TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X
NB: I am not funny enough to have singlehandedly come up with the term “coup d’twat” to describe the current constiutional horror show. That honour belongs to Twitter, which I first saw referenced by the radical psychologist Guilaine Kinouani. At the moment, my Twitter and Facebook timeline is congested with memes and vines relating to the crisis at hand … and much of that I find is due to the notion if we do not laugh now, we will cry. In times of crisis, clearly we do not look to the politicians, the hedgefund managers or the corporates. We do look to the artists, and people that do make memes are artists (because not everybody can do it and do it well!). If it was easy, we would all do it!
In criminology, it is impossible to look at situations like this and not be thinking of the bigger picture. It is very easy to stay focused on Boris Johnson who has made a career appearing as a non-threatening bumbling buffoon. At the same time he is accountable not to the people that voted for him, but the big donor money that sits behind the Conservative Party. If the prime minister has been pushed out (though we won’t know if he actually leaves until September … he may just do a Trump), it’s not because of his party but because oligarchs have seen that he is no longer useful and bad for business.
Only two centuries ago my ancestors were enslaved on the islands of Grenada and Jamaica, and before abolitionists were fighting pro-enslavement MPs in Britain, the enslaved were leading rebellions across the Caribbean and at the point of kidnap in Africa. It is by some miracle I am with you now to tell these stories of disssent when so many Black people were killed from disease and hunger in the holes and hulls of European slave ships. With the prime minister “leaving” in September, I am more conscious of the wider system and how fascism arrives in tandem with people telling you to stop over-reacting.
The constitutional crisis we are in now is a coup d’twat built inside a wider prism of complacency. It claims there is “a time and place” to protest and challenge, and that is never all the time (when it should be). In the fights our ancestors had for freedom, we forget how hard it is to maintain that. It appears democracy in Britain begins and ends at voting every four years, and you must accept your lots in life in that four-year window. Within my sentient life now coming to my twenty-seventh year, my generation in the UK probably do not have living reference points for democracy beyond that narrow definition.
Most people believe they have no say in the forces that dictate their lives. On university campuses, it is increasingly clear that the voices of corporate senior leadership teams / governors are favoured more than lecturers and students. The Government has been criticised for its entanglements with oligarchy, but what about universities that focus more on individualism over community? The events since 6th July are being reproduced in various ways in education where neoliberal capitalism runs brigand. Out of touch senior leadership make choices on things they have no knowledge of and do not care about concerns of students if it doesn’t make them money. The concerns of lecturers get shafted too.
Meanwhile, senior leadership continue to leverage students as cash-cows while not taking decolonial approaches to education seriously. People that challenge the University in these ways get made into problems, and sometimes destroyed. For democracy to work, challenge must always be invited. This doesn’t stop with parliament but extends to all breathing institutions. At universities, when you disempower students they then feel they do not have the right to challenge information in class. This does not look like a democratic institution.
Boris Johnson will not see himself as a disgrace as he will always be part of that “canteen culture“, and you cannot judge someone to the standards that do not even see themselves in. Those same behaviours of not being accountable are in every institution. The only difference is as prime minister, is power. He is part of the gilded circle, leaving number ten in disgrace or not. These politicians have survived much much worse and will again. On both sides of the bench, there are too many millionaires who know nothing of what it means to be hungry and to do without.
Boris leaving is a smokescreen. Labour or Conservative the wider system is crooked and has been for years, all while there is a crisis of confidence in democracy in parliament and outside of it.
What can I, a cisgender man, say about abortion? I don’t really have an answer to that. But I do think it is vital that cis men do pick up some of the emotional labour. Recently, I have been talking to myself about Roe and hopefully this blog at the very least provokes questions. Increasingly, I have been made aware of the silence of cisgender men on Roe v. Wade while people from marginalised genders continue to pick up the emotional labour. Here, I aim to create what the late US senator John Lewis referred to as “good trouble … necessary trouble” to poke holes in the status quo.
Also, what could Roe v. Wade mean for us in Britain? The overturning of Roe situates the continued upholding of white supremacy through racial and gendered violence. First of all, in America there sits a racist enterprise that did not start with Trump (as convenient that would be to claim) but is centuries in the making. In his 1987 book The Birth Dearth, presidential advisor and author Ben Wattenberg wrote:
At the time he wrote this, he was criticised as a white supremacist, as in the 1980s, the majority of immigrants moving into the United States were Black and Brown. In the book, he also claims 60% of the fetuses being aborted where white and if they could be kept alive, it would solve what he called “the birth dearth.” And what he was talking about is exactly as it sounds … eugenics.
In their 2021 essay ‘The Birth Dearth: The Sad but True Reason Why What’s Happening in Texas Right Now Shouldn’t Surprise You’, Ajah Hales writes
“Wattenberg peddled soft eugenics dressed up as concern for the economy and democracy across the globe. Becoming the world’s most powerful nation was, to Wattenberg, due to the efforts, values and contributions of white men, particularly Western Europeans.
Now the battle for control of white women’s uteri moved from a moralistic argument to a nationalistic one. I say white women because the reproductive organs of Black and other women of color were being policed in a totally different way.
While white women were encouraged to have babies, women of color were being forcibly sterilized and having dangerous forms of birth control pushed on them, sometimes through the use of financial incentives or time off of prison sentences.”
Over the past few days since the overturning of the Roe precedent, I have seen numbers of people (especially cisgender white women) posting memes and images of that ilk from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to depict a “new” dystopian present. It comes in the thinking of a “new” needed “feminist” reply to the overturning of Roe, as if the policing of people’s bodies only started now. Where was that support when Black women were asking in 2020 in response to the Murder of Breonna Taylor, and prior with the further murders of Black women by police? #SayHerName. Long story short, state violence that has always discriminated against the Global Majority, many white women are now seeing that what has frequently occurred in the long reach of colonial history, can also happen to them!
The use of The Handmaid’s Tale is offensive because the novel is basically, a study in whitewashing what happened to Black and Brown women historically in the United States, only then adapting it to white women’s lives in a fictional context. Only by applying it to white women, did a number of white people understand Black and Brown trauma, even more concerning that in a 2020 exit poll 55% of white women voters reportedly voted Trump. Furthermore, in America today it is also a crime for most ex-convicts to vote where this overturning of Roe will further disenfranchise many. Not just cis women but also transgender men, as well as many nonbinary and and intersex people. So, in many states now, access to safe abortions have now been criminalised. As Katie Halper said in a Double Down News broadcast,
The prevalence around guns and the policing of bodies (particlarly marginalised genders) takes me back to the ethos America was founded on – violence, violence, and more violence – where guns have more rights than sentient life. White terrorism continues in the 21st century just as it did 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In 2022 at a Save America Rally, GOP congresswoman Mary Miller told an audience the overturning of Roe was “a historic victory for white life” bringing us back to The Great Replacement theory and a white fear of being outnumbered by Black and Brown people (that same fear could be argued to have been present in Enoch Powel’s 1968 River of Blood speech, further to changes to 1970s UK policing, as well as the implementation of the Nationality and Borders Act which could impact up to 6m people).
