As someone who has loved the art of storytelling for all his short twenty-four years, on characters you are often told “it’s not about the colour of a their skin, but the content of their character” that keeps you engaged. Growing up I struggled to find characters like me in the stories I committed to. Malorie Blackman has been fighting the good fight for the best part of twenty years, but in one of my favourite literary genres, YA Fiction (Young Adults) , Black men are not a commonality. And that’s just the first layer. What about characters in coming-of-age stories for little Black girls? What about those children with non-White skin who happened to be dyslexic, dyspraxic, or even on the autistic spectrum? And this was one of the reasons I read Creative Writing. There were no characters like me growing up, so I started to write my own.
But reading young adults fiction, still even today, I see nothing much has changed. I’m still making the same comments I made when I was ten and twelve years old. Are there fewer authors of colour writing young adults fiction? Are there fewer Black and brown filmmakers wanting to make these films? Or is there a culture in the industry that what sells is “stale” and “pale.” And, you know, Wakanda and all that… but a Black Brit from Peckham has carried a trilogy of films in that little franchise called Star Wars. When John Boyega’s big Black face popped up in the first trailer for The Force Awakens, I cried. Diversity sells, but statistics in YA fiction are dire, whether we’re talking about the number of non-White lead characters or the lack of Black or brown authors getting published in this genre.
At its bones, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a young adults drama but it was pushed as art house / drama / LGBT Cinema… to sell tickets. And LGBT Cinema is not a genre. YA comes in many forms. YA is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti, a film that’s so good that I forgave him for the prequel trilogy. But these films are still very White. Mean Girls, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Carrie Pilby, The Fault in Our Stars, Call Me By Your Name, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid – the list goes on.
YA is whitewashed. When it comes to LGBT representation, we don’t see the intersectionality. Moonlight has become the go-to film for representation of gay Black men. And even there, “gay Black men” are not the focus. It’s more about class, race, and gender than sexuality. Internalised rage from repressed emotions. Its depictions of masculinity, whilst sexuality is marginalised. And as a straight ally who loves films, I struggle to name (mainstream) films about LGBT identity that include Black / brown people.
Moonlight and Tangerine come to mind but you do end up having to look outside of British film and Hollywood; there’s a plethora in non-English speaking cinema – I think of South Africa’s The Wound and it’s really something special.
Well-meaning White people say “it’s not about the colour of their skin [yap yap yap],” and to say that comes from a vantage point of privilege. Most people look like you, since society was built in your image. When you look at the history of Black actors in Hollywood, at how much they had to fight –from Diahann Carroll (Claudine) to Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), to Denzel Washington (Training Day), Spike Lee (School Daze) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), look how much it took to get Malcolm X made!
All this said, most of my favourite story characters have been White. In Carrie, from Caren Lissner’s Carrie Pilby I saw a version of myself. Hopelessly introverted with a love of literature and a realist approach to life. Blind faith? “Just go with it?” What the eff’s that? In Charlie, from Perks of Being a Wallflower, there were elements of child me. But neither Charlie nor Carrie had to contend with the first time they were called nigger when they were five years old, or being told “they were pretty for a Black girl,” as numerous Black women I know have been told time and time again.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is vital, and whilst we endlessly debate why we need to decolonise the curriculum, can we have a look at how media has often depicted African hair? And why we live in a society where texts like Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri are necessary into understanding the nuances of race. Or if you want something less academic, there’s My Hair by Hannah Lee. “Unruly” and “like weeds” are only two of the phrases I’ve heard Black people’s hair described as. How do you think these comments and perceptions impact teenagers and children?
These experiences are YA (including children’s literature), as are the ones in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or any John Hughes film or an Enid Blyton novel. Whilst here I am discussing young adult stories, this European-centric hetero-normative culture is rampant in almost every industry. From education to journalism, and especially publishing and arts.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is necessary. And to White people, it may seem trivial. But really, most people look like you. I never had a teacher that wasn’t White British. The stats in our schools are damning. The closest thing I had to a teacher that looked like me was Diepirye @drkukustr8talk – who’s a family friend. He was a lecturer at the University, just not my lecturer, yet, still gave me a leg-up in my reading, via a number of authors through debate, conversations and critical thought.
When we are small, we often have our imaginations and dreams bludgeoned out of us by teachers who have lost the ability to dream. To draw a picture, to write a story, to act and express yourself, is no match for science, mathematics, history, geography, foreign languages or “proper subjects.” And retconning a nice shiny A into S. T. E. A. M is not a good look.
It’s a big old world; and it’s cruel enough as it is, but if our children and young people can’t find themselves in stories, how will they ever be able to find themselves in society?
