Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has grown rapidly in recent months due to the reinvigorated anger against systemic racism and police brutality. Although these issues have been rife for generations, cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey have highlighted and exposed the problem. Huge protests, rallies and petitions have given people a platform to use their voice, enabling a hope for change in the future.
As a white person growing up in a largely non-diverse community, it is difficult to understand racism because we are not subject to it and it may not be visible to us. Nevertheless, after conversations with friends from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic community (BAME) they have explained that racism manifests itself in many forms. There is overt racism through direct hate speech, violence, threats and visible forms of discrimination. Covert racism is less visible such as the degrading, patronising and constant microaggressions people of colour experience.
However, embedded into institutional structures and society, the most ubiquitous form is systemic racism and the UK is no exception. Systemic racism is intrinsically linked to the roots and structures of transatlantic slavery which forced black people to become the slaves and ‘property’ of white slave owners. This created and reinforced the myth of White Supremacy. Therefore, the power relationships derived from these colonial hierarchies continue to adversely affect black people and allow white people to unknowingly benefit from white privilege.
Today, as just one example, this can be seen in the high disproportionate rate of police stop and search tactics against black people. In England and Wales, black people comprise just 3% of the population yet make up 12% of its prison population. Furthermore, a huge 48% of under 18s in custody are from BAME backgrounds and in 2010 the Metropolitan Police charged 78%of black people caught in possession of cocaine compared with only 44% of whites. Therefore, the very systems that are supposed to protect every citizen disproportionately target and criminalise black people.
White privilege is therefore the protection from racial discrimination and hate crime as white people will not be attacked, targeted or profiled as criminals at the same rate as black people. But for many white working class people, the concept of their privilege can be misinterpreted. Some may find it insulting as they don’t feel they have a privileged position and they perceive this as undermining their personal or financial struggles.
Another way racism is misunderstood is through the perception that it works both ways. However, as racism is a power structure that reinforces the lie of white supremacy, racism cannot be experienced by white people. However, white people can experience racial prejudice or xenophobia, for example, seen in the case of Tyson Fury. He says that he experiences racist abuse ‘all the time’ due to his traveller background, but what he experiences is discrimination. This is because racism is intrinsically linked to the colonial hierarchies of slavery so reverse racism cannot exist as it doesn’t reinforce power structures or white supremacy.
Although it is upsetting that many claim the BLM movement aims to stoke up agitation and provoke racial tension, this does give us a clear elucidation into the complex issue of white fragility. This can be simply understood as the fear or denial of accepting one’s own white privilege. Here we see phrases such as ‘yes but all lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ and this is a huge problem because in Britain today ‘all lives’ simply don’t seem to matter. If ‘all lives’ did matter, then as a society we would all strive to call out inequality and help to magnify black voices. The phrase Black Lives Matter is used to highlight the specific problem of racism, not to agitate a race war. If Black Lives Matter is triggering for you, it may be an indication of your white fragility.
So, many people misunderstand Black Lives Matter, and instead of seeing it as a way of bringing equality, some see it as an attack on white people. Not only does this miss the point entirely, but in actual fact creates the problem of racial tension they are so keen to point out. Here we have to ask who the real victims are. Either privileged white people ‘insulted’ for benefitting from their privilege, or those who have been systematically oppressed for centuries. Whose voice and ergo freedom of speech should take priority? More simply put – should we encourage those who seek to undermine black lives matter or those who are rallying for equality?
The calls of ‘all lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ are – as I believe – one of two things. They are either a product of miseducation and misunderstanding or a purposely provocative response. This provocation is problematic as it aims to invalidate the trauma that black people and their ancestors have experienced for over 400 years. Although the phrase ‘all lives matter’ is self-evident, we should be able to identify that in the current context, it takes away the potency of the fight against racism and the realities that black people experience. Moreover, this expression is linked to the rhetoric of toxic positivity, aiming to ‘move on from the past’ as after all ‘the past is the past’ – right?
Wrong, the past is and can never just be ‘the past’. This toxic positivity simply invalidates and denies centuries of slavery, exploitation, oppression and racism towards black people worldwide. A prime example of this is when David Cameron, on an official trip to Jamaica in 2015, said it’s time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future”. Easy for him to say as a privileged white slave owner descendent who financially benefitted from the slave trade and its abolition. Interestingly, 2015 was the same year that descendants of the enslaved paid off the compensation scheme through their taxes. This included people from the Windrush generation who are still mistreated today. Therefore, how can we, as white people, ask those who have continually been persecuted and oppressed to ‘move on’ when the legacies of slavery are no less rife today?
In a lecture given at Oxford University, Hilary Beckles (Vice Chancellor of the University of The West Indies) argues that Britain has a case to answer for in relation to reparatory justice. His point is that the British state have never issued an official apology for the abolition act which legally defined black slaves as property and not as human beings. Beckles argues that reparatory justice isn’t a plea for monetary handouts but for equity to help and elevate black lives, allowing them their right to succeed and to right the wrongs of the crimes in British history.
The British education system displays a stark lack of non-western histories and the realities of colonialism. This desperately needs to be changed as it represents a form of epistemic violence. It was the philosopher Gayatri Spivak who transformed the debate of anti-colonialism and defined epistemic violence as the violence against what we know as knowledge itself. This can be seen today in how the curriculum only portrays a very narrow view of history, which continues to obliterate and silence certain groups from public memory. This is why Black Lives Matter is so important in giving a voice to people who have previously been silenced.
An example of this is the glorification of our past pursued by our government and historians alike. In 2010, the conservative government called upon Neil Ferguson, a man ‘fundamentally in favour of empire’, to rewrite the curriculum. Unfortunately, this has led to snubbing the true realities of Britain’s past. In addition, historians such as David Starkey should also be held accountable for their role in distorting our understanding of the past. Starkey has since been ‘cancelled’ for his racist comments and his role in downplaying the severity of slavery saying it was not genocide because there’s so many ‘damn blacks in Africa’.
This manipulation of British History continues to shape and warp white people’s knowledge and understanding of history and Britain’s place in the world. So, we need to ask ourselves how, as white privileged people, we can move forward and begin to address the wrongs our ancestors committed. An overhaul of the education system is only the beginning of centuries needed change and reform.
So evidently, the past is far more complicated than just what happened in history. To say this not only ignores the impacts of slavery but also invalidates black people’s most basic human rights. For example to be listened to and acknowledged when they call out racism, to not systematically be held back in life, to not be profiled as criminals or targeted for their skin colour and to be seen and treated as equal human beings.
As white people, it is our duty to educate ourselves and join the fight against racism. We must not remain silent or claim that racism isn’t a problem. Racism is a problem that white people need to fix because our ancestors created it to instil the lie of white supremacy. Therefore, we need to actively seek equality and justice and speak out, even when it’s uncomfortable.
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