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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.
Over a century ago in Sarajevo (Serbia), an Austrian archduke was shot. And next, millions more non-archdukes were shot, faffing about at The Front. And for what? And to me, learning about this war at school, it seemed more of a class war than anything else. Kaiser Wilhelm II being the grandson of Queen Victoria and his cousins being the monarchs of Britain and its vast empire, from India, to the Caribbean and bits of Africa.
And I never saw anyone that looked like me; I thought this war was for White people. And, I know now over four million non-Whites contributed, giving their lives, but that’s not the narrative I was sold at school. And at eleven o’clock on the 11th November 1918, screams sang into silence.
Knowing what I know now about history, even if it is just a basic knowledge (I’m no historian) Armistice Day does not mark peacetime. The fallout of the war to end all wars was a Pandora’s Box no signed treaty could contain. And in all conflicts it’s always the working-class who suffer most.
And it would be the archdukes of that world who would be having a jolly old time as if nothing had happened. But 1919 ushered in a wind of change: mass unemployment and uncertainty followed working-class communities from France and Belgium onto the streets of London, Cardiff and Liverpool.
When I think Armistice, I’m scratching my head as to when peacetime really does begin. 1919 brought in the Liverpool Race Riots where a one Charles Wotten was lynched at Albert Dock. Films like Doctor Zhivago depicting the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922) remind me of the violence that occurred outside of the main narrative of the war (during and after). What of those calls for independence, Easter Risings on streets of Dublin?
HBO’s Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore comic – a vivid depiction of Tulsa, a section of American history most people haven’t heard of, including Black people. Why would people have heard of it? Vital parts of our own history have been erased, (I think) because it makes “the victors” look bad.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921:
Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot), this was when a White mob attacked the residents, livelihoods, homes and businesses of the majorly Black Greenwood area of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma. This was what we’d now call a White supremacist attack and an act of domestic terrorism, or even genocide. Hundreds killed and thousands displaced.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released and has often been blamed for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. After The War, there was a spike in racial tension in America, and Tulsa was basically Black Wall Street. The U. S Army was racially segregated in itself too. 1921 Greenwood was booming, a success story for Black business owners, despite high crime rates and racial segregation. However, history is a hotbed for Black excellence, but when Black people gain momentum, the establishment shoots them down, literally – from Fred Hampton to Medgar Evers.
At school, I was not taught, not once, about the four million non-Whites non-European that fought and laboured in those four years. I think if I was able to see myself in this history from when I was a child, I would have more time for Armistice. The great stage of the First and Second World War is tied up in Britain’s popular memory / national identity, and British identity is in crisis. Still, today, I’ve found to be British, is to be White.
The yearly cycle of remembrance; from the procession in Northampton to interviews on BBC with veterans of the Second World War, I’ve always found it’s the voices of White British people. But there was racism at the front. The imperial mindset of European colonialism ran rampant in the British and German armies, tools of institutional racism, and by extension an instrument to whip up hate and institutional violence against colonial servicemen from places that included Senegal, China and the West Indies.
“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
Where are those stories of race at war? To be a soldier of colour, British-born or otherwise would not be the same as being a White (European) soldier, soldiers that toiled in France but also in the skirmishes of the African continent, Asia and the Middle East – erased out of our nationhood.
Over a million soldiers from what was then British India (pre-1947) fought for the allies, along with over two million from French Indo-China, as well as 100,000 Chinese labourers. But I did not have this on my history curriculum, when we looked at the stories between 1914 – 1918. But I was bludgeoned with images of White European soldiers having a great time.
To me, Armistice Day is in remembrance of a White Man’s war. And to (begrudgingly) mimic poet, colonialist and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, it feels like a “White man’s burden,” even if people of colour fought too. In seeing how Britain portrays those wars in schools but also how they are represented in popular memory, can you blame activists and academics looking at the stories of race and racism on the front lines under a microscope?
