had dreamed of. One of two black people in my halls and class, and in another circle of white friends, I found myself in a place where race jokes were banter and I had no choice but to laugh along or subject myself to being told I was ‘overreacting.’ After eighteen years, you start to believe them and before you know you become the oppressor, oppressing yourself.

Safer spaces

My introduction to activist circles was my first experience of ‘safe spaces’. An idea that was born in the LGBTQ movement, it has now been extended for women, BME people or any marginalised group of individuals to come together and communicate about their experiences of oppression.

In this environment racism was not accepted, people listened when I told them stories of racism; no one told me it was my fault or my ego. But I soon realised that even these bubbles are not perfect.

At first, seeing men or white people being openly asked to refrain from speaking first to make space for women or black and minority people was absolutely bizarre. “But they’ve got so many clever things to say,” I thought. At this point I had little political knowledge so everything anyone said impressed me. I listened with awe at their big words and their ability to recite dates and names with ease.

I would later learn that the people who deserve your admiration are the ones who take the time and effort to speak to you in a way you can understand, never just assume you know what they’re talking about and, as Orwell apparently said, ‘never use a long word where a short one will do.’ I would also learn that just because a space is calling itself self, doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way if you ever find the courage to disagree. Suddenly certain voices start to dominate again, almost as if by accident.

And of course it’s not by accident – for the individual it might be, but this stuff is structural and deeply rooted. Many people don’t see the link between overt racism and structural oppression. Your parents probably taught you we’re all the same on the inside and gave you a list of racist names it’s not polite to use. But did they teach you how much power you have, just by virtue of your skin colour, to inflict pain and bring up trauma without even realising it? We even have a word for it: microaggressions. Did they teach you that words that just slip out of your mouth or behaviour you’re barely aware of, can tap into and reinforce a system of structural racism and white supremacy that dates back centuries?

Probably not. And no, that’s not your fault. We can only know what we’re taught, or experience ourselves. I don’t need to read a book or sit a course on oppression; I’ve lived it every day of my life. But if you haven’t, then you do. Every time someone turns away from that responsibility, as a parent, colleague, student – in any area of life, really – it pushes the world we want to see just a little bit further away. If we can’t find a way to get this stuff right in the movement – in our unions, on campuses, in campaigns and with no exceptions – we’re in no fit state to change the world. Our movement culture will never truly challenge power; only copy it.

Read the second instalment of #AndABlackWomanAtThat here.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


229