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The Crack Magazine

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How the Fuck Did We Get Here?

How the Fuck Did We Get Here?

We’re almost at the end 2021, still shell-shocked that we survived 2020. Some of us. Just. We’re still living through a pandemic and still reckoning with our past. Only now we have added pushback from populist politicians intent on starting phoney culture wars.

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 forced people 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 begun to see that our very existence was susceptible to forces outside our control. That we are not in control of whether we live or die.

We saw for ourselves the audacity of a police officer who thought they could kneel on a man’s neck until the life drained from him, 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 us, it was no surprise that protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against racial injustice and inequality gained worldwide attention and elicited long-overdue promises to end racism. From the CEOs of huge corporations to sole traders and individuals, everyone (apart from the racists) pledged to do better. To take action.

Most people’s action stopped at reading a few books. Some learned about Carl Linnaeus’ pseudo-scientific classification of the ‘varieties’ of humans in the 1750s, which placed people of African heritage with dark skin at the bottom and those of European heritage with pale skin at the top. This artificial division of the human race into sub-categories based on superficial physical differences gave birth to racism; the dehumanisation of non-Europeans created a justification for slavery and genocide.

Maybe it’s this growing awareness, that race is a construct designed to subjugate and exploit vast sections of the human race, that made so many people realise that they need to do more than simply distance themselves from the racist behaviours of others. 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.

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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 is a murkier area.

One of the enduring calls from the anti-racism protests in the summer of 2020 was for us to finally acknowledge the reality of our history. To own it, to live with it, to learn from it. I say ‘us’ and ‘our’ because, although there are people who would deny my identity as an English woman because I have dark skin, the history of Britain is as much mine as it is anyone else’s born on these shores.

The hot mess we’ve created as a nation has its roots in a complex history, particularly our refusal to embrace the citizens of Britain’s former empire as fully British z. We’re living with the consequences of only ever telling a fraction of the story. We need to acknowledge our past so that we can begin to move past the shameful things we did in order to put the ‘great’ into Great Britain.

The Industrial Revolution evolved over the course of 80 years and the wealth generated in the colonies paved Britain’s streets with metaphorical gold. The wealth that drove the mills came from plantations where barbarous practices and a steady supply of enslaved Africans, including those born into slavery, kept profit margins high. 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 always comes down to the money. Rather than reinvesting wealth in the countries where the resources were harvested and produced, money was taken out of the colonies and brought to the motherland. Likewise, the wealth generated for the factory owners in Britain didn’t trickle down to the workers who had limited rights and limited life expectancies. Economic growth in the 18th century was dependent on slave labour in the colonies and the exploitation of the working class at home. Progress was achieved at the expense of people, and we shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’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 called for help and the citizens of the British Empire responded. It must have felt like a kick in the teeth when those same soldiers were banned from marching alongside their white-skinned comrades-in-arms in the Peace March on 19th July 1919.

The half-story told about why Caribbean people came to Britain in larger numbers following WWII means that many people don’t understand that members of the British Empire (as it still was at the time) were born British. When the Empire Windrush landed in 1948 the West Indians aboard weren’t ‘immigrants’, they were British citizens. This automatic citizenship could be seen as recompense for the global tragedy of the slave trade and the use of indentured labour across the colonies. It was a pretty good deal for the Mother Country. It cost Britain nothing to promise to treat the subjects of her Empire, including the ones with dark skins, as British citizens. The hostile environment instigated by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2012 and the subsequent Windrush scandal show how easily empty promises can be broken.

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You’d think we’d be 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 a more detailed history is seen as an act of erasure instead of an honest retelling? Is rewriting history 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. We must acknowledge that. We are shaped by our past, but the past isn’t all we are, isn’t all we can be. If we learn from the past, we can do better in the present and in the future.

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. 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 Boris Johnson and Robert Jenrick are scared of. That if we learn 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 the actions of our historical figures, we’ll somehow lose a sense of our national identity. Are we really that brittle? Are we really unable to withstand criticism? Are we that scared of what it might take to make amends, to repair the damage caused in service to Progress?

Some politicians and media outlets would have us believe that our worth as a nation is found in symbols and signifiers rather than our actions. That statues unquestioningly represent the ‘great and the good’ and, once they’re erected, are here to stay. The people of Bristol didn’t want to tear down Edward Colston’s statue, but their decades-long struggle to get a plaque acknowledging Colston’s direct links to the transatlantic slave trade had failed. If the powers that be hadn’t constantly deferred the argument and quibbled over wording, he might still be on his plinth now.

Language is important but we can get 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. The term ‘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. But what additional challenges would they face if they were Black?

Is privilege the right word when what we’re really talking about is the layer of protection that having white skin can give? If you remove that layer of ‘white armour’, 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 facing a precarious future so what do we have to lose by fighting for an anti-racist society? It’s not a zero-sum game. Whilst we work to eradicate racism and racist structures, we can also fight against inequality, injustice and hatred wherever they rear their heads. The anti-racism movement is about individual responsibility to bring about positive, collective change for a better world. It’s not hard work if we’re all sharing the load.

Degna Stone

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