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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.
The acquittal of the four defendants for their role in the toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol has created an interesting debate and in some, more right-wing quarters, fury. In an interview following the verdict Boris Johnson stated we cannot seek to “retrospectively change our history“
But what history is he talking about, the one where this country was heavily involved in slavery or some other history around Empire and ‘jolly hockey sticks and all that sort of thing’?
History tells us that this country’s empire, like all empires significantly benefited from its conquests to the detriment of those conquered. Although if you watch the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, the right of the political spectrum might find some comfort in the sketch that starts with ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’? This country’s history is complex more so because it is a shared history with its own inhabits and those of other countries across most of the world. A history of slaves and slave traders. A history of rich and powerful and poor and powerless. A history of remapping of countries, redefining of borders, of the creation of unrest, uncertainty and chaos. A history of theft, asset stripping, taking advantage and disempowerment. As well as a history of standing up to would be oppressors. It is a complex history but not one that is somehow rewritten or removed by the toppling of a statue of a slave trader.
The tearing down of the statue is history. It is a fact that this country’s so called great and good of the time were tarnished by a despicable trade in human misery. The legacy of that lives on to this day. Great and good then, not so now, in fact they never were, were they? It may be questionable whether the circumstances of the removal of the statue were right, hence the charges of criminal damage. It might be questionable whether the verdict given by the jury was right, but surely this isn’t about changing history, it is about making it.
There are suggestions that the verdict may be referred to a higher authority, perhaps the Supreme Court. It appears right that there was a case to answer, and it seems right that the jury were allowed to deliver the verdict they did. There is nothing perverse in this, nothing to challenge, due process has taken place and the people have spoken. The removal of the statue was not criminal damage and therefore was lawful.
If a statue is an affront to the people of a locality, then they should be able to have it removed. If is such an affront to common decency, then the only people guilty of an offence are those that failed to remove it in the first place. Of course, it is more complex than that and perhaps the bigger question is why this didn’t happen sooner?
It would seem fitting to replace the statue with something else. Something perhaps that shows that slowly people of this country are waking up to the country’s past, well at least some of them. A statue that commemorates a new beginning, that acknowledges the country’s true past and points the way to a far more humane future for all. No Mr Johnson, we shouldn’t try to rewrite or obliterate history, we just need to change the way it written and stop ignoring the truth.
It is that time of year where I start to appear to be like the Grinch that Stole Christmas (before the happy ending). Whilst I love to spend time with family and friends during Christmas, I find the excessive consumption that surrounds this festive holiday to be quite problematic.
It is only November yet the annual hysteria surrounding Christmas is being pushed via the news, adverts, social media and shops selling all things deemed ‘Christmassy’. With it being Black Friday today this issue is likely to intensify. This worries me, it was only this week that I happened to be watching a television programme where a caller phoned the show ask the host;
If I am already in 50K (ish) worth of debt can you help me borrow another 3k so that I can buy Christmas presents?
It might seem easy to see debt as an individual issue. Yet, if using a bit of criminological imagination, debt can be perceived as an issue that is influenced by culture, and by capitalism, which encourages people to buy things even if they cannot afford to do so.
I do worry about the strains that Christmas may have on those workers who are already working in very poor working conditions, and with very poor pay. Especially as capitalism continues to be oppressive along citizenship, class, gender and race lines.
How will those that work in sweatshops find the increased Christmas demand? If a bit of extra pay is possible perhaps this might be welcomed, (especially due to the effect of covid), but this does not erase the issues of exploitation. Some people may say that capitalism is needed for survival and human ‘advancement’. In the past, ideas about human advancement have been used to justify the most brutal experiences of enslaved and colonised people. I am no expert but it seems that, in contemporary society, this so called ‘advancement’ is having dire effects on many, including the living situations for indigenous people and the planet.
Surely there is room to operate in a way which balances the profit based motive with more ethical considerations of humans?…Or maybe the whole system needs to change? What would happen if people were able to be critical of capitalism. Or for those that are already critical, what if they really thought about whether they need to buy all of the items in their online baskets? What if those with disposable income find that they have lots of savings due to reducing spending and decide to gave the money to charity (/or to those that need it more than them)? I wonder if this would then encourage businesses to becomes both more ethical and affordable.