In its long, eventful history, the town that I grew up in has been home to theatre proprietors like John Franklin. It’s also been home to Thomas Beckett, Charles Bradlaugh, and partook in the Wars of the Roses. What’s now Delapré acted as the stage for the Battle of Northampton in 1475. Northamptonshire housed slaves from the era of Britain’s colonial ambition. It was the muse of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and sporting legends, including Mobbs’ Own battalion of rugby players during the First World War, as well as Walter Tull, who went on to be the first Black (mixed-race) officer in the British Army. But now embarking on a general election before entering 2020, we are in a homelessness epidemic, rivalling the plot of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. These are austere times.
Whilst Walter Tull and his siblings feared the workhouse in the epilogue of Victorian Britain, our buzz terms in 2019 are “austerity” and “universal credit,” essentially prisons of the poor. Growing up in the county, with all its beauty and brutality, it’s now a much changed environment. Its landscape has much changed from the one I remember as a youth. It’s not identifiable to my seven-year-old self climbing trees in Abington Park and Salsey Forest, Charlie B standing menacingly in Abington Square, whilst the Doddridge Centre played host to many a community event by Jimmy’s End.
On the brink of one of the most important elections since forever, “He who rules Northampton, rules England,” stated All Saints’ Father Oliver Cross. I look at the town I grew up in and I want to weep. Walking through Town Centre and into the outer rim, you can see how austerity has ravaged communities. How community spirit has rotted from the inside, as apathy and hopelessness can be tasted and sweated, foaming at the mouth – from blood in the River Nene to knife crime, and bus stops stood like cenotaphs.
Walking through London’s southwest last Wednesday to see homelessness brushing shoulders with the Ritz reminded me of the some 14,000 children in poverty in the shoe town. Austerity is a scouring pad to these brittle streets, orchestrated by a system that eats people below the poverty line for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The release of I, Daniel Blake in 2016 and Sorry We Missed You in 2019 are prime examples of how institutional violence has been used to rip gaping holes through working-class Britain.
On exiting MK Central, it’s a sight that leaves a lump in your throat. Milton Keynes has been nicknamed “Tent City” purely for its massive street-sleeping population. And the grass patch near the site of Northampton’s old bus station has been nicknamed “Rat Island.” I think that speaks for itself.
Seeing how the Government has operated these last ten(ish) years, it’s a migraine to the soul, temporarily broken by fireworks at New Year and the gong of church bells at Christmas. But the heart-shattering discordant noise of “spare some change, sir” on Abington Street and The Market is enough to make this Northamptonian cry. From childhood to being a student at the university, the homeless population here and I are acquainted – as I walked to catch my school bus in the morning, as I now walk to Waterside Campus.
Suddenly, Northampton has shrunk to a few miles of boarded up buildings, shivering hands, defaced shoes, and fleeting images of a hollowed-out shell of what used to be a thriving high street. A thriving community. Businesses come and go, and the street-dwellers, students and members of the public alike I’ve seen, to be devoid of all expression. I watch their writhing white eyes, looking into this winter of discontent – as the consumer capitalist culture of Christmas sneaks up on us like a gentle hand out of a grave.
When I see a homeless person, I greet them like I would anyone else. “Good morning, sir (or ma’am).” And I give them some change if I have it. But what else can I say? What else do I do? I walk through the underpass behind Boots. I see wrapped up bodies on the ground. They look dead. Cold corpses, but the system sheds no tears for them. Forgotten in a split second of time. They shiver, freshly alive. And now they are footnotes to history.
Hardworking people going to food banks because their wages do not cover the basics. Working students that have student finance at food banks because it does not cover the basics. Austerity’s mortar fire. Machine gun fire. Austerity grinds on the bones. Austerity chases you down river rapids, collecting fallen objects from your pockets, taking from the mouths of your children. It’s zero-hour contracts and six-days of fourteen hour shifts p/w.
Northampton is a zombie. Sheep Street’s boarded-up buildings and how the Hope Centre which was once a charity for the homeless, is now one that supports austerity-stricken communities and families and people that are deprived and have fallen on hard times too. Hope saves lives. Having spoken to CEO Robin Burgess a number of times, he highlighted to me how a number of the rough sleepers are citizens from mainland Europe. The EU.
Oliver Twist, Les Mis, Poldark – texts on poverty. When we think about poverty, it’s always the third world. In places like India, where I visited in 2016: amputees on the streets and children on the precipice of death. I look into their eyes. I wasn’t the same after that. I think I cried for a fortnight when I returned. Our public services are in a state of disarray – social care, the NHS, the police, education – this is Britain, in 2019, as the idea of Brexit has split families and friends, as it eats away at the national consciousness.