Race / racial identity are massive factors in these conflicts, as historian David Olusoga talks about in his article. We would not need to keep talking about race if race wasn’t treated like a minor inconvenience and those often treating it like an that are White people, refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness and White Privilege.
However, if we really are serious about Armistice, we have to acknowledge that working-class people yet again were at the whim of the titled and the entitled. We remember the soldiers but never their victims, portraying death (murder) as honorable, as said in Wilfred Owen’s (from Horace) Dulce et Decorum Est “pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). What is sweet about sending good men to the slaughterhouse?
Both wars are riddled with nationalism, and portray patriotism with grandeur. Great Britain raised at half-mast, celebrating Britain’s militarism –from Churchill to the Dreadnought (but no love for Bengal or Dresden). In how the wars are taught (popular nationalism), we encourage the living to join the dead, an ode to the Union Jack, even today in a postcolonial world.
“The colour bar on non-regular officers in the armed forces, designed and imposed by the political and military, is explicitly in the Short Guide to Observing a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1912.” – Phil Vasili
The world wars are full of people that are products of empire, in the ruins of class but also race. An archduke gets shot and millions of non-archdukes pay the price. Millions dead. After the war – widespread unemployment, uncertainty, race riots, class divides, The Depression, a grim state of affairs.
When you add the layer of race into that, it makes it more complex. Colonial soldiers coming to Britain after the First World War who were left out of the victory parades. Charles Wotten’s lynching in Liverpool. Men from British colonies who came here after the Second World War – to fill in labour shortages – White Supremacist fever and contested Britishness.
The narrative of Black soldiers goes all the way back to Roman Britain. Olusoga stated “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgotten” and I agree. In erasing Black and brown soldiers from the narrative, it’s a declaration of White lives being worth more than Black / brown lives.
And yes, we have the red poppy which is supposed to include everyone but it feels very exclusionary; and Britain’s popular memory is selective and needs to explore its colonial legacy – how imperial racial thinking played a role in both wars, otherwise we are continuing to tell stories that only include the experiences and memories of a White European majority.
“Black subjects had their actions during the war written out of history.” – Emma Dabiri
1914 Manual of Military Law
BBC Stories. “Alt History: White-washing black soldiers from WW1- BBC Stories.” YouTube. 27/06/19. Online. 10/11/19.
BBC Stories. “Alt History: A British lynching – BBC Stories.” YouTube. 13/07/19. Online. 10/11/19/
Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1915, Epoch Producing Company. YouTube.
Channel 4 Documentary. “Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Read by Christopher Eccleston | Remembering World War 1 | C4”. Youtube. 07/11/13. Online. 08/09/19.
Doctor Zhivago. Dir. David Lean. 1965, MGM. DVD
History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com. 2019. Web. Accessed: 10/11/19.
Lindeloff, Damien, creator. Watchmen. White Rabbit, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 2019.
Olusoga, David. “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” theguardian.com. 2018. Web. Accessed: 09/11/19
Vasili, Phil. Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918 Officer, Footballer […] Surrey: Raw Pres, 2010. Print.
“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.
Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.
With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin
Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.
Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.
So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.
If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.
As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.
Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services
This poem’s inspired from ‘Megatron’ by British poet Hollie McNish, and obviously there’s spoilers to follow. So, if you haven’t watched it and you read it, don’t come crying to me.
“the dragon queen’s the best
if I was a queen, I’d side with her and her kin
Dany’s nice and all that
but it’s Cersei who really wins
so many times, I’ve listened to this
since the end of HBO’s fantasy hit
and unto the fans, I say:
that show Game of Thrones ain’t shit
and every season since 2014
it continued in its pursuits
of sex, sweat and pleasure
but where it lacked in story
it cloaked itself in plot armour
saying that Arya and Jon
are unkillable, basically
because they can live forever
but these characters aren’t real
Dany, Jon, and the Lannisters…
if you want to see bad writing
look how Dany broke the wheel
I watched this show from the start
something we call a farce
including the gradual build up
when they killed off Ned Stark
at the top of those steps
never did I think a show could fall
as my heart shifted six inches left
and I knew every character’s name
and D&D, one bullet to our brains
to us the fans, who pledged
our fealty to the houses and clans
“I felt this way after The Sopranos.”
