Get a Sharpie or a marker pen, and give it to someone else. Now try to take it off them without getting any marks on your hands or arms while they try to stop you.
Now imagine that the Sharpie was a knife, and you’ll get some idea of how hard it is to safely disarm someone holding a sharp weapon.
When this exercise is done on self-defence courses, the “wounds” are usually only to the hands and arms. In the real world, the face and neck would also be targets, and you don’t need me to draw you a picture of the damage that can be done.
This week in Ireland 27-year-old George Nkencho, whose family said he suffered from mental illness, was armed with a knife when he was shot dead by police. As George was Black, no time was wasted in turning this tragedy into the latest battlefield in the culture war so longed for by a tiny minority of Irish racists.
This poisonous minority of grifters and opportunists is not to be given the oxygen of amplification, but it is the “respectable” racists – the ones who, in their blissful ignorance, spread the lies and arguments on their behalf – that need to take a look at themselves.
It’s amazing how quickly they will out themselves when given the chance. I put out a couple of tweets last night pointing out the need for us to think about what racism actually is and what immediately dismissing it says about us.
Seconds later they were in my mentions, proving my point.
He was not “a bastion of innocence”, I was told – the inference being that the rumours circulating about the deceased having a string of convictions for violent offences were true.
And even if they were, that is not a death sentence in itself.
Every time the state uses deadly violence, it is incumbent upon us to analyse the situation and ask what went wrong and what could be done better. Death is never a successful outcome.
In doing so, we must consider every possibility, and when the deceased person is a person of colour, then we must consider that too.
In doing so, we must consider more than the moment the trigger was pulled, or the person that pulled it. We must look at every circumstance that led everyone to that place, at that time, and to that outcome.
This means considering not just the motivations for all involved and the reasons for the outcomes. If race turned out not to be a factor in any of this, then there is nothing to fear.
If it was, then changes have to be made.
Then there is the broader perspective of George Nkencho’s mental health and the role race and racism played in his life until his untimely death. What effect did racism have on him growing up, and the necessary services and medical care he did or did not receive?
To immediately dismiss racism as a possible factor is to fundamentally misunderstand what racism is and how we understand it.
A clue – as white Irish people, we don’t. And we cannot.
What many seem to be saying is that “in the moment, the police officer would not have thought about skin colour before shooting”. While it may well be true, drawing further conclusions from that would be to miss the point entirely.
In a force where racism against Travellers is seemingly endemic, can we really say that racism could in no way have been a factor?
Are we so afraid of an open and honest discussion about racism because we are afraid of what we might find?
If your immediate reaction to the questions around George Nkencho’s death is to dismiss possible issues of racism around it, you are part of the problem.
If your reaction includes trying to find reasons why killing him was justified, you’re part of the problem.
If you are not capable of listening to the experiences of those who directly experience the kind of racism that you will never be subjected to, you’re part of the problem.
Racism is not simply hating Black people or Travellers.
It is a broad, sprawling mass of contradictions and fears and ideas.
It is individual and collective, personal and structural.
It is complex and confounding, and there are no simple answers – nor will we find any answers at all, if we are not prepared to listen.
The truth is that Black Irish people reacted strongly George Nkencho. Our duty is not to tell them about what racism is and isn’t, but to listen to them.
The pain and trauma of seeing a man shot dead in this way is traumatic enough; to see him so quickly and so gladly smeared as a criminal who deserved what he got is something else entirely.
This is not the time for the comfortable to be talking, trying to reassure themselves that there is no problem.
Instead it is a time for reflection and for listening and, later, for action guided by those exposed to the things we don’t understand.
Until we learn what racism is, we need to stop talking about it.