These same individuals, women that are smart and innovative are told by authority figures, including academics, that they are lazy and don’t apply themselves – are running businesses out of their halls. Black women sent white male astronauts into space in 1969; Black women also invented CCTV and laser cataract treatment. Knowing this, in the face of a double-figure Black awarding gap at UK universities (Barradale, 2020), I was not surprised to see they were running businesses out of their halls, with online shops – cake businesses, clothing alterations, and the big one – wigs and weave, and hair products.
Currently, I know a good many Black women turning lemons into lemonade. Through the Coronavirus pandemic there are Black entrepreneurs, like their white counterparts, trying to make a living, make money and get ahead. Yet, their white colleagues won’t be judged for it. However, the “motivation to create a business can spring from the most interesting of places, and for a variety of reasons” (Uviebinené, 2019: 157).
For the women I met when I was an undergraduate student and then as a member of university staff, it was a way to escape the colonising imperatives of whiteness within the institutional frameworks of Britain. Moreover, that despite historic stereotypes of laziness still being on the ascent for Black people, Black women “are achieving additional qualifications and gaining work experience” (ibid). The students I knew were driven and inspiring, graduating and then going on to run businesses, using Instagram and social media as a tool for economic prosperity.
Seeing many Black women in business it looks incredibly strenusous, as systemic misogynoir permeates all of society – a form of discrimination specific to Black women where race and gender both play roles of bias (Bailey, 2010).
The concept of Black successes of both women and men in a society that is institutionally racist is an achievement of monumental proportions, as neoliberalism runs rampant. Bhopal (2019) argues that “within a neoliberal context, policy making has failed in its attempts to champion inclusion and social justice, and in doing so has further marginalised the positions of black and minority ethnic groups.” She discusses that policy making in its current form affirms the position of white people at the expense of those from various Black and Brown backgrounds, in a society where individuals are privileged for being white over those who are not.
White privilege exists and the fact there are successful Black female businesspeople shows the system designed to subjugate the Black race’s success and humanity has failed. In these still very white spaces, do the Black entrepreneurs that break the glass ceiling allow people up behind them, or do they rescind the ladder?
Do they put their money where their mouth is to help their people? Stormzy heads publishing house #MerkyBooks, priding itself on platforming Black authors. Additionally, he funds Black students to go to Cambridge every year. Do those “allowed” to enter Buckingham Palace to be named Member of the British Empire [MBE] see themselves as Black, or does the “acceptance” of the establishment allow them to forget where they came from? I wonder if money and fortune give some Black business-owners a blinkered mindset to concepts like community and togetherness.
Modern questions of success and business aside, let’s take a step back and reflect on the past. Black success in business or any other industry is not a new concept. Simply, it is treated as a new phenomenon within the colonial gaze of the white western world:
Whilst the students I met as an undergrad and then as a staff member were anomalies in accordance to Eurocentric stereotypes of Africans, when you look into the depths of African history one will find that people of the continent are smart and hardworking and innovative and gracious and protective, and so much more, and always have been. In this history, we will begin to understand how Black British people today relate to themselves. This first begins with gaining “a clearer understanding” of other cultures “that is not warped through the biases of colonial documentation” (Dabiri, 2019: 36).
As seemingly corporations want to diversify their workforce and more Black and Brown people seek to go into business, this means having conversations of race and culture away from the proximity of whiteness. When businesses take an anti-racist approach to their everyday, including culture and history, they will see their income increased tenfold.
Bailey, M. (2010). They aren’t talking about me… — the crunk feminist collection. Available from: http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2010/03/14/they-arent-talking-about-me/
Barradale, G. (2020). Revealed: New stats show how wide the black attainment gap is at your uni. Available from: https://thetab.com/uk/2020/06/17/revealed-new-stats-show-how-wide-the-black-attainment-gap-is-at-your-uni-162142
Bhopal, K. (2018) White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society. Bristol: Policy Press.
Dabiri, E (2019). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane.
Uviebinené, E and Adegoke, Y (2019). Slay in Your Lane. London: 4th Estate
In July 2020 I was fortunate enough to be part of a project with The Guardian newspaper on fifty varied young, Black, British perspectives on Black Lives Matter – fifty Black Britons from across the country – from the Shetland Islands to Sunderland; from Northampton to Norfolk; from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The inclusion of Scotland in particularly, fascinates me, because I know if you ever call the Scots, English (or British), many will have your head. That whilst Scotland is part of Britain, it has its own culture and history, including a Black history. Though, to this day I have not been to Scotland and all the Scots I have met have been white. I know the first time I meet and hear a Black person with a Scottish accent will be a special day indeed.
When people talk about Scottish history, it is often one of fighting off English invaders. I think of films such as Outlaw King or even the not-so-historically-accurate Braveheart. Moreover, depictions of highland culture in Outlander, including the Jacobite cause being quashed at Culloden in 1745. However, whilst Scotland was oppressed by the English (British), they were also, like the English, complicit in slavery. Today, Glasgow is called the Merchant City, for the tobacco merchants. If you had a tobacco addiction in the 1700s (puffing away), your smoking habit was made in Glasgow and it was tainted with the violence of slave plantations across the Atlantic.
And yet, whilst Scotland was complicit in the Slave Trade, Black Scottish history goes back to Roman times. The Afro-Romans in Scotland “defending Hadrian’s wall in the third century AD was a ‘division of Moors’ (numerous Maurorum Aurelianorum) named after Marcus Aurelius or a later emperor known officially by the same name” (Fryer, 1984: 1). Today there is a small but thriving population of Black people in Scotland, one of Glasgow’s most famous being Ugandan-born poet Tawona Sithole. His poem ‘Good English’ resonates with me as a Black Briton of Caribbean heritage. And I expect it would resonate with many Black Scottish youth coming through now too, also at the mercy of micro-aggressive behaviours from the white population including the constant where are you froms?
In Ireland, additionally, there are communities of Irish people of African and Caribbean heritage. At University, a white Irish friend spoke to me about the number of Black African clergy in the Irish Catholic church. However, screen depictions of the Irish have often perpetuated stereotypes of alcoholism and violence. In screen media, both Northern Ireland and the Republic, are represented as white countries, with their own histories of conflict with English colonisers, including the famines, the Easter Risings (1916) and the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.
Furthermore, like the Scottish, the Irish have their own connections with slavery, especially as overseers on the plantations. Whilst the myth of Irish slaves has been debunked many times, there is a history of indentured labour on islands like Jamaica and Barbados. Black and Irish are often seen as juxtaposed but they needn’t be. Historian Peter Fryer talks about an African presence in the British isles “some 400 or 500 years after the Romans left” (Fryer, 1984: 2) and “an ancient Irish chronicle records that ‘blue men’ (fir gorma) were seized by Vikings in Morocco in the ninth century and carried off to Ireland, where they stayed for a long time” (ibis).
Whilst both Northern Ireland and the Republic are incredibly white nations now, especially in the rural areas, there is still a Black Irish history worthy of scholarship.
