‘I can’t breathe’, said George Floyd, countless times as a US police officer knelt on this innocent black man’s neck for almost 9 minutes until dead. It is not the first time we have heard this cry and since his death numerous videos has been posted of police in the US and other countries restraining people by kneeling on their head and/or neck, and even being unlawfully shot by the police. But the nonchalance of the police officer and his heart wrenching pleas have galvanised global support for Black Lives Matter like never before. Scenes around the world show large demonstrations of people out on the streets of their cities, just as Covid-19 lockdown is starting to ease, including here in the UK. The question ‘why are people so angry here?’ and statements like ‘but racism here isn’t as bad’ keeps on popping up on interviews, news channels, social media, and the like. Scratch the surface of the comments and you find silence, indifference, anger, defensiveness, a refusal to engage in discussion and racial gas-lighting which turns the person who wishes to discuss the murder of George Floyd and other racist events into a trouble maker, promoting hate.
As the Black Lives Matter marches have continued to gain pace around the UK, black and white people alike have been shocked by the visceral hate filled language that is beginning to come to the surface from their white peers and those in the public eye. This has been in response to angry BLM protesters clashing with police, the pulling down of a slave owner statue and the graffitiing of historical racist figures, lording over us in positions of esteem around the country. Despite thousands around the UK marching peacefully, commentators like Farage have compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Taliban and news outlets and politicians alike have referred to angry youths, many of whom have probably been man handled by the police at some point in their lives, as thugs. In comparison, Far right openly racist protesters who showed up drunk and disorderly and who violently attacked the police from the outset, were called ‘counter protesters’, with barely a mention in main stream news of the masses of these men making Nazi salutes to the police. Outrage by many people when the slave trader statue of Colston was pulled down in Bristol and thrown in the sea by mainly white Black Lives Matter protesters, have sparked further debate about public disorder and whether these statues have a place in modern society. Discussions ignore the 10 years of campaigning with Bristol council to have the statue removed or at least have a plaque included. It ignores the refusal by Bristol council to speak the truth on the plaques about a man responsible for trafficking over 80,000 black Africans to the Americas, along with thousands of deaths and torture they endured. And although we would hope that democratic processes would come to the correct conclusion, this doesn’t always happen, and civil disobedience is needed. Those same people upset about this should ask themselves if they were upset about the toppling of Sadam’s statue or other dictators around the world. Do they believe that the Suffragettes and civil rights activists would have been able to make changes had they stayed within the laws? Should Gandhi and Mandela be condemned for encouraging their countrymen to break racist laws on masse? These debates have pushed to the forefront many issues that demonstrate the subtle nature of racism in this country. It has shown up bias reporting by some mainstream media, a lack of empathy for people of colour as the same outrage about statues has not been demonstrated when it comes to slavery and racism that exists NOW.
It has shown up ignorance of British History and the rewriting of the historical narratives surrounding Churchill and other historical figures, to the point where people would rather believe the lie than know the truth. There have been many demonstrations in Central London that have seen Churchill’s statue ‘defamed’ in some way, but never have I seen the PM and others so incensed by him being tagged ‘Churchill is a racist’. In fact, the fury over the call for racist statues to be removed has been far more emotional and defensive than the outrage over a far-right demonstrator urinating on a memorial to a dead police officer. This also speaks to the elitism in this country, that places more value on maintaining structures and narratives of power and privilege than on people’s lives. Arguments on the radio with callers saying things like ‘Polish people were treated badly during the war but they are just getting on with it’, or ‘Jewish people are getting on with it’ and didn’t want Auschwitz torn down etc, ignore the historical facts. Germany apologised for Nazi crimes, prosecuted who they found, introduced laws banning racist ideology and symbols – those on Saturday giving Nazi salutes to the police in Central London and other parts of the country would have been arrested had they done that in Germany. They have ensured their history is not covered up for the next generation and have worked with the Jewish community to ensure that Auschwitz is maintained as a historical memorial in a sensitive manner. Compensation was paid to the Jewish individuals and to Israel and the ‘German government has worked hard to ensure remembrance, penance, recompense and justice’. In contrast, Britain paid so much compensation to British Slave owners after the abolition of slavery, Britain did not finish paying off the debt until 2015. The USA and the UK have done none of those things necessary to heal its’ violent and dehumanising past, so the wound continues to bleed with structural racism and white privilege, that is perpetrated in a multitude of painful ways. One of the reasons the structural racism exist is because people do not know the truth. In England the conservative government committed its new curriculum to teaching more British History but yet it confines its’ brutal past to a few hours whilst giving over 6 weeks at KS3 to Black people’s of America in order to show diversity, but hide its crimes against humanity. Students may have the option at GCSE to complete an ‘in depth’ study into the American Civil Rights movement but are not taught about the British Civil Rights movement. How is it that students are being taught about the Industrial Revolution in Britain with no mention of Empire or Slavery? The importance of this denial of history and the assignment of black and brown people in history to the position of ‘uncivilised’ and incapable of self-development cannot be overstated, as it is partly responsible for continuing this belief of some white citizens in their own superiority over others, which in turn manifests as a lack of empathy. No doubt there are some people who already know this history and still do not care but, teaching our future adults the truth can only help to produce more balanced and considerate human beings.