Rest assured, I am not writing this post to be smug about my own lifestyle. Although, I will never really fully understand why people want to have/buy so many things with such high levels of inequality.
Usually I consume my news through the BBC app, although occasionally I enjoy getting the run down of political affairs from the horses mouth, so to speak. Often I watch the Prime Ministers Questions, getting riled up at the majority of topics raised. However, yesterday (9/06/21), I found myself getting particularly outraged and passionate at a certain issue that has also been highly reported in the news.
Earlier last week, the Prime Minister outlined his Covid recovery package for schools, he pledged £1.4bn to enable students to catch up on the work, education and socialisation that has been missed. The controversy appears when comparing this figure to £13.5bn, originally suggested by Education Policy Institute (Education Policy Institute, 2021). To put it into perspective, £1.4bn equates to about £50 per child, per year- apparently you certainly can put a price on children’s education. Even with Johnson’s additional £1bn funding that will stretch across the next three years, the ‘recovery’ package is frankly laughable, it was a move that saw the education recovery commissioner, Kevan Collins, resign in protest.
Putting funding and economics aside, I think that this was a prime example of how the importance of education is once again, being forgotten. The potential power of the education system is not being utilised by any means. Politicians are still not realising that education reform doesn’t have to mean tougher discipline and it doesn’t have to mean more Ofsted checks and it certainly doesn’t have to mean more stressful, ‘rigorous testing’ of students, something which former education secretary Michael Gove pushed for in 2013 (Adams, 2013).
“Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards nor mean that students will be prepared for a job.”~ Brian Lightman (Adams, 2013)
Forcing misbehaved children out of school through punitive disciplinary actions, suspensions and exclusions simply puts them on the road to loosing faith in the education system and increases their likely hood of antisocial behaviour, which can lead to criminal careers later in life. The importance of creating an educational environment that students actually want to be a part of cannot be understated.
Furthermore, the importance of altering the current curriculum is completely overlooked. School has the potential to give children and teenagers the ability to have more autonomy over so many aspects of their later life; adequate lessons about political ideology, history and the voting system, done in an accessible way, has the potential to raise more politically aware, inclined individuals that feel equipped to engage and participate in the democratic process on a local and national scale.
Appropriate finance and law classes could eventually go on to raise a higher number of adults who feel able to handle their money situations in a better, healthier way; they could also begin to understand their rights and the court processes better. Finally, focusing on the decolonisation of the curriculum could allow ethnic minorities and other marginalised demographics to learn about their ancestors, history and culture in a more mainstream, impartial way. The impacts of restructuring the standard and the content of the schooling curriculum could have an abundance of benefits, not only to individuals but to society itself.
However, with no clear moves for the education secretary to explore theses benefits further and implement any changes, along with the promised £50 per pupil, per year, it is evident that the potential power of the education system has once again been understated and that, education is, indeed, not a priority for the current government.
Adams, R., 2013. GCSEs to become more demanding and rigorous, says Michael Gove. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jun/11/gcse-demanding-rigorous-michael-gove>
Education Policy Institute. 2021. EPI responds to the government’s new education recovery package – Education Policy Institute. [online] Available at: <https://epi.org.uk/comments/epi-responds-to-the-governments-new-education-recovery-package/>
A link for the Prime Minister’s Questions episode: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zQkiEAZ2oh0&feature=youtu.be
A link for the Prime Minister’s Question with BSL: https://youtu.be/ZgcnQqbChZs
Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is arguably the Indian film industry’s biggest global star and commercial brand ambassador. In one early advertisement, he strikes a match from a dark-skinned kid’s face to show just how abhorrent it is as a trait. In another ad, ostensibly more humorous, SRK disses a group of traditional Northern Indian wrestlers for wearing skirts and make-up. The star chides them for using the feminine product instead of (converting to) the newly available male version (i.e. re-packaged in gray rather than pink). The product? The skin bleach Fair and Handsome. In both ads, the transformed, ‘fairer’ skinned consumer is pummeled with young girls virtually appearing from nowhere.
