Since the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the country has been talking about race and racism. Or has it?
On the BBC News Channel last Friday morning, during a discussion about the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, journalist Victoria Derbyshire reacted to a claim made by a British interviewee that racism was still a taboo subject in Britain. Ms Derbyshire interrupted the speaker, speaking over her to insist that she and the BBC had been talking about racism for 20 years. Later that evening, on Radio 4’s Any Questions, cabinet minister Grant Shapps responded to a question about racism in the UK today by invoking William Wilberforce – dead for nearly 200 years – in Britain’s defence.
I’m white, middle class, liberal, only just waking from my slumber of ignorance and mis-education, but in Grant Shapp’s desperate disclaimer, and in that short exchange between a white BBC journalist and a commentator of colour, I saw it all: I saw my old self, taking over the conversation to reject any personal responsibility for racism because, you know, I’ve got friends of colour, I’ve been on anti-racist demos, so I’m one of the good guys!; I heard the ingrained arrogance of white privilege rearing up in Victoria Derbyshire’s tone, without any awareness on her part that, instead of defending herself and the Beeb, she’d just nailed her interviewee’s point. And I experienced just a little of the weariness and pain and anger that must have been felt by the interviewee as her words and her truth were drowned out by the louder, more insistent untruth.
Because as far as I’m aware, neither Ms Derbyshire nor the BBC nor any British government has ever yet started a real conversation about race and racism in the UK. I know this because I’ve been reading and listening recently to people who are. But most white people aren’t listening. On Sunday on Sky News, health secretary Matt Hancock answered the charge that the UK had a problem with racism by countering that Britain was one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world. My mouth dropped open. Was he really inviting British people of colour to feel glad to be…. tolerated? Was he actually saying that we are so open that we are even prepared to accept non-white people (whose lives and heritage we ravaged and took as our own) as citizens of Britain? Finally, later the same day, the BBC’s Tim Wilcox invited the historian David Olusoga to talk about events in Bristol, then peevishly accused him of wanting to erase history when he defended the moral rectitude of removing the statue of Edward Colston from the centre of the city. As Olusoga pointed out with restrained, articulate anger, Colston was one of history’s most abhorrent and murderous slavetraders; the statue was erected long after his death and the outlawing of slavery; and statues are erected to honour and reflect our enduring values, not to teach us history lessons.
Before I began listening, I thought that racism was a negative but universal human impulse – a common, naturally occurring virus that only thrived in an environment of ignorance and tribal predisposition to other those that are not exactly like oneself. I thought that this virus could be killed off by the vaccine of contact and experience. I believed that the more all peoples engaged with each other, the sooner it would be obvious that skin colour was no more a determinant of a person than inside leg measurement. I believed that racism would then end, and all the injustice and inequality that followed it would end too.
The complacency of those assumptions now feels shameful. Now that I’ve begun to re-educate myself, I know that racism is not always or only a naturally-occurring disease. I know now that it was designed a-purpose in the political laboratories of the colonising empires. I know that the whole concept of race, of categorisation by colour, of the racialisation of peoples, is not science but construct. And it didn’t occur spontaneously out of past ignorance and tribalism, but was developed as part of a carefully considered policy and propaganda effort, explicitly pursued over centuries by Europeans – Britain chief among them.
Dazzled by the scale of human and natural resources available to plunder and to profit from that awaited them in Africa, the Indies and the Americas, British governments were perfectly aware that there were moral issues attaching to their appetite for exploitation, subjugation and enslavement. The conceit of race and the propaganda myth of white exceptionalism, developed and honed over generations, both justified our exploitation of the world’s ‘savage’ lands and ‘dark continents’ and, even more importantly for the empire project, drew a hard exclusion zone, legally, socially, politically and economically, between the exploiters and the exploited. This was essential because, as the empires ‘matured’ and the contributions of non-white peoples to our wealth, civilisation and culture increased exponentially, integration became the empire’s biggest threat. The more we lived in each other’s worlds and knew of each other, the harder it was to maintain the hierarchies of oppression and greed, and the lies of white supremacy. The more we talked and listened and shared – and fought side by side – the less we believed in our white supremacist destiny; the less we believed that White Has The Right. Weaponising colour through propaganda, through overwriting history and through political, judicial, social and public policy has therefore been a function of government and institutions in Britain, just as much as in the US, for much of the past three hundred years.
Slavery was ended, but its unspeakable, unending, dehumanising legacy couldn’t have been more graphically exposed than by the video of a black man being tortured to death on a public street in broad daylight, a white knee casually, imperviously, squeezing the life from him as he pleaded for mercy. However much we in Britain try to distance ourselves from this appalling demonstration of the power of privilege, and spoon the white sugar of denial over its relevance to our experience, we must accept that most if not all British people of colour feel that knee on their neck too. They can’t breathe.
People of colour aren’t alone in enduring a society that denigrates, endangers and under-privileges them. The poison of elitism and class continues to infect the health, wealth and opportunities of millions of white Britons. But if the death of George Floyd is not to be in vain, then now is the time for us to admit the truth: that white sugar has been poured onto our common history for centuries, by politicians and public leaders, in school, at home, from boardrooms and church pulpits. Mountains of it now obscure our past, soaking up its bloody crimes, and sweetening the lies of the present, making them palatable – for white people. White sugar is arguably more pernicious than the garbage that spews from the mouths of racist extremists. It normalises the abnormal; it binds falsehood and prejudice to the metabolism of truth and fact. It traumatises and tortures every individual and every community that is forced to endure its lies. We’ve been fed this toxic stuff since birth, but we mustn’t swallow any more. It’s time to turn off the tap, dissolve the lies and start listening to the realities, however bitter they are. We need honesty, truth and reconciliation – to learn, to accept responsibility and to help make change happen.
I want to live in a society that respects, supports and empowers all its citizens, and I want it now. But I’m checking my privilege. It’s not my place to define the tones, terms or timetables of those changes. So right now, I’m reading and I’m listening. I invite every white Briton urgently to do the same.
A few suggestions to get started:
Black and British, A Forgotten History and The World’s War – David Olusoga
Staying Power – Peter Fryer
A Search for Belonging – Michael Fuller
Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
Brit-ish – Afua Hirsch
Race tick boxes and bad science mask the real reason why black people are at risk from Covid 19 – Dr Annabel Sowemimo, published by gal-dem
How the South Won the Civil War – Heather Cox Richardson
Our national conversation about national conversations about race – US podcast: Anna Holmes, Baratunde Thurston, Tanner Colby)
Some of my best friends are black – Tanner Colby