Black Irish history is something I hope to see more of in academia. SOAS academic Emma Dabiri growing up in 1980s inner-city Dublin is a start with her text Don’t Touch My Hair and quite an act to follow in the mainstream. Yet, there has not been a significant Black population in Ireland for long. Following the previous comment about African immigrant clergy in Ireland, however, many of the mixed-race children Dabiri came into contact with as a mixed-race Irish girl, in the 1980s were institutionalised:
The arrival of mixed-race Black-racialised children in Ireland that grew up with single white mothers holds a similar sentiment to one case study in Wales. There were more Black people in Britain in 1944 than in 1948 (before the arrival of the Empire Windrush) – simply because of the influx of African-American soldiers, as “on the eve of D-Day, in June 1944, there was a hundred and thirty thousand African-American GIs, both army and air force, stationed in Britain” (Olusoga, 2017: 467).
In 1942, the segregated United States sent a racially-segreated force to Britain. During the war years, Black American soldiers were also deployed to Wales. In the last episode of Black and British, ‘Homecoming’, Prof. David Olusoga meets with members of a Welsh village called Abersychan, including the descendants that came out of the unions between the Black men and white women – unknowingly participating in a social experiment.
What the experiences of Black and mixed-race Black-racialised communities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales show us, is that Britain is not post-racial and that race matters, both in 2020 and during the war years.
And more importantly, to forget the history we think we know, as seemingly white villages like Abersychan, have diverse histories worth talking and shouting about.
Dabiri, E (2018). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane
Fryer, P (1984/2018). Staying Power. London: Pluto
Olusoga, D (2017). Black and British. London: Pan Books.
I like to think I have been doing anti-racist work since I was a child — from the days when I telling my schoolmates about slavery to my teen years where I was educating my peers on the connotations of the N-Word and why it is wrong. I remember a few years ago my editor at The Nenequirer Steve was interviewing me for a piece and he made a passing statement about me being an “equality activist.” He meant it lovingly and in good faith. I laughed, jokingly — thinking that equality wasn’t a political issue, so how could it be activism? Now, even more cynical than I was in in 2017, but grown, equality is very much a political issue, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and I now carry the label of “anti-racism activist”, a job I have been doing for nearly 20 years, in a professional and non-professional capacity.
The fact I never regarded equality as a political issue is something I have thought about time and time again. Building my name as a poet in my community, much of my work being on race and nation, I have been called all types of things. Being called “anti-Britain” is not an accolade I thought I would recieve, as anyone that knows me knows I am more British than Queenie herself — from custard creams to Doctor Who, The Crown and test match cricket, there are few people alive who can out-Britain me.
So, to be called “anti-Britain” is insulting really. And, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, lately, I have been asked to answer all sorts of questions on race / racism by friends and colleagues, unknowing that what all Black people are going through now, as we have always done, is traumatic.
I hear a lot of my Black colleagues saying “it’s not the job of Black people to teach white people about racism, (and Black history.)” I heartily agree, but I also question the place this statement comes from in the first place. Lots of my colleagues have been asking me about the Black History and what they should be reading and I am quite fortunate in the sense that I know where to send them for information because I have spent nearly fifteen out of twenty-four years doing the reading and learning (outside of the system).
However, most Black people, really do not know their own history because they came through the same education system as white people, with its blinkered curriculum!
So, whilst we are Black, we, too, are disillusioned. We cannot teach you about our history because we do not know it ourselves. Those that do know it have taught themselves it. The reason I can challenge the Wilberforce narrative on slavery is because I have made efforts to find the other stories around that narrative. I have made efforts to look at the centuries before the fifty years of Wilberforce — centuries of rebellions and dissent from the first abolitionists, the slaves themselves, on the ships and the plantations.
I have found that Black teachers are really struggling because they also came through the same system. So, if teachers don’t know, (let alone Black teachers) how can they teach it to students? What really needs to happen, in addition to decolonising curricula is decolonise initial teacher education [ITE]. When our teachers are being taught about race and Black history, and the contributions of ethnic minorities to Britain, then we might get somewhere, because it’s being taught to the grownups… not just the youth.
I am fortunate to have parents that have degrees in Law and Internation Studies, fortunate to have parents that were part of their African-Caribbean Society at UEL and took part in anti-apartheid marches. Very politicised students who then became politicised parents and professionals, and now I am politicised too. I learned a bit from my parents and some stuff from my Windrush grandparents (that lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s) and then more stuff from different family members about all sorts of things.
But most of all, from doing the reading:
Akala, Malorie Blackman, bell hooks, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince, Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Dean Atta, Roger Robinson, Miranda Kaufmann, John Agard, Reni Eddo Lodge, Afua Hirsch, James Baldwin, Peter Fryer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Benjamin, Olivette Otele, Beverly Tatum, Maya Goodfellow, Paul Gilroy, Gary Younge, Kehinde Andrews, Hakim Adi, Bernadine Evaristo, Eric Williams, Andrea Levy et al…
I did the reading. Learned. Challenged. It’s no overnight success and I am still learning. The BBC had a whole season on Black Britishness, including documetaries Black is the New Black, Black and British: A Forgotten History and other bits. Yet, don’t be conned that more Black faces in the mainstream means Black people have made it and racism is over. The fact there are more Black people on TV has opened the floodgates for more debate on whether racism actually exists, if the likes of (Professor) David Olusoga can make it — or Afua Hirsch; or Reni Eddo-Lodge and many more.
Heck, Meghan Markle being “accepted” into the most elitist institution in Britain. That whilst we have books like Black and British by David Olusoga showing how far Black British history goes and showing the good things we have contributed, there are also texts like Slay in Your Lane by Elizabeth Ubivenne and Yomi Adegoke and Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, both just so raw and unflinching, straight at the jugular.
“Black Lives Matter; no justice, no peace; Black power” — chanted at the Northampton protest in July by nearly one thousand protesters. A moment in Black history we are living together but still some of us not really getting it. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the others sparked outrage across the world. But I would emphasise to the white masses, this has been happening since 1619 (US) and at least 1562 (Britain), when John Hakwins, from Plymouth, hijacked a Portegeuse slave ship and made a small fortune in the Spanish Caribbean, with further voyages that decade funded by Elizabeth I. This Black history I only know about from reading Staying Power by Peter Fryer, a white male author. Read. Research.
I wonder if the next generations of Black people to come in the future will know about Black Lives Matter, (because it’ll be taught in the schools), or will they have strangers and relatives telling them about their history just like I did?
I expect it is rather horrifying for Black people that do not know their history being asked by white people and other non-Black people about it, like being Black is a pass to knowing. Education is the pass and the education system doesn’t teach it but I can say we represent “3% of the [British] population but account for 13% of the prison inmates. Black people also represent 9% of deaths after police contact that were independently investigated” (Andrews, 2018: xxiii). We do not know our history but we are living it now, including our disproportionate overrepresentation in police and prison statistics.
When it comes educating ourselves on Black history, in my opinion, it follows a coalition of learning together. That whilst it looks semantically questionable having white academics being the main leads on subjects like slavery and Black Tudors (nationally), their knowledge is valuable, and so are the contributions in academia made by Black academics in history (what few that exist), as well as other subjects like sociology and criminology.
White people, stop burdening your Black friends and colleagues with teaching you about Black history; the likelihood is they do not know it in enough volume to teach you it. However, the literature is there, in volume, teach yourselves and grow, otherwise you are simply adding to the “drip drip” sensation of the tap we call emotional labour.
Andrews, Kehinde (2018). Back to Black: Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: ZED. Print.
