Britishness is at crisis point
This idea of Britishness has become an increasingly contentious question. What does it mean to be a British-born person of colour in the UK today? What does it mean to be born under West Indian parents or grandparents? And what about being born to South Asian immigrants from places like India or Pakistan? Where are the intersections of your family’s culture and British culture? Reading Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch as part of my dissertation research and then Black and British by David Olusoga made me think about my own cultural identity, and I came to the consensus that I feel more British than West Indian. And I felt most British when I was on holiday, or abroad. That even in my own country, Britain, British-born people of colour are still seen as “foreigners” – “aliens” – “interlopers” – “immigrants.”
There have been Black and brown people coming to our shores since Roman Times. We have been a multiracial nation for hundreds of years. The idea that people feel threatened by this supposed “immigrant problem” is crazy. “There were Africans in Britain before the English came,” wrote the late journalist, historian and academic Peter Fryer. There were Africans on these shores before we even thought about Englishness. And when people boast about their Anglo-Saxon heritage, they’re boasting a Germanic ancestry. And those dark features like hair and eyes that are often named as Celtic are probably more likely Mediterranean. And by Mediterranean, there could be a North African influence there as well. Centuries ago, they’d have called those North Africans “blackamoors,” or more simply, “moors.”
There were Black British communities in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and by Black I mean “historically Black” (so non-White, including Asians). Did you know the first Asian MP in Britain was in 1892, when Indian-born Dadabhai Naoroji was elected to represent Central Finsbury for the Liberty Party? Britain’s ignorance to its own history is very much tied up in how we teach history at schools, a very White-centric history curriculum when that ethnic diversity is something that’s been part of British history for the best part of two thousand years. The postwar immigration boom after WW2 is just one example of people coming and going, but simply one of many.
And now in 2019, people here, especially people of colour are experiencing a Brit(ish)ness of sorts. When Britain abolished the Slave Trade (1833) and compensated the slave-owners to the tune of £20m (£17bn today), the establishment saw fit to spread their newfound morality on other slave-trading nations. This became known as Britain’s moral mission. This was the “great,” Victorian, moral righteousness in full swing. It didn’t matter that we used enslaved Africans for the best part of 300 years, toiling on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. What mattered is we abolished. It didn’t matter that Britain’s cotton mills were filled with US, slave-picked cotton, what mattered is we weren’t “officially” slave traders anymore. Britain transformed from leaders in slavery to a nation with integrity. Ahem.
And still today we are uncomfortable talking about the racial thinking that in-part came out of colonialism and Slavery. Whilst learning about the Nazis and condemning their racial thinking, we refuse to take a look at our own backyard. From Cecil Rhodes to Enoch Powell and Winston Churchill, our history is filled with people who held White supremacist views. And acknowledging the heinous crimes of the British monarchy and the Empire is still something that’s controversial and uncomfortable. The monarchy couldn’t possibly have been the pioneers of slavery before the independent traders. That colonialism was so long ago that it couldn’t possible matter?
And when it comes to discussing racial thinking in British history and general race and ethnicity in modern society, people suddenly become silent. The racial hierarchies at The Front during The First World War for instance. And even today, from education (racism on campuses) to the police and the NHS, institutional racism runs riot (but quietly, insidiously). And when you complain, you are told to go home. To leave. Well, Britain is home. And that ties back to how Black and brown people are seen as alien and White people are seen as indigenous. Race equality, social justice and identity politics matter, and these talks and discussions need to be had.
To me, British is an ideology more than anything else. You can spend forty years living in New York or Cape Town, but if you migrate to London you’re now a Londoner. To be British is to be White and that’s tied up in (historic) institutional racism (how Britain sees / saw itself, and its neglectfulness to portray images of its people of colour with the same pride it did its White population). Or unconscious bias as we love to say at universities, which in my view is just a more palatable term for structural discrimination.
I feel most British when I’m on holiday. When I was campaigning for my student union role I was told “You don’t look British.” Does British have a face? Yes, (in a way). It’s white. And that’s how White Privilege operates.
White is the default setting but there were Black and brown people in Britain before the English came, weren’t there?
the place is Selma
When we look at Selma through the lens of class, we are looking at a tale as old as time, Black criminality in the face of institutional violence. Black people wanting to vote and being told no. To be Black is to be criminal – savage – beast. From slavery to Selma, DuVernay’s film lays it all out for us.
Last month, as part of Freshers’ fortnight, the Students’ Union screened Ava DuVernay’s Selma – based on the true story of that three-month period in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement before the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was a part of history when Black people were not afforded their basic human rights. Like the vote, being systematically stopped from reaching the polls. And the same sort of voting fraud still happens today.
Following Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and this all-star cast (including Common (The Hate U Give) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) in support) we are taken on a journey showing what institutional discrimination does to communities, including the covert racism that made voting harder for a Black person than a White person – the systematic use of legal innovations to strip Black people of their rights, (and dignity).
Since Selma was released in 2014, Ava DuVernay has since made the documentary 13th showing the history behind mass incarceration in American prisons, including slavery and convict leasing. Additionally, she has made the miniseries When They See Us – looking at the story behind the Central Park Five and how the small print (in the US legal system) described in 13th was used to incarcerate these young Black and Hispanic boys.
