On Wednesday March 3rd, Sarah Everard, 33, disappeared from my neighbourhood in south London. She was walking from Clapham to Brixton, a journey I’ve made weekly for decades. In daylight I’d walk across the park. When darkness fell, I’d stick to the busy, well-lit streets, just as Sarah did. Just as all women do.
The following day, my community WhatsApp groups alerted us to her disappearance. Posters asking for help appeared on lamp posts, railings, bus shelters and in shop windows. She was everywhere, and it was almost impossible not to see them as harbingers of tragedy. I started looking more closely on my daily walks for her, for a trace of her, even though I felt foolish and suspected it was futile.
On March 9th, a police officer was arrested, and three days later charged with Sarah’s kidnap and murder. Human remains were discovered. It wasn’t until March 12th that the body was confirmed as being that of Sarah Everard, and a family tragedy now took on a new level of national significance. I wept for her, for those who knew and loved her. And for all of us.
“Candlelit vigil in my street”
Some years ago, I joined many of the first Reclaim the Night marches in London. There had been a serial killer who killed 13 women in the north of England, always at night. Many were portrayed as low-life prostitutes, killed just because they were women out at night. We on the marches were portrayed as making a fuss about nothing. As being ugly feminists. As being unwomanly.
Women were advised to stay at home at night. Not to wear ‘provocative’ clothes. Not to walk alone. If they did any of these things, they were perceived as somehow responsible for the risk of being raped or even murdered. It was a time of division, anger and combat. Of denigrating both those women attacked and those women protesting.
On March 13th, the Online Vigil for Sarah Everard was loving, inclusive and determined. The candlelit vigil in my street was peaceful with as many men there as women. Yesterday I visited a floral memorial to Sarah on Clapham Common, and again it was peaceful, loving, inclusive and outraged.
Nearly half a century after the serial killer and the protest marches that followed, the dialogue has changed. Which is good. The reality has not.
118 murdered women named in Parliament
I know of no woman who has not at some time held her keys in her hand as she walked home at night. Who has not thought of changing into flat shoes in case she needs to run. Who has not taken a taxi and then worried about whether she’d be safer walking. Who has not phoned or texted to say she’s home safe at night. Simply because we’re scared of sexual assault. I know of many men who have experienced similar fears, but generally not of being assaulted sexually.
Sarah Everard was not out late at night. She was not dressed provocatively, nor was she wearing high heels. She was on a well-lit, busy street.
Sarah Everard was a beautiful white, middle class woman. Her alleged attacker was a police officer. Had the suspect been Black or a person of colour, we might have heard of her. Had she been a Black woman or a person of colour, it is highly unlikely we would even know her name. There are 118 women whose names were read out in Parliament this week, killed since March 11th 2020. That’s 118 women where a man was convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator.
Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives. In London alone there are thought to be 20,000 sexual assaults and 88,000 reports of domestic violence against women. Each year. And made worse in the last year by Covid restrictions.
Every man I’ve spoken to about Sarah Everard’s death has expressed some guilt at being a man or has distanced himself from the crime by talking about all the psychopaths out there. Many white people I spoke to following the death of George Floyd expressed guilt at being white, or else vilified white extremists.
This doesn’t help us move the dialogue forward. This doesn’t help us make women safe. It doesn’t help us bring about inclusion and diversity for all. Unless we can embrace our own privilege, unless we can create the psychological safety to really talk about our differences, we’ll risk losing the boundless benefits of inclusion. We’ll risk more people dying.
We all have privilege, yet privilege is an incendiary topic. We feel threatened, guilty, defensive and marginalised when we think of what we have that we didn’t do anything to get. American CEO Ursula Burns talked of being told as a child that she had three strikes against her; she was poor, Black and a woman. Three privileges she did not have.
I’ve coached people who had all the privileges of gender, geography, wealth and education. And some of them feel hurt and rejected when these privileges are pointed out to them. Of course they’ve worked hard to be where they are. Of course they’ve been through their own struggles and hard times. And of course they can’t do away with their privilege.
The prospect for change
Real change comes when we embrace our privilege and truly recognise that the way we see and experience the world is not the only way the world is experienced. Change comes when we get over our guilt, when we develop the empathy to see and hear views and experiences different to our own. Change comes when we engage our thoughtful brain to counteract our instinctive bias. Then we can expand our horizons to incorporate all that is powerful and profitable about diversity and inclusion. It starts with brave voices making small changes.
What can we do to counteract privilege when it preserves ignorance and a blindness to wider truths? What can we do when attempts to counteract privilege come up against raw feelings of defensiveness and guilt? What can we do to amplify voices and include under-represented people? How many more under-represented people have to die before we act? There are questions we can all ask ourselves to make this world safe for us all. Here are a few examples:
- Why are we watching serial killers on TV as entertainment?
- Why are we telling so many ‘wife’ jokes?
- What’s the impact of a group of men who wolf-whistle and make obscene gestures?
- How is it almost always that ‘pretty’ is white?
- How can we start confidently understanding instead of only defending?
- How can we use our voices to amplify those who aren’t heard?
- How do we raise our self-esteem so that we can embrace difference?
Change is necessary. Walking home, I want to feel free, not brave.