There is also a further Christian supremacy in the politicising of abortion to gain votes, and Christianity was historically the trojan horse for white supremacy. Intertwined with male supremacy (patriarchy … emphasis on white men here, but clearly not exclusively … i.e Black / Brown Conservatives and “nice white women“) this revisits what I like to call the Mad Men Thesis after the 2007 drama series set in the 1960s – discussing a patriarchy that asserted a woman’s place was to “serve” men, be it at work (doing the labour while men took credit) or home making house and raising children (while the husband took credit). These sorts of men also pushed values that protected their status (see phalluscentrism and what Laura Mulvey writes on the Male Gaze … misogyny in film), further to obsessions with holding power of over women.
This is in essence the boomerang movement of patriarchal white supremacy, as what frequently occurred in the domicile and / or global in/external elsewhere to Black and Brown people can happen to white people too if the state chooses! What’s been frequently said is that this sort of violence starts with us, but what gets missed is that it doesn’t end with us. For example, the Sarah Everard vigil was a stark reminder that police brutality that has long haunted Black and Brown people’s lives, can also impact the lives of cis white women even within their bubble of whiteness. Everyone who lives under the state is at risk of state violence depending on proximity (we have more in common than not).
However, in a UK context, it is interesting but not surprising to see many Britons othering the overturning of Roe v. Wade as an exclusively American issue when as we know all too well, where America leads Britain all too often follows. Whilst we most definitely should be in solidarity with our friends and colleagues in the United States, we must not get complacent in that textbook British exceptionalism. The overturning of Roe is fascism and fascism is also happening on British soil too. Since as of now, both the Nationality and Borders Bill (known as the Borders Act) and the Crime, Policing and Sentencing Bill (Courts Act) are etched into law. It doesn’t take much thought to see how a Roe v Wade situation could easily happen here.
In October 2019, Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion, but access to abortion is still precarious and abortion services have not yet been commissioned. And as Rachel Connolly writes “… the health minister Robin Swann, has refused to comply.” Amid the British state’s actions in criminalising asylum seekers and fostering a culture that seeks to normalise anti-trans violence (#RowlingGate) as the Tories continue to attack the rights of trans people as well, I hear a lot of this could never happen in Britain rhetoric. But it could happen in Britain and it is happening in Britain: anti-abortion laws are not only a gender issue but a human rights issue, where anti-abortion discourse harms on numerous grounds.
For example trans men and intersex people will also be impacted, further to working-class, the disabled and Black and Brown people. If what happened in America comes to Britain, the Tory horror show will grow darker while the National Health Service is auctioned off to the highest bidder … many of them American corporations where profits will be put ahead of people’s lives and wellbeing, as the NHS is victim of a forty-year stealth attack that started under Margaret Thatcher. With the NHS being sold off, how will those who rely on it be able to afford abortions, let alone access one, should they become criminalised too? And further plans to make “reforms” to the Human Rights Act, leave us in a vulnerable state of affairs. Britain is not America, but that “special relationship” appears in more ways than one.
Like the Borders Act as well as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, Roe v Wade didn’t just happen at random – and it also implicates far-right fantasies lead by Black and Brown conservatives as Nel Abbey tweeted: “The unspeakably dark side of having to work twice as hard and be twice as good to stand out” where Black judge Clarence Thomas revisits how white supremacy can come with a Black face.
During his confirmation hearing, he accused people of a “high-tech lynching” when he was accused of sexually harrassing Anita Hill. And as Katie Halper states, “one could argue without Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas would not be on the Supreme Courts today.” Yet, the Dems had ample chances to codify Roe into law but didn’t because … no backbone. As Obama stated in 2009, that an abortion rights law wasn’t a top priority. And really to sit at the table, you need (to varying degrees) emulate the master. As whiteness is as much exclusively about “being white” as patriarchy is as much exclusively about “being a man.”
America was a British colony for years and the US was founded on social discourses of industrialised rape via enslavement to create labour; kidnap of Indigenous children via white supremacist boarding schools; the enslavement of African children co-opted into the plantation economy, and restrictive immigration policies (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882). Also, consider recently with anti-trans legislation being pushed through on multiple fronts, as well as sodomy laws that still existed in sixteen states as of 2020.
With the rolling back of human rights in Britain including on immigration and protest, we may then see future far-right attacks against reproductive freedoms that will hurt the marginalised worst of all. Just like in America, here in Britain we can’t vote our way out of this and we must make it “politically painful” (as Katie Halper says) for politicians to continue their middle-of-the-road politics. Call them Labour or Conservative, they will not save us and will leave us to rot in the gutter. More recently, unionists like Mike Lynch have proved a better opposition to the Tories than Kier Starmer (let alone Labour) symbolic of the power of working-class resistance in bringing political pain to a media class in cahoots with Government.
In the long reach of American history following and predating Reagan, social murder is commonpractice in the daily drumbeat we call structural violence. We lay naked in the synapse of crime and punishment, and the overturning of Roe is the latest iteration where what has been long-known by many Black and Brown people, many white people are now taking notice as it now impacts them where they sleep.
Under the rhetoric of anti-abortion, these people are pro-life until the child is born. But these same people will then support easy access to lethal weapons, where an AR-15 whose sole purpose is to kill has more rights than life itself. British exceptionalism has no place in this discussion because if a Roe comes to Britain and passes like in America, many of us are going to die. And you will never see the murderer.
As an educator, I have a conscious investment in the Education system. However, I’m also one of those people some would define as a “pracademic” (practitioner-academic) who still works within the fields he teaches about (in this context creative writing and history). Though with much of my writing having a socially scientific slant, I’m always thinking about education as a site of violence and liberation … most recently Child Q and the role of teachers possibly as police in disguise (at least in terms of thinking and culture). While I see arguments for removing police officers from schools, I wonder if that would do much … other than be a symbolic gesture. I do agree police shouldn’t be in schools, but the culture of policing is everywhere. The only thing that seperates police officers from others is the added state powers.
When Britons consider the problems with UK policing, I am uncertain if this stretches beyond the uniform to how some educators in schools and universities act like cops. Even after the Murder of Sarah Everard, there are many people who I have found struggle to contemplate that the main job of The Police is to uphold the status quo and that includes protecting property (i.e the streets) even if that means steamrolling The People from the streets (i.e protesters). Moreover, Child Q (a Black child) was brutalised by London Met in 2020 further discussed in a 2022 report while a Mixed-Race child (known under alias Olivia) was similarly brutalised in May 2022 strip-searched whilst on her period. There has since been a third victim shedding light on the extremities of London Metropolitan Police’s strip-search practices.