Indeed, long before this murder and the subsequent protests, myself and other friends of colour had experienced this form of passive aggressive response when attempting to discuss issues of racism in our own lives. In recent days some of my friends have even been silenced and blocked from Facebook groups for wanting to discuss the murder of George Floyd, saying that their discussions are fuelling hate and division or that discussions are political. Denial of the existence of racism, denial of our own grief, denial of our personal experiences and constant requests for ‘proof’, is the persistent narrative that has been the norm in our workplaces and even painfully within friendship groups. This denial has also been paraded across our screens over the past few years despite the obvious negative treatment of those who do not fulfil the criteria of a typical white English person. The disgusting and disparaging comments espoused by average Jo on social media, radio talk shows and by politicians and newspapers has revealed the ugly tones of racism that paint ‘other’ people as less than human and less than deserving of our compassion and worthy of attack. I can clearly pinpoint the first time I noticed this back in the late 90s with the newspaper attacks on ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, repeated again with only slightly less ferocity during the so called ‘migrant crisis’ of the past 5 years. The lies and inflammatory reports using words like ‘flooded’ and ‘invasion’ to describe migrants became the norm. People like Katie Hopkins only 5 years back were given the platform in the Sun to call for the use of gunboats instead of rescue ships. She referred to migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’ whose boats should be burned. If this isn’t racist hate speech, I don’t know what is, but yet this kind of offensive language not unlike language used before the Rwandan Genocide, is permitted in mainstream media. In fact, it took until 2017 for Hopkins to be sacked from LBC for a tweet calling for ‘a "final solution" to Islamic terrorism, which some suggested was a reference to the extermination of Jewish people by Hitler.’ Aside from the fact that her numerous statements under the law are inciting hatred and violence on the grounds of race and religion, even more worrying is the popularity that Hopkins and Farage enjoy despite the myriad of racist views they hold.
Immigration and Islam have become dirty words over the decades, both being synonymous with anyone of colour and both being held in contempt by the media and many British people alike. When asked about why some people wanted Brexit, it is surprising how many people answered because of immigration or because of Muslims, answers that reflect the bigotry of respondents. The Brexit campaign was a perfect example of the mobilisation of people’s ignorance and fears about the ‘other’ people unknown, a concept that from its inception in 1492 has been about the West and the Rest. This has traditionally always referred to richer developed white nations but the ‘other’ has from the 21st century grown to include former communist countries and those with different religions like Islam. This concept of the ‘other’ has been fed by the purposeful misrepresentation of Britain’s past human rights abuses in its history, leading to a misplaced pride in its Empire and a lack of humility about its non-white citizens. The fact that this split the country in half and that the election of the present government was a confirmation of the desire for Brexit only served to reaffirm to me the levels of racism in this country. People who had lived here for decades and even born here began to feel unsafe as violent attacks against ‘foreigners’ increased, fuelled again by the stereotypes, lies and exaggerations of politicians and media alike. For me the election was a kick in the teeth and after the Grenfell murders and the Windrush scandal, it left me feeling adrift in my own country, feeling like I didn’t belong and feeling like no matter what I do to contribute, its never enough. I am never enough.