This is a parable of biblical proportions: Northampton won’t survive another decade of this, and we have not even begun to talk about austerity through the lens of minority Britain, where gender, race and sexuality all play roles of bias.
What does it say about the education sector that we don’t say what we mean? What does it say that I attended a conference on racism at universities that didn’t have racism in the title? “Racial harassment” is what they called it, as in Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment & Improving the BAME Experience in HE. Racial harassment? Racism. Name it. Own it. We’re nearly in 2020 and we’re still wrapping these issues in bubblewrap to make it more palatable for, dare I say, senior management at UK universities (overwhelmingly White). Should we draw a nail? Pop. Pop. Pop.
Arising from my bed at 5:45am to make a 7:30am(ish) train, only to arrive at this conference feeling a bit awkward. The whole delivery felt “preachy” from the get-go. Being lectured on race by mainly White middle class people brought me back to first year on my Creative Writing degree where I did a number of literature modules, delivered by a lecturer who talked about slavery like a trivial matter. That’s my family history you’re talking there!
As Vice President BME at Northampton, I’m facing more and more problems with the language and rhetoric we use around race. The sector lumps all Black and brown students together and calls them BME / BAME. What about the term people of colour? I, too, am guilty of using “people of colour” and do myself have issues with it. It’s probably the best of the worst.
The term B(A)ME is not homogeneous. Even among Black people, there is differences. i.e between African and Caribbean, as well as Black British people whose families come from those places. Even to call someone African; there are fifty-four different nations in Africa, each with their own languages, culture, traditions and so on. Nigeria alone has over 250 different languages. But we continue with BME and BAME. Racial / cultural identity matters. Do we lump all White people together? No. And I bet if you called someone from Belfast, English, they’d have something to say!
Watching Dr. Zainab Khan (Assoc. Pro-Vice Chancellor at London Met) speak was a breath of fresh air, telling it like it is. And having been to a few conferences like this, it seems to me that the sector is more set on managing racism than taking to steps to eradicate it. Both Dr. Khan, and Fope Olaleye (Black Students’ Officer at NUS) brought a much needed clarity to racism (not racial harassment) at our universities, as well as institutional racism. It was great to hear comments on Macpherson and Critical Race Theory too.
And in my opinion, best practice is the brutal, honest truth. Not statistics, but qualitative data. Real life experiences and true stories by people on the ground experiencing this on a day-to-day.
The Royal Over-Seas League private members club was our host. Plaques to Britain’s colonial past in what was then British India hung on the wall. Staff meandered in capes and gowns, and plums in their mouths. What’s more, it was six speakers before a Black or brown person came to the floor. As a Students’ Union, we did not have to pay to attend. But others did pay the three-figure entrance fee. And there sat problem number one, why do these conferences seek money for attendance? Are they cashing in on Black and brown trauma? Is there an argument of ethics to be had here?
During the half-day conference there were four non-White speakers. This did not occur until towards the end of proceedings, in what felt like a very shoehorned state of affairs. Again, I felt that I was being preached at on my own narrative of racism in higher education. Whitesplaining is very real, when White British people talk about racism like its their lived experience.
At an event, wherein, we discussed things like the ethnicity award gap, decolonising the curriculum and anti-racist learning, to have a conference of this matter in a place that was overtly classist and elitist with nods to a system which in itself was built of white supremacy, it’s quite difficult to not see the irony in it all. We also discussed institutional racism in the same breath as decolonial thinking. Ha! And really, all you can do is laugh.
White British people organising events on behalf of Black / brown people on themes that impact us more than them, on symptoms that were originally created by the White elite – in the jaws of colonisation and the whims of European empires. The times that made Britain “great” – imperialism in the tint of gold, glory and god, eclipsed by the Ritz in London’s southwest as I bump into austerity and homelessness, like cold corpses by Green Park.
In the making of Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment, the White middle class stands tall as colonialism walks with us in the present. The bellowing voice of White privilege. I know plenty of students that would have come to this. Alas, this forum fell into the trap that many discussions have fallen into. Well-meaning White people telling us what we ought to do about racism.
Whilst I made some valuable connections, the wider narrative of whitesplaining ran riot, like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep spread-eagled across the plains in Out of Africa. Diversity in panel discussions is a must. It was functional in concept, but the swaggering thoughtlessness in venue, entry fee and panellists left for a very awkward-feeling in the audience.
If these types of conferences aren’t done properly (from diverse panels to organisational competence), are we not just feeding the racist systems we want to deconstruct?