When I was a sabbatical officer at Northampton, I sat on a number of disciplinary panels where panel members questioned students with the same manner as a police officer. Considering these students were largely Black (in my experience) and the panellists white, these encounters always had very racist overtones. Talking to white students, the offenses Black students were punished for … white students would boast about even with staff knowing. Based on the 2011 census Black people are 3% of the population (the 2021 data will be different … whenever released). However, during my 2019-20 sabbatical year, investigated deaths after police contact were disproportionate (Andrews, 2016; IOPC, 2017/18). And while 3% of the population was Black, we also make up 13% of prisoners (Andrews, 2019: xxiii).
With many Black British students at Northampton from north and south London (where if you are Black, you are also at greater risk of being stopped by police), the fact these panel members acted like police simply adds harm revisiting the strained race relations between Black civilians and white institutions (including police, education, and healthcare). This also revisits the sociohistorical significance of the relationship between ‘white masters and enslaved Black people’ with the crimes of yesterday playing out today causing harm tomorrow. The recent Living Black report simply adds to that. And as an educator who does go into schools, I know policing does happen in classrooms whether those schools have police officers on site or not. As Carla Shalaby (2017) writes these students as:
When I tell people (let’s be honest largely white people) that I am no fan of the Police, they often respond with individual positive experiences they have had with individual police officers as a way to silence my experience. Often along the lines of my dad’s a police officer and a good just man … how could you hate him? Silencing through “whataboutery” unwilling to acknowledge that race and policing has a British history to it that goes way back to at least the 1919 Race Riots. As historian James Walvin (1973) writes
“All neutral observers agreed that the black community was on the defensive and yet its members, in trying to defend themselves were arrested and prosecuted for their attempts at self-defence, while all but a handful of the white aggressors went unchallenged” (p207).
Generally, I need a very good reason to call the Police because I know even if you call them for help, they can turn on you (especially if you’re Black). I know if I call the Police to an incident, I am not only putting myself in danger but also every Black person in a two-mile radius in danger. Britain is not America and they do not have guns as standard issue, but we must also not pretended that violence begins and ends with guns. Yet, seemingly many white people I have spoken to seem to find it more difficult (in my experience) to consider the institution of policing and how that institution is violent and harms people (even post-George Floyd). Yes, Black people are disproportionately harmed but we must not pretend we’re alone in that. Whilst you can take police officers out of schools (and university … ahem), that ideology of discipline and control can still reside in staff when given power within spheres of influence.
The book Policing the Crisis (Hall and Colleagues, 1978) recognised a change in authoritarian measures levied against Britain’s Black communities that was largely done with public consent in the 1970s. The media took the role in narrating ‘social knowledge’ of street crime and created a mythology around the “mugger” which street crime was racialised against. Thus social anxieties around young people and “urban space” and young Black people (especially males) was viewed through. I see these social anxieties still playing out today as young Black children are policed in classrooms, not necessarily by police officers but by teachers maintaining “law and order.” This is further complicated by adultification where Black children are seen as older than they are – more “adult-like”, more “sexual”, more “mature.”
At a university level, I know this policing happens in housing and accomodation. Whilst as a sabbatical officer at Northampton between 2019-20, I spoke to Black students who had experienced racist incidents from Residential Life, and these students would not make complaints out of fear much in the same culture of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon.” These students knew they were being watched and policed in different ways, but they could not point at the aggressor.
As Nirmal Puwar states
“There is an undeclared white masculine body underlying the universal construction of the enlightenment ‘individual’. […] In the face of a determined effort to disavow the (male) body, critics have insisted that the ‘individual’ is embodied, and that it is the white male figure … who is actually taken as the central point of reference. […] It is against this template, one that is defined in opposition to women and non-whites — after all, these are the relational terms in which masculinity and whiteness are constituted — that women and ‘black’ people who enter these spaces are measured” (Puwar, 2004: 141).
When I was sixteen, I was one of those students that was excluded (put in internal isolation for three days for talking in class … definitely a disproportionate reaction to the misdemanour). And here, I know this experience is relatively mild in proxmity to many of my Black peers at other schools who were being punished multiple times a week (and others expelled). When many white people talk to me about school, the common denominator is that it was somewhere they felt relatively safe. Now, I get emails from Black parents of Black children and white parents of Black Mixed-Race children about racism in schools and how the schools don’t do anything. The policing of Black racialised bodies within schools is a further discussion to be had, and my community in Northamptonshire is not beyond criticism.
The frequency to which I hear Black students are punished at school and university is alarming, not surprising to see the the crossover between race and prison … as well as neurodiversity and prison where those who are seen to be “difficult” invading the space of the classroom are punished: “we have, then, a public execution and a timetable, they do not punish the same crimes nor the same type of delinquent, but they each define a certain penal style” (Foucault, 1975: 7). In this context, Foucault was talking about the man who pulled a penknife on King Louis XIV. The man was publicly drawn and quartered. He is then compared to the schedule of a prisoner in the House of Prisoners eighty years later. Two very different punishments but both ultimately damaging in different ways and products of different épistemes.
However, what I draw from this is how in today’s society, difference is punished, and there is a longevity and immediacy to the punishment. For example, the school-to-prison pipeline sees a figurative drawn-quartering of its victims that sees children through mechanisms of punishment all their lives. If they do manage to escape the prison system, that record is held over their head. Our tendency is to see medieval punishments as less humane than today’s punishment systems as if there is such thing as “progressive” violence. Yet, things like social murder (hostile environment; austerity; Cost of Living) can be compared to a slow genocide while things like the British Empire are relegated as historical relics (historical indeed?)
With the de/underfunding of the police over the last decade (Fleetwood and Lea, 2022), the greater threat sits in ideologies of control which can be picked up by anybody. Norman Fairclough (1994) argued power is “implicit within everyday social practices …. at every level in all domains of life” (p50). Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is a another example. When ordinary people were given the simultative power of prison guards, that power went to their heads. Those who volunteered to be “prisoners” were subjected to that and some were traumatised. Except in schools, they are not volunteers. We do not actually need police in schools for the simulation of policing to be carried out, as teachers and other school staff can carry this out just as academics have done in my experience at university level!
Foucault also argued that since the 1600s, practices of pushing “obedience through discipline and routine” have pervaded through other spheres “as if they tended to cover the entire social body” (Foucault, 1975: 139). The dissemination of internal / external exclusions, detentions, reprimands, housepoints, praise for 100% attendance (as if students aren’t allowed to be ill?) For students with learning differences, neurodivergent (dis)abilities, physically disabilities, as well as those with mental-ill health (and more), this is also ableism practiced through the norms of the institution.
