The Matter of Black Lives

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is considered by many to be a controversial statement, a fact which leaves me in equal states of anger and confusion. In an ideal world, people saying “Black Lives Matter” would be questioned only for their desire to state the obvious. Yet, the idea that Black people’s lives, their very existence, are of importance is somehow far from obvious. Indeed, those three words seem to offend the ears of many who hear them, threatening to peel away the shroud of ignorance behind which they enjoy a privileged position in society. The words “Black Lives Matter” echo across the realm of 21st Century White Privilege the way the drumming of the Maroons echoed across the hills of Jamaica, haunting the dreams of their former masters.

It pains me to confront this reality, but the murder of George Floyd did not surprise me at all. It saddened and angered me, but it did not shock me. I came out from under my shroud of ignorance a long time ago and educated myself about the horrific colonial history of my country of birth, the atrocities committed by European colonisers in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and the harrowing facts of contemporary racism in the UK and abroad. George Floyd’s murder was not a single, isolated incident, but the culmination of a long history of disproportionate police brutality against the Black US American community. It was yet another atrocity committed in the ‘Land of the Free’, a nation built by slaves on the sacred soil of massacred indigenous communities. It was a horrifying example of the fears many Black people have every day about the very people who are meant to serve and protect the community.

Every murder of an individual, whether at the hands of the police or anyone else, whether innocent of a crime or guilty, is disgraceful. Of course, “all lives matter”, but the reality is that Black lives are the ones that are given the least importance. That is why the conversation we are having is about Black lives. If you cannot allow people from the Black (and human) community to grieve this death, to speak up to demand justice and basic human rights, and to initiate a dialogue about the inequalities and injustices that exist in our societies, this is a conversation you are not invited to. Not until you educate yourself about the history of oppression of Black people. Not until you can realise the oppression of Black people today. And, most of all, not until you become aware of your own privilege in a global network of race-related power structures.

I’m not saying you should turn your back on Black Lives Matter and leave it to other people. If you’re reading this, you obviously have some interest in the movement or care about it in some way. What I’m saying is that you should hold off on joining the conversation until you have a better idea of what you’re talking about and you’ve done some real listening first. I’m not trying to shut you down or make you feel bad. I’m hoping to clarify a few things here for you so you can take part in this conversation and make a real difference. For Black Lives Matter to bring about real change, it needs allies from other communities, including the white community. But it needs allies who understand their role and position in an unequal society, and who are willing to use their privilege to empower Black voices, not to silence or undermine them. If you want to give a helping hand in doing that, then let’s begin.

What is ‘race’?

To begin to deconstruct racism, we need to understand the concept of ‘race’. Race is a social construction; a concept that has no scientific basis nor reason for existence other than for certain groups of people to categorise others based on arbitrary characteristics, originally to enslave them. Categorisations which we refer to as ‘race’ use a small number of physical characteristics to designate individuals to a group. The fact that those characteristics include skin colour, eye colour, eye shape and nose shape are historic coincidences. In a parallel universe, humanity could just as easily have organised itself in terms of height or the length of people’s toes. Despite the racism of early science, which attempted to justify racist beliefs by theorising that different races have different brain-size or intelligence (as well as all criminals having certain physical features), modern science can tell us that ‘race’ has no tangible existence in the world of DNA.

I write ‘race’ in inverted commas to emphasise the fact that I am talking about a concept, not a tangible thing.

So ‘race’ doesn’t exist?

Yes and no. With the knowledge that, scientifically speaking, there are no ‘races’, one might feel encouraged to “not see race”. I’m afraid we have believed in the concept of race for too long for that to be possible at this point. Made-up things (concepts or constructions) can have very real ramifications in the world. France doesn’t exist in terms of being a land mass that is distinguishable from space, yet the concept of France exists in our minds and has very tangible consequences (a government, citizens, an army, laws, borders) as well as symbolic ones (a flag, a language, a national anthem, a dominant culture) thanks to people’s belief in the concept of France. To “not see France” because it is a concept would just be ridiculous. Race is exactly the same.

People with African ancestry have been treated for centuries as an homogenous group, denied freedom due to their skin colour, denied rights, denied personhood, denied employment, denied life. When human beings were first stolen from Africa and taken to the ‘New World’, many of them were enslaved alongside individuals from very different parts of Africa. As far as they were concerned, they didn’t have a common identity. That common identity was created by 400 years of slavery, the almost-complete colonisation and occupation of Africa by Europe (all except Ethiopia) and the decades since of differential treatment across the world of African descendants (known as the African diaspora). If you treat people the same based on a characteristic that you give importance to, eventually they will also give importance to that same characteristic. The characteristic becomes important through the process of giving it importance.

