How the Fuck Did We Get Here?
The reckoning began, or rather resumed, with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US. The whole world watched, just as they had when Eric Garner was murdered, same as they did when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered for playing with a toy gun on a playground. The whole world was watching but this time we had time on our hands.
The devastation of COVID-19 meant that people had been forced to slow down, and we were just far enough into the pandemic to understand our own mortality. The fragility of our human bodies. We’d been living with the pandemic long enough to see that each of us are susceptible to forces outside our control. That we are not in control of whether we live or die.
We could see for ourselves the audacity of a police officer who thought they could kneel on a fellow human’s neck until the life drained from them, and that they could do so with impunity. It was this singular combination of circumstances that made us pay attention and, with our lives on hold, we had time to process and understand what we had seen.
If you’re sick of reading about George Floyd and the racist structures that led to his death, spare a thought for the people whose skin colour means they have no choice but to live with the effects of racism every day. For people who have lived with racism, it was no surprise that protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against racial injustice and inequality spread across the world last summer; gaining widespread attention and eliciting promises to end racism. From the CEOs of huge corporations to individuals and sole traders, everyone (apart from the racists) pledged to do better. To take action.
Most people’s action stopped at reading a few books, but reading books can be a useful way of beginning to understand why people are fighting for racial justice. People learned about the pseudo-science that led to the establishment of racial hierarchies, which began when Carl Linnaeus revised his classification of the ‘varieties’ of humans in the 1750s (those of African heritage with dark skin at the bottom and those of European heritage with pale skin at the top). This concept was instrumental in the dehumanisation of non-Europeans and led to the justification of slavery and genocide. We’re still living with the consequences.
As the summer wore on it became clear to many that it’s not enough for people to simply distance themselves from the racist behaviours of others. People began to understand that standing by and refusing to intervene makes you an enabler of racism, which kind of makes you racist. If you want to fight against racism, you’ve got to be actively anti-racist.
There is no denying that for centuries, our beloved small island punched above its weight on the world stage. We were leading players in the making of history. We shaped the world. There’s no denying that. It’s fact.
Just how we shaped the world it, is a murkier area.
One of the enduring calls from last summer’s protests is for us to finally acknowledge the reality of our history. To own it, to live with it, to learn from it.
The hot mess we’ve created as a nation has its roots in that complex history, particularly our refusal to truly acknowledge and embrace the citizens of Britain’s former empire as fully British citizens. We are all still living with the consequences of only ever telling a fraction of the story.
The wealth generated in the colonies paved Britain’s streets with metaphorical gold. The Industrial Revolution was powered by steam and the profits generated from the sale of goods produced first by enslaved Africans and then by indentured labourers. It was also powered by the exploitation of the working class at home.
The wealth that drove the mills was generated on plantations where barbarous practices and a steady supply of enslaved Africans, including those born into slavery, kept profit margins high. Economic growth in the 18th century was dependant on slave labour.
The wealth was taken out of the colonies and brought to the motherland, it wasn’t invested in the countries where the resources were produced and harvested. Likewise, the wealth generated for the factory owners didn’t trickle down to the workers who had limited rights and limited life expectancies. The Industrial Revolution was a complex event that evolved over the course of 80 years. Progress came at the expense of people and we shouldn’t pretend that it didn’t.
Another piece of obscured history, the contribution of African, Caribbean and Asian soldiers during WWI, was not well known until the centennial commemorations saw a significant rise in awareness of the black presence during the First World War. The Mother Country had called for help and the citizens of the British Empire responded to that call. It must have felt like a kick in the teeth when those same soldiers were banned from participating in the Peace March on the 19 July 1919 alongside their white-skinned comrades-in-arms.
The half story told about why Caribbean people came to Britain in larger numbers following WWII means that people don’t understand that members of the British Empire (as it still was at the time) were born British. When they came here, they weren’t ‘immigrants’, they were British citizens. This automatic citizenship was born out of imperialism and colonialism. As recompense for the global tragedy of the slave trade and the use of indentured labour across the colonies, it seems like a pretty good deal for the Brits. It cost Britain nothing to promise to treat the subjects of its Empire, including the ones with dark skins, as British citizens. The hostile environment and the Windrush scandal show how much of a lie that was.
You’d think we were tough enough as a country to live with the reality of our past but apparently not. To suggest that any aspect of British history is anything less than noble is to be accused of ‘doing the country down’. Is there any other situation where you would only want to know half the story? Where a more detailed history is seen as an act of erasure instead of an honest telling. Where rewriting history is suddenly not allowed. History has always been written by the victors and it has always been re-evaluated as the years march on.
Britain’s history, our history, has more than its fair share of atrocities. And it’s fine to acknowledge that. We are shaped by our past, but the past isn’t all we are, isn’t all we can be. We have a set of moral principles, a set of British Values and we need to learn to live with the fact that our historical figures were not always equal to those values. If we learn from the past, we can do better in the present and in the future.
It’s not about tearing statues down and it’s not about culture wars. Those who have nothing to gain from challenging the status quo are too eager to conflate airbrushed history with historical fact. They don’t trust us with history. Maybe they suspect that being honest about the endeavours that made Britain great risks bringing the whole edifice down. Maybe it would cause us to question the notion that Britain is, and always has been, a just and fair country.
Maybe that’s what the likes of Jenrick and Johnson are scared of. That if we learned the unedited histories of our national heroes and heroines - the unpalatable things, the despicable things – that it won’t only be ‘woke’ liberals demanding that we stop elevating and celebrating them. That if we reassess our understanding of the actions of our historical figures, we’ll somehow lose a sense of our national identity.
The people of Bristol didn’t want to tear down Colston’s statue, but their decades long struggle to get a plaque acknowledging his direct links to the transatlantic slave trade failed. If the powers that be had not constantly deferred the argument and quibbled over wording Colston might still be on his plinth now.
Language is important but we can get too hung up on definitions, get side-tracked or made to believe that we’re talking at cross-purposes. We’re too scared of saying the wrong thing, too scared of being labelled or mislabelled. White privilege is a case in point. It’s hard to argue that a white person living in social housing in an area of high deprivation, earning minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet is ‘privileged’ if your understanding of privilege looks a lot like our current Prime Minister.
Is privilege the right word when what we’re really talking about is the added layer of protection that having white skin can give? If you remove the layer of armour provided by white skin, what then? A wealthy person with black skin can stave off the hardships of poverty, but their money won’t protect them from inequalities caused by systemic racism.
We’re looking at a future full of precarity so what do we have to lose by fighting for an anti-racist society. It’s not a zero-sum game. If we eradicate racism and racist structures, we can get on with the business of fighting against inequality and injustice wherever it rears its head. This anti-racism movement is about individual responsibility to bring about positive, collective change. It’s not hard work if we’re all sharing the load.