With echoes from my childhood of ‘go back to your own country’ and n***** in my head I understood acutely stories of people making plans to leave the UK after the conservatives were elected. Every time I read ‘why does it always have to be about race?’ as a comment in response to a report I sigh. It must be nice being the majority colour and dominant culture in a country and therefore not having to think about ‘race’ and all the negative experiences that go along with it. This is a ‘privilege’ I will never have. When someone says, ‘I don’t see colour’, no matter how well intentioned that may be, it means you do not see or appreciate all of me or any of my challenges that go with my colour. My colour and culture are part of who I am and should have as much value as anyone else. But of course key events like the Stephen Lawrence murder and the institutionalised racism exposed by the McPherson report show us that racism exists on a systemic level that goes right across the board from the criminal justice system, health services to education and immigration. And many years on in 2020, Covid-19 has further exposed racial disparities in deaths, treatment of BAME key workers, and the treatment of NHS migrant workers. Still people ask why we in the UK are so angry about racism and parrot the argument that ‘all lives matter’, forgetting that this statement will never be true until black lives matter too.
People of colour have had varying degrees of racism in their personal lives and some even say they have had none here in the UK. But the fact that we see thousands of white people around the world marching for ‘Black Lives Matter’ shows that you do not have to have experienced racism to be angry about it and want change. The first step is to listen to and acknowledge people of colour’s concerns and experiences. And be open to possible solutions about how things should be changed. What you will hear from people of colour of all ages, are persistent experiences of racial hatred, conscious and unconscious racial bias. Whether this was as children being tripped and called names by racist bullies in the playground, young teens being chased and beaten up by white gangs on council estates, black girls being told by teachers their Afro hair is messy and unruly or being booted out of reality shows prematurely as they don’t fit Eurocentric ideals of female beauty. How sad and disturbing that black girls as young as 3 and 4 years old have already internalised ideas that their dark skin and Afro hair are ugly, based solely on examples seen in children’s TV programmes, toys and from comments from other children and adults they are exposed to. It’s not uncommon for black boys laughing and joking loudly in a group with friends to be seen as aggressive and threatening, or for those who ask critical questions about Eurocentric ideas taught in class to be sanctioned for being rude and challenging. Why when I walk down the street with a black man, do I see white women clutching their bags? Why are Black women in the UK 5 times for likely to die in childbirth than white women?
Why do BAME groups have to send 70 – 80% more CV applications than those of British white origin? Why is it a matter of routine that Black men of all ages have been regularly stopped and searched by the police, and are 5 times more likely to be charged with a crime than a white person, who for the same offence may be cautioned or warned. Something I have seen on a large-scale during lock-down months whilst cycling around Hackney Marshes and other parks, have been groups of white people sunbathing and drinking with friends, clearly in breach of lock-down rules. On most days, the Marshes have had been filled with hundreds of people, with perhaps only a few black people to be seen. Yet, recent studies show that black people are more than twice as likely to be fined for breaking lock down rules. Unsurprisingly, BAME groups are over-represented in prisons in England and Wales, ‘the BAME proportion of youth prisoners has risen from 25% to 41% in the decade 2006-2016’. This leads us back to deaths in police custody which rarely happen here under the gaze of the public, but unseen in the back of police van or in a dank prison cell. ‘Black people account for 3% of the population, but 8% of deaths in custody’, with no officers being successfully prosecuted over the past 20 years. Disturbingly ‘The same mistakes regarding dangerous restraint techniques or the detention of the mentally ill are repeated over and over again, despite repeated recommendations from coroners at inquests or from official bodies such as the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman or the Independent Police Complaints Commission.’
When Black people march with placards saying that the ‘UK is not innocent’ they are referring to the suspicious deaths in police custody of BME groups that the institute for Race Relations Between 1991 and 2014, have numbered at 509. Taking the past 6 years into consideration would increase this number even more, although if comments on social media are anything to go by when reports about high numbers of BAME groups dying from Covid-19 are reported, there are many people here who just don’t want to know. ‘Why does it always have to be about race?’ continues to be a persistent question whenever reports highlight racial disparities, which to me says that the life of someone of colour simply isn’t worth the trouble of even thinking about. This shuts down necessary discourse which contributes to there being no change, which demonstrates loud and clear to BAME communities here in the UK that black lives simply do not matter.
But despite all this negativity I feel hope as I see so many young people of all colours mobilised around the world showing their disgust for racism and injustice. They are growing up in a globalised world where they can have friends from different ethnic groups without even having to leave their homes. I am seeing increasing numbers of people in the public eye showing their willingness to listen and learn from Black people about their experiences and opinions. More and more white people are standing up and speaking up and calling out racism around them. It gives me hope to see white friends and colleagues willing to discuss ways of increasing diversity, understanding and mutual appreciation of each other. People of colour do not want to be tolerated which is one of the British values and means to put up with. We want to be respected, valued, and appreciated for our differences and at the same time recognised and treated as a fellow human being with shared values.