I should have listened.
In the midst of Lockdown 1.0, I was made aware that I had used a racial slur in reference to a Chinese takeaway in a blog post from 2013. The ‘C’ word is hugely derogatory to people from the East and South East Asian, or ESEA, community. Instead of stepping up and admitting to my past racist mistakes, I cowardly attempted to hide what had happened, and then when that didn’t work, I de-activated everything and stepped, or you could say, ran, away from it all.
I didn’t read the Twitter threads about me; I didn’t open up my Instagram inbox or read the comments posted by both friends and strangers underneath my latest posts. I didn’t listen. I didn’t learn. I stayed unknowing. I chose to live in a world where simply saying “well, I’d never use that word now” was enough. I allowed people to feel sorry for me and to defend me. I didn’t stick around to witness the hurt I’d caused, to understand why my actions had been wrong, or to learn how I could begin to make amends.
It was fight or flight, and my brain – as it has so often done in the past – chose flight. I abandoned my work and the mess I had created and tried to piece together some kind of life offline, because that was easier and less uncomfortable than trying to tackle the situation head on.
I had a big opportunity to step up, to admit how badly I’d fucked up, and to open up the dialogue about how we start our anti-racism education and become better allies and, quite simply, I chose not to. I was able to step away from thinking about and confronting racism because of the privilege granted to me by the colour of my skin. And so I did; I chose the weaker option and walked away.
Fast-forward to November 2020 and I decided to return to the internet with a new project, The Leopard. I’d teamed up with an ex-colleague, Gemma Yates, and was excited to get back into journalism, to write about the things I’m passionate about without there being so much focus on, well, me. Because it was a new business and not Hannah Gale 2.0, we naively decided to launch without acknowledgement or apology for what had happened previously. We had known from the get-go that we wanted to create a space which championed all women (having spent years in a media landscape which did the opposite) and we thought we could show this through our content over the weeks and months that followed us going live. We let both our fear of getting it wrong and of being blindly uninformed about the impact of my mistake get in the way of launching the way we should have.
It seems glaringly obvious now, but because I hadn’t stuck around long enough the first time to listen, I had completely failed to grasp the severity of the situation. In running away, I’d not only let other people down, I’d let myself down because I had learned absolutely nothing from it.
Instead, I continued to hide away from the words of the women I should have been listening to: I blocked certain words in our Instagram comments because I was too uncomfortable with being called out. I didn’t want to face up to my lifelong fear of not being good enough, or of having people think negatively of me, but silencing the women who were trying to educate me was completely unacceptable, and I completely hold my hands up to that.
You see, hindsight is the most enchanting of wind-up merchants. She teaches you how to do better, how to be better, how to live better, and yet she doesn’t allow you the ability to go back and change things. Because if she did, I would go back and own my racism. I’d like to say I’d go back to 2013 and allow myself to be so well educated in all things anti-racism that I’d never have written a racist word so flippantly in the first place, but I think that’s probably an unrealistic expectation of my 23-year-old self.
I grew up with that word in my household. White privilege afforded me the luxury of viewing it as a slang word, rather than the completely unacceptable racist slur that it is. But not knowing better is not an excuse; it does not stop your words and actions from being racist or from causing hurt. Not knowing better is not something to hide behind. It’s not a comfy blanket that relinquishes you from your responsibility to be a better human. Not knowing better is simply a sign that you need to step up, that you need to educate yourself, surround yourself with the resources and tools to do so and make a vow to both yourself and the people around you, that you’ll do better.
And so when we launched The Leopard and I was called out for a second time, I started to read. I read every comment and DM. I took it all in. It was intense and deeply uncomfortable, but that was the point. There were so many account handles I recognised from women who’d supported me for years, now telling me to do and be better. I felt shame. Shame that I’d allowed myself to slip into a place that disappointed so many women who had held me to higher standards and shame that I couldn’t live up to the person I wanted to be. Shame that I had failed so many people.
It took a long time to read through everything, to absorb it, to sit with the discomfort and try to understand how to move forward. To listen to the voices of women from the East and South East Asian community, Black women, women from all ethnic minorities. To listen to the voices of proud white female allies who were doing the anti-racism work. To really hear what they were asking of Gemma and myself.
We got it wrong when we decided to take a step back from the project. We let our fear and our embarrassment inhibit our learning and our progress. You asked us to step up not step away, so here we are.
A lot of you have asked me to share the measures I’m taking in my personal anti-racism education, so first I want to direct you to a feature Gemma and I have created which includes some of the books, documentaries and resources we’ve immersed ourselves in. I think one of the best changes I’ve made overnight is to follow Instagram accounts like @everydayracism_ and @diversifyournarrative which bring important racism news, stories and statistics to my feed every single day. It is a good starting point for anyone feeling at a loss of where to begin.
I’ve also found that my experience of being called out for racism online has opened up the conversation around white fragility and racism with friends, family and followers. Knowledge is power, and by beginning to educate myself, I have found a new surge of confidence in calling out those around me and unpicking their racism. I will continue to make anti-racism a subject that’s constantly part of my dinner chats, WhatsApp convos and digital features and I am no longer afraid to explain to those around me that just because “loads of people say it” doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable.
I’ve also started seeing colour instead of pulling the classic “I don’t see colour” line so many of us have relied upon for years. Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book that: ‘Colour-blindness does not get to the root of racism. Not seeing race does little to deconstruct racist structures or materially improve the conditions, which people of colour are subject to daily. In order to dismantle racism, we must see race’.
Now I see it, and I want to continue seeing it, and I want to champion women who, through the fault of white privilege, often get left behind.
At the heart of The Leopard’s anti-racist stance are the pledges we’ve created (you can find these on our Instagram page), which include donating money, sharing educational resources with our (predominantly white) followers and vowing never to shut down the conversation in our comments again. We also will continually expand our content to be more inclusive and use it as a space to highlight the voices, experiences and small businesses of women from ethnic minorities. Hearing stories first hand from women over the past few months – many of them friends or friends of friends – has been the most incredible educator, and has really helped me fully understand the white privilege that has kept me ignorant for so many years. We want to continue that listening and learning process and hope to commission more women of colour to write for us where budget allows in the near future.
I want to keep moving forward – not to forget the past mistakes, but to keep learning and elevating my knowledge of racism in the UK and to bring along The Leopard’s audience along for the ride. I may make mistakes again, but I have made a promise to myself that next time round I will own them, confront them and continue to learn from them in order to create an open, safe, ever-evolving online community.
This time I will listen, I will be open to conversation and I will keep pushing to ensure women of all ethnicities get their voices heard. This time, I will be better.