In the autumn of 2004, my schoolteacher said: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” She made this man seem so likeable. If we played a little word association game with him, words like genocide, thief and coloniser come to mind. Murderer. Evil. Within a little rhyme, she had dressed him in innocence. By no fault of her own. I’m sure there are numerous schoolteachers up and down this island nation who really don’t have a clue about colonial history, and in sermonising this “explorer,” she was dismissing the individual who opened the doors to European colonisation of the Americas (what became the New World) and the Caribbean.
Whilst the rest of the United States of America breaks bread on their annual day of thanks, Natives see this day as a day of mourning. Like an armistice, in remembrance of their ancestors, and a people that were erased through genocide committed by White Europeans in the prologue of colonialism. It is often noted that the first Thanksgiving was in 1621, but really it could be argued that day belongs in 1637 when puritan Governor Winthrop decided he would give thanks for the safe return of those who went to Mystic, Connecticut and participated in the Massacre of the Peqout.
Like a lot of the history I thought I knew, it seems more of a taking than anything else. Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, but the story behind it feels more like a thanks-taking. Do they teach this in American schools? Something tells me, no.
The late great Malcolm X said “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” And in Britain, the voyage that led the British into slavery was by an ambitious man from Plymouth (UK) called (Sir) John Hawkins, as in 1562/1563 he hijacked a Portuguese vessel, sailed to the new world and sold his cargo into slavery, making a small fortune. Not to be confused with Plymouth in the US, often labelled as America’s hometown.
However, growing up in Britain, as I did, the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering America” is one that’s been told so many times that it’s now begun to feel like folklore. Not once, as a child, did I hear anything about the native peoples living in America and the West Indies before he came.
What they mean when Columbus discovered America, is he was the first White man to discover it. Because achievements (historically) like this are only valid in western society when a White person does it. From Cook to Columbus, White explorers who went to “new places” to “find” peoples and cultures different from their own only to react with savagery and violence.
Not once in my school classes did I get stories from the perspectives of the oppressed. Whether we’re talking about slaves during the 200+ years of British colonial ambition, or the world wars, as at war the ones that suffered most were the working classes. What happened after? If I was to go by what I was taught at school, I’d live life believing everything was rosy.
At school, the sermons my teachers had for Columbus now make my skin crawl. Lorded as one of the great European heroes, turning up in Hispaniola in 1492, native to Amerindians prior to colonisation. The majority of the people there did die of European diseases but nothing could prepare them for the monumental onslaught that came from Columbus’ soldiers. And when any country invades another, rape is always a feature.
“His soldiers snatched babies from the breasts of their mothers and dashed their heads against the rocks. Children were fed alive to his dogs. Women’s breasts were cut off. He decided to hang thirteen of the Native Americans in Hispaniola to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, plus the apostles.”
George Monbiot (writer, journalist, activist)
What Columbus’ soldiers did in Hispaniola set the precedent for what happened next, the eventual genocide that erased almost all of the Native peoples of America from existence. However, when I think about Native people, as much as screen representation is concerned, I think to Old Hollywood. John Wayne in The Searchers being one of the most horrific films I’ve ever watched and this is what Said means by orientalism. Though, I believe his theory can be applied to any non-White oppressed group.
And when we think about colonial statues, we really need to think about the character of the people we are building monuments to. From Barcelona to New York, Columbus is known all over the world. And I think due to how we teach history in schools, we blindly celebrate people we really know nothing about. From Churchill in India to Columbus and Captain Cook.
And both George Washington (first US President) and Thomas Jefferson (third US President) endorsed Columbus’ actions, and what’s more, both these men owned slaves. Who really are we celebrating? Who are we honouring with statues, plaques and awards? Who are we putting on our money? Great leaders aren’t always great people, and how did they treat others? What about their morality, equity, and values as public figures?
In Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, the US establishment does not recognise its history of genocide. The fact that we have Natives with us today is nothing short of a miracle. That their ancestors managed to survive: disease, Catholicism, and settler colonialism; telling their stories to preserve their culture and identity is activism. Their existence is resistance.
Columbus is a symbol of conquest and privilege. How can we condemn Hitler and Stalin but not Columbus? Simple. When non-White history is told from the perspective of the oppressor, the lack of White empathy is obvious. In colonialists Cecil Rhodes and former-PM Winston Churchill the British establishment honours White supremacists and mass murderers, united in their pursuits for either one, two or all of the three: gold, glory or God.
And in Christopher Columbus, the American establishment honours a White supremacist, a mass murderer and a slave trader; and under the administration of President Trump, I believe it’s safe to say it ain’t changing any time soon.
