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The UK is not Innocent: “Babylon, for True” #SubnormalABritishScandal

Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.

Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021)

The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.

Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”

Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).

Bernard Coard’s seminal 1971 text that hasn’t aged a day

Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.

In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.

We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!


References

Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.  

Mills, C (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.

Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].

A pit and no pendulum

Laughter is a great healer; it makes us forget miserable situations, fill us with endorphins, decreases our stress and make us feel better.  Laughter is good and we like people that make us laugh.  Comedians are like ugly rock-stars bringing their version of satire to everyday situations.  Some people enjoy situational comedy, with a little bit of slapstick, others like jokes, others enjoy parodies on familiar situations.  Hard to find a person across the planet that does not enjoy a form of comedy.  In recent years entertainment opened more venues for comedy, programmes on television and shows on the theatres becoming quite popular among so many of us. 

In comedy, political satire plays an important part to control authority and question the power held by those in government.  People like to laugh at people in power, as a mechanism of distancing themselves from the control, they are under.  The corrosive property of power is so potent that even the wisest leaders in power are likely to lose control or become more authoritarian.  Against that, satire offers some much needed relief on cases of everyday political aggression.  To some people, politics have become so toxic that they can only follow the every day events through the lens of a comedian to make it bearable.  

People lose their work, homes and even their right to stay in a country on political decisions made about them.  Against these situations, comedy has been an antidote to the immense pain they face.  Some politicians are becoming aware of the power comedy has and employ it, whilst others embrace the parody they receive.  It was well known that a US president that accepted parody well was Ronald Reagan.  On the other end, Boris Johnson embraced comedy, joining the panel of comedy programmes, as he was building his political profile.  Tony Blair and David Cameron participated in comedy programmes for charity “taking the piss” out of themselves.  These actions endear the leaders to the public who accept the self-deprecating attitude as an acknowledgment of their fallibility.   

The ability to humanise leaders is not new, but mass media, including social media, make it more possible now.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is something that, like smoking, should come with some health warnings.  The politicians are human, but their politics can sometimes be unfair, unjust or outright inhuman.  A person in power can make the decision to send people to war and ultimately lead numerous people to death.  A politician can take the “sensible option” to cut funding to public spending directed at people who may suffer consequently.  A leader can decide on people’s future and their impact will be long lasting.  The most important consequence of power is the devastation that it can cause as the unanticipated consequence of actions.  A leader makes the decision to move people back into agriculture and moves millions to farms.  The consequence; famine.  A leader makes the decision not to accept the results of an election; a militia emerges to defend that leader.  The political system is trying to defend itself, but the unexpected consequences will emerge in the future. 

What is to do then? To laugh at those in power is important, because it controls the volume of power, but to simply laugh at politicians as if they were comedians, is wrong.  They are not equivalent and most importantly we can “take the piss” at their demeanour, mannerisms or political ideology, but we need to observe and take their actions seriously.  A bad comedian can simply ruin your night, a bad politician can ruin your life. 

2020 Vision

From a young age the Golden Rule is instilled in us, treat others the way you want to be treated. We follow the rule staying home to protect the NHS in these difficult times, we are all humans we want to be safe; we want to protect our loved ones and cover them with a blanket of safety. We supported captain Tom on his quest to raise money for the NHS, we have complimented his humanitarianism.

It has been a hard time for us all. But in a time of uncertainty we have come together as a community to support each other. We have all had a sense of worry, if we leave the house to buy the necessities, the fear of the invisible killer plagues us. We have all helped play the part in flattening the curve. We have felt sadness for the families that have become victims to this killer. But we have not lost hope, we are still hoping for a vaccination to be ready to protect us. Its great that we have the NHS to help us if we are attacked by this enemy. The police were given extra powers to prevent us from breaking the rules and whatever the opinion is of the police we have to acknowledge that these powers that they have been given symbolises law and order and the order being the contribution to stopping the spread of this horrific virus which in essence will help to protect us.

I am contemplating on this because although there have been bumps in the road throughout this lockdown, we all have the same goal……… to live. If we didn’t want to live we would leave our houses unmasked, ignoring all government advice. If we didn’t want to protect our loved ones and our community we wouldn’t support the NHS.

I am going into deep thought……….

Imagine a world where you are not protected, imagine being at war every time you leave your house, imagine a world where you are not safe in your house……..

Picture this an intruder walks into your house, is outraged by the colour of your skin BANG she shoots you in cold blood. The offender uses the excuse she thought she was being robbed, she thought you were the intruder. However, she was the one who let herself into your house. The media and the police sympathise with this woman, as she is a police officer. In their eyes she does not look dangerous, the victim of this crime is seen as a danger to society based only on the colour of his skin. She is not arrested straight away because she has a thing that is more powerful than anything in America, she has White privilege.  Imagine a loved one is killed in this way and during the sentencing of the murderer, the judge hugs the offender as if she has done nothing wrong and disregards the feelings of your loved ones. How would you feel?

