In the worst public health crisis since The Spanish Flu (1918), it’s safe to say that a new social contract should be drawn up after COVID, like what happened after the Second World War with Labour’s Welfare State. Yet, unlike the narratives within both world wars, this time, the actions of Black and brown people, migrants, and refugees cannot be written out of the history books. Can they?
Being in lockdown for the past eight weeks, it’s allowed me to contemplate my British identity. Before this crisis, I was at odds with my identity, and at comfort. Now, I feel that there really “ain’t no Black in the union jack”, as per Paul Gilroy’s book. When I saw headlines about whitewashing the NHS, disproportionate deaths within communities of colour and Black men being stopped by police buying food for their kids, I thought am I really British?
The last time the world went through this much disruption, fear and uncertainty was during the Second World War, and before that, during the Depression. What both these times have in common is that they wrote the actions of Black and brown people out of the narrative. Racial theories, originating from pseudoscience played significant roles in how people that looked exactly like me were treated. Black and brown soldiers, sailors and servicemen were expendable and then erased out of history. On the African continent, these people were deemed not human enough to have dignified burials like their White counterparts, they were buried in mass graves.
What if I told you that afterwards, in 1919 there were race riots across Britain ? And at Albert Docks, a Bermudan Black veteran was lynched in a racially-motivated attack? Charles Wootten, who fought for this country, a nation that wasn’t his own only to be treated like a second-class citizen and then murdered. And in the wake of the The Depression, Britain’s own civil rights struggle took root. Now, the utter arrogance that the UK will defy all the odds against existential threat all on its own without any help at all.
Which makes decolonisation such an interesting space, because frankly none of this is on school curricula. That in teaching slavery, we only really teach Wilberforce, not about slave rebellions in the colonies nor resistance from the White working-class in Britain. Emancipation came from the bottom up, not top down. The history is complex and class solidarity kicked the elites in the teeth. And even in that, why do we not teach class solidarity in schools? Not how the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street, or the striking women of Gunwick in [British] South Africa? Today, as I see the death rate in the UK compared to somewhere like New Zealand or Germany or Taiwan, it’s hard not to believe there’s been a mismanagement somewhere, to put it lightly. Or, bias is at play. Similar to how Churchill left three million Indians to die in the Bengal Famine (1943). His hate for Indians was notorious and the Government’s contempt for the working-class can be seen through austerity, Universal Credit and its reactions to events such as Grenfell and the Windrush Scandal, where Black British citezens have been deported.
Now, this textbook British Blitz spirit will not do in 2020. Not that Britain won the wars on their own. But today, jingoism, White ethno-nationalism and #PickforBritain sing strong and loud. This blitz spirit may have formed Britain as a nation for White people, but as a Black person my experience of Britishness is one of unbelonging being written out of the identity of this country. That in narratives of COVID-19, will the actions of Black bus drivers, healthcare staff, and teachers be erased from the history books?
In Coronavirus, I see echoes of Brexit. That we can go it alone. Yet, there are no whispers of resistance to this. Forty thousand bodies say hi. I don’t see public anger. That in Britain’s pride to do it alone, I think of the calls for British independence from the EU. Lest we forget the stories of Empire; independence wasn’t gifted, it was fought for. Haiti’s Revolution for example, after which Britain sent armies to invade the French Caribbean. An unsuccessful campaign to reinstall slavery. This moral abolitionist narrative, that we are freeing ourselves is so commonplace to the UK.
So, when I see people who look like me dying in numbers, it is a reflection to how this country started calling itself great. Stepping over the bodies it feels are inferior. People of colour. Poor people. Immigrants. Refugees. United by class. That in #PickforBritain, the industry is losing not because of Coronavirus. It is losing because of Brexit, where the majority that voted for it told foreigners they were no longer welcome here. A prejudice born from pride. Meanwhile, you are asking the public, many of whom whose ancestors toiled on those plantation death camps in the Caribbean, if they want to pick potatoes. No, Boris. I won’t. And the website doesn’t even work.
In light of VE Day and under Britain’s whole campaign in response to COVID-19, there is a story of the underdog that survives all odds, backed with popularised films such has 1917, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. The truth of the matter is that people from the British Empire [of which I am descended], including Africans and Asians, were instrumental in Britain and the allied forces winning those wars. That here on this small island, we weren’t just some minor nation but a vast empire able to win because it had collected so many countries previous, pillaged for wealth and benefits.
After Coronavirus, Black and brown people should be at the centre of this story. That the diversity we boast about is why the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed and the diversity we boast about is also dying at a disproportionate rate. Good manners and freedom; these are things we label with British values, which also came from Victorian values, which are colonial values. That clapping for our carers rings of a time which would not have afforded me my Britishness. Now, we are taught distorted histories which make people question the narratives of race in situations like COVID.
Knowing all this, is it surprising that today British people of colour like me are treated like “good immigrants” having to prove their worth, when the history we learn at school is a juxtaposition to how Britain is, how it has always been?