Inspired from “On being a University Student with Asperger Syndrome” – Stephanie Nixon
When I returned for my third year at the new Waterside Campus in October 2018, my world fell apart. It was like the sky was falling: confused at the layout, annoyed at the classroom style, mobile desks in my poetry classes (on BA Creative Writing). I thought the university had gone mad. What were they thinking? I was now used to Avenue Campus. It was nice. It was familiar. It was comfortable. And honestly, I never thought I’d ever go to university, since I had extra lessons every week only to just maybe have a chance at keeping up with everyone else. I struggled to achieve academically at both GCSE and A-Level. What they’d now label Special Educational Needs (or SEN). Another box. And, at nine years old I was diagnosed with the development disorder known as Dyspraxia.
So, now fifteen years diagnosed. A disorder that impacts the way brain orders movement and thought. It really is a wonder how I got to grips with cricket, both with bat and ball. Having five and half ounces thrown at me at school pushed me into the deep end. It showed me how to hide it a bit more. At the crease, my sense of direction is very good. In villages, it’s good. In the home counties, my sense of direction is good. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. But drop me in London or New York. Ha! I navigate those places with GPS and headphones, someone speaking to me, guiding me. Really like Iron Man. Though, Google Maps is no match for J. A. R. V. I. S or F. R. I. D. A Y.
I have to find my way through verbal instructions. And over the years, like with any condition, hidden or not, you develop coping mechanisms. And I lived set on not playing the victim. No special treatment for Tré (for it not infringe on my life). I tried to live like everyone else. Why would I do that when I wasn’t like everyone else? That’s a question, isn’t it? Why?
I would avoid certain types of places. Things that were very twisty and turny were a no-go. Fairs. Oh, and UCL destroyed my spirit when I visited. Basically, a real world version of Hogwarts. No talking pictures, but the stairs like to change!
Northampton College’s Booth Lane corridors challenged me between the years of 2012 and 2016, where I went from BTEC Level 2 qualifications through A-Levels and into the first year of a HND before coming to university. Where I was befuddled by the hexagonal building. Or was it octagonal? I forget. One of those types of shape where my perceptions of depth were challenged five days a week for four years.
Anyone that’s seen me work, knows that I love a good folder. I love highlighters. Clipboards, post-it notes. I’m a stationary freak! At work, I print more than most. I like to lay things out on a desk, or seven. Or have it on a pinboard. I spread my belongings out and apologise later. I love White boards. I don’t like E-Books. That’s a struggle. Give me that new book smell.
I found many of the discussions around Dyspraxia to be about co-ordination but it’s also includes perception and memory. As a youth, tasks would take me longer to do simply because of the thought processes I would take to go through and then translating those thoughts to action.
Dyspraxia, often confused with clumsiness, is more than just having two left feet. I struggled to learn – write, read, learn, to play sports. But I got it eventually. And even to walk in a straight line. From scanning your card on the barriers to pressing buttons on the lifts to ascending the stairs and paying for stuff at the checkout, Dyspraxia is real and often goes undiagnosed. And the links between attainment and academic performance; is it worth looking into things like this in regards to attainment in HE – be it, race, class, sexuality or otherwise?
I knew I was academically able, but in the education system (Level 1 – 4 + FE) as it stood, I was not achieving academically on paper. Graduating with a 2.1 in Creative Writing in July 2019, it showed me that the problem wasn’t me (as I once thought), but the sector, in how it deals with and treats individuals with SEN and other issues that can act as barriers to study.
I didn’t choose to talk about my Dyspraxia on entry to university because I wanted people to see me as a person, not a dyspraxic person (for some tick box exercise). At school, my Dyspraxia was humiliating. Poor co-ordination 70% of the time. Spilling drinks. Missing my mouth at dinner. Walking into stuff. Occasionally ridiculed for it by teachers, who meant it in jest but didn’t have a clue.
So, anything that makes order of chaos is a gift. Lists. Boards, like the ones you see in crime dramas with all the bits of a crime scene – photographs, bulletpoints etc. Anything that brings clarity is a godsend. To learn, I had to teach myself how other people think. That’s why doing A-Level Communication and Culture helped a lot. I had to analyse people. Why do people think that way in certain situations? The series Lie to Me was helpful too, teaching me how to come to conclusions, finding method in madness.
It took me six months to accept Waterside, and another six months to get used to it. The almost Milton Keynes-like repetition, John Carpenter’s They Live in the view of John Franklin and Thomas Beckett. George Orwell laughing violently at the smell of rotten cabbage and hegemony.
But I have my lists. Boards. Cutting out the noise. Stripping through the bullshit; an alternative view of society through the lens of someone who sees the world different.