This did not happen during the civil rights movement, this happened in 2019.

Imagine going for a for some much needed exercise, you are jogging, listening to your music, taking in the fresh air. You are thinking about getting your physique ready for the summer.  Two men hunt you down like cattle where they shoot you in broad daylight and they are not arrested straight away. instead your innocence is debated because you are a BLACK man that has left your neighbourhood and entered theirs…..   

Imagine it is not a secret that your race can and is used as a weapon against you.

I have seen people gossip about the activities of others during lockdown. I have witnessed the police being called on youths that are skateboarding in a skate park. I have seen the outrage of the people who have been reported by the police for leaving their houses and seemingly not following the rules. Imagine going to the park, having a picnic, going for a walk and being told by a stranger they are going to call the police on you and they can use your race as a weapon, they know by telling the police the colour of your skin it will have an automatic punishment. After all, All Black people are criminals right?

Imagine the police are called on your father as he is suspected of committing a non-violent crime. He is handcuffed and pinned to the floor by a police officer. The officer is leaning on your father’s neck. He can’t breathe, he is begging for mercy, he is calling out for your grandmother, his mother…… he’s an EX con, a criminal, he took drugs, he robbed somebody, he went to prison. But I ask this should he have been executed?

Imagine the people who can see this crime being committed, imagine your 17 year old sister, daughter, friend recorded the execution of George Floyd and she could only record the crime because she fears that the other officers will turn their guns on her if she speaks out.…..After all we must protect the police from these ANGRY BLACK WOMEN they are a big problem with society……

Imagine being BLACK in America.

In recent months I have struggled to go on Facebook. The reason why is because, while many people enjoy the platform discussing current issues and sharing pictures, more and more I have seen subtle tokens of racism becoming more and more prevalent. I refuse to argue with morons who seemed to have lost all sense of humanity. It is gut wrenching when you have Facebook friends who think it’s acceptable to be outright racist. I understand we do not all hold the same values, I understand we do not all advocate for the the hurt and pain of others. But I do not stand with people who do not want to try and understand that their actions destroy communities. No, I’m not talking about the ones who use the sentiment #All Lives Matter, I agree all lives do matter. But there is a deeper message to the Black Lives Matter movement. And so many people of different colours have been understanding of this notion and want to get an understanding of the disproportionate treatment of the Black community and for that I appreciate your support.

I’m talking about the ones that use George Floyd’s reputation to try and denounce the feelings of the Black community. I’m talking about the ones who act surprised that police brutality against the BLACK community is not a new phenomena. I’m talking about the ones who have a problem with #Blackout Tuesday, #Black Lives Matter and the ones who have jumped on the band wagon to make their businesses and institutions look like they are progressive when they have done nothing but use oppressive practices keep BLACK people in their place. I SEE YOU!

It is very hard to understand how people have been so sheltered by this phenomena, even though social media has been covered with news footage of the Breonna Taylor’, Oscar Grant’,  Ahmaud Arbery’,  Jordan Davis’ the Tamir Rice’ murder I could go on……..

So, I’m going to round this post off by saying a few small words. For the ones who I have a problem with. I am not your bredrin, don’t use me as the Black friend when you run your mouth and show your true racism and need a token Black friend to save you from your mess.  It’s cool when you want to dance to our music, eat our food, wear our fashion, appropriate our hairstyles and when you have a fifth cousin twice removed that has mixed race kids or you decide you want to experiment by dating someone that is Black I SEE YOU! don’t try and hide behind the smoke and mirrors and don’t use your relationships as a platform to validate your racism. You have no right to talk negatively about our oppression, you have no right to invalidate our pain. Don’t pretend you see us as your equal, don’t pretend we are accepted into your circle. Stay silent while we are being brutalised, stay silent while we are disproportionately dying of Covid! continue to stay in your bubble I hope you never need to call on the Black community to speak up for YOU!  A lot of people have said 2020 is a year they will cancel, as it’s been a year of devastation, but I say 2020 has given me the 2020 vision to see people for exactly who they are.