“I know, it’s the same”
it’s not the same, this wasn’t one episode
and after that season finale
I sat in silence, hung my head in shame
my name’s not Jon, as his body
started to change, ribs realigned,
lungs redesigned. Bran defied nature
nine kingdoms out of seven
and D&D sent seasons 1 – 4 to heaven
and I’m still pissed off up to now
filled six episodes with air
an amniotic sack of stuff
HBO hacks are the ones that dared
destroy the show, look how it came to this
cus I know Game of Thrones ain’t shit
you’re so extra
and that was it, because I know she’s
got to be taking the piss.
And every time, they’d praise Dany
I remember parents named
their children named after that shit
how she sacked the Capital
after travelling West
the dragon queen and her hoards
who freed herself and freed cities
but you know that show
Game of Thrones ain’t the best
and every time
I think about seasons 1 – 4
like when Bobby Baratheon
was skewered by that boar
my heart shifts to the right
it reverts back to this
and after four years
of doing that, I remember
how Game of Thrones ain’t shit
compared to many others shows
this one stood bold as brass
and the only thing fans gave
to these long games of thrones
(showing me nothing lasts forever)
is unwavering fealty
of which HBO gave no shits whatsoever.
I lead a module (CRI3003) which centres on institutional violence. Based on pacifist, feminist and zemiological principles, the module focuses on several institutions including social services, the police, prison and the military. The module is discussion based and seeks to understand the complexity of institutions, identifying recurring themes across a variety of different violences through the critical analysis of official inquiries. Through engagement all participants are challenged to disrupt everyday narratives around such processes.
Garver insists that violence ‘occurs in several markedly different forms, and can be usefully classified into four different kinds based on two criteria, whether the violence is personal or institutionalised, or whether the violence is overt or covert and quiet’ (1968: 257). His definition offers a road map for understanding a variety of violences, allowing scholars to navigate their way through extreme complexity.
This week saw the publication of phase one of the Grenfell Inquiry (Moore-Bick, 2019). The subject of much conjecture (and some leaks), the report runs to four volumes and c. 900 words. As with many reports of this type, there is the combination of the procedural and the extremely personal. At times, it makes for harrowing reading, at others, it reads like a technical manual. Nevertheless, its publication is a landmark for all involved and offers some potential answers for the traumatised survivors, families, fire fighters and others.
Although, phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry is not due to begin until early 2020, it is evident that some early conclusions and recommendations have been reached. Some of these centre of London Fire Brigade [LFB] and particularly, the judgement of their commissioner, Dany Cotton. Such an approach is typical of inquiries into crime, drilling down to analyse individual decisions and behaviours, cause and effect. If an individual had walked down from the top floor of Grenfell tower, pouring petrol outside every flat, and then lit a flame, such processes would be part and parcel of any investigation. However, the disaster at Grenfell tower cannot be answered through individual blame and naming and shaming.
It is important to note that the men and women that make up London Fire Brigade did not:
- start the fire
- did not manufacture the fridge-freezer which is believed to have started the fire
- were not responsible for sourcing, supplying or fitting the cladding
- have any input in the business decision(s) that led to choosing that cladding
- have any say in political decisions to embrace the ideology of “austerity” which included reducing safety checks on manufacturing, trading standard officers, fire officers, fire appliances and closing fire stations
All of the evidence to date indicates that the disaster at Grenfell was not unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that there were many warning signs, repeated concerns amid a general feeling that some people matter more than others, that some people are less worthy of consideration, that some people deserve to live in safe housing. Furthermore, discussions in the UK focus on the need to support businesses, not ever acknowledging that business and countries are comprised of people. Until official inquiries have terms of references which allow them to focus on the lived experience in all its complexity, any conclusions can only be partial. Additionally, any recommendations are incomplete.
While, as a society we continue to treat people as commodities, a “human resource”, with no worth beyond their economic value, we ensure that horrific disasters such as the fire at Grenfell Tower (to name but one of many) continue to happen. We can also expect many more official inquiries which never quite explain what those affected need to know. We can continue our handwringing, the oft-repeated mantra of “never again”, spending vast amounts of money in attempts to apportion blame, costs that can, as in the case of the Grenfell Inquiry, far surpass the original money saving. Or we can begin to respect the dignity of humanity, regardless of where we are born, our income or the amount of money we’ve stockpiled in the bank.
It seems apt to close with the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity (1959: 25)
Curtin, Deane and Litke Robert, (1999b) ‘Preface’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, (Eds), Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): xi-xv
Garver, Newton, (1968), ‘What Violence Is’ in A. K. Bierman and James A. Gould, (1973), Philosophy for a New Generation, (New York: MacMillan): 256-66
King Jr, Martin Luther, (1959), The Measure of a Man, (Philadelphia: Christian Education Press)
Moore-Bick, Martin, (2019), Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report: Report of the Public Inquiry into the Fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, (London: The Stationery Office), [online]. Available from: https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/phase-1-report [Last accessed 2 November 2019]
This idea of Britishness has become an increasingly contentious question. What does it mean to be a British-born person of colour in the UK today? What does it mean to be born under West Indian parents or grandparents? And what about being born to South Asian immigrants from places like India or Pakistan? Where are the intersections of your family’s culture and British culture? Reading Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch as part of my dissertation research and then Black and British by David Olusoga made me think about my own cultural identity, and I came to the consensus that I feel more British than West Indian. And I felt most British when I was on holiday, or abroad. That even in my own country, Britain, British-born people of colour are still seen as “foreigners” – “aliens” – “interlopers” – “immigrants.”
There have been Black and brown people coming to our shores since Roman Times. We have been a multiracial nation for hundreds of years. The idea that people feel threatened by this supposed “immigrant problem” is crazy. “There were Africans in Britain before the English came,” wrote the late journalist, historian and academic Peter Fryer. There were Africans on these shores before we even thought about Englishness. And when people boast about their Anglo-Saxon heritage, they’re boasting a Germanic ancestry. And those dark features like hair and eyes that are often named as Celtic are probably more likely Mediterranean. And by Mediterranean, there could be a North African influence there as well. Centuries ago, they’d have called those North Africans “blackamoors,” or more simply, “moors.”
There were Black British communities in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and by Black I mean “historically Black” (so non-White, including Asians). Did you know the first Asian MP in Britain was in 1892, when Indian-born Dadabhai Naoroji was elected to represent Central Finsbury for the Liberty Party? Britain’s ignorance to its own history is very much tied up in how we teach history at schools, a very White-centric history curriculum when that ethnic diversity is something that’s been part of British history for the best part of two thousand years. The postwar immigration boom after WW2 is just one example of people coming and going, but simply one of many.
And now in 2019, people here, especially people of colour are experiencing a Brit(ish)ness of sorts. When Britain abolished the Slave Trade (1833) and compensated the slave-owners to the tune of £20m (£17bn today), the establishment saw fit to spread their newfound morality on other slave-trading nations. This became known as Britain’s moral mission. This was the “great,” Victorian, moral righteousness in full swing. It didn’t matter that we used enslaved Africans for the best part of 300 years, toiling on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. What mattered is we abolished. It didn’t matter that Britain’s cotton mills were filled with US, slave-picked cotton, what mattered is we weren’t “officially” slave traders anymore. Britain transformed from leaders in slavery to a nation with integrity. Ahem.