See my reading and film resource, made in reply to Black Lives Matter. It’s public and for the benefit of all — from small children to adults: on race and Black history. This is an ongoing project and will continue long after anti-racism stops being sexy. This is always being updated, check it out.
Two months ago, London-born author-journalist and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge was the first Black British author to top the UK book charts. In addition to her being well-known for her book Why I’m No Longer Talking White People About Race, it was this text among others that inspired my dissertation on race-identity politics. I have reread the chapter ‘Histories’ countless times and come to the idea that current discourse on race and Black history is not as intersectional as it could be. Historically, I have seen Black History Month celebrations where women that do not fit into the cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, and / or heterosexual norms of society get side-lined.
Additionally, how we as a society oversimplify the Black Lives Matter movement as just a race issue baffles me.
In 2010, Black queer feminist Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir – phrase denoting discrimination against Black-racialised women where both race and gender play roles of bias. Reni Eddo-Lodge becoming the first Black British author to top the UK book charts is an indictment in two ways:
- It took this long for a Black British author to reach the top
- It took this long for a Black British woman to reach the top
Even ahead of Malorie Blackman, Bernadine Evaristo, Zadie Smith, and the late Small Island writer-author Andrea Levy.
Are not enough people buying books by Black British (female) authors or are they simply being denied access to publishing houses? Systemic discrimination in publishing is a criticism blessed by history, where English literature in the 18th, 19th and the 20th centuries was dominated by white men. At this time, many women wrote under pseudonyms, as the system would not take their authentic voices and selves seriously, as women.
Whilst I am a man, my mother is a woman and so are my grandmothers. My godmother is a Black female academic with stories of her own about misogynoir in higher education and the British school system. My late aunt was an actor-singer. I have female cousins who also have stories about misogynoir in arts, corporate, healthcare and other parts of society. I know, having been raised by Black women that this discrimination is endemic and I know Black men are complicit in as well – from hearing Black men labelling Black women as “high maintenace” to perpetuating colourism.
Does Black History Month and how Black history is taught play a role? Is the way we study Black history inclusive, or, despite ticking the race box, does it follow cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, heterosexual (very always male) norms? Are we doing everything we can in the narrative of Black historical scholarship to implement intersectionality?
In her essay (1989: 140), Kimberlé Crenshaw coins that buzzterm of today intersectionality. She writes “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” Today, we can read this to the experiences of Black women on the autism spectrum; Black women who are transgender; Black women who are working class with disabilities.
How we view Black women’s history is troubling, as diversities of their experiences are being excluded from the story for “a more comfortable” cisgender, straight, male and / or able-bodied norm. Whilst we criticise white institutions for not doing diversity work, we must be careful as to not look like hypocrites, embodying our very own Prof. Coupland. One example is the slave narrative. In the teaching of the Slave Trade (when it’s actually taught), are we pushing for the inclusion of Black women experiences?
Despite learning of the Underground Railroad, I would also have liked to have learned about slavery’s darker side, including rape on the plantations and the histories of enslaved mothers as wet nurses for white children, often at the expense of their own. Moreover, slavery as an economics system, and “Black women’s reproductive systems were industrialised. Children born into slavery were the default property of slaveowners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 4). A system where they were exploited on the basis of their race and sex.
Whilst, I would caution educators about relegating Black women’s histories during the years of slavery into narratives of sexual violence with no counter balance (i.e female empowerment), these are also stories pertinent to the lives of women today, not just Black women. In light of #MeToo, would it be so wrong to investigate human history of sexual violence? If we did that, we would then be forced to interrogate women’s history at war, for example. What about sex workers during the World War One? Today, intersectionality may bend to age’s links with race, sex and “the adultification of Black girls” (Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017).
Using Reni Eddo-Lodge’s achievement as a conduit, I would argue there is no way we can achieve lasting change without the inclusion and amplification of Black women voices, who are themselves constantly hitting glass ceilings across all of society. This must include intersectional approaches to the Black past and anti-racist work. Whilst as a Black man I hit the glass ceiling, I can see through it. However, I know for my Black female colleagues this is a bleak look into the opaque.
The spine of the Black Lives Matter movement is unarguably kept together by Black, female leadership, as is the bulk of equalities work in academia with Black and brown academics. In revealing how Black women were agents in key moments of British history, including immeasurable contributions to civil rights movements and politics, we will understand
the history Black women are making now, truly embodying Black Britain and reimagining Black liberation. And it is in this train of thought, I believe when Black women matter, everyone will matter; when they win, everyone wins.
Center on Poverty and Inequality (2017). Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood. Washington D.C: Georgetown Law.
Crenshaw, K (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8), pp. 139-167.
Eddo-Lodge, R (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury. Print.
As Britain draws near to the 187th anniversary of the Slave Emancipation Act, (though albeit after a period of years), we must not forget the events that let “freedom” reign on the enslaved Africans and their descedents in the British Empire. If we are to take Coupland’s way of abolition to heart, we would be led to believe that Wilberforce and co freed the slaves of their own goodwill. The same Professor Reginald Coupland who lead the way in documenting abolition as a good part of British history propelled by the humanitarian good intentions of the British. That after centuries of lucrative profits from the sugar economy, the British elite suddenly had a change of heart.
What the Wilberforce narrative misses out is how Black people in Britain and the British Empire did not sit idly by for centuries waiting to be freed. In Insurgent Empire Prof. Priyamvada Gopal talks about how the African-American ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass discussed the abolition movements in the then British West Indies in an address he made in New York in 1857. He pays homage to British abolitionists, which also included Black British activists like Olaudah Equiano. His autobiography (1789) brought the movement into the public eye. There was also Mary Prince, the first Black woman to publish an autobiography in England – a detailed account on her experiences of slavery in the [British] Caribbean.
Published in 1831, The History of Mary Prince lit a fire under the anti-slavery movement in the run up to the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act. Moreover, Ottobah Cugoano, a close friend of Equiano, who together worked in ‘Sons of Africa’ which was a Black abolitionist collective. Cugoano’s Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa was published in 1787 retelling his abduction from his home in what today is Ghana, and his then enslavement and subjugation in Grenada. His Narrative was also the first public demand for the total abolition by an African in Britain.
It’s pertinent to consider Black political expression in relation to the guerrilla Black Lives Matter movement, which is simply another example of Black seemingly “radical” ideas. Whilst first instigated in response to the aquittal of George Zimmerman in July 2013 after he murdered Trayvon Martin, this movement saw a resurgence in the aftermath of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of American police forces. It could also be argued to encompass issues in the UK like Black deaths in police custody, whitewashed curricula and The Windrush Scandal, case studies on how Black Lives Matter is not just a US problem.
It shows how it is also a British problem. Tying back to the Wilberforce narrative, it’s telling me that we cannot wait or rely on the elite establishment to do the right thing. That whilst now, it is not Black against white but more positively, anti-racists vs the rest, I am also of the mind that as Black people we are tired of waiting for our white colleagues to educate themselves. The looming anniversary makes me question what freedom is and what race equity / equality looks like, as we are breaking new ground.