What got to me in rewatching Selma is how important the racial thinking that (mostly) came out colonialism / slavery is in how we think about race today. The fact discrimination only became a crime in the UK in 1965 (with the Race Relations Act), and the idea we still endorsed blackface minstrelsy until the late 1970s. BBC television still had blackface as entertainment until 1978. However, slavery was outlawed in the USA in 1865 but the slave-owning class won the war on race, as Blacks continued to be treated like slaves even though they weren’t – from convict leasing to Jim Crow Laws.
One hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, like-racism (from slave days) continued. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 and Jim Crow Laws were abolished as well, but those ideologies are what built America from the days of slavery, in both the North and the South. Seldom is it acknowledged that slavery existed in some northern states too.
We don’t talk about slave codes in places like Virginia, where it was stated within the law that if an altercation occurred between slave and master, and the slave died, it would not be a felony. In the slave codes for Virginia of the 1660s, it states within the laws that it was legal to kill a Black person. This was systematic use of the law to deny Black people their rights. Whether this was Virginia 1660 or Virginia 1960, not a lot had changed.
When Rosa Parkes sat down, she stood up to the establishment and unjust laws. And before Rosa Parkes, we had Collette Colvin. Moreover, when Black people boycotted the buses, they almost bankrupted the bus companies. They were seen as a nuisance. People thought they should stay in line. This old tale of Black resistance against White authority can be traced back to master, mistress, stately homes, cotton, cane and king sugar.
From the get-go, Ava DuVernay is at your throat, with her depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. This film was not made to score political points but it’s a film that tells it how it is, with vivid imagery of attack dogs, tear gas and police on horseback. Very much like the Klu Klux Klan killing defenseless people on the basis of race. Brutal. From Sandra Bland to Treyvon Martin, those stories of police brutality still ring true today. The history of disdain from Black communities to the police in Britain and America is one we’ve all heard, and it’s one that I think is in-part at least responsible for the lack people of colour joining up.
Why would Black, Asian and ethnic minority members of our society want to join an institution that has a historic pattern of discrimination? Why would they want to join an institution that talks about recruiting more BAME people, but still treats the ones they have already abominably?
Despite being a British viewer, there are many things I took away from this film, especially the subjectivity of the law. How White people in authority expect people of colour to be objective in the face of racism. The recent Naga Munchetty debacle with the BBC comes to mind. “You’ve got one big issue,” states LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to King (Oyelowo). “I’ve got one hundred and one.” For most of the film, he does not appear to be taking the Black vote seriously, until it directly impacts him and what he’s trying to do.
Tim Roth as Governor Wallace (Alabama) is brilliant – spewing hate, hate and more hate with such venom. You hate him from the second his face appears on screen, and his scenes with Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are brilliant. There is no love for Wallace. He is a White supremacist and director Ava DuVernay makes sure we know that. However, it got me asking questions about how we depict White supremacists in Britain. Mainly, with statues dotted around the country, including Parliament Square!
Is Selma a controversial film or is it simply no-nonsense and very American? It talks about things people feel uncomfortable talking about. In Britain, that includes anything remotely sounding like race, racism, colonialism or its role in Slavery. But critique Churchill or Nelson in anyway and you’re the enemy? But it does a great job recreating moments like Bloody Sunday, as state troops and local police let rip on the marchers.
“The whole nation was sickened by the pictures of that wild melee.”Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
From tear gas to men on horses with whips, it was riddled with symbolism, as well as truly fantastic cinematography, sound mixing and musical score. Oprah (one of the producers) was great in her role, and David Oyelowo is one of the most underrated actors working today, and a testament to an alternative image of Black men on screen. Whilst my grandparents’ generation had Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) and Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), this current generation of Black people have David Oyelowo.
This film is rough when it needs to be but delicate when it needs to be. It’s engaging, emotional, and leaves a lump in your throat right up to and through the credits. It’s also very funny – “that White boy can hit” says Dr King after being decked by a racist local. All the speeches, all the symbols, all the nods to America’s history of slavery and oppression – it’s intertwined with how the US is today – Trump’s Twitter tantrums and all that jazz.
“We must march! We must stand up! […] it is unacceptable that they use their power and keep us voiceless.”Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo)
Ava lingers on faces (especially eyes) in scenarios of extreme violence longer than what is humanly comfortable, much alike to Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit and what Steve McQueen did with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave. From cinematography to acting, music, and sound, I have no complaints. And at moments, it was like documentary.
And nearly everyday, I’m hearing people say the system is broken; is it broken, or was it built this way, fit for purpose – for the use and upliftment of a White, male, patriarchal, able-bodied, hetero-normative society?
Dorsey, Bruce. “Virginian Slave Laws, 1660s”. History 41. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
Fryer, Peter and Gary Young et al. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Print.
“Moral Mission.” Black and British: A Forgotten History, written by David Olusoga, directed by Naomi Austin, BBC, 2016.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Pathé, Paramount. 2014, Netflix.
n.d. “Slavery and the Law in Virginia”. history.org. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
n.d. “Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline”. shsu.edu. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.