When we think about race: the narratives, stories and experiences of people of colour are raised. And to be “of colour,” is essentially tied to anything from Black to Polynesian, Middle Eastern and Asian, including mixed-race. The perception of whiteness is the absence of blackness / brownness, that makes people that look like me up to nine times more likely to be stop and searched by police in Northamptonshire than a White person. But white is a colour too, is it not? When it comes to talks about “whiteness,” not a peep is to be heard from the people it impacts most, White European-looking people. Shocked? Not really! It can’t just be up to people of colour to talk to about whiteness. White people need to be talking about whiteness!
In the conversations about unconscious bias, as far as race is concerned, too often the focus is on the prejudice and discrimination that’s inherently built into the system. That’s fine and all, but unconscious bias also impacts White people. Whilst it’s a tool of institutional violence to working-class people, irrespective of race, bias also favours those born into the hue of lighter skin.
Look at drugs, for example; Black people are routinely stereotyped as drug dealers. However, going to private schools for twelve years in my youth showed me that the worst consumers and dealers of drugs were middle-class White people. The ones whose parents were lawyers and judges or rich landowners with reputations to uphold. And when you watch shows like The Wire or Toy Boy, which shows Black people a certain way, you begin to see how these racial stereotypes have taken root in people’s minds.
Whilst working-class White people will struggle, their struggles won’t be because they are White.
How whiteness is peddled can be both positive and negative. There are examples of White people using their privilege for great good, and great evil: from the White clergy that marched at Selma, to groups like Extinction Rebellion, slammed for being a White middle-class movement that glamourises arrest. Arrest is racialised and a White encounter with the police is not the same for a person who is not White, loaded with history: from Brixton to Emmett Till, lynchings and slave plantations. Call it stop and search, call it police brutality; call it the Southampton Insurrection, same symbols, different uniform, be it with blue sirens or burning crosses.
Looking at XR, Brock Turner and the Selma peace march, here lies a spectrum of White privilege: from the freedom to protest (without thinking of the consequence of arrest) – all the way up to rape and sexual assault on university campuses, with The People v. Turner.
White Privilege is existing in society without the consequences of racism, as discussed by Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Whiteness is living in a postcolonial world, disregarding the impact colonialism has in how race (historically), and the racial neo-politic continues to permeate society: from racism on university campuses to the legacy of colonialism, stop and search and the ongoing Windrush crisis.
Whiteness is cultural appropriation and the loots in the V&A / the British Museum. It’s White British academics having more authority on racism than academics of colour, even when it’s their lived experience. Stories lodged in their throats. It’s teaching children that Christopher Columbus was an explorer, finder – not invader, rapist, coloniser, thief, slaver.
What can White (British) academics tell you about racism other than what’s in theories and articles? Whilst White British people can experience prejudice, I believe racism is about power, and when you look at who holds the social power in society (in this country), it’s Whites, British or otherwise.
And you can bet that employer is second guessing the CVs with names like Muhammad or Asante, not Smith and Jones or even Lowell or Roberts (though those last ones could just as well be a Black person too). The legacy of colonialism in our names. The legacy of whiteness is in Tré Ventour, from the slaves of the Fontenoy Estate in St. George, Grenada. And if you want to get that loan, or that promotion, “Debroah, you should be less confrontational.” Why do Black people have to censor their mannerisms for their White colleagues? Laugh quieter. Walk slower. Breathe lighter.
I write this blog in a language I didn’t get to choose. It was given to my ancestors at the end of the sword, along with the songs of Solomon, bibles and this name that I carry. White Privilege is the freedom to choose – your language, beliefs, name, your essence of being. But you call us stupid.
Whiteness walks into a bar like he owns it. The bar is any institution. Any industry. Any topic of discussion. Brexit. Black History Month. Diwali. Whiteness is an authority because whiteness built the bar for himself.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?”
“Do you hate White people? Why do you talk about slavery? It’s long lost, in the past
Explain to me how I can be a better person
Critical Race Pedagogy (Theory) tells us that it’s deeper than the individual racist. It’s the system. How do you fight an abstraction? How do you get more Black and brown people into policing? Into academia or education?
However, if you don’t address the violence already in those spaces, what you’re doing is sending people of colour (unarmed) into a conflict, POWs with no hope of escape.
Works of Interest
Legacies of British slave-ownership – LBS, University College London.
Top Boy (2011 – 2013) – Channel 4 (Netflix)
People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner
People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (O. J Simpson)
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) – FX (Netflix)
‘The True Legacy of Christopher Columbus’ – George Monbiot (YouTube)
‘Whiteness Walks into a Bar’ – by Franny Choi (Button Poetry, YouTube)
‘White Privilege’ – by Kyla Jenée Lacey (WAN Poetry, YouTube)
The Wire (2002 – 2008) – HBO
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
Over a century ago in Sarajevo (Serbia), an Austrian archduke was shot. And next, millions more non-archdukes were shot, faffing about at The Front. And for what? And to me, learning about this war at school, it seemed more of a class war than anything else. Kaiser Wilhelm II being the grandson of Queen Victoria and his cousins being the monarchs of Britain and its vast empire, from India, to the Caribbean and bits of Africa.
