I UNDERSTAND that I don’t understand, but I stand (Black Lives Matter demo banner)
On Saturday 13 June, early afternoon, I turned idly to Twitter to see what was going on ‘out there’ and began to catch clips of the violence in central London. It was already not a great day for me, but its rating plummeted as I watched gangs of men raising their arms in Nazi salute at Churchill’s boxed-off statue, and trying to start fights with police. I kept going back to look, feeling incredulity (what’s their understanding of history?), shock and deep sadness (lockdown aggression had found a bad excuse); meanwhile the London Black Lives Matter event had been sensibly cancelled. These were the usual right-wing suspects, and it helped to see a contrasting peaceful and suitably distanced BLM demo on Brighton beach. It helped even more the next day to see ‘statue defenders’ guarding George Eliot’s in Nuneaton.
So what’s with the aggression – apart from what we already know about ‘taking back control’ Brexit-style and some people’s hatred of people who don’t look like them – and what makes someone write an angry rant next to my BLM-embellished Facebook profile picture? I turned to Robin Diangelo and her thoughts on ‘white fragility’. She argues that white people have a ‘deeply internalised sense of superiority’ they may be unaware of or may want to deny, and that, being ‘insulated from racial stress (through) seldom experiencing racial discomfort in a society that we dominate’, we haven’t had to build ‘racial stamina’ and therefore easily become fragile in conversations about race. Reni Eddo-Lodge describes white as ‘neutral’, the ‘default’. When that entitled default position is threatened, we get variously fearful, angry, defensive and denying; and we withdraw and do all we can to return to the status quo. And by ‘othering’ we maintain a distance and a hierarchy.
Have we reached a watershed moment? Social media is full of lists of resources, people are lapping up podcasts, books, videos, and having conversations. The BLM protests are drawing more white attendees than ever before. That image of George Floyd, so readily available to us all, pinned by his neck to the ground by the knee of a white cop, hands in pockets, for nearly nine minutes, while he slowly died – it reached inside us and met our horror, and shouted that the status quo is not acceptable anymore.
We white people have to be instrumental in changing the status quo. We don’t need another commission into racial inequality in the UK: as David Lammy said, let’s implement the recommendations from the previous ones. And let’s not hide any reports into the causes of the disproportionate number of deaths of people of colour from Covid-19. And, individually, we have a lot of work to do: Diangelo describes the part we each have to play as a lifetime of daily vigilance and calling out.
We need to cultivate empathy and recognise what is wrong. We’ll never entirely ‘get’ it of course. We need to cultivate resilience too. I was ticked off recently for using the term BAME, and could feel myself struggling to be schooled in the use of ‘person of colour’ (recommended by Eddo-Lodge), especially when another acquaintance of colour cheerfully used BAME themselves not many days after, even defining the term for me in case it was unfamiliar. We need to start and continue the conversations, be prepared to get things wrong.
As lockdown eases, we can also reflect on the extreme humanitarianism shown by those caring for Covid-19 sufferers. Can we bottle that please? We need to move forward, caring for this embattled planet, and focusing on social justice.
Penny Merrett, Sheffield
IN the nineteenth century, in the UK and other industrialising nations, there was a move to educate the general public in schools. Formerly the preserve of rich people, it was proposed that education should be a right for all children, regardless of class or status, and that it should be compulsory (hence the 1870 Education Act in the UK).
On the face of it this was to meet the need to educate the workforce to service the growing industrial base of the economy. However, it has also been argued that this was actually a means of controlling society as the working-class population, seen as a source of unrest, was growing in the cities. So rather than giving people something because it was to their benefit, something that was their right, it was, in fact a means of control and suppression.
What education did was inculcate in people a sense of conformity – conformity in terms of behaviour (because schools are based on the premise the teachers teach and pupils learn, and the main thing they learn is to obey their teachers) and conformity in terms of the knowledge they were all given (particularly in terms of history and civic responsibility). In the case of the UK, the superiority and exceptionalism of the British nation, particularly in terms of ruling the world and being ‘a world beating’ (to quote Boris Johnson) nation, was at the heart of the history curriculum.