And still today we are uncomfortable talking about the racial thinking that in-part came out of colonialism and Slavery. Whilst learning about the Nazis and condemning their racial thinking, we refuse to take a look at our own backyard. From Cecil Rhodes to Enoch Powell and Winston Churchill, our history is filled with people who held White supremacist views. And acknowledging the heinous crimes of the British monarchy and the Empire is still something that’s controversial and uncomfortable. The monarchy couldn’t possibly have been the pioneers of slavery before the independent traders. That colonialism was so long ago that it couldn’t possible matter?
And when it comes to discussing racial thinking in British history and general race and ethnicity in modern society, people suddenly become silent. The racial hierarchies at The Front during The First World War for instance. And even today, from education (racism on campuses) to the police and the NHS, institutional racism runs riot (but quietly, insidiously). And when you complain, you are told to go home. To leave. Well, Britain is home. And that ties back to how Black and brown people are seen as alien and White people are seen as indigenous. Race equality, social justice and identity politics matter, and these talks and discussions need to be had.
To me, British is an ideology more than anything else. You can spend forty years living in New York or Cape Town, but if you migrate to London you’re now a Londoner. To be British is to be White and that’s tied up in (historic) institutional racism (how Britain sees / saw itself, and its neglectfulness to portray images of its people of colour with the same pride it did its White population). Or unconscious bias as we love to say at universities, which in my view is just a more palatable term for structural discrimination.
I feel most British when I’m on holiday. When I was campaigning for my student union role I was told “You don’t look British.” Does British have a face? Yes, (in a way). It’s white. And that’s how White Privilege operates.
White is the default setting but there were Black and brown people in Britain before the English came, weren’t there?
When we look at Selma through the lens of class, we are looking at a tale as old as time, Black criminality in the face of institutional violence. Black people wanting to vote and being told no. To be Black is to be criminal – savage – beast. From slavery to Selma, DuVernay’s film lays it all out for us.
Last month, as part of Freshers’ fortnight, the Students’ Union screened Ava DuVernay’s Selma – based on the true story of that three-month period in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement before the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was a part of history when Black people were not afforded their basic human rights. Like the vote, being systematically stopped from reaching the polls. And the same sort of voting fraud still happens today.
Following Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and this all-star cast (including Common (The Hate U Give) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) in support) we are taken on a journey showing what institutional discrimination does to communities, including the covert racism that made voting harder for a Black person than a White person – the systematic use of legal innovations to strip Black people of their rights, (and dignity).
Since Selma was released in 2014, Ava DuVernay has since made the documentary 13th showing the history behind mass incarceration in American prisons, including slavery and convict leasing. Additionally, she has made the miniseries When They See Us – looking at the story behind the Central Park Five and how the small print (in the US legal system) described in 13th was used to incarcerate these young Black and Hispanic boys.
What got to me in rewatching Selma is how important the racial thinking that (mostly) came out colonialism / slavery is in how we think about race today. The fact discrimination only became a crime in the UK in 1965 (with the Race Relations Act), and the idea we still endorsed blackface minstrelsy until the late 1970s. BBC television still had blackface as entertainment until 1978. However, slavery was outlawed in the USA in 1865 but the slave-owning class won the war on race, as Blacks continued to be treated like slaves even though they weren’t – from convict leasing to Jim Crow Laws.
One hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, like-racism (from slave days) continued. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 and Jim Crow Laws were abolished as well, but those ideologies are what built America from the days of slavery, in both the North and the South. Seldom is it acknowledged that slavery existed in some northern states too.
We don’t talk about slave codes in places like Virginia, where it was stated within the law that if an altercation occurred between slave and master, and the slave died, it would not be a felony. In the slave codes for Virginia of the 1660s, it states within the laws that it was legal to kill a Black person. This was systematic use of the law to deny Black people their rights. Whether this was Virginia 1660 or Virginia 1960, not a lot had changed.