And I never saw anyone that looked like me; I thought this war was for White people. And, I know now over four million non-Whites contributed, giving their lives, but that’s not the narrative I was sold at school. And at eleven o’clock on the 11th November 1918, screams sang into silence.
Knowing what I know now about history, even if it is just a basic knowledge (I’m no historian) Armistice Day does not mark peacetime. The fallout of the war to end all wars was a Pandora’s Box no signed treaty could contain. And in all conflicts it’s always the working-class who suffer most.
And it would be the archdukes of that world who would be having a jolly old time as if nothing had happened. But 1919 ushered in a wind of change: mass unemployment and uncertainty followed working-class communities from France and Belgium onto the streets of London, Cardiff and Liverpool.
When I think Armistice, I’m scratching my head as to when peacetime really does begin. 1919 brought in the Liverpool Race Riots where a one Charles Wotten was lynched at Albert Dock. Films like Doctor Zhivago depicting the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922) remind me of the violence that occurred outside of the main narrative of the war (during and after). What of those calls for independence, Easter Risings on streets of Dublin?
HBO’s Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore comic – a vivid depiction of Tulsa, a section of American history most people haven’t heard of, including Black people. Why would people have heard of it? Vital parts of our own history have been erased, (I think) because it makes “the victors” look bad.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921:
Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot), this was when a White mob attacked the residents, livelihoods, homes and businesses of the majorly Black Greenwood area of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma. This was what we’d now call a White supremacist attack and an act of domestic terrorism, or even genocide. Hundreds killed and thousands displaced.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released and has often been blamed for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. After The War, there was a spike in racial tension in America, and Tulsa was basically Black Wall Street. The U. S Army was racially segregated in itself too. 1921 Greenwood was booming, a success story for Black business owners, despite high crime rates and racial segregation. However, history is a hotbed for Black excellence, but when Black people gain momentum, the establishment shoots them down, literally – from Fred Hampton to Medgar Evers.
At school, I was not taught, not once, about the four million non-Whites non-European that fought and laboured in those four years. I think if I was able to see myself in this history from when I was a child, I would have more time for Armistice. The great stage of the First and Second World War is tied up in Britain’s popular memory / national identity, and British identity is in crisis. Still, today, I’ve found to be British, is to be White.
The yearly cycle of remembrance; from the procession in Northampton to interviews on BBC with veterans of the Second World War, I’ve always found it’s the voices of White British people. But there was racism at the front. The imperial mindset of European colonialism ran rampant in the British and German armies, tools of institutional racism, and by extension an instrument to whip up hate and institutional violence against colonial servicemen from places that included Senegal, China and the West Indies.
“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
Where are those stories of race at war? To be a soldier of colour, British-born or otherwise would not be the same as being a White (European) soldier, soldiers that toiled in France but also in the skirmishes of the African continent, Asia and the Middle East – erased out of our nationhood.
Over a million soldiers from what was then British India (pre-1947) fought for the allies, along with over two million from French Indo-China, as well as 100,000 Chinese labourers. But I did not have this on my history curriculum, when we looked at the stories between 1914 – 1918. But I was bludgeoned with images of White European soldiers having a great time.
To me, Armistice Day is in remembrance of a White Man’s war. And to (begrudgingly) mimic poet, colonialist and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, it feels like a “White man’s burden,” even if people of colour fought too. In seeing how Britain portrays those wars in schools but also how they are represented in popular memory, can you blame activists and academics looking at the stories of race and racism on the front lines under a microscope?
Race / racial identity are massive factors in these conflicts, as historian David Olusoga talks about in his article. We would not need to keep talking about race if race wasn’t treated like a minor inconvenience and those often treating it like an that are White people, refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness and White Privilege.
However, if we really are serious about Armistice, we have to acknowledge that working-class people yet again were at the whim of the titled and the entitled. We remember the soldiers but never their victims, portraying death (murder) as honorable, as said in Wilfred Owen’s (from Horace) Dulce et Decorum Est “pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). What is sweet about sending good men to the slaughterhouse?
Both wars are riddled with nationalism, and portray patriotism with grandeur. Great Britain raised at half-mast, celebrating Britain’s militarism –from Churchill to the Dreadnought (but no love for Bengal or Dresden). In how the wars are taught (popular nationalism), we encourage the living to join the dead, an ode to the Union Jack, even today in a postcolonial world.