That whilst the abolition movement lasted for fifty years, there was centuries before that of slave resistance on the slave ships and on the plantations themselves. The concept of freedom makes me raise eyebrows because of what the abolition movement had to sacrifice in order to get that legislation passed. In order to get the slave-owning class to agree, in the final moments of Britain’s slave-owning saga, for a moment the abolitionists had to acknowledge slaves as property. They had to say yes to Parliament compensating the slave-owners to a sum of £20m (£17bn today), loved by men like Wilberforce’s contemporary plantocrat George Hibbert. For true equality for Black people globally, what will the establishment make Joe and Jane Bloggs agree to? Will we have to sell our souls again for another piece of legislation? In all honesty, in concept I believe anti-racism only works if every single person holds every single person to the same moral and ethical standards.
In 1807, Parliament passed The Slave Trade Act, outlawing the trading of slaves in the British Empire but it was a further three decades until slavery was outlawed outright in Britain and the British colonies. The fact it took another thirty years to convince The House is a seperate issue to the logic of having two individual pieces of legislation of slavery and slave-trading.
Black Lives Matter… a slogan ringing through many of our minds. The protesters shout “no justice, no peace” but justice and peace are relative terms. To the enslaved Africans, not being slaves anymore was peace and justice. To those that marched at Selma, that was an end to those Jim Crow Laws. To me living in Britain, who has never been enslaved nor had his voting rights curtailed by state police at the polls, what does that look like? Was Mansfield’s landmark ruling against the slavers on the Zong Case justice? Did he dispense justice on the Somerset Case in 1772? That whilst James Somerset wasn’t repatriated to the Caribbean, the fact he was part of a society and system where he could have been, is an indictment in itself.
The Wilberforce characters of the 18th and 19th century shouted the loudest and historians wrote slave abolition narratives about them. BLM is about anti-Black discrimination; I sit cautiously now thinking in the years to come, will I be reading about Blacktivism or I will be reading whitewashed history books penned by another Professor Coupland saying how white people gave us justice?
Previously published on Medium
Following the murder of George Floyd, I have seen a (re)interest in “Black trauma” films, as conduits for (white) audiences wanting to self-educate — meaning slavery and stories relating to crime. I am writing this post in response to the number of people I have seen watching “trauma films” as their only entry into anti-racism. As far as film is concerned we must treat anti-racist education in modules. Police brutality and slavery are part of one module, the trauma narrative. Just like how we would treat a degree. There are more perspectives to Black lives than “trauma”, audiences must remember that.
Films depicting slavery, and “police violence” (really hate that term) work to a certain extent but what the plethora of films promoted on these subjects fitting that narrative show, is really an indictment on an industry that still refuses see us outside of the realms of suffering and subordination. We had Marvel’s Black Panther, which is great, but that was one. We need more and this Black renaissance needs to keep going.
In this historical moment, where many of us are trying to educate ourselves on these issues, I want to remind people there are more types of films than “trauma flicks”… and I would also caution people about films like The Help and Paul Haggis’ Crash (both of which are problematic, and should only really be watched in the knowledge of this is what not to do). I am by no means saying not to watch those films but both should be watched through the lens of “Hollywood effed up here”, as they are by no means anti-racist narratives. For people starting out on this journey, a road that many of us Black and brown people have been on since our first encounter of racism, which for many of us was as infants / children — white people now starting out on this need to be aware of the problem films and the issue of representation in the film and television industry.
There are more images of Black people we could see; it’s telling in this moment that the images of Black people being pushed are ones of suffering and servitude. By all means self-educate on these issues, but we must also remember that “anti-blackness” strips us of humanity and those films — from Get Out to Moonlight — do somewhat play into the hands of the establishment even if they are telling stories that need to be told.
Here, are five films with varied perspectives and viewpoints that may not even talk about race or fall into the stereotypes of ‘police brutality’, ‘slavery’ or ‘immigration.’ I admit this list was harder to make than I first thought, which just shows the industry can do better. The lack of films sitting outside of “trauma” narratives shows the deficit of ethnic representation in the industry and I hope in this post to show people there are other images out there too.
I have done my best in finding films that draw audiences away from Black trauma flicks, but I admit even in that I think I might have failed in my goal.
Queen of Katwe (2016), Dir. Mira Nair
Set in Uganda, Disney’s Queen of Katwe follows ten-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who lives in a slum in Kampala with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) and other members of her family. Helping her mother sell maise at the local market, as well as care for her brother, one day, her life changes forever when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a football coach, and a chess teacher at a centre. Wanting to find out more, Phiona learns how to play the game of chess. And under Katende’s firm but fair guidance, she becomes the best player in the group ready to take on the world as a chess prodigy. As someone who played a lot of chess as youth, this film is so heartwarming and wholesome. Not only because I have an affinity and love for the game, but because it is also about BLACK people. And by Black I do not mean me, I mean dark-skinned people. Particularly, a film featuring dark-skinned women in prominent roles that did not fall into the “adultification” of Black girls (Georgetown Law, 2019). And seeing as this film has an all-Black cast and does not feature the Black trauma of police violence or slavery, seeing David Oyelowo in this elevated image of a Black man is also worthy of comment.
A Pool of London (1951), Dir. Basil Dearden
Summary: Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano), a sailor, has a “side business” in smuggling illegal goods ashore. While their ship is docked in London, he and best friend Johnny Lambert (the late Earl Cameron) get themselves tied up with a gang of jewel thieves. Complications arise when Lambert falls in love with Pat (Susan Shaw), and is charged with a murder he did not do.
‘A Pool of London’ is an early example of “social conscience” in British cinema and it could just have been “another crime film” had it not been in such well-practiced hands.
Not only is this a fantastic film, it is also one of the first British films in which a Black actor featured. Whilst Lambert is noticeably a Black man, his character did not need to be. There’s only a handful of times when his character’s race is raised. Director Basil Dearden (Flame in the Streets) directs Earl Cameron as an actor, (in comparison to many Hollywood directors), not a Black actor.
Claudine (1974), Dir. John Berry
Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single mom in New York City. She works hard as a maid at a white middle-class house. Out of the blue, she meets binman Roop (James Earl Jones) — charming and charismatic, but also works hard. Romance develops, but she doubts this relationship is good for her children. And despite his nature, Roop is hesitant to take on parenthood.
An intelligent look at welfare that does not criticise the need that working class communities can need help from the state. Very much an American prologue to British films such as I, Daniel Blake by British veteran filmmaker Ken Loach. Claudine is also empathetic and just full of so much love for ‘The Black Family’. You thought you loved the Obamas? You’ll love Claudine, Roop and the children. A film that unpicks the napsack of welfare regulations, made harder still by systemic racism — a term that is on everybody’s minds, pertinent, in the recent discourse on Black Lives Matter.
Unlike films such as Network, Sidney Lumet satire taking on big gov, 1974’s Claudine is more personal directing that critique on how the Black working class have also been impacted. Berry, a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s Blacklist — you can feel his sympathy to working class families. Much alike Earl Cameron in A Pool of London, they did not need to cast Claudine with an all Black cast but they did and you can’t help but love it.
It’s one of the few films I have seen which depicts the struggles of the working-class without the tears of liberal piety, condescension or “feel sorry” attitude — it’s a film that shows there is absolutely nothing wrong with being working-class and there many proud of that label, especially Black people living in a class system that is also anti-Black. At its ninety(ish) minutes, it uses every minute wisely and I really did not want it to end.
Whilst this film has its moments of pure comedy, it also has pure drama, with one such episode detailing the intricacies of an underage pregnancy, as well as the to-be grandmother Claudine’s reaction, not making a spectacle of Black trauma. A film carried by Diahann Carroll, written for her in mind… without having the audacity to make a spectacle of Black women suffering.
