I’m sat here writing this post and I currently have no idea whether I’m going to click publish when I’m finished. This blog is where I usually just spout whatever I feel like saying and then move on with my day but for some reason this post feels different. I have things that I want to say, things that I feel as though I need to get out. Usually when I feel like that, I say my piece and it’s over and I can move on. This post doesn’t feel like that. If I finish writing it and click publish I don’t know whether getting these thoughts out of my head will make me feel better or whether starting to articulate them will make me feel worse and I’m not sure that I have the head space today to feel worse. For those of you that know me in real life and have only seen my friendly cuddly side, the rest of this post may confuse you slightly, but the reality is that I’m a black woman and the events of the last few days have made me angry, sad and desperate for change. If I do decide to click publish then I’m going to apologise in advance for any lack of structure, rambling, racist language or use of the F word in the following paragraphs.
Right now I feel as though the people I care about the most are under attack and there is nothing I can do about it. The Corona virus is a new and unprecedented threat to life and racism is currently in the news but will probably have stopped being discussed by this time next week.
There are currently protests all over the world which were sparked by the murder of a black man called George Floyd. The video footage of his murder and the endless stream of media footage showing protests and rioting currently feels like too much. I can’t even articulate it, it’s just too much and the most painful part of this for me is that I don’t believe that George Floyd will be the last. We will feel this pain again because the conditions that led to his murder have not changed.
When George Floyd was murdered, that police officer was confident that his activities weren’t going to affect his life. When people question why people felt the need to protest, it was because a member of the American police force was part of a system that led him to think that killing somebody wasn’t going to be a problem. Imagine having a level of confidence that lets you think that you can slowly murder a man in broad daylight, in front of witnesses whilst being recorded and expect to get away with it. Can you imagine being that confident in any aspect of your life? How wrong does a system have to be that a member of law enforcement expects to get away with that? People ask why this murder led to protests, it’s because George was the latest in a long list of black people killed by the police. People ask why this murder led to protests in the United Kingdom, it’s because the British police have a list of their own.
There were protest marches this weekend in major cities including London and Manchester which has triggered lots of discussions on the dangers of meeting in large groups during a global health crisis. Realistically there is never a good time to hold a mass protest, but Covid-19 will provide a very specific talking point. It has already been established that the reinfection or R rate of the virus in the North West is rising. This was established during the week and on Friday schools in the neighbouring borough of Tameside issued email guidance instructing schools not to open their doors to additional children on Monday as a result. The images of large crowds holding Black Lives Matter placards, will ensure that the inevitable second wave, will be attributed to those attending the protests and all of the resulting deaths will have nothing to do with the increasing number of businesses reopening, people choosing to ignore the restrictions for other reasons or the fact that those shielding due to health concerns were told without prior warning that they no longer needed to stay indoors. Certain newspapers will be able to happily report that the rise in the virus is because of the black people. Let’s face it, sooner or later they were probably going to anyway.
Another ongoing issue with protesting is the fact that people find it difficult to separate legitimate peaceful protests from riots and looting and as the media generally focus a large percentage of their coverage to showing broken windows and things on fire, it’s easy to see how this happens. What seems less obvious is exactly who is doing what and why? One of the many positives of our phone in hand culture is that we are able to see stories that the television stations don’t see or see and don’t show for whatever reason. There is a video circulating on social media of a black woman in the USA screaming at some young white men who have travelled into her area during the protests. The men seemed to genuinely think that smashing windows and lighting fires was helpful, she had to aggressively point out that it wasn’t. She had to tell them that the area they were trashing was inhabited by poor people who would have to live with the destruction that they were causing. They didn’t even know the area. They weren’t there enacting violence that led from the frustration caused by the injustice, they just thought that they could come along and smash things, then afterwards go safely back to their own homes. The, lets be generous and call them misguided, young men turning up at protests and smashing things are not the only questionable group. There is footage of undercover police officers in certain areas lighting fires and there is also footage of people who have nothing to do with the Black Lives Matters movement turning up at peaceful events and escalating violence for their own purposes. Some to further their own political agendas and others to deliberately smear the reputation of others. Few Black Lives Matters events take place without some additional agendas.