Quite possibly, many Black people (and other People of Colour) would love to live in a world where the colour of their skin was of no importance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech alludes to that fact. But in order to create that world, we have to ‘see’ race until we can be sure we have achieved equality. If we refuse to do so, we will be blind to discrimination and injustice. We have a lot of work to do before we can live in Dr. King’s dream.

“I don’t see colour”. How convenient.

I understand that lots of people believe they are not racist, and the majority of those people probably aren’t. If you treat people fairly without giving unwarranted importance to the colour of their skin, well done. You are a decent human being and I salute you. However, I’m afraid that’s not enough. As a white man living in Britain, I can be non-racist all my life but it would not change the fact that I benefit from certain privileges in British society which many of my friends do not. If I were to choose to “not see colour”, I would fail to see when my Black friends are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. I might not add to their problems, but if I choose to be ‘blind’ to them, I wouldn’t be helping either.

As historian Howard Zinn puts it, “to be neutral, to be passive in a situation, is to collaborate with whatever is going on.” Angela Davis also said it well:

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist”.

To be a good ally to Black Lives Matter and other movements which fight for justice and equality, we need to be aware of our privilege(s), willing to use them to support the movement, and ready to call out racism or injustice whenever we see it.

It might help to think of racism as a disease: the concept of ‘race’ has caused the illness. If we are to eradicate the disease, we have to be aware of ‘race’, where it has come from and how it operates, in order to neutralise its negative effects. To be aware of ‘race’, we have to ‘see’ colour. If a doctor were to be blind to the very thing causing the illness, she would have no hope of ever curing it. The doctor’s only interest is to understand ‘race’ and to counteract its damage, not to use it to do harm. This is the relationship we need to develop with the concept of ‘race’. We need to understand it in order to be able to diagnose and treat racism.

We simply don’t have the privilege of being colour-blind when it comes to ‘race’ and racism. In 2018, I shared an essay I had written about racism in contemporary British society. I concluded that, due to supposed ‘colour-blindness’, racism has become even more difficult to identify and address in the UK. The removal of the language of race has attempted to take away the only tools groups like Black Lives Matter have to fight against their oppression. This is perhaps the key difference between racism in the UK and in the USA. In the USA, it is overt and therefore easier to identify. In the UK, people often claim not to “see race” or “see colour” whilst study after study can demonstrate that there is racial inequality in the UK.

Racialisation and Otherisation

The process I have described by which human beings have been assigned to a ‘race’ is called racialisation. Before Europeans enslaved humans from Africa, ‘Black people’ didn’t exist, and ‘White people’ didn’t exist either. Sure, Europeans and human beings with paler skin existed, but they didn’t view themselves as being ‘white’. ‘White people’ only came into existence when they otherised human beings into contrasting groups. This was far from the first otherisation to have happened, as human history is full of it (the Ancient Greeks saw all non-greeks as ‘Barbarians’, for example). But this was the origin of contemporary society’s categorisation of individuals as ‘black’ or ‘white’, creating the very concepts which continue to cause inequality to this day. These concepts are not ‘naturally occurring’ or ‘old as time’, but have a very clear origin.

Racialisation was a key instrument in European colonisation. It was paramount that Europeans saw African people as a completely different species, as another ‘category’ to which they themselves did not belong, in order to accept the atrocities that were to take place. To be able to comfortably purchase, own, use, enslave, rape, brutalise and murder another human being, it was important that the slave owners could perceive Africans not only as different, but as inferior. I’m not going to go into the details and intricacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade here. I’m hoping you know what it entailed, and if you don’t that you will go away and do some research.

Racism in 2020

Whilst the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the British Empire are thankfully behind us, they have had lasting effects which influence our societies today. A key example is that many British cities were literally built using the wealth of colonial exploitation and the trading of human lives. This was admitted today by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who said “”It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade”.

The issue of a Eurocentric curriculum that teaches children a heavily biased history of the British Empire and slavery is, unfortunately, far from the main issue that needs addressing (thought it is an important one). The innumerable landmarks and statues that celebrate people who enslaved other humans, or who played key roles in colonising countless other countries, are also just a drop in the vast ocean of institutional racism.