Availability: If you are committed enough, you will find it!
Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Dir. Robert Townsend
Aspiring actor Bobby Taylor (Robert Townsend) endures the wrath of his grandmother for auditioning for a role in the crudely titled exploitation film Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. When Taylor is cast in the title role, he has a series of odd dreams satirising Black stereotypes in Hollywood, and must do better by his goals with his desire to remain a role model to his younger brother. This film makes the list because it subverts common tropes. Over thirty years has passed since it was released and not much has changed. It’s a satire on the role Black actors get in Hollywood. What has changed is that there are more Black actors but the types of roles has barely moved an inch.
Hollywood is still has progress to be made for better representation on grounds of race, let alone other discriminated groups. Even popular films with Black actors still feature stereotypes. Narrating the issues of representation in Hollywood today would only be giving this film a recap.
The issues this film addresses will only change if the system takes a radical shift. Will BLM initiate that shift?
Its cultural references are of its time, especially with Eddie Murphy. Hollywood Shuffle is over the top madness but it’s the message of “representation needs to change” has not aged in over 30 years, emphasising the injustices of the film industry. We needed Hollywood Shuffle, so we could have film like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018). It just sucks it’s quite homophobic.
Availability: Amazon Prime (Rent)
Fire in Babylon (2011), Dir. Stevan Riley
Stevan Riley’s British documentary film Fire in Babylon is the true-to-life story of how the West Indies cricket team (1974–1995) rose above their colonial masters through becoming one of the greatest sporting teams in the history of team sports. In the unsettling era of apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England and civil unrest in the Caribbean, the West Indies led by Clive Lloyd, and Viv Richards, dealt a critical blow at the white world.
They defeated racism on the field of play, making the cricket field a level playing field. For anyone looking to understand more about Black politics as well as the cultural and sociopolitical context of the game during the 1970s and 1980s, this is a must watch. These players used cricket as a tool to strike back at white power, weaponising whiteness running contrary to the circumstance to which it was made. Truly hitting racism for a BIG six.
In these five films, I have seen elements of Black trauma but nothing compared to the bloodiness of what is being promoted in the lists in response to the recent international civil rights movement. Anti-racist reading and watch lists are advocating for texts and films on police brutality, the prison system and slavery, for example. There are some fantastic reads and watches here but we must also remember that
Black lives also means — Black love; Black smiles; Black families; Black sports; Black friendships; Black arts; Black innocence, Black excellence… and more. These are our lives and there is humanity in that. We cannot forget.
Something outgoing NUS Black Students Officer Fope Olaleye tweeted about the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine stayed with me (see above). It made me think about the ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) acronym and whether I can talk about police in broad strokes. I was pushed on to Brooklyn Nine-Nine by a friend, after avoiding it for years. One reason because it just looked ridiculous, but the more important reason is that I did not feel comfortable that a comedy should be made of an inherently violent institution. I like the show, but in hindsight of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the other victims of the recent spate of murders by police, I am re-evaluating these shows and television like it.
No matter how pretty the writers try to dress up the Nine-Nine; no matter how diverse the cast is (great), police will always be police and this show is a prime time copaganda.
My degree is in creative writing and I do spend a lot of time watching film and television series. I do believe artists and storytellers, especially screenwriters and TV writers have a responsibility to accurately portray the institutions they are depicting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in a fairy tale version of the world we live in and is nowhere close to a true likeness of the NYPD (New York Police Department), the same department that prosecuted five Black and Latino boys for a rape and attempted murder they didn’t commit, of a white woman. Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor of the exonerated Central Park 5 then went on to have a career as a crime novelist, also advising on the early seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (more copaganda).
When I think about television depictions of police and law enforcement more generally, most of it is copaganda. Then I think about how the rap group N. W. A were on the FBI’s most-wanted for speaking their truth about personal experiences with the Police and how they began to empower Black people all over the world. In the late 1980s, Black Britons resonated with the conscious lyrics N. W. A wrote, which speaks volumes. Public Enemy’s Chuck D in ‘Louder than a Bomb‘ said “your CIA, see I ain’t kiddin’ / both King and X, they got ridda both” but the depictions of law enforcement in film and television are always positive. They’re the good guys. Supposedly.
There’s a privilege in believing law and order have your best interests at heart, even if you’re not the guilty party; often this comes with a whiff of class and / or white privilege.
Then we come to shows like Cops that do not even try to hide their anti-Black sentiment. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore argues that white America has an innate fear of Black people. Black people are entertainment for white people. They always have been: from blackface minstrelsy that came after slavery to public lynchings in the Jim Crow era. Yet, Blacks, historically have been stereotyped as the violent ones. In Ava DuVernay’s 13th the activist-academic Angela Davis says how the FBI branded her “armed and dangerous”, and that ties into to how historically criminality is just code for Black, which leads into Reagan’s War on Drugs.
Network television has portrayed Black people as a race that carry weapons and if you try to talk to them they will kill you. Whenever someone is stabbed in the UK, I know in some circles I will be expected to have an opinion because more often than not the mugshots I see of the victims and perpetrators are young Black boys. Anti-blackness is global and Black police also fall into the trap of racial profiling, even their own people. Police officer first, Black second; that tribalism, that supremacy is pervasive and we cannot pretend that police violence is just about racist police officers.
I first listened to ‘Fuck tha Police’ at 13 years old; I recall Ice Cube saying “Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin’ out for the white cop / Ice Cube will swarm / On any motherfucker in a blue uniform…
If you’re Black in this country or the United States, you’re branded a criminal. The prison / stop and search data speak for themselves. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Cops, are, to say the least, problematic, especially as a Black viewer, someone that does not fit into the pretty little box of white privilege. I try to watch shows like Nine-Nine in the same mind I watch a Disney film, within the realms of escapism. Pure fiction. Yet, in light of the recent international civil rights movement against racial inequality, including institutional racism, I am struggling to even accomplish that.
I bet it’s ironic that one of my top ten shows of all time is a police crime drama. The Wire, a show that does not glamorise policing and truly shows how ineffective it can be due to the flawed internal structural mechanics and other hidden agendas, that lean on the political. It paints a grim picture of US crime, where 1 in 4 of the world’s inmates are in US prisons (13th). David Simon’s show also supports #ACAB where Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not. That despite doing their jobs, the show says “all cops are bastards” because they carry out the horrific acts, at the behest of the institution.
There needs to be more shows like The Wire and fewer like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Post-George Floyd, I don’t think there’s a place for shows like Nine-Nine, glorifying bumbling cops and glamorising office violence as innocent. Maybe it’s time to let it die with the same dignity police allow their Black victims.
In reading @5teveh‘s blog, what immediately struck me is the personalness to it. When someone seemingly attacks a thing you have an attachment to, you will immediately to get defensive. So, Dr. Steve Hallam, now a Criminology lecturer after thirty-year career in policing now hearing different forms of “police are racist” will naturally feel something. Thinking “I was police” and still am. He may have retired but you can’t take thirty years of policing out of someone just like that. Is it fair to call The Police racist? I wouldn’t call it fair but what is true is not always what is fair. The Police use violent practices backed by policies that disproportionately impact Black and brown people.
