History in Black & White

I want to write something in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign which created such turmoil earlier in the year. I wrote this back then and have posted it here for Black History Month Scotland (#BHM2020). It feels important to nail my colours to the mast (no word play intended) even though I know writing this will change nothing.

I was uncomfortable with the hashtags and placards back then, not because I don’t agree with the message, more because it seemed an inadequate response somehow.  Of course ‘Black Lives Matter’; all lives matter, as some have commented.  I heaved an internal sigh.  It made me feel sad and defeated.  Yes, lots of things matter.  All creatures matter: insects not less than birds, but we don’t campaign for everything.  Not all things are equally endangered or in difficulty (although with climate crisis that may be a moot point).  We seek to campaign for and protect that which is disadvantaged, vulnerable, fragile; the wronged; the underdog: the orangutans, losing their homes through commercial logging and plantations; the panda, also suffering through habitat loss.  So, yes, absolutely, we should care about the whole of nature, the whole of humanity.

As an environmentalist and campaigner, I can’t help feeling all that is a deflection.  A way of not owning up to history.  The way the media frames the story seeks to separate the unlawful death of a black man in America from the statue vandalism in the UK.  It misses the point.  They’re intrinsically linked.  We hold ideas of ‘black gangs’ and ‘black power’ and an integrated society, but these too are media constructs.  The unpalatable truth, the truth we must embrace, is that racism isn’t ‘over there’ in America, racism is ingrained in British society, it’s laws, institutions and systems.  Most of us will have black friends, we may never have shared a racist joke or spoken badly of people from other cultures. But this in itself is no proof of a lack of racism.  You only have to look at statistics of black people stopped and searched, black people arrested, black people in higher education or positions of power to see the inequality and disadvantage that is embedded in the system.  Those people you can point to as successful in their field are ‘exceptions’ to the rule, that if you’re black things are stacked against you from the outset.

‘White privilege’ is a label that can be hard to wear.  I want to protest.  I’ve always been an advocate for the vulnerable.  I want to flag up my ‘pro-race’ credentials, my lack of complicity.  That is the point, though, we are complicit whether we like it or not.  Our colonial imperialist ancestors built their wealth, and the wealth of this country, on the misery of others.  We are complicit because we have an automatic advantage by being born white and British – our colour and background, the privilege of birth.  We are also complicit when we don’t challenge the status quo.

I don’t come from a wealthy or well-connected family and yet I still had many advantages.  I was bullied at school, but never for the colour of my skin; I never had to endure daily racist taunts; I didn’t  have to change my name so people would feel comfortable; I didn’t have to laugh at jokes directed against me to try and fit in.  I didn’t have to work ten times harder than anyone else because people assumed I was unintelligent, uneducated or less able simply because of my skin colour.  I did suffer privations, but not because of fundamentally who I am; not because of my racial identity.

People have been up in arms about the vandalism of statues.  Yes, it’s criminal activity.  It goes against the grain for me too, but I do understand it – tearing down the shackles of the past; a ‘rage against the machine’ and all that it symbolises: injustice and oppression, the powerful who built their empires on injustice, misery and subjugation.  It is not enough to say ‘that’s history’ to claim we didn’t know any better.  People always knew that enslaving another race of people was wrong.  As is so often the case, it was economics that prevented the abolition of slavery any earlier.  As a nation we have a history of subjugation, wealth extraction and abandonment of which I can never be proud.  The history books are written, predominantly, by male white victors who have vested interest in upholding the status quo.  Our history has been glamorised and eulogised as a ‘civilising influence’ when mostly it was rape and pillage like the invaders before us.  For the most part it was about subjugation, power and acquisition.  There may be exceptions.  Not every colonialist had malice in their hearts.  Overall, the picture is not a pretty one but part of a terrible legacy.  This is what our society is founded on.  This is why racism is ingrained in our institutions.  The core of a working hypothesis, fleshed out in slavery, colonialism and racism is that we believe we are better than people whose skin is a different colour to our own and that we have a right – often enshrined as a ‘God-given right’ – to profit from that.

There was a story shared by a lady on social media, about her experience in a Birmingham car park.  She was getting a ticket and spotted a black man approaching her.  She became anxious, wondering how she could protect herself from this perceived threat.  The man in question was, like her, heading for the ticket machine to buy a ticket.  Her in-built narrative was that he presented a threat purely because of the colour of his skin.  Had the man been white she wouldn’t have given it a second thought.  She had the grace to call herself out on this and shared the incident to highlight the ingrained racism that can exist.  If we’re honest with ourselves we may be able to think of similar experiences.

We may be actively ant-racist, yet because of the nature of the society in which we were born, raised and continue to live, the reality is that racism is embedded and passed on down the generations.

We need to draw a line under this.  We need to call it out in ourselves and in others.  We need to positively support and champion people of colour, much like we have sought to defend and promote people with physical disability.  We need to redress the balance.  Change is slow and we can’t afford to waste any more time.

I don’t think we can achieve a lot pulling down statues.  We can’t change history by doing so.  I’d rather we told historys’ true story, a reminder of what we have been and what we have done, but that’s not for me to decide.  I remember when Saddam Hussein’s statue was destroyed when allied troops invaded Iraq.  People of all nationalities cheered.  The symbol of a tyrant was being dismantled.  I don’t think pulling down statues here in the UK is any different.  We understand the symbolism.  Glorifying people who have committed atrocities is an affront to those have been damaged by their actions.  If something is an affront to you, would you want it dismantled?  Many of the people who have statues created are rich and powerful people who have often paid for their own monuments.  Most of them rich and powerful white men.  I think a lot of people felt outraged because they felt threatened.  Under threat, the current cosy way of life based on the tyranny of the past.

Let’s forget about statues. It’s too easy to get side-tracked, to obfuscate what’s going on.  This is about people.  Real people.  Now. And people will always mean more than monuments and statues and how we feel about them.  We can’t change what has happened; we can’t re-write history, but we can change what the future holds for people who are disadvantaged by the colour of their skin or their poverty.  Poverty can be combined with skin-colour to make a double-whammy of disadvantage, but I’ll need to tackle that as a blog for another day.  We have to strive for an equal society where support and respect are enshrined in our institutions, where everyone is valued, educated and supported.  Better to seek an ideal than rest on a false interpretation of a ‘glorious past’.

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