When Rosa Parkes sat down, she stood up to the establishment and unjust laws. And before Rosa Parkes, we had Collette Colvin. Moreover, when Black people boycotted the buses, they almost bankrupted the bus companies. They were seen as a nuisance. People thought they should stay in line. This old tale of Black resistance against White authority can be traced back to master, mistress, stately homes, cotton, cane and king sugar.
From the get-go, Ava DuVernay is at your throat, with her depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. This film was not made to score political points but it’s a film that tells it how it is, with vivid imagery of attack dogs, tear gas and police on horseback. Very much like the Klu Klux Klan killing defenseless people on the basis of race. Brutal. From Sandra Bland to Treyvon Martin, those stories of police brutality still ring true today. The history of disdain from Black communities to the police in Britain and America is one we’ve all heard, and it’s one that I think is in-part at least responsible for the lack people of colour joining up.
Why would Black, Asian and ethnic minority members of our society want to join an institution that has a historic pattern of discrimination? Why would they want to join an institution that talks about recruiting more BAME people, but still treats the ones they have already abominably?
Despite being a British viewer, there are many things I took away from this film, especially the subjectivity of the law. How White people in authority expect people of colour to be objective in the face of racism. The recent Naga Munchetty debacle with the BBC comes to mind. “You’ve got one big issue,” states LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to King (Oyelowo). “I’ve got one hundred and one.” For most of the film, he does not appear to be taking the Black vote seriously, until it directly impacts him and what he’s trying to do.
Tim Roth as Governor Wallace (Alabama) is brilliant – spewing hate, hate and more hate with such venom. You hate him from the second his face appears on screen, and his scenes with Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are brilliant. There is no love for Wallace. He is a White supremacist and director Ava DuVernay makes sure we know that. However, it got me asking questions about how we depict White supremacists in Britain. Mainly, with statues dotted around the country, including Parliament Square!
Is Selma a controversial film or is it simply no-nonsense and very American? It talks about things people feel uncomfortable talking about. In Britain, that includes anything remotely sounding like race, racism, colonialism or its role in Slavery. But critique Churchill or Nelson in anyway and you’re the enemy? But it does a great job recreating moments like Bloody Sunday, as state troops and local police let rip on the marchers.
“The whole nation was sickened by the pictures of that wild melee.”Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
From tear gas to men on horses with whips, it was riddled with symbolism, as well as truly fantastic cinematography, sound mixing and musical score. Oprah (one of the producers) was great in her role, and David Oyelowo is one of the most underrated actors working today, and a testament to an alternative image of Black men on screen. Whilst my grandparents’ generation had Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) and Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), this current generation of Black people have David Oyelowo.
This film is rough when it needs to be but delicate when it needs to be. It’s engaging, emotional, and leaves a lump in your throat right up to and through the credits. It’s also very funny – “that White boy can hit” says Dr King after being decked by a racist local. All the speeches, all the symbols, all the nods to America’s history of slavery and oppression – it’s intertwined with how the US is today – Trump’s Twitter tantrums and all that jazz.
“We must march! We must stand up! […] it is unacceptable that they use their power and keep us voiceless.”Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo)
Ava lingers on faces (especially eyes) in scenarios of extreme violence longer than what is humanly comfortable, much alike to Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit and what Steve McQueen did with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave. From cinematography to acting, music, and sound, I have no complaints. And at moments, it was like documentary.
And nearly everyday, I’m hearing people say the system is broken; is it broken, or was it built this way, fit for purpose – for the use and upliftment of a White, male, patriarchal, able-bodied, hetero-normative society?
Dorsey, Bruce. “Virginian Slave Laws, 1660s”. History 41. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
Fryer, Peter and Gary Young et al. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Print.
“Moral Mission.” Black and British: A Forgotten History, written by David Olusoga, directed by Naomi Austin, BBC, 2016.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Pathé, Paramount. 2014, Netflix.
n.d. “Slavery and the Law in Virginia”. history.org. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
n.d. “Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline”. shsu.edu. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.