I think there’s a lot of people right now saying “I don’t consider myself racist” and there’s more backlash to being called racist than the act itself. I’m not sure it is possible to be in the Police and not be part of what Macpherson called “canteen culture” (1999: 46), what I would call “club policing”– where if you’re in, you’re in. But if you’re out, you know you’re out. And police officers that remotely critique police practice in anyway are not part of the club. Compliance is your entry pass, which leads to how someone like George Zimmerman was acquitted after murdering Trayvon Martin. That despite being guilty, he was acquitted because he was club and American laws back “canteen culture” policing (Stand-Your-Ground Law).
Steve asks, “why the label?” of police being racist. I respond with: as much as his experience of policing has been one where he doesn’t consider himself racist (nor do I consider him to be), The Police rather than police officers is racist. I think in making it about him, there is a fragility there. Not a “white fragility” where “white people have been “socialised into a deeply internalised sense of superiority” (DiAngelo, 2019: 2) but a natural reaction to challenged authority (past or present), as police. Since this concept breaks the boundaries of race, as Black police officers defend the badge before their blackness (as put by NWA in Fuck tha Police, 1988). I may not consider Steve a racist but I do believe that because we all came through the same systems in this country, racial prejudice does lie within him as it does within all people. It’s whether people act on it which turns it into racial discrimination (the act). When there are Black police that racially profile, what stops it being racism is their lack of institutional power in British society. As a white man who worked in a white institution, Steve’s whiteness would be the determining factor because his whiteness is backed by “the power of legal authority and institutional control” (DiAngelo: 2019: 20) separating Steve’s intent from the default power he has in society built in his own image.
From an outsider’s point of view, (though I may be naive), The Police seem to allow no room for juniors to scrutinise the bosses. Yet, senior officers can criticise the juniors. If a junior officer sees their boss acting with racial prejudice, the flawed mechanics in the structure would mean that officer could not in fact challenge their superiors without putting their job at risk, worse if they’re a woman. Policing: where egos can do as much damage as bad policies and where bosses are outside the remit of grassroots critique.
Policing is more than “bad apples”, it’s also a lack of accountability and room to enforce accountability, even to each other. That’s before we think about violent policies; and ill-thought out strategies like arming every Northamptonshire Police officer with tasers, whilst simultaneously trying to improve relations with Black and Asian communities and up diversity in policing. That’s before we think about the institutional racism and overt racism that makes the lives of Black and Asian officers that much harder.
I think in order to develop as well, Steve must think about specifically on how white people don’t live in a society where they have to think of themselves in racialised terms; in society Steve is simply a man, not a white man
He must come to terms that all human beings are varying degrees of prejudiced. Except when police are concerned, that prejudice is often transformed into racism (and violence), which is shown through numbers like 184 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] deaths in police custody (Inquest); or Black people are stopped at nine times the rate of white people (UK) in Northamptonshire (Stopwatch, 2018/2019) – or how over 40% of inmates in youth offenders’ prisons come from Black and Minority Ethnic [BME] backgrounds (Lammy, 2017) – or how Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act (Gilroy, 2019).
Despite Steve saying that policing in the US is much different, we must remember our history. That race relations in the US is the brainchild of Britain. Colonialism left that behind, just as we left the same police structures in India after partition in 1947. You cannot talk about the history of America and not mention race or British colonialism. That includes how law enforcement treats its Black communities. I agree the British population taking on the US narrative is problematic. We need to write our own story and look at commonalities when they present themselves.
I further agree that over the years “institutional racism”, as popularised by Macpherson (1999) has become synonymous with saying all police are raicst. Especially, with my generation, where Stephen Lawrence is not in our popular memory. Mark Duggan is more our Stephen Lawrence moment and yet, I admit our race literacy needs a lot of work. Steve talks about his experience of students finding out he was once police. When I found out, I was in shock, that I liked him! I also have the same distrust of police his students have, because my family’s history with police is not a positive one.
However, with a name like Stephen ‘Steve’ Hallam, I’m quite surprised I did not clock it sooner, as it sounds like it came straight out of The Bill! With Steve, I don’t see the ego or the attituide I see in other officers. Nor the inability to talk about race in policing. I just see a man who was once an officer and is astute enough to admit that the service is flawed, and in that I think he might be an anomaly. That’s a first for me, and that includes my introductions to Black British and British-Asian officers who refuse to acknowledge that you cannot talk about policing without stories of race. I understand Steve feels attacked by what’s going on. Yet, I would say this is nothing new. Black people as victims of police officers goes back to 1919 and the events surrounding the Liverpool Race Riots, where a Black man was lynched by a white mob at Albert Docks. It also speaks to riots in Notting Hill (1958) Detroit (1967) Brixton (1981) and Toxeth (1981).
I would answer Steve’s comment on police distrust and Black communities with stories about racism, as this is a tale blessed by history, in both this country and the United States of America. Whether we call them police, or slave catchers for the criminal justice system is another question. I think many of the answers lie in the history books and for people to truly investigate the relationship between criminality and race as a construct.
Watching A House in Time, David Olusoga shows me that history is more accessible than we think it is. It is fact-finding and contextualising; it is soul-searching and joining dots. It’s making links and telling stories. It looks a lot like journalism. Steve asks “how can community relations be fixed?” My response is, I’m not sure they can. Because they are not broken. The system was designed that way, a system that privileges certain people as “[…] white privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism… an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 86) and this is no more evident than how The Police police communities of colour, regardless if that’s by Black or white officers.
Steve says ” […] most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged” and it so happens you are more likely to be in poverty in Britain if you are not white [Institute of Race Relations, 2020]. Class issues exasperated by a racial prejudice endemic in British culture. A societal racism that I do not believe will be improved by legislation. Black skepticism to police, is under a wider umbrella of skepticism to authority bodies, since we have no reason to trust them. This is a skepticism evidenced by history: from colonialism to Grenfell to deaths in police custody to stolen DNA to Black and brown
people as labrats being experimented on by scientists; so, is it surprising why Black and brown communities are more skeptical of authorities, even now as COVID vaccines are being targeted at those very same communities?
Some of the answers to Steve’s questions about racist police may lie in stereotyping. However, the story of racism is deep-rooted in how race was made. Race is constructed, so in theory it can be unmade. Police are an easy target for racism because it is so public. And when there is a scandal, it really goes big. Every institution is racist, yet policing is so easy to scrutinise because it is wide open, rather than curricula in the education sector which quite evidently panders to a white supremacist model of knowledge.
Steve goes on to talk about his dissertation student that held bias against police due to bad experiences of racism. Steve says “policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful. If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.” Do police want to address these problems or simply want to be seen to address them? Virtue signalling 101, especially in light of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement when it is now popular to be seen to be advocating for diversity, inclusion and anti-racist causes.
It is beyond reasonable doubt The Police are guilty of racism, but that is not exclusive to the boys in blue. It’s a symptom of a society that fosters a culture of race hate, and that goes back centuries. In Staying Power, historian Peter Fryer talks about the links between transatlantic slavery and the demonology of race, through influential racist writers and “Africans were not merely devilish, monstrous, ape-like, lustful, treachourous and given to cannibalism. They were also inherrently lazy: ‘generally idle and ignorant'” (Charles II’s hydrographer qtd in Fryer, 1984: 143). Scary stuff.