Schools prepare students for the workforce creating drones rather than full human beings. As someone that is also autistic, I remember my teachers centralising the ideas of “fitting in” and how I did not fit in with their aesthetic of existing in the world. There sits the epistemic violence where the mainstream knowledge of socialising children with other children becomes the be all and all. The routine of conformity culture and those who do not conform are disciplined and punished in various ways, where discipline to me in school was being forced to fit in (basically ABA [autistic conversation therapy]) and thus impeded my ability to construct my own identity as someone who is not neurotypical.
Ultimately because power is not exercised exclusively through physical dominance, but cultural dominance through the stories we tell and the images that get produced. We become institutionalised by the practices we have routinely been subjected to whether that be school or the prison, thus transforming ourselves – not into the best humans we can be as humans – but as “docile bodies.” Those of us that do put in the work of unlearning what we have been conditioned into are then stigmatised. We are seen as “agitators” and “trouble” as the institution protects itself. This unlearning is not bloodless and if we are to ever have a decolonial society, we must encourage and support those who go against the grain and the norms of our institutions. Not make examples of them (Ahmed, 2018; 2021).
NB: While the term ‘abolition’ has often been used in reference to African Chattel Enslavement, it is also used in the context of police and prisons. i.e the work of Angela Davis has long advocated for prison abolition, while police abolition and #DefundthePolice were debated at the pique of the Black Lives Matter movement. Especially when US Congressperson Cori Bush used the slogan on her winning ticket.
In a UK context, police abolition specifically may be considered even more so, following the Murder of Sarah Everard and the two incidents of police terrorism from London Met on Black and Brown children: most infamously on Child Q and even more recently in the ordeal of an autistic Mixed-Race fourteen year-old, who like Child Q was strip-searched while menstruating on their period. A third strip-search victim has now been reported, but their race has not been stated (as of June 2022).
With consistent cuts since the arrival of the Conservatives in 2010, it could be argued British policing has been defunded for some time (Fleetwood and Lea, 2022) where in response to “Defund the Police” Kier Starmer called it “just nonsense”. Following the second anniversary of the Murder of George Floyd, I am not sure what has changed, and in some cases, we are worse off than we were in June 2020 (i.e Nationality Bill, Policing Bill, Sewell Report). However, Sarah Everard and Child Q are simply two examples in a trajectory of incidents by London Met that show the problems within policing are not only symptomatic of society, but that only defunding will not go far enough in combatting something that is also sociocultural and ideological. Simply, joining the police does not make a person racist, misogynist (etc etc), but culture and ideology via power can exasperate the biases people have within them.
Whilst in my time writing for the blog, I have scarcely touched policing, it is not a topic I am unfamilar with as I was stopped and searched for the first and only time when I was fourteen years old in an encounter which I now know could be described as “adultification” (Dancy III, 2014; Epstein and Colleages, 2017). As a Black person, this is not a topic one can just escape as many of us will have had friends and / or family members who have been negatively impacted by experiences with the Police. Teaching on Violence (CRI3003) this academic year, it radicalised me further against The Police institution pertinently with the class on the Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Not just the shooting itself, but how London Metropolitan Police dealt with the aftershocks in their shoddy police work and incredibly violent mistakes.
Yet, as a Black person I am more familiar with the killings of Edson Da Costa, Rashan Charles, Joy Gardner, Sarah Reed, and even the events that lead to the Brixton Uprisings (1981). Moreover, the police terrorism at Mangrove (1970), and events surrounding uprisings in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. So, this culture of overpolicing to the extent that few Black people I know have anything good to say about them, let alone London Met, has something to be said for it. Black people have long felt underprotected and you cannot train white supremacy out of an organisation who are fundamentally colonial soldiers.
The way London Metropolitan Police deal with students, protesters, women, and other marginalised groups is deplorable. Often the police skirt around their violent decision-mistaking, by describing it as “failure” but I do not believe this goes far enough. The term failure implies there were prior attempts to engage. Yet, so often they haven’t tried to engage with others, including marginalised communities (not that this is exclusive to policing). However, what appears more obvious is the lack of effort to look at themselves, as we saw when the Met claimed they didn’t see Wayne Couzens (the murderer of Sarah Everard) as one of their own even despite using his status as a police officer to kidnap and kill a woman (he was the sacrifice for patriarchy). The Met then stormed the vigil held in her memory.
Britain needs police but I am not sure we need The Police. What policing looks like needs to change, and it must be a policing that puts the most vulnerable first and asks questions why these people are vulnerable. The inquiry into the Prime Minister’s wine and cheese parties is allegedly being led by Deputy Commissioner Bas Javid (the brother of Health Secretary Sajid Javid). Defunding London Met would only go so far as to redivert resources, but the more critical questions around culture and ideology would standfast. No less than in considering the nature of gilded circles. Reform often does not change anything other than show us the problems are thousands times worse than once thought.
Last year, the 1987 murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan was revisited, and even in the 1980s London Met were considered corrupt. Abolishing the Metropolitan Police and starting anew is the only reasonable measure whether we are talking about racism, miosgyny or even out and out corruption and cronyism. However, it is not just the Met but The Police wholescale. Just as an example, South Yorkshire police have not faced repercussions from Hillsborough while West Yorkshire have not been held accountable over Jimmy Savile. The police’s problems are not in bad apples, and food scientists will tell you how one “bad apple” is enough to spoil the bunch. When we were children, how many of us had friends our parents didn’t like, and then these friends “spoilt” the dynamics of the group? After Joy Gardner, Blair Peach, Daniel Morgan, Stephen Lawrence, and others, it’s clear The Met (and Policing) is rotten to the core and that includes how it traps good and bad officers too. Systems > Individuals.
Though, we all know that when we are presented a reckoning of sorts, it will be led by establishment patsies and not the people who understand what it means to be on the recieving end of persistent institutional violence. The phrase “Abolish the Police” strikes fear into a good many people and that’s the problem. The culture of our politics has paralysed our thinking of a different world. As a population, we are so psychologically colonised by what we can see, to imagine a a different world is truly terrifying.
NB: In this blog the term ‘white’ will be used to describe those racialised as white within the UK as a white nation (Hage, 1998; Hunter, 2010), and those that benefit the most from white privilege. Though many Ukranian asylym seekers may in cases be racialised as white, their culture sits juxtaposed to the dominant thus ‘not white enough’, so may not always be seen as white by white British people (see what Kalwant Bhopal writes on this in the context of Gypsy Roma Travellers (2018: 29-47). Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White may show another context in relation to Irish migration into the United States.
“Extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007).
People tell me I spend too much time thinking and need to actually write the thing I spend so much time thinking about! However, with this blog about Ukraine, I did not want to jump on the journalistic bandwagon of being “the first” or “right”, but being thoughtful. I wanted to offer something different to mainstream consensus of “big evil Putin”, and talk about some of the discourses to race that I have been thinking about in relation to the images I have seen over the last months (much inspired by tweets, threads, and conversations lead by many Black and Brown scholars on Twitter).
Following the University’s response to the crisis, it brought me to consider how there has been more “action” than in prior crises, including Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine. For those of us descended from Black and Brown migrants who came to Britain between the 1948 Nationality Act and 1971 Immigration Act, I do not have to explain the pernicious ways British foreign policy has often tried to keep Black and Brown people out and white people in. For example, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill that seeks to criminalise asylum seekers, and introduce powers to revoke the citizenship of those with dual nationality (likely to impact up to six million people). When we critique the racist double standards in their response to Ukraine, white people are surprised while Black and Brown people are not.
The ease to which Britain adjusted to the cause of white Ukranians but did not and have not adjusted – to not only overseas crises in Somalia, the Yemen, and Palestine – but also at home in Europe to Black Lives Matter … is deplorable. Meanwhile numbers of Black and Brown asylum seekers are left to drown in the Channel. Seemingly, when white lives are on the line, things move! As Olena Lyubchenko writes, “Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination are increasingly understood by local elites to be bound up with incorporation into ‘fortress Europe’ and the making of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ as ‘white’ and ‘European.’”
The way organisations rallied around the Ukraine crisis shows when it is politically relevant to white structures and institutions, and it comes to white lives, there is a will and a way to go above and beyond what is reasonable. Meanwhile organisations that made Black Lives Matter statements in 2020 are giving lip service to anti-racism in their celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (ahem) and gaining influence from it. Yet, equality commitments extended to Ukranian asylum seekers are not extended to Black and Brown people, both those domiciled in white nations and those migrating from areas of the Global South – where a white nation can be described as a country “… whose self-understanding, collective symbolic and affective practices, as well as material relations, are enacted through the naturalisation of whiteness via processes of external … and internal … colonisation of Black subjects” (Hunter, 2015).
If there is to be an example of ‘white solidarity’, the British response to the war in Ukraine is certainly among them. For people not racialised as white, though what’s happening in Ukraine is awful, when similar things happen to Black and Brown people, white institutions do not rush to our defense. Whether it is Somalia, the Yemen, Palestine or other Black / Brown countries, white supremacy is very much in play in whose lives are seen of worth. The treatment of Black and Brown students fleeing Ukraine at the border is also of note in the face of white supremacy and Neo-Nazism itself.
In dominant media discourse, Black and Brown people continue to be dehumanised. A pattern of constructing white Europeanness as civilised in juxtaposition to “senseless” conflicts in the Global South continue. A way of thinking that Edward Said long pointed out in his discussion of the East / West binary in Orientalism stating it as “… the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it” (Said, 1979: 3). This behaviour finds itself in ‘whiteness as ownershhip” (Harris, 1993), and through the white institution of the media making claims about the Global South “Describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1979: 3).
The above quote from Charlie D’Agata as well, also revisits colonial formations of that term “white” as civilised yet at the same time othering “Black” and “Brown” as something uncivilised.
Maya Goodfellow writes:
“As they plundered, exploited and brutally controlled colonies and the people in them, all to enrich Britain as part of the growth of the capitalist project, colonialists swore by the racial hierarchy. Whiteness was not simply a descriptor; it was used to give anchor to the idea that Europe was the place of modernity and civilisation. White Europeans – in particular white upper-class men – were thought inherently modern and sophisticated; their black and brown counterparts, the opposite. The former, human; the latter, not. These ideas live on, subtly drawing a line between the developed and the developing, the advanced and the backward” (Goodfellow, 2019: 51)
The University of Northampton’s response did not really do anything, much in the same trajectory as their 2020 Black Lives Matter statement. Words lost behind inaction with no reference to Russian and Ukranian students studying at the university, nor the continuous racial trauma Black and Brown students are forced to experience. Only this time to see Black and Brown people victim yet again to ‘white terrorism’ (hooks, 1992; Yancy, 2017). For people racialised outside of whiteness, countries like Britain can be a wasteland with no escape. And this is when we are forced to create “safe spaces” seperate from the dominant.
I am not an immigrant to this country, though racialised outside of whiteness often places me as a “space invader” (Puwar, 2004) and means I can be treated like I am from somewhere else both “internally” and “externally” colonised (Hunter, 2015) in this white nation fantasy (Hage, 1998). As Black and Brown migrant bodies continue to be drowned in the seas, the 2020 Netflix film His House positions the experiences of Black asylum seekers fleeing South Sudan as pure horror. To think, the only reason people flee their countries like that and chance the seas, is if what you’re fleeing is scarier than the unknown of your destination. “Be one of the good ones” says the social worker (Matt Smith) with a wry smile.
The war in Ukraine reminds us that whiteness constitutes itself differently for those read as white, where in Britain the treatment of Gypsy Roma Traveller [GRT] people follows this pattern. Further to the treatment of Eastern Europeans such as Polish and Romanian immigrants. The legal rights of GRT people will be eroded further should the government’s Crime, Policing and Sentencing Bill reach fruition. Whiteness is as exclusively about being white as patriarchy is exclusively about being a man. It’s much more complex, but we do not get to the crux in our media culture of sound bites and simplistic answers to complex questions. Discussions about racism needs to change to extend the gaze to many shades of whiteness.
Emma Dabiri writes:
“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.
In truth, this is the work of whiteness, whose invention was to serve that function. Saying that all “white” people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, location, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness – the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence – we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses.”From: What White People Can Do Next (2021: 45-46)
Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010), all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place/geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and really how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.
Social discourses to Palestine and Black Lives Matter are two examples of Black and Brown lives being beyond the interest of white institutions, while Ukraine reminds us in spite of their reality, white lives matter more. In 1985, co-founder of Critical Race Theory Derrick Bell coined a term called ‘interest convergence’ to describe the way US civil rights only became a priority when it met the “interests” of white people. Ukraine in much the same way is a declaration of white solidarity, where under white supremacy whiteness will always protect itself over the interests of those racialised outside of it.
For as long as the invention of race has ‘existed’, the protection of white interests (ownership – see Cheryl Harris) has always trumped the protection of Black and Brown lives. Ukraine aside, to think the police are there to protect you is a mark of privilege when it is the job of the police to uphold the status quo which implicates upholding white supremacy. Black and Brown students at the border were just “objects” to be moved out of the way, no different to how Black and Brown students are seen and treated on the streets in the Global North including at school and university campuses.