The very name of the movement Black Lives Matter appears to cause confusion. What other reason could for be for people to constantly respond with the hashtag All Lives Matter? We KNOW that ALL lives matter. ALL lives have always mattered, but certain groups have chosen to act as though black ones don’t, hence the very specific reminder. The phrase and subsequent hashtag was created by Alicia Garza in response to the disappointing responses she saw on social media after the killing of black teenager Travyon Martin. When you write the words “all lives matter” what you are actually saying is that all lives matter except black ones when it suits us. Why does the world need to keep being reminded en masse that those with black skin have a right to exist?
The current conversations on race have encouraged lots of people to look for literature and films to help them learn more. It’s unfortunate that some of the film choices probably won’t help them long term. There is probably somebody somewhere writing a blog post on why The Help is a bad place to start.
As globalisation continues there is a danger that certain elements of British and American history merges into one for most people. The majority of people in this country don’t know their own history and the parts we do know, are often reduced to the highlights. Everybody knows that there was a slave trade in America, but most people don’t know anything about Britain’s role or the fact that some of the money spent building beautiful buildings in places like Liverpool and Bristol comes from it. Children are routinely taught about about William The Conquerer and Henry VIII, but very little about other parts of British history that directly affect our lives today.
Rich white people sailing around the world committing atrocities that benefit themselves is a pattern that has shaped the modern world and the gaps in our collective knowledge are doing nothing to help us improve. British people should know the part that Britain played in the shaping of the modern world and exactly how the empire came to be. When we look at the images of Africa we see on our television screens we see certain depictions on repeat, but we don’t usually see the whole story. I was surprised a few years ago to discover that Africa is made up of 54 different countries. As a child I just assumed that Africa was one country in the same way that England was. My perception was that it was just bigger and hotter and I know for a fact that I’m not alone in those assumptions. The narrative of white people saving poor ignorant savages is so pervasive that many assume it to be true. My shockingly poor knowledge of geography and world history wouldn’t be so bad if even a tiny amount of relevant information had been covered at primary school. The reason I now know that Africa is made up of 54 countries is because my child studied Africa as a topic at their primary school, although I doubt that European involvement in how that came to be is something covered outside of Higher Education.
For a long time now there has been a campaign to include the teaching of Black History as part of the curriculum here in the UK. There are lots of reasons why this is a good thing and not simply so that Black British children in the UK can grow up knowing their heritage it would also educate our wider society.
The problem with UK citizens having no accurate depiction of their full history manifests itself in two ways. Firstly there are huge gaps which fuels ignorance and also that people who want to know more end up finding their own sources, which often lack the necessary context. Although there are many similarities between the treatment of black people both in the USA and in the United Kingdom, you can’t just watch Boyz in The Hood and think that you now understand the finer points of racism in Manchester, South London, Liverpool or Wales. You have to know some of the historical events and be aware of social policy. If you don’t know what Liverpool and Bristol have to do with the slave trade, then you should. Local wealthy philanthropists were able to do great things for their local communities but people should in many cases question where their money came from. If you wonder why people object to certain statues, find out why? If you think that Windrush was several hundred black people from the Caribbean all deciding to move to England on the same ship for no reason, then there is a gap in your knowledge. The real reasons and the disgusting treatment that some of them and their descendants have faced since are not as widely known as they should be.
This weekend protestors in Bristol removed a statue dedicated to a local slave owner and threw it into the harbour. Some people are genuinely more upset about a metal statue being thrown into the sea than the thousands of slaves that not only ended up in the sea but which he was also financially compensated for. One very reasonable question being asked is why was there a statue of a prominent slave trader still on display in a multicultural city? It would appear that once somebody erects a statue it’s difficult to get people to agree to it’s removal. A compromise had been reached whereupon the statue was supposed to remain in place next to a plaque which provided information about his connection to the slave trade. Disagreements about the wording stretched on whilst suggestions were made and formally objected to. In the meantime the statue remained in place. The protestors took matters into their own hands and now social media is full of people saying what a terrible crime it was and how it’s a waste to throw a statue into the sea. Imagine being more concerned about one metal person than thousands of actual human beings stolen from their homes and forced onto slave ships. Hashtag all statues matter.