Society made race, racism is a symptom; and the rich, wealthy political elite have benefited from it ever since.
Steve writes about policing from a vantage of privilege, but that does not make his experiences any less valid. We are in a time of reactive policing rather than policing by consent. People of colour, espeically Black communities draw the short straw. The term ‘police racism’ is problematic because it speaks to “The Police and The Rest”. There is racism and that impacts everyone. There is specific anti-Blackness, which is global and practiced by all ethnicities. ‘Police racism’ and ‘police brutality’ are scabs that hide the more important nasty tumour of embedded white supremacy.
In this time, it would do well for us all to remember that this convenient term ‘police brutality’ is not exclusive to white racists. Black and other minority police are just as problematic. It’s not just white supremacy problem, it’s a supremacy problem that comes with the police as an institution. And how the badge comes before blackness. Black police officers historically shell out for white power. Stephen shells out for Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained. Boris leans on the model minority in recruiting British-Asian MPs to his cabinet but they are just as problematic as white MPs that get branded with the label of racist.
Steve’s experiences are valid even if they are through the lens of white male privilege. I agree in fixing society you will fix policing. Policing is part of the rotten tree I call societal racism, and so is education and corporate. It is very easy to throw policing under the bus; but British society is racist, it’s the society we live in and this label fits like a white glove.
DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility. London: Allen Lane.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Fryer, P. (1984). Staying Power. London: Pluto Press.
Gilroy, R (2019). Mental health detention rate over four times higher for black people. Nursing Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nursingtimes.net/news/mental-health/mental-health-detention-rate-over-four-times-higher-for-black-people-30-10-2019/
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chair: William Macpherson). London: TSO.
Inquest (2017). BAME deaths in police custody’, inquest.org.uk, [online]. Available from: https://www.inquest.org.uk/bame-deaths-in-police-custody
Institute of Race Relations (2020). ‘INEQUALITY, HOUSING AND EMPLOYMENT STATISTICS’, irr.org.uk, [online]. Available from: http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/poverty/
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.
Dear All. I hope you are well. Since I’m now at the end of my tenure with the Students’ Union, I thought I ought to address the future. And to those of you that have had meetings with me over the past year, I am grateful for your help and allyship. I hope this is not the end, but the beginning. Many of us have told ourselves that we are all equal but we know how false that is. This is not the time for idealism and I am sure you know that I do not stint when it comes to social justice, particularly with race. In the tint of an international civil rights movement against racism and racial inequality, the latest victims of white supremacy in the United States have made myself, students and other like-minded individuals think about issues closer to home.
That in this county, Black people are nearly nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people (Stopwatch); that in Britain, 184 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest) – that in youth offenders’ prisons, over 40% are from BAME backgrounds [Lammy Review, 2017]. All this is before I begin to talk about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on people of colour, in terms of deaths and infection. These are our students and their families.
Out of this, I am deeply concerned over the future of race equality at the University. The statement that was released on June 4 was vague. It didn’t go into detail on really anything and it felt performative. Honestly, I’m quite perturbed by the their reaction to Black Lives Matter and the protests; this is not the time to be apolitical when massive portions of the University community are experiencing racial trauma (including the genetic trauma that comes with being descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), and the Black members of staff having to maintain professionalism!
And the fact it so long to release a statement (11 days after George Floyd’s murder), makes me uncomfortable. Notwithstanding, it took a tweet from me to get things moving. Racism is not a comfortable subject, nor should it be; it is nasty and the University needs to understand that.
From Wednesday, I will no longer be your Vice President BME at the SU and there is no intention to replace me. Already, the next sabbaticals have arrived. Are they as interested in equalities as the last team? Well, we won’t know until they acculturate to their roles. Whether that is on decolonising the curriculum or the state of race in higher education, I really couldn’t say. However, I have plenty of thoughts and even recommendations that the University can implement. Yet, I am worried the institution is not willing to have this conversation, nor hear the unpleasantness that comes with discourse and discussions on the state of race relations in this country.
I have lots of ideas about curriculum and disciplinaries, also policing and security (yes anti-racist work is more than posts on social media, and yes I agree social media is useful).
From an outsider’s perspective, the University response to Black Lives Matter looks nothing more than virtue signalling. At the moment, I do not think it takes these issues seriously at all. Now leaving altogether, I am still going to be in the area. And, I am still willing have this conversation in my role as an incredibly concerned member of the local community, a place that has been my home for nearly 20 years of my short but active nearly 25 years fighting and experiencing racism in this country and county.
Nothing about Black Lives Matter is comfortable, and issues with policing in the US are also happening here. Students that currently study with the University can relate to the plight of George Floyd’s family, and the other victims of police violence. And the University needs to understand that Black Lives Matter goes beyond policing. Black Lives Matter goes to awarding gaps, accommodation, curriculum, disciplinaries and more. Black Lives Matter is every institution’s problem, particularly in higher education.
I am willing to start this conversation now, as a preemptive strategy to help the University long-term. This institution sees an awful lot of bad press from local media and also from the community, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. I so want to see this place succeed, as I know it can (if it takes these issues seriously, and takes the help of concerned community members, including myself, and others who I know who are also concerned about the University’s approach towards issues of race). In the sense, its approach to these subjects is nonspecific. “BAME” doesn’t help anyone.
What HEIs more generally should be doing is looking at the subtleties of race and identity, since BAME doesn’t take look at nuance or cultural heritage, locking culture, history and identity into a draw never to be seen again.
What the University is currently doing is not good enough. Advertising the diversity of students whilst simulataneously not investigating issues that hurt students, including racism. Diversity is a con, as it:
“often creates a happy impression; it is how an organisation appears(Ahmed, 2018: 334).
welcoming to those who appear different by drawing on those who appear different. Diversity can appear as an invitation, an open door, translated into a minorities welcome! Come in, come in”
There is a scab over a tumour throughout the sector. That tumour is institutional racism. Sir William Macpherson spoke about this in the Macpherson Report, investigating the flawed police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Wendy Williams doesn’t mention it by name, but she doesn’t need to, in Windrush Lessons Learned. Neither did Baroness McGregor-Smith in her review into race at work. Whilst these are not HE-specific, they all have correlations with universities. Institutional violence is pervasive in all institutions. Look at the relevant recommendations.
Now more than ever, in this historical moment, with Black Lives Matter and Coronavirus; as an institution, it should be studying institutional racism and structural inequalities, but more importantly and specifically, institutional violence. Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 are linked. Health and race have a history that go back to the days of the Windrush Generation when the women of that generation were called to fill labour shortages that still exist today. Especially, in healthcare, pertinent when we are currently in the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu in 1918.
To understand race, we must study racism, how it came to be and why. Which would mean interrogating higher education’s ties to histories of slavery, empire and colonialism. Race doesn’t exist, it’s a construct. It was created. We must stumble around in the dark and come face-to-face with the architects of colonial racial thinking. The people that allowed British colonialism to be so successful. That’s one way we help students.
We know who constructed Nazism and that ideology because how Britain defeated Hitler is embedded into the national consciousness. So, why should we treat Britain’s colonial history any different? We need to find the Joseph Goebells characters of the British Empire and study them.