Nirmal Puwar writes
“There is an undeclared white masculine body underlying the universal construction of the enlightenment ‘individual’. Critics of the universal ideal human type in Western thought elaborate on the exclusionary somebody in the nobody of political theory that proclaims to include everybody. In the face of a determined effort to disavow the (male) body, critics have insisted that the ‘individual’ is embodied, and that it is the white male figure, of a changing habitus, who is actually taken as the central point of reference. The successive unveiling of the disembodied human ‘individual’ by class theorists, feminists and race theorists has collectively revealed the corporeal specificity of the absolute human type. It is against this template, one that is defined in opposition to women and non-whites – after all, these are the relational terms in which masculinity and whiteness are constituted – that women and ‘black’ people who enter these spaces are measured” (Puwar, 2004: 141).
The constructing of ‘white’ as neutral is central to white supremacy and this is also what makes Diversity and Inclusion such a problem (Bhanot, 2015). However, the Ukraine crisis further shows how whiteness can come with qualifiers and that white supremacy will use those seen as ‘less white’ to discriminate against those (overtly … schema-wise) marked outside of that ‘white’ category. Tao Leigh Goffe tweeted “Skin is a passport. Epidermal citizenship”, in my opinion to act as a double meaning. Firstly, that skin is a literal passport and can grant citizenship through various levels of “white-skin privilege” (Allen and Ignatiev, 1967; McIntosh, 1988; Kyla Lacey, 2017; Eddo-Lodge, 2017; Bhopal and Henderson, 2021).
However, there could be a further meaning to mean a passport through spaces coded as white, and citizenship in certain spaces that Black and Brown people would not be granted entry to. So, our discussions around whiteness must extend to how it appears through various social markers including class, gender, culture, political affiliation and more. If the Ukraine crisis is to be our conduit, it shows our conversations and knowledge-building around whiteness must extend from what one scholar names as “the more fasionable white privilege” into a more critical conversation about white supremacy (Mills, 2004: 31) where whiteness can work like a virus – mutating, splitting, growing, reproducing, adapting, multiplying (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000; Chow, 2002; Wiegman, 2012).
We have work to do!
The main title for this piece comes from a book of the same namesake by Kojo Koram.
Plantations and pub gardens; afternoon tea, cakes, caps, graduation gowns and colonial statues; white supremacist symbols upon symbols. An (in)visible web of arcane history blurring the lines between chants for anti-racism in schools and schools of white thought celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the ‘Best of British’. No politician, no lawyer, no academic could keep up with such walking contradictions, even the Tories and their wine and cheese soirées or a university vice chancellor mired in scandal! These entanglements even make the Prime Minister look modest.
Who wants consistency in anti-racist commitments when you can have fantasy? Who wants to talk of motifs to enslavers when you can munch on crumpets? Who wants punishment collars when there’s a national holiday and a pint in the sunshine? Pull away the veil and what are we left with? A country that boasts about multiculturalism and anti-racism in one breath, and the seemingly unconnected Platinum Jubilee in the next. Tell a story with the bite of Ozymindias, and even the most staunch anti-racists will be sitting down for a nice sherry come the Jubilee. What these narratives do, is “spectacularise” individuals and that is the power of storytelling. It turns human beings into gods and this is mass media marketing to the very extreme. Her name is Elizabeth Queen of Queens, look upon this mighty charade and despair.
Following anti-colonial resistance in the Caribbean to royal visits, current Jubilee celebrations on the British side of the Atlantic appear insensitive (these visits are simply a catalyst, not an exclusive … they were always problematic). However, as I wonder the Northampton streets I grew up on, admiration for The Crown does not seem to waiver amid local and chain businesses, seemingly having learned nothing from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The same institutions who posted solidarity statements that summer … colonisations of the mind remains ever-present (wa Thiong’o, 1986) in Northampton’s pubs, shops, theatres, and other institutions. While the Queen’s neck grows crooked under stolen loot, hypocrites swarm to the announcement of a national holiday. What short memories human beings have.
During a pandemic that has had a devastating impact on business (especially independent businesses), one cannot blame them taking every chance they get to recuperate losses. Yet, to do so with empire and colonialism still kicking is just not cricket. Neoliberalism, better known as neoliberal capitalism trumps all with a back-handed flag-waving jingoistic holiday while more activists will run to Buckingham Palace this summer when they get called for their gong. Arising … superficially validated by the same empire project that sustains “equal access to unjust systems” (Manzoor-Khan, 2019: 81). They need a gong over the head! I can feel this to be another long summer, full of actions that undermine pushes for lasting change. Admittedly, I am not beyond critique, but claiming to be anti-racist while peddling support for the Queen’s Jubilee is the baseline for what not to do.
With civil unrest in the Caribbean and anti-racism debates on this side of the Atlantic still growing strong, the level of cognitive dissonance must be astronomical to peddle anti-racism while celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee. It appears many people and their dogs have jumped on the imperial carriage to celebrate someone whose very existence undermines the best of Britain. In the same year the Colston Four were acquitted by a public jury for dispatching the Bristolian enslaver into the river, we celebrate someone in much the same symbol of pillage and plunder. Deplorable does not begin to describe it.
While I see people saying that the Queen did not benefit from colonialism in her lifetime, I remind you colonialism isn’t over. Moreover, historic events like the Mau Mau Uprisings (1952-1960) and the Suez Crisis (1956) are well within her reign, further to violent fights for independence within Caribbean Black Power movements. The British Monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, so the Queen has little power as an individual, yet the institution is no less violent than policing, prisons, the Church and others. For all Britain’s flag-waving, we know very little British history. While I do not claim to know all, I remain curious. Though, curiosity to see what lurks in the closet many would rather not know. As I frequent my favourite local venues, my spirit weeps at the sight of union jacks and St George’s flags (a symbol of violence I associate with racism and white supremacy).
The red and white … amid this nationalist fever in the regalia of Brexit, it is a reminder I am unwelcome in the country I have always called home. The acceptance of racist symbols is common in our mainstream, but worse when you see it condoned by your friends. While popularised by Lord Macpherson in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the term institutional racism in practice goes back centuries. Queen Elizabeth I introduced the Royal Proclomation in 1603 which could be cited as the second act of institutionalised racism on British soil, demanding “Blackamores” be expelled from her kingdom (Fryer, 1984: 12). This was precedented by the 1193 expulsion of the Jews, where Simon DeMontfort (from whom the DeMontfort University gets its name) expelled the Jews from Leicester City (DeMontfort Students’ Union, 2021).