As a rule of thumb, rich people historically became rich off the backs of poor people and as a result there are plenty of poor dead white people but if there is a discussion about dead black people, this is not the time to start discussing dead white people. That is a separate discussion and if you feel strongly about it, as indeed many more people should, then you should start that discussion. This tactic isn’t unique to discussions on race. The “What about [insert bullshit here] Tactic” is common and almost always used when people start to discuss problems affecting marginalised groups. Highjacking discussions about the experiences of a specific group is almost always the wrong thing to do. When we talk about women being victims of domestic violence, somebody pipes up about the men who are victims of domestic violence. Male domestic violence is a terrible thing and the victims deserve support and recognition, but don’t highjack social media posts about women being beaten to death by men with an off the cuff “what about male victims?” Start your own conversation about male victims domestic violence. Write your own social media post. Don’t disrupt the conversation and take the focus away. In the majority of cases where this tactic is used, the people using it don’t especially care about the plight of the group they’ve interrupted the discussion to highlight, they just want to be disruptive.
A particular sticking point on understanding racism seems to be the idea of white privilege. I know that it has been explained time and time again but once more for those who still don’t get it. White privilege does not mean that your life hasn’t been hard. It doesn’t mean that your descendants haven’t been screwed over by rich white men. It doesn’t mean that you and your friends have never been targeted by the police. It doesn’t mean that your life has been easy. It just means that your skin colour isn’t one of the things making your life worse as a result of systemic racism. In other words however shit your life is, it would be worse if your skin was black. Lots of people are now in a position where they understand the privilege that their skin tone brings. Less than a week ago white protestors formed a human shield around a black man because the situation was escalating and they knew that the police would be unlikely to shoot them. Their white skin made them bullet proof. THAT is white privilege, what you choose to do with it is up to you.
Racism is generally more than what you think it is. Most people think that racism is the pointy headed white costume or the skin head with the swasticas variety. In most cases it isn’t. Those people are a very specific type of racist and that can lead to denial and confusion because most people don’t behave like that and therefore don’t want to be associated with them. Racism isn’t always as obvious. Systemic racism isn’t obvious at all, for most people it’s just how things are. When the police use profiling techniques that disproportionately target black men that’s racist. If you are found crouching in a strangers garden at 2am then it’s perfectly reasonable for the police to arrest you on suspicion of criminal intent. If however the police are looking for a five foot black male suspect wearing a tracksuit and they arrest a six foot black male wearing a business suit in a completely different area on his way to work then that isn’t. Now please don’t get confused and think that for one second I’m suggesting that there are no black male criminals because obviously there are, but the misinformed idea that the police only ever arrest people who are up to no good is simply untrue. Abuse of their stop and search powers was a very specific tactic for certain British police forces.
Schools are key place for educating our young people and encouraging an understanding of diversity but how are teachers supposed to emphasise the horrors of racism and operate a zero tolerance policy on racist comments when the Prime Minister of our country is on record openly making racist comments? That man is now responsible for those women, that according to him, look like pillar boxes and all us picaninnies with our watermelon smiles. The last election for me wasn’t only about policies, it was about the idea that in a multicultural society a person who made those comments could not only continue to work in public office, but was elected to run the country. Loving billionaires more than your citizens was bad. Slashing funds to public services was worse. Ruining the lives of the sick and disabled was almost unbearable so the racism was just a step too far. I didn’t and still don’t understand. I can agree to disagree on policies but I refuse to acknowledge that lies and racism are acceptable in a public servant.
Day to day racist acts occur all the time some are obvious but other things are low level actions and comments that people don’t necessarily think are a problem because they don’t consider themselves to be racists. When I was walking through central Manchester and somebody shouted “Black bitch” at me out of a car window that’s pretty straight forward, most people would agree that’s a racist thing to do and the majority of people wouldn’t consider doing it.