Penultimately, I will end in asking why the University made the FBL BAME Project Lead redundant in July 2019?* A person whose job it was to do research into the ethnicity award gap. Someone who wrote reports and made recommendations. In the axing of this role, I’m inclined to believe the University did not like their recommendations, and thus did not act upon them. The signals it sends that they discontinued this role while the award gap is seemingly important to all universities baffles me.
In addition, does the University intend to replace the Diversity and Inclusion Lead in HR, whose contract ended.* The D&I Lead did some sterling work this last academic year, both in setting up staff networks as well as her work for LGBT History Month and Women’s History Month, all while on fixed-term part-time contract (at two days a week). If the University is going to take equality seriously, it needs to put resources behind it and recruit people that are specialists in that area.
Passionate people that will do the work and two days a week part-time fixed-term is not good enough. Only one staff member with little support? It very much looks like the University is cutting back on equalities. You can do better.
I will end in saying, when we do not look at the roots of a problem, they fester and that hurts everyone. Case in point: racism and policing. And the recommendations in The Macpherson Report have simply remained recommendations. When we want to solve problems, we don’t look to the leaves, we look to the roots so we can stop them happening again. From Wednesday, I will no longer be at the Students’ Union but I will still be a worried, concerned local resident. How the University has responded to Black Lives matter is simply not good enough and if they continue on this path, it risks damaging its reputation beyond belief. You. Can. Do. Better.
However, this needn’t be goodbye, but hello and the start of something. There is a community on your doorstep that want to help. Let us.
Tré Ventour (Vice President BME) – 2019/2020
PS: To anyone, including students that want to discuss issues of race further in this time of uncertainty (as we should all be discussing them always) or simply want to keep in contact, you can message me via the blog or you can get me via social media (Twitter / FB / IG), which is simply my name
*Note from the editors – the Criminology Team has been contacted by a representative of the University’s Human Resources department to clarify that the Equality and Diversity Lead left at the end of the fixed term contract period. In addition there was no redundancy in relation to a post in the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL).
Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348.
Other Sources of Interest
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategry (2017). Race in the Workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review. (Chairperson: Ruby McGregor-Smith). London: TSO
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chair: William Macpherson). London: TSO.
Home Office (2017). Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody. (Chairperson: Elish Angiolini). London: TSO.
Home Office (2020). Windrush Lessons Learned Review. (Chairperson: Wendy Williams). London: TSO.
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.
Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council. (2020). ‘Our Nine-Point Plan to Advance Racial Equality in Northamptonshire: June 2020,’ https://northantsrec.org, [online]. Available from: https://northantsrec2013.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/9-point-plan-to-advance-racial-equality-in-northamptonshire-final.pdf
Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, (Chairperson: Public Health England). London: TSO.
When I was a boy, growing up in Northamptonshire in the middle of England, I learned a lot of history from my own family. It was at home I learned about the cruel tenure of colonialism and the British Empire, not at school. My parents and grandparents told me of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and times where there was insignia to No Irish, No Black, No Dogs on shopfronts. They told me of “Keep Britain white” and Neil Kenlock’s iconic photograph. How Britain made the Windrush and their children, (both children of the British Empire unwelcome). Recently I saw This is England for the first time, and couldn’t help but feel we be might going back to an imitation of Powell, the NF, and his rivers of blood. I’m afraid. However, the difference between now and then is that today it’s everyone versus racism.
Like many of my Black and brown colleagues, we are never more fearful than when we are in a room full of white men. That stench of white male privilege is foul. Now, that’s some funk! I was made to relive my public school days when I saw the scenes of fascists fighting the police. When I saw these men defending another fascist, Winston Churchill, I was made to relive the trauma of school, where I was monkeychanted and called wog. Told to “eff off, you Black bastard” and that’s putting it kindly. These Neo-Nazis reminded me of people I went to school with. And since Black Lives Matter have come out once again, I have been called all kinds of things.
“Go back to your own country”… “ape” … “nigger lips” – this is what happens when you fight racists online, most of my racial trauma as an adult comes from the worldwide web
In my heart of hearts, I hope we do not go back to that time where Stephen Graham’s Combo is a commonality. London’s scenes showed me the zeitgeist of Britain’s swaggering xenophobia. That Britain is more Bill Sykes than Liz Bennett. The fact this country has a history of racism and you can go through the education system and not be taught about race once just shows you the level of brainwashing. And more importantly, the denial of our past and present. That aspiring teachers can go through initial teacher education [ITE] and not do anything on race equality, including the differences between teaching white and Black children (equity > equality). That when I am called those horrific names, I know they come from racism embedded in the unconscious, historically popularised by men like Edward Long, slave trader-historian, but he was also a devotee to pseudoscientific racism.
The Windrush Scandal: they were colonised, enslaved and then repatriated; so will we implement this history onto curricula in the years to come? I won’t hold my breath.
For me, those images of white men fighting police cast my mind to The Battle of Cable Street in 1936, but also that whole era of anti-fascism and Black shirts that lead up to the beginning of the Second World War. That in our pursuit to impliment Black history on the curriculum, this can’t detract from the fact we have histories of working-class narratives that need to be told as well. From Stonewall (1969) to Thatcherism and the Miners’ Strikes in the 1980s to the Irish and the Jews brining an end to Oswald Mosely in 1936, to the Bristol Bus Boycott (1963) and the Notting Hill Riots in 1958.
The late Peter Fryer wrote “nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters” and I would push that quote on to working class people in general. From the role of Black teachers in white schools of thought to the women of Grunwick in South Africa, passivity in times of oppression does not come natural to the human spirit. Now, when we push back against the status quo, a small minority of white men think we’re curtailing their rights. We are not taking away Englishness, simply putting back what was taken.
We have a history of radical political thought in this country, on both sides of the political spectrum. And the rise of the far-right in both parliament and the population shows a Britain in conflict. Yet, seeing how Britain’s diversity is pushing back against the Boris Johnsons and the Britain Firsts of this world does make me proud to be a born-and-bred Briton. That Tommy Robinson’s hooligans causing trouble do not speak for my white friends and this new wave of thought is in the tint of C. L. R James and George Padmore. That Black Lives Matter follows in the footsteps of Garvey, King and X.
It is chilling to say the least, that our ancestors fought facism before, winning with far fewer resources than what we have now – and “we know that history records the achievements of empires and imperial civilization more than it does the humanizing and civilizing contributions of emancipation movements” (Gopal, 2019: 27). What makes history interesting to me is the diversity of characters, pertinent to the story of this country. Whether we’re talking Indians during Votes for Women, Afro-Romans on Hadrians Wall or the life and times of role models like WW2
codebreaker Alan Turing, part of our national story and his sexuality is honestly the least interesting thing about him.
To fight police without thought of consequence is reserved to privileged straight white men. When the Suffragetes did it, there were consequences. When people of colour have done it there have been consequences (esp. Black people). Breonna Taylor was killed whilst she slept. Emmett Till was considered a threat a fourteen years old. 184 Black and minority ethnic people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest). The only people in society who have the gall to take on police without thought of consequence is able-bodied, white, cisgendered, straight men. Why? You only have to look at the British history books and how they are written, in their image.
When the worst war criminals in human history are white men glorified as heroes (i.e Churchill), is it any surprise white male privilege ran riot when those fascists violently retaliated against the Black Lives Matter movement?
Works of Note
Fryer, P. (1988). Black People in the British Empire. London: Pluto.
Gopal, P. (2019) Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. London: Verso.