“My Favourite Things”: Stephanie Richards

My favourite TV show - Narcos - I have always been fascinated with the story of Pablo Escobar. Narcos gives a very good insight into the corruption behind the Columbian Cartel and as a viewer you are immersed into the shocking world of drug trafficking

My favourite place to go - The theatre, I have been to see various productions. My all time favourite show would have to be The Lion King

My favourite city - I love the hustle and bustle of London. There are so many things to do. So many sights to see and it is brimming full of culture

My favourite thing to do in my free time - Shopping

My favourite athlete/sports personality - Usain Bolt, he runs with so much finesse

My favourite actor - Christoph Waltz, I like how versatile he is. From his comical performance in Horrible Bosses 2 to his terrifying role in Inglourious Basterds, he is always on point in his roles

My favourite author - Charles Dickens

My favourite drink - A classic Mojito

My favourite food - This is a hard decision to make as I am a real foodie. I would have to choose a classic Carrot Cake with cream cheese frosting

My favourite place to eat - Ascough’s Bistro – Market Harborough

I like people who - encourage others to do well and celebrate their success

I don’t like it when people - are jealous and sabotage others

My favourite book - Nicholas Nickleby, it reminds me of my teenage years

My favourite book character - there are too many to choose!

My favourite film - I am a big fan of 80’s and 90’s films, my favourite has to be Romancing the Stone. I love adventure films, I also love The Goonies

My favourite poem - Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, I say no more

My favourite artist/band - – I am a big music lover. I like music from all genres from Motown and RnB to Hip hop and Drum and Bass. Whitney Houston will always be my number 1 female artist 

My favourite song - I don’t have one, but Chris Brown's Indigo Album has been on repeat since 2019. This album is a masterpiece

My favourite art - Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. This reminds me of the winter nights during my favourite time of year, Christmas

My favourite person from history - Queen Nanny – she was a lady captured from the Asante people and brought to Jamaica and sold into slavery. She is an important figure in the Jamaican rebellion against slavery. She escaped the plantation she was held on and settled in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica. There she set up Nanny town which was a free village for Maroons/ African slaves and Arawak that had escaped their slave masters. This settlement was a key element for the uprising against oppression. Queen Nanny was not only a liberator of over 1000 slaves, she was also a warrior and is Jamaica’s only female national hero.

A moment of volition and free will

On Good Friday, Christians will remember one of the most important covenants in their faith. The arrest, trial and execution of the head of their church. Jesus, an inspiring figure across centuries, will be in the garden of Gethsemane asking his father “to take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), but finally accepting his fate. The significance of this self-sacrifice is the glue that connects the faith to its followers, because it is a selfless act, despite knowing in advance all that is to follow. The betrayal, the rejection, the torture, the humiliation and the eventual death. Even the resurrection, appears distant and therefore he will momentarily wish to abstain. Then, comes the thought; if not me, who? This act is conditional to all that will follow and so his free will ultimately condemn him.

These are steps that inspired many of his followers to take his word further across the world and subject themselves to whatever fate they were to suffer. The message rests in pure religious motives and motivations and over the years has eroded the implicit humanity that it contains. People have been able to demonstrate their destructive nature in wars, crime and continued injustices. Against them some people have taken exception and in acts of altruism willingly, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People of, or without, faith, but with a firm conviction on the sacrament of humanity.

People stood up against oppression and faced the judgement of the apartheid regime that murdered them, like Steve Biko.  People who spoke out against social injustice like Oscar Romero, who was shot during mass.  Those who resisted fascism like Ilektra Apostolou, a woman tortured and executed by the Nazis, and countless others throughout time.  These people maybe knew the “risks” of speaking out, of making a stand, but did it anyway.  A free will that led them to their damnation, but for millions of others, they became an inspiration.  At the worst of times, they shine and take their place in history, not for conquering and victories, but for reminding us all of the nobility in being principled. 

Selflessness offers a signal to all, of how important it is, for all of us to be part of our society.  It is when we dig deep on those qualities, that some may not even know that they have.  I remember reading the interview of a person tortured during a dictatorship, being described as a hero; their response was incredibly disarming. “I am not a hero; I was just there”.  I am quite aware that I write this blog at a time of self-isolation, lockdowns and the daily body count of the dead.  Over a period of weeks, our lives have radically changed, and we live in self-imposed confinement.  We are spectators in a medical drama with serious social implications.  Those we do not quite know, but it looks very likely that these reverberations will last for at least a while. 

It is interesting to see a renewed appreciation for professionals, namely health care and for those professions that we did not hold in high regard previously. Hero as a term seems to be rebranding itself and this may be one of those long-term effects afterwards. Just to remind us all that on this Good Friday, numerous professionals in the health care system, carers, teachers, public transport, logistics, council and retail workers will be going to work with their free will, knowing some of the risks for them and their families. This is their testament, this is their covenant and that forms part of our collective civilisation. Whilst people remind us to wash our hands, I kiss their hands for their altruism

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