There are things that were once socially acceptable (to some people) that most now agree aren’t. Inappropriate comments in the workplace and widespread use of negative stereotypes all form part of the micro aggressions that people have to face on a daily basis. It’s nowhere near as offensive as threats of violence or racist language but that doesn’t make it ok. Often when it’s pointed out that certain language is inappropriate people start to deflect by pointing out that white people are not the only ones capable of racism. Invoking the “black people can be racist too” defence doesn’t make your behaviour any more acceptable it just means that other people also behave in an unacceptable manner. Yes of course they can and it still isn’t acceptable. We should all challenge racism whenever we see it. If you have a relative who still thinks that it’s acceptable to declare that they’re having a chinkie on Saturday night or that they’re going to the paki shop for a paper, then tell them. Make it clear that it’s not acceptable for them to say those things in front of you. I have. I left that particular person in absolutely no doubt that I wouldn’t tolerate that language around me and my kids. It’s genuinely not that hard. There was an interim period where the shop was “upgraded” to “the asian shop” before we eventually reached the enlightened stage of just calling it “the newsagents” I’ve also challenged the same person on their assertion that the asians at the cash and carry would try and rip me off, which may have come about as a result of a negative personal experience, but at the end of the day when one white person does something bad we blame them, when a person of literally any other ethnicity does something, they’re somehow suddenly responsible for their entire race. Just nip it in the bud. Don’t get into lengthy discussions about why they’re wrong, just make it clear that it isn’t acceptable for them to say those things in front of you. When enough people do it, most people stop.
Other excuses for racist nonsense include things like the fact that black rappers use the N word. I understand that some people find it confusing (it isn’t really but let’s pretend that it is) but that’s because people don’t see all the background that led to it. In the 1980s when rappers like N.W.A. reclaimed that term and released songs like Fuck Tha Police it was a response to the way that they and their friends as young black men had been treated. They made a statement and claimed ownership of a derogatory term that had always been used against black people. Overtime it’s use as a statement has been somewhat diluted to the point where it is now used almost casually by some people to mean black man. I once heard Samuel L Jackson interviewed where he discussed his personal feelings on the “N” word. Samuel is old enough to have lived through exactly what that word meant and the venom and hate it expressed when it was used towards black people whilst he was growing up. I’m not in a position to speak for him but based on that interview I would say that he shares my feelings about it’s current casual use. N.W.A. publicly reclaimed the word and used it to make a point. Fast forward and now we’re in a situation where we have songs like Freaky Friday by Lil Dickie featuring Chris Brown where he’s excitedly asking “can I really say the N Word” as though it’s some kind of treat [insert eye roll] The short version is that some black people say it. Some black people don’t say it. If you’re not black you definitely can’t say it.
A tip for people aiming to actively be better is if you have to check that your black friend / colleague is ok with it, then you shouldn’t be doing or saying whatever it is.
For example if your sales conference has a fancy dress element and your senior management team think that it’s ok for 3 white women to dress as The Supremes including wearing the darkest shade of foundation they could find (true story) then that’s a no and I’d like you to put that onto the list of inappropriate activities that should have no place in your organisation. Those women weren’t, and presumably still aren’t, racists. I didn’t think it then and I don’t think it now, but when one of them came and asked me, as the only black person in an office of over 70 people, if I was OK with it, I lost all respect for them. I didn’t think it was right but it didn’t make me want to ring HR and get them fired. My friend on the other hand was absolutely livid. I simply allocated it to the pile of “white people nonsense” I didn’t personally have a problem with them looking ridiculous, but what if I had? Was I going to be the party pooper that made things awkward in the office. If it happened now I’d say that it was up to them, but that I didn’t think it was appropriate, but in the mid 90s when this happened, I just shrugged it off. If the senior sales team had decided to go as Bananarama, I wouldn’t even have remembered most of that conference but they didn’t, so I do. Incidentally the worse part of that particular sales conference black face nonsense, was watching a tipsy Director of Sales also in black face, (presumably allegedly as The Temptations or similar) looking like the Robertson’s Golly in a cheap curly black afro wig, calling himself Leroy, waving an afro comb and attempting a Jamaican accent. Now that bit was racist!
Feel free to check the #blackatwork, #blackintheworkplace and #workingwhilstblack for other examples of how NOT to behave.