“The colour bar on non-regular officers in the armed forces, designed and imposed by the political and military, is explicitly in the Short Guide to Observing a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1912.” – Phil Vasili
The world wars are full of people that are products of empire, in the ruins of class but also race. An archduke gets shot and millions of non-archdukes pay the price. Millions dead. After the war – widespread unemployment, uncertainty, race riots, class divides, The Depression, a grim state of affairs.
When you add the layer of race into that, it makes it more complex. Colonial soldiers coming to Britain after the First World War who were left out of the victory parades. Charles Wotten’s lynching in Liverpool. Men from British colonies who came here after the Second World War – to fill in labour shortages – White Supremacist fever and contested Britishness.
The narrative of Black soldiers goes all the way back to Roman Britain. Olusoga stated “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgotten” and I agree. In erasing Black and brown soldiers from the narrative, it’s a declaration of White lives being worth more than Black / brown lives.
And yes, we have the red poppy which is supposed to include everyone but it feels very exclusionary; and Britain’s popular memory is selective and needs to explore its colonial legacy – how imperial racial thinking played a role in both wars, otherwise we are continuing to tell stories that only include the experiences and memories of a White European majority.
“Black subjects had their actions during the war written out of history.” – Emma Dabiri
1914 Manual of Military Law
BBC Stories. “Alt History: White-washing black soldiers from WW1- BBC Stories.” YouTube. 27/06/19. Online. 10/11/19.
BBC Stories. “Alt History: A British lynching – BBC Stories.” YouTube. 13/07/19. Online. 10/11/19/
Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1915, Epoch Producing Company. YouTube.
Channel 4 Documentary. “Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Read by Christopher Eccleston | Remembering World War 1 | C4”. Youtube. 07/11/13. Online. 08/09/19.
Doctor Zhivago. Dir. David Lean. 1965, MGM. DVD
History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com. 2019. Web. Accessed: 10/11/19.
Lindeloff, Damien, creator. Watchmen. White Rabbit, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 2019.
Olusoga, David. “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” theguardian.com. 2018. Web. Accessed: 09/11/19
Vasili, Phil. Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918 Officer, Footballer […] Surrey: Raw Pres, 2010. Print.
This poem’s inspired from ‘Megatron’ by British poet Hollie McNish, and obviously there’s spoilers to follow. So, if you haven’t watched it and you read it, don’t come crying to me.
“the dragon queen’s the best
if I was a queen, I’d side with her and her kin
Dany’s nice and all that
but it’s Cersei who really wins
so many times, I’ve listened to this
since the end of HBO’s fantasy hit
and unto the fans, I say:
that show Game of Thrones ain’t shit
and every season since 2014
it continued in its pursuits
of sex, sweat and pleasure
but where it lacked in story
it cloaked itself in plot armour
saying that Arya and Jon
are unkillable, basically
because they can live forever
but these characters aren’t real
Dany, Jon, and the Lannisters…
if you want to see bad writing
look how Dany broke the wheel
I watched this show from the start
something we call a farce
including the gradual build up
when they killed off Ned Stark
at the top of those steps
never did I think a show could fall
as my heart shifted six inches left
and I knew every character’s name
and D&D, one bullet to our brains
to us the fans, who pledged
our fealty to the houses and clans
“I felt this way after The Sopranos.”
“I know, it’s the same”
it’s not the same, this wasn’t one episode
and after that season finale
I sat in silence, hung my head in shame
my name’s not Jon, as his body
started to change, ribs realigned,
lungs redesigned. Bran defied nature
nine kingdoms out of seven
and D&D sent seasons 1 – 4 to heaven
and I’m still pissed off up to now
filled six episodes with air
an amniotic sack of stuff
HBO hacks are the ones that dared
destroy the show, look how it came to this
cus I know Game of Thrones ain’t shit
you’re so extra
and that was it, because I know she’s
got to be taking the piss.
And every time, they’d praise Dany
I remember parents named
their children named after that shit
how she sacked the Capital
after travelling West
the dragon queen and her hoards
who freed herself and freed cities
but you know that show
Game of Thrones ain’t the best
and every time
I think about seasons 1 – 4
like when Bobby Baratheon
was skewered by that boar
my heart shifts to the right
it reverts back to this
and after four years
of doing that, I remember
how Game of Thrones ain’t shit
compared to many others shows
this one stood bold as brass
and the only thing fans gave
to these long games of thrones
(showing me nothing lasts forever)
is unwavering fealty
of which HBO gave no shits whatsoever.
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?
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.