Every monarch from Elizabeth I to George III subsequently gave their blessing to the human trafficking of Black Africans (Hirsch, 2017: 51), thus before British independent traders broke into enslavement the original beneficiaries were the monarchy. As the ‘royal’ in Royal African Company for example, is more than an honorific, but a namesake. The late Tudors and early Stuarts were up to their necks in the blood of Black people (Olusoga, 2017: 22), as were the Georgians and Victorians. Furthermore, the wealth of the monarchy we see now was largely necessitated by colonial ambition. Heck, Victoria was donned Empress of India and Elizabeth I granted the royal charter to the East India Company (Sanghera, 2021: 12).
In his 1916 book Why Men Fight, Bertrand Russell writes how “All our institutions have their historic basis in Authority.” The Crown sits among them, like bloodsucking parasites who gained most of their wealth from stealing from others including the Global South. Yet, Scotland and Wales and Ireland also have their own reasons to dislike the Crown, including the history of the Prince of Wales title which I talked about in an earlier blog (and were still up in the Caribbean doing their colonial nonsense). You have to hand it to the British state, they have perfected the art of brainwashing … convincing large swathes of the oppressed to support the monarchy while also getting the working-class to vote Conservative.
However, with the Platinum Jubilee looming I am disgusted to see numbers of organisations who were posturing Black Lives Matter statements and black squares in the long summer of 2020 now bootlicking the empire itself. It is a reminder to me that within the British Isles that there is still very little public knowledge on the history of The Crown, both as the original colonisers but also as wielders of violence against working-class communities. Those who perfected social murder. Performance and vanity.
For example, after the Murder of George Floyd in June 2020 the University of Northampton posted a BLM statement (nonetheless weak). This statement came from pressure via Twitter (after eleven days of silence, the University posted a statement). This also came with a blog entry, as it was my last as a sabbatical officer. Now, they are holding events in the image of whiteness, colonialism, and racism for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. This sits adjacent to UON’s “efforts” to decolonise the university (recolonise may be a more fitting term). Concurrently, the University held a week-long thread of events about the climate emergency in November 2021 which was a study in whitewashing fitting under the wider banner of whitewashing COP26. And in April 2022, they were voted among the top 25 universities for tackling inequalities in spite of repeated strike action from staff since 2021 over fair pay, pensions, and race / gender pay gaps as part of UCU industrial action nationwide. Make this make sense!!
As someone that was very active that summer and has been since, I have been tested lately thinking about the many people that claim to be anti-oppression while also supporting the Queen and thus, the institution of the monarchy. Discrimination against Harry and Meghan is also of note amid the Royal Family itself, as well as from British media. If you’re a monarchist by all means stand by your beliefs, but don’t try to be so while claiming to be anti-oppression. Worse, as Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin wrote about UK Honours: “when those who have made their names from challenging the lingering evils of the empire jump at the chance of being superficially validated by it, the hypocrisy is extremely grating.”
So, if you consider yourself remotely pro-human rights, I would consider thinking about your stance on the monarchy … some of the biggest hoarders of wealth and the epitome of whiteness as ownership (Harris, 1993). The pulling down of Edward Colston; the National Trust audit into stately homes and their links to enslavement and colonialism; anti-colonial uprisings in the Caribbean; the Windrush Scandal and decolonising education are all entangled in this web amid the Jubilee’s nationalist (colonialist white supremacist) fever. Whilst it may be considered British to support the Queen, it is just as British to dissent.
The fight against capitalism certainly includes ‘wealth-hoarders’ pertinently inherited wealth (and those who got it through dubious means). To be anti-racist, we must also be anti-capitalist which fundamentally underpins many intersectional movements. For example, anti-capitalism is vital to disability justice, the class struggle, and LGBT+ rights. And while everyday folks have hopped on to this jubilee band-carriage, I would really question if we should. Abolishing the monarchy is just the starting the point.
Don’t know, might delete this later!
As to not be a mansplainer, this blog entry will not explain ‘women’s issues’ (unlike a certain institution enjoys doing), more highlight some of the discontent I feel with commemoratory days, weeks and months for people who colour outside lines set by the state. Institutional equality statements will say ‘underrepresented groups’ when we have actually have been consciously excluded by patriarchy, white supremacy and other intersectional matrixes of oppression. While I have titled this blog “International Women’s Day should be a protest”, I admit this was for ‘clickbait’ effect. The title also acts as symbolic for other tokenistic occassions where institutions “celebrate” their marginalised employees while also resuming white supremacist, patriarchal, cisheteronormative violence. Just business as usual, isn’t it?
To slightly rephrase a quote by Malcolm X,
Whether we are talking about International Women’s Day / Women’s History Month, Pride Month, LGBT+ History Month, Autism Acceptance Week and others, the fact remains institutions use tokenism and co-opt these occassions to present the image of ‘diversity as marketing’ (Ahmed and Swann, 2006).
Pride started as a protest in response to police harrassment of gay and lesbian people. Margaret Thatcher’s government further introduced Section 28 prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities which had a devestating impact on education. Institutions will use their LGBT+ staff members as diversity bunting, but will not use these times of year to talk about how eugenics for example, is a big talking point in contemporary autistic advocacy circles – pertinently with Applied Behavourial Analysis [ABA] which is heavily contested by autistic activists as eugenics in the twenty-first century. Black History Month is also frequently centred around Black excellence, which ultimately centres whiteness and capitalist takes on what success looks like (Kinouani, 2021: 162). The politics of existing and expressing yourself authentically even while institutions say “they want diversity” (but not that sort of diversity), has been gutted in many institutional responses in favour of a shiny diversity agenda.
Guy DeBord’s book Society of the Spectacle may be one vessel for which to discuss how institutions celebrate marginalised people without discussing how that marginalisation occurs. Though even in this regard, I would tread carefully as Marxism does often centre the Male Gaze. His book was written in the aftermath of WW2 and is centred in the 1960s’ fever of antiestablishment Paris. It is a critique of a society that cares more about images and appearances than reality, truth, and experience. It resonates today with the contemporary world’s addiction to social media and TikTok trends, but it came out of a Europe gripped by consumerism following 1945: “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (DeBord,  1967: 1). Yet, that society’s aim was to curate a passive population of watchers rather than participatory actors (very very familiar).
In our present-day if we consider protest as art, we might think how numerous activist movements to the everyday-eye, are looked at as devoid from their historical, political, or any economic contexts many sprouted from – but rather just “nice things” to look at, watch, or listen to. The euphoria of the Black Lives Matter protests two summers ago is an example of something that was treated by institutions as just about one man – George Floyd – but not about the anti-Blackness that pervades worldwide – via white people “doing racism” and some Black and non-Black people of colour who have internalised it. In many cases we have been conditioned to hate ourselves and both these things go back centuries. Yet, following performative statements done by numerous institutions this International Women’s Day (including Northamptonshire Police), I am reminded of the hypocrisy of how institutions rarely do what they say!