In the UK, members of the Black community are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, more likely to be arrested for minor offences, more likely to suffer from mental health issues, more likely to die in police custody, and Black children are more likely to be excluded from school than their peers from other ethnic groups. The Black community are underrepresented in parliament, in top business positions, in football management positions, in universities and in film and TV, but overrepresented in the prison population.

Despite what attempts at victim blaming would have us believe, these issues are due to systemic racism. Anyone who attempts to justify these things by arguing that Black people commit more crime need to realise that poor people commit more crime, and Black people are more likely to be poor because of systemic inequality.

If you want specific figures, Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. Indeed, MP David Lammy’s review of the UK’s criminal justice system found that over half of all inmates held in prisons for young people in England and Wales are from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background, reaching “American levels of disproportionality.” In terms of employment, research has shown that people from BME backgrounds have to send 60% more applications in order to receive as many callbacks as the White majority in the UK. According to the ONS (Office of National Statistics), “the percentage difference in median hourly pay between people of a White ethnicity and all those who belong to an ethnic minority group is largest in London at 21.7%”.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of systemic racism in the UK. Many have been outraged that our PM Boris Johnson should say Britain is “not a racist country”, especially given the racist and islamophobic remarks he has made himself over the years. But actually, if you read the whole statement, he said he “doesn’t doubt that there continues to be discrimination and racism”. So basically, whilst clearly wishing to avoid describing the country in its entirety as “racist'”, the Prime Minister himself cannot avoid admitting that racism does indeed continue to exist in the UK. Innumerable government-led studies have confirmed this time and time again. What is needed is pressure from the voting population to ensure the government take real steps towards tangible change, and prioritise creating a fairer society where racism is not tolerated in any shape or form. Admitting that Black people (as well as other minority ethnic groups) are indeed discriminated against on a daily basis, but not changing that fact, does not send the message that Black Lives Matter.

Windrush

Despite many in the Black British community being asked to come to Britain to rebuild the country after World War II (known as the Windrush generation), they were welcomed with intense, overt racism and police violence reminiscent of that which we are witnessing in the USA. In recent years, this same generation have suffered job losses, refusal of treatment from the NHS or have even been deported because they were never given proof of their right to remain in the UK. These are citizens of the British Commonwealth who were invited to leave their British colony to help re-build the ‘mother land’. This is just one recent scandal which has re-opened old racial wounds which have scarred the community. This is just one scandal that has told Black people that they do not matter.

Overt Racism

Not all racism in the UK is systemic or institutional. Unfortunately, Black people (and other People of Colour) still suffer overt racism from individuals on a daily basis. Whether it is name-calling at school, racial slurs in the street, being told to ‘go back to Africa’ (as BLM protesters were told on Monday), being declined employment, being asked where they are ‘from’ or being stopped by the police for no good reason, the reality in the UK is that many People of Colour are made to feel the importance of their ‘race’ on a daily basis. These things might not represent the same visible, physical violence that we see when we watch the murder of George Floyd, but they are nonetheless micro-aggressions that build over time and slowly strangle their victims in a much subtler and much more socially-acceptable form of violence.

I’m not going to go on because honestly there are thousands of books on the history and current nature of racism, and I could spend the rest of the week writing and barely scratch the surface. There is no end of research and evidence to prove that racism is alive and well, both in the Uk and in the USA. Instead, I will direct you to places and resources where you can learn more.

All of the following resources were carefully compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein in May 2020, and were shared with me by Ruth Flanagan, Race Equality Resource Officer at Exeter Uni’s Graduate School of Education, where I am currently studying.

Resources for white parents to raise anti-racist children:

Articles to read:

Videos to watch:

Podcasts to subscribe to:

Books to read:

Films and TV series to watch:

  • 13th (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix
  • American Son (Kenny Leon) — Netflix
  • Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 — Available to rent
  • Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) — Hulu with Cinemax or available to rent
  • Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu) — Available to rent
  • Dear White People (Justin Simien) — Netflix
  • Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) — Available to rent
  • I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin doc) — Available to rent or on Kanopy
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) — Hulu
  • Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton) — Available to rent for free in June in the U.S.
  • King In The Wilderness  — HBO
  • See You Yesterday (Stefon Bristol) — Netflix
  • Selma (Ava DuVernay) — Available to rent
  • The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — Available to rent
  • The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.) — Hulu with Cinemax
  • When They See Us (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix

Organizations to follow on social media:

More anti-racism resources to check out:

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