A few days ago social media was full of the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday, where people and brands posted a plain black image with the hashtag to show solidarity. I don’t know where the campaign originated but I do know that all the brands did their bit and posted the black image to show their customers that they stand against racism. In theory this is a good thing, in reality it’s an opportunity for brands to look good in front of their core followers and look as though they’re doing something to help. Now that it’s a few days on what are those same brands doing? Multinational corporations that still in 2020 sell creams to lighten the colour of your skin are trying to make themselves look good by telling us that black lives matter to them. Maybe that’s little unfair but the reality is that their instagram feeds don’t match their history and ongoing activities.
I feel very differently about the “real” people who chose to share those black squares and use that hashtag. In the grand scheme of things I don’t think it will change things in a big way but I appreciate that my friends and owners of small businesses are trying to do “something” I appreciate that they are open to the idea of trying to help, that they are learning about the issues and that they are showing their solidarity.
There are not many black people where I live, so I fully understand why it’s not financially viable for small businesses to cater for all my needs but what about the large organisations? Why do my local supermarkets only sell BB cream in pale or medium? I may be a minority but I’m certainly not a rarity. Rihanna’s Fenty brand brought out foundations for every shade and all of a sudden the major make up brands expand their ranges to show how inclusive they are. Those brands have been there all my life and I’ve been right here with this skin colour, so why have they only just discovered that black skin exists?
Many of you know that I’m more than a little obsessed with my hair and have been since my days as a small child in the 1970s, wishing that I had long blonde hair like the girl on Top Of The Pops. Attempting to care for afro hair with products created for those with European hair is at best ill advised, so I have spent all my adult life travelling to specialist shops to buy shampoos, conditioners and an assortment of other hair related paraphernalia. A couple of years ago Superdrug started to offer a limited range of afro hair products in their stores. I didn’t pay too much attention but the convenience of being able to buy products in my local town centre instead of having to make a 30 mile round trip every time I ran out of shampoo or needed a conditioning pack was definitely appreciated. During the lockdown I’ve had to get creative on the hair front. The bricks and mortar shops stocking hair extensions and afro hair products are all closed and I’m not allowed anywhere near a stylist, so my afro and I have had to fend for ourselves. At this point the fact that Superdrug’s status as a chemist and it’s previous decision to stock suitable hair products became my saviour. The black hair brands that they stock are generally not black owned but it’s a step in the right direction. The good news and best thing about the horrendous lockdown situation is that I’ve finally learned to braid my own hair.
So for those of you that made it to the end of my brain dump and want to know what you can do to fight racism and make the world a better place here are a few suggestions. This is not an exhaustive list. There are lots of other things.
- Challenge racism when you see or hear it.
- If black people tell you that something is inappropriate, then just take our word for it.
- Don’t take the concept of white privilege personally. We are where we are and you are no more responsible for your skin tone than I am.
- Make an effort to use people’s actual names. Giving somebody a nickname or shortening it to something you find easier to say rather than making an effort to learn their actual name is rude at best.
- Keep your hands out of our hair. This goes double if the hair you’d like to touch belongs to a child. Don’t, just don’t! If I had a pound for every time I had a stranger touch my hair on a bus or other public place I could probably pay for my next weave.
- Encourage diversity in your workplace if you are in a position to do so. I’m not suggesting that you run out and employ black people willy nilly or casually add black people to the board of your small business but could you do things to foster a more diverse workforce through internships, work experience or supporting existing groups in your local community?
- Recognise that you have bias and that it probably affects how you perceive the world.
- Don’t fetishise blackness (or any other ethnicity) Being told that you’re exotic is not the turn on you think it is.
- If there is a particular stereotype associated with a certain race, don’t buy into it, don’t perpetuate it and definitely don’t let it affect how you behave in the workplace.
- The featured image on this post is available free of charge from www.blackillustrations.com. They provide illustrations of black people for online projects to increase visibility and diversity.
- If you see the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, do not under any circumstances respond with #AllLivesMatter. We already knew that all lives mattered, but people kept killing us so the hashtag was invented to make it clear that black lives were also of value.