The neoliberal university is a testament to this where they present themselves in marketing as beacons of Diversity and Inclusion, and then discriminate against their students and staff. This sounds like any institution. However, the added bonus of so-called commitments to ‘decolonising the curriculum’ adds insult to injury where diversity and decolonisation are often conflated. As Gurminder Bhambra and colleagues (2018) write:
“Taking colonialism as a global project as the starting point, it becomes difficult to turn away from the Western university as a key site through which colonialism – and colonial knowledge in particular – is produced, consecrated, institutionalised and naturalised. It was in the university that colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for the dispossession, oppression and domination of colonised subjects. In the colonial metropolis, universities provided would-be colonial administrators with knowledge of the peoples they would rule over, as well as lessons in techniques of domination and exploitation. The foundation of European higher education institutions in colonised territories itself became an infrastructure of empire, an institution and actor through which the totalising logic of domination could be extended; European forms of knowledge were spread, local indigenous knowledge suppressed, and native informants trained. In both colony and metropole, universities were founded and financed through the spoils of colonial plunder, enslavement and dispossession” (p3).From: ‘Decolonising the University’ (2018)
International Women’s Day should be a protest (what protest looks like is up for debate). Universities still hide behind the Athena Swan gender equality charter which we know centres white privileged women (Bhopal and Henderson, 2019). All while Black and Biracial writers have long discussed intersectionality before Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) conceptualised it (Anon,1808; Prince,1831; Truth,1851; Jacobs,1861; Hurston,1926; Hansberry,1968; Angelou,1969; Giovanni,1970; Emecheta,1979; hooks,1981; Walker,1982; Davis,1983; Lorde,1984; Hill Collins,1986). Yet, to the exclusion of Black and Brown women, (white) feminism still presents itself as universal. Today, many people fail to realise if there is no equality for ethnic minorities, there is no equality. There is a long history of white women and racism (Ware, 1992), when white feminism is simply ‘white supremacy in heels.’ In more recent times influencers like The Guilty Feminist have made attempts to use their white privilege to platform systemically excluded voices, those voices that sit on the fault lines considered ‘too radical’ or ‘too difficult’ for mainstream discourse.
When you see the plethora of issues that exist across intersectional lines, ‘girlboss representation politics’ is not robust enough. Of course celebrate, but exclusively celebrating under institutional definitions of success also ties ‘worth’ to capital and this toxic productivity culture we live in. The fact that women and people in general exist should be enough, and the need to contribute to the economy should be by the by. Diversity and Inclusion ultimately centres captialism because these institutions do not care about people as people, just what bodies can do for the organisation. As Nirmal Puwar (2004) further writes:
The ongoing UCU strikes are testament to that, where universities appear to care more about bodies as capital rather than the human rights of their employees. Former PM-Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society but “there are individual men and women and there are families.” This was the start of what we now call neoliberalism or more commonly – neoliberal capitalism where this political ideology says that connections between people are purely economic more than anything else (i.e more than social, cultural, political etc etc). The term liberal was meant not in the modern sense, but in the context of the 18th and 19th century amid classical liberalism of promoting economic liberty – to do what you want with your money including the trafficking and subjugation of human beings under the British Empire!
Neoliberalism claims that our very existence in relation to one another is driven on self-interest and how each individual seeks to gain economically from each interaction (or simply human relationships as transactional). This sentiment is underpinned by what bell hooks called ‘imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy’ where whiteness in particularly is tied to property and ownership (Harris, 1993).
For Britain’s institutions, these acts of tokenism are like property. They think they own the people doing DIE* work and thus the institutions thinks they own The Work too – LGBT History Month, Pride Month, BHM, Autism Awareness Week, IWD, Women’s History Month, Disability Awareness Month.
Ownership is at the basis of whiteness, and people who speak out are turned into problems. Imagine neoliberal institutions thinking they can put limits on social justice advocacy structures … i.e anti-racism, femnism etc etc; imagine them thinking they can own activist struggles by slapping them on their marketing. In concept International Women’s Day makes sense (and I’m here for it), but in reality institutions that benefit from ‘imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy’ are not going to help smash those systems of domination. Especially in the perfect storms of Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the reinterest in discourses into violence against women (after the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibba Henry, Nicole Smallman and others) – where to performative institutions “it is cool to be an activist.”
International Women’s Day should be a protest and call to action. By all means celebrate women for their achievements, but those achievements need not centre capitalism. And for God’s sake, let’s stop glorifying billionaires … they are part of the problem and somebody is always being exploited. Always.
*Diversity, Inclusion, Equality (or DIE)
As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.
Some issues force you to protest
the way oppression knocks on your front door
and you can’t block out the noise
“protest peacefully, non-violently”
I have heard people say
show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability
be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home
show them you’re just as capable of being liked
enough for promotion into the canteen,
protest with kindness and humour
make allusions to smiling resisters in literature
they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly
but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny
but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent
the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots
the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet
interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription
I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest
I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai
and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity
with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity
I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base
for the neoliberal university culture we work in today
I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990
and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency
they want protesters to be frugal in activism,
don’t decolonise the curriculum
they say decolonise
they mean monetise, let’s diversify …
but not that sort of diversity
nothing too political, critical, intellectual
transform lives, inspire change?
they will make problems out of people who complain
it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate
in workplaces that separate the work you do
from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo
they make you the problem
they make you want to leave
unwilling to acknowledge that universities
discriminate against staff and students systemically
POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT
but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks
while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs
staff and students chequered with severe floggings
body maps of indenture and slavery
like hieroglyphics made of flesh
but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning
workers rights, students’ rights to education
so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem
we are beyond respectability now
however, you know universities will DIE on that hill
treat us well when we’re tired
productive, upset, frustrated
when we’re in back-to-back global crises
COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,
failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,
the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,
women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t
have the right last name; when we’re suicidal
when people are anxious, depressed, autistic
tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics
all permeates through workers’ and student rights
When you see staff on strike now,
we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,
but also, the after-effects
as institutions always protect themselves
so sometimes I think about
when senior management vote on policies…
if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes
and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?
I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],
how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives
how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries
like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …
upholding canteen cultures of policing
Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more
than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang
tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,
so why is it used in meetings as lip service –
why aren’t staff hired in
in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies
why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this
why are mediocre white men failing upwards,
they tell me we have misunderstood
but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist
bell hooks called this
you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest
we must protest how we want to protest
we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical
Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?!
Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.
Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.
Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].
Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.
Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].
Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.
Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].
Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].
This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery
it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …
yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.