This follows the typical consumerist trope: The product makes users more popular and sexually appealing. Yet, things got worse. Clean and Dry’s ‘intimate’ bleaching shower gel for women (C&D). Yes, you read right: A bleaching shower gel aimed at lightening brown women’s crotches. There’s no male equivalent, save for a well-circulated spoof called Gore Gote: India’s #1 Testicular Fairness Cream (Mukherjee). In the initial shot of the C&D advertisement, a pouty-mouthed (fair-skinned) woman is ignored by her (fair-skinned) husband in their (upper-middle-class) apartment. Naturally, it seems, she bleaches her labia with C&D. After displaying the product’s virtues, the husband literally chases the wife around the fancy flat as she playfully dangles (his) keys. Her secret to happiness: A newly bleached intimate area. Is this a proxy for a white woman’s vagina?
What’s wrong with consumerism? The marketplace will not save you. As a Black person interested in self-love, it is clear that the market is murderous. There, the fetish of blackness is made widely available, as if one could bottle stereotypical ‘coolness’ and sell it to the youth in Asia, one of the largest consumer groups in the world. Fashion shops targeting youth regularly plaster posters of Bob Marley or Hip-Hop thugs to peddle goods to youth. Yet, standing in the rotunda of this mall, one could see shops of every major western cosmetics brand, including Clinique, Mac, Estée Lauder. Here in Asia, the flagship product in each shop is skin bleach! Black is cool, but white is power. Ironically, at the time I was modeling for a campaign in Vogue and Elle Décor in India, yet none of the make-up artists carried my mocha shade (shady, right).
The skin bleach industry is by far the most virulent of all consumer products – even fast food. The bulk of this industry is meted out on the bodies of women…and girls who learn early that fate of darkness (just check out any Indian Matrimonials page). According to an August 2019 article in Vogue: “Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it’s even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%).” After a 7 minutes instrumental intro to his 1976 hit, Yellow Fever, Fela Kuti chants: “Who steal your bleaching?/Your precious bleaching?…/Your face go yellow/Your yansh go show/Your mustache go show/Your skin go scatter/You go die o.”
It’s lethal, often a mercurous poison used to kill the soul. It is a fetishization of whiteness, that reveals the “internalization of the coloniser’s inferiorisation of dark skin as native and Other” (Thapan: 73). It’s euthanasia. Skin bleachers are painlessly killing themselves, willingly participating in their own annihilation. Not only does it quite literally murder the melanin in one’s skin, it symbolically kills one’s ‘dark and native’ self, giving birth to a new and improved modern identity. It requires constant application and reflects a consumerist’s self-regulation. Bleach is expensive, despite the industry’s ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach to the marketing 4P’s – bleach sold in cheap tiny packages for the poor. Skin bleach is a form of mimesis, to actually embody modernity through crafting the ‘cultivated, developed and perfected’ self (Thapan: 70).
When I began teaching at UoN, I was asked to propose topics for business ethics modules, which were then optional. Hesitantly, I suggested skin bleach and hair weaves. Looking at the composition of the student body, this would be as familiar to them, as the products were locally available (see picture below taken in an ‘ethnic’ hair shop on Northampton’s high street). Several students have subsequently pursed these subjects in their dissertations. I was sad to learn that in colloquial Somali, ‘fair skin’ is a moniker for pretty, just as we western Blacks use ‘light skin and long hair’. Colourism makes dark-skinned people unsafe in our own homes.
I was pleasantly surprised at the support from the module leader, an older, straight white man. He said he knew little about the politics of black and brown skin and hair, yet listened with great interest and did his own research into the matter. What’s more, he stood by me both literally and figuratively. He was there when I was called to account for some negative student feedback such as “I’m a guy, I don’t wear make-up,” when asked to consider the differential impact of beauty standards on the psyches and earnings of women in business. He stood by me when I’d dropped the F-word (feminism) into the curriculum. This was before the Gender Pay Gap became more widely known or theBritish government required audits from large organisations. He is an ally. He stood by me in ways that may have been riskier for individuals outside the circles of normative power of gender, race and class. Talk about a way to use one’s privilege!
Kuti, F. (1976). Yellow Fever. [LP] Decca 8 Track Studios. Available at: https://genius.com/Fela-kuti-and-africa-70-yellow-fever-annotated [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
Mukherjee, R., Banet-Weiser, S. and Gray, H. (2019). Racism Postrace. Durham, N.C.
Thapan, M. (2009). Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: SAGE.
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.