When I started teaching in Coventry in the late 1980s, I thought that was changing. We had the best lecture of my teacher training course on the subject of racism – a lecture I can still remember! I can remember teaching my primary class a unit on Mary Seacole (pictured above) rather than Florence Nightingale. We scoured the books in our meagre school library and rejected those with racist tropes – when we really needed all the books we could lay our hands on. I thought, at the time, that we were moving in the right direction – that we were moving away from a celebration of colonialism to a world in which we would celebrate the equality of all people, regardless of skin colour, gender or religion. It was not perfect, but at least it was going in the right direction.
The work of recent UK governments to control the curriculum in schools has, it seems to me, gone in reverse. Back has come the emphasis on the Tudor kings and queens of England, historical date learning, and the celebration of conquest – out has gone an appreciation of other cultures and the history that has gone into making our contemporary society, with its rich cultural tapestry. Yes, teachers can choose to teach black history (how many do?) but why is there a distinction between black and white history? Why is it not just history, taking in diversity, uncertainty, the fact that things are never clear cut, equality?
At this time of social unrest – sparked by the global pandemic, fanned by the action of American police in killing George Floyd, rooted in a sense of injustice – my feeling is that the richest 1% in the world, currently shaping history, are content that attention is being diverted away from the real, deepest injustice. Black people have been kept in their place by being kept poor and there are many white people who experience poverty too – both will experience further real difficulties as a result of the global pandemic. In the meantime, the rich will continue to get richer, attention will be diverted from their gains by setting people against one another, and 99% of the world will grow poorer.
Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude
THE FINANCIAL crisis of 2018 led eventually to the rise of right-wing populism. Similarly, Covid-19 was also bound to have political consequences, but they have emerged almost immediately in global protests against racism. So there have been marches, attacks on property especially statues of historic racists, and a great deal of noise: the theatre of the street designed to make individuals and groups feel better.
In the long term all this is inconsequential. There are only two ways in which racism will be conquered: through legislation and enforcement; and enlightened education and changes to basic human attitudes. And in seeking such outcomes the world would do well to consider the philosophy of black consciousness (BC) espoused by Steve Biko (pictured above), murdered by the South African police on 12 September 1977.
Amid the recent uproar there have been interesting alternative black voices. One from Britain asked protestors what they were doing to support black enterprise. Biko would have approved. His challenge was that of physical and psychological liberation from oppression and victimhood; his main concern individual empowerment. Brought up as an Anglican, Biko believed it was sinful to be oppressed. Black people were standing on the sidelines when they should have been playing the game (Biko was a rugby player) and their sense of self, pride and dignity needed restoration. The apartheid system of his era produced people who needed to rediscover their own initiative and emancipate their identity.
This was not entirely new: for example, the Transkei clergyman and hymn writer Tiyo Soga had in the mid-nineteenth century extolled the virtues of self-reliance. BC focused on day-to-day struggles through local projects, challenging injustice through communal effort. The most famous, the Zanempilo Health Clinic at King William’s Town, was dedicated to curative and preventative medicine and community building. BC’s adherents rejected injustice, withdrawing into a separate and parallel realm where psychological rehabilitation could be achieved. Biko drew strength from the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s inspiring maxim – ‘there is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory’. His hope was that one pernicious world view – that of racial supremacy – could be dismantled so that another, better world could become possible.
He did not believe that a true consciousness of self could or would be emancipated from the mental imprisonment of racism through violence – or demonstrations. What is so striking about his philosophical approach is a belief in the power of rational ideas and persuasion in pursuit of justice, free participation and equal opportunity. His friend and editor, the Anglican monk Aelred Stubbs, saw Biko as a selfless revolutionary, a martyr for righteousness and the embodiment of hope.
Sadly, that stirring ambition of a victorious rendezvous seems as elusive as ever. Hope, too, is in short supply. It can be abandoned altogether if logical thought and rational argument – the sovereignty of the power of ideas – are lost. Biko, like other significant thinkers, believed a redemptive and transcendent morality was the most potent weapon against intolerance and exploitation even though its propagators often seem like voices crying in the wilderness as they confront the powerful and sinful. Yet they are the true revolutionaries in their concern for means as well as ends.
Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg