Mya Alghali discusses why the current rhetoric surrounding racism in the UK is damaging and ignorant, and the role that British culture plays in erasing the conversation about racism in the UK.
Before coming to a solid conclusion about what exactly it was that I wanted to write about for this article, I debated between two topics. The first, a focus on the current situation in America concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, a matter incredibly important to me as a black woman. The second option, an assessment of how the rise of populism in the West has proven to be particularly divisive and pivotal in the spread, or rather resurface, of hatred and white supremacy across much of Europe. Yet, recent discussions in the United Kingdom (UK) about racism towards black people, including discussions about whether or not racism is as prevalent in the UK as it is in the United States (US), and in many cases, whether or not the UK even has a race problem, swiftly prompted me to write about the racism and racist rhetoric in the UK and its impact on black people.
We cannot talk about racism in the UK without taking into account the active role that British culture plays in suppressing the conversation surrounding discrimination and racism. As stated by Dazed magazine columnist Bolu Babalola: “Britain is so effective at racial gaslighting because its culture is one of this disingenuous veneer of civility, which non Brits see as politeness”. Adding “When you say something is racist, they will say that you’re overreacting or exaggerating or that you ‘misheard’ and that they did not mean it that way. They pretend things away. English culture is to repress”. Rather than acknowledge that Britain does in fact have a race problem, and that successive governments have all played a role in facilitating and encouraging racially discriminatory sentiment and action in one way or another, government ministers former and current, have all stressed that Britain is allegedly not a racist country.
I find it both amusing and alarming that following the wave of right wing populism that swept the UK in the build up to the Brexit Referendum, which still lingers heavily now, and the subsequent rise in overt racism and islamophobia which followed, has somehow slipped the minds of so many British people despite being widely reported in mainstream media. According to polling data seen by The Guardian in 2019, 71% of people from ethnic minorities reported having faced racial discrimination, compared to 58% in January 2016 prior to the Brexit vote. These figures represent merely a fraction of the data surrounding overt racism reported by ethnic minorities. One can only imagine how many incidents have gone unreported. Surely, British people cannot deny the fact that racism is, and always has been alive and well this country.
Whereas America is having the conversation concerning racial injustice and police brutality, albeit for the millionth time, Britain is still trying to suppress, avoid and deny it. In his book, Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada, author Michael Mascarenhas states: “The collective amnesia of Canada’s racist past (and present) not only shapes the established racial structure of today’s society but also legitimises it”. Like Canada, Britain too, is suffering from collective amnesia surrounding its racist past and present. Britain has chosen to forget about its leading role in imperialism and colonialism. Britain has chosen to forget about the cruelty and suffering that it inflicted onto the people whose countries it invaded. Britain is now in limbo over choosing whether or not to acknowledge and accept the fact that their beloved Winston Churchill was deeply racist and sexist. That said, some have finally come to realise that it is not acceptable to simply gloss over Churchill’s actions and sentiment, while others are still attempting to downplay any criticism of him in an attempt dissociate Churchill from his actions, opting instead to focus on his role in World War II, thereby removing him from public debate and criticism.
The reality is, that the places that Britain forced imperial rule onto and economically benefited from, do not have that option. They do not have the privilege of simply choosing to ignore and forget the suffering inflicted upon them and the ongoing consequences of the British Empire, such as vast economic inequality. Any criticism of Churchill, especially today, due to the conversations surrounding whether or not statues of notable figures with racist pasts should remain in place, is often met with an attack or a ‘history lesson’ as to why we must be ‘grateful’ that Churchill saved all of our lives. Just ‘move on’ and ignore all of his so called ‘complexities’ (see BBC article from 13 June: “Churchill statue ‘may have to be put in museum‘”). For example, when Harvard historian Caroline Elkins wrote her book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, originally published in 2005, detailing the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya at the end of World War II, directly involving Winston Churchill, Elkins received much backlash from fellow academics about breaking the ”code of silence” that had “squelched discussion of British imperial violence”.
In 2011, when former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Britain and the legacy of its Empire was responsible for many of the worlds problems, he was met with criticism from Nick Lloyd, Professor of History at King’s College London, who called Cameron’s comments “far from the truth” and “lacking in historical judgement”. Any historically and socially conscious black and ethnic minority (BAME) person in Britain will be all too aware of the ‘controversial’ debates’ concerning British imperialism. A large majority of black students studying the social sciences in British universities would have no doubt come across another student who has attempted to gloss over the deeply damaging and oppressive effects of British imperialism instead choosing to divert the conversation to the ‘progress’ which was made in India in terms of infrastructure. I myself had this exact argument with a white male student during a seminar several months ago. It was incredibly frustrating and upsetting. This is a point excellently explored by author Jude Yawson’s article “The Truth about Racism in the UK“, a piece I definitely recommend reading in which he stresses, “to exist as a historically conscious black or Asian person in Britain, is to exist knowing that a majority of your white counterparts do not acknowledge your history. They have not been forced to adopt centuries of trauma, or been subjected to the racialised perceptions created over that time. They have not originated from mother countries gradually drying from the imperialism they were soaked in, and do not have to live in recognition of slavery and colonialism and the impact these have had on their countries and people”.
It can be incredibly frustrating being a black person in Britain. Watching documentaries such as David Osoluga’s ‘The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files’, and speaking to older black people who have been in Britain long before I was born, such as my grandmother, a black woman who worked for the NHS and was racially abused by patients every single day, tells me that is has always been frustrating to be black in Britain. You are constantly gaslighted. You are told that you are overreacting. You are treated as if your feelings about how you are being treated as a black person do not matter. Eventually, you learn how to navigate this. You no longer run to the teachers at school saying you have been racially abused as your complaint is likely to go nowhere.
Racism in British schools is rampant and comes from students, teachers, and general members of staff. Black students in UK schools are exposed to racism and discrimination “the minute they enter the education system”. As reported by The Independent in 2020, “schools are unfairly punishing black students for their hairstyles, wearing bandanas and kissing teeth due to racial bias and a general lack of understanding”, this lack of understanding can and does lead to teachers who discriminate against black children having direct effects on their time in school and their education prospects. For example, African Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded than their counterparts, this then has knock on effects for their educational prospects as they are not only spending less time in school, but some of their families cannot fill in the gaps. Black students are also given lower predicted grades by their teachers despite doing well in exams. This problem is only set to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as black students have also been predicted to suffer the most from GCSE and A-Level cancellations.
Research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2011 found that “black applicants had the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39.1 percent of predicted grades accurate, while their white counterparts had the highest, at 53 per cent. Furthermore, the study found that black students are most likely to have their grades not just mispredicted, but underpredicted”. At university level, data from 2017 reported by the BBC showed that black students made up just 4% of the Russell Group University population compared to white students who make up 75%, and Asian students who make up just over 10%. Black students make up 8% of the UK university population overall.
Discrimination and racism faced by black people continues in employment. In the workplace you learn not to confront your co-worker about their microaggressions and outright racism, you go home and you share your experiences with your friends and family who will then share their own experiences of racism in the workplace, or you log it into a journal, and report to HR shortly before you leave the company as you don’t want to risk being blackballed or possibly being let go from your place of work. You learn to navigate your way through life in Britain. But we no longer want to do this. Things must change. Why should we, as black people, be made to feel on edge, tokenised or threatened in certain areas and spaces in our own country? Why must we be the ones to have to carefully navigate certain spaces and repress our emotions when we are treated wrongly due to the colour of our skin? No one should have to feel this way. Why must black women, let alone trans black women in this country and in general, be subjected to twice or triple the amount of oppression as their male counterparts due to sexism and damaging stereotypes. Why must black LGBTQ+ people in this country suffer? Why must any black person suffer? This is our home. So why are we not being made to feel at home? We are British. We are just as British as anyone else and we deserve to be treated as such. It’s time that Britain stopped portraying itself as a liberal multicultural accepting wonderland and actually put in the effort into making it one.
When we as black people call out flaws in the system and point out racial injustice in Britain, we are often met with statements such as, ‘Why don’t you go back home?’ or ‘Why do you stay here?’ as Nick Ferrari asked The Guardian columnist Aufa Hirsch on Sky’s current affairs programme, ‘The Pledge’, not too long ago. Or, we are deemed ‘ungrateful’ as if we are so ‘lucky’ to be here and we must be eternally grateful to the United Kingdom for allowing us entry and providing us with opportunities.
It’s time that we deconstruct and reform the narrative surrounding racism and the presence of black people in Britain. Boris Johnson recently announced a cross-party ‘Racial Inequality Commission’ to “assuage” the Black Lives Matter movement and to “stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’”. Johnson’s comments garnered much deserved criticism with prominent Labour MP Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, comparing Johnson’s approach to being “written on the back of a fag packet” deeming it “immature” stating that it is “deeply worrying” that Britain is having a conversation about whether racism actually exists. The Racial Inequality Commission feels like yet another attempt to slow down momentum and go around the issue without taking any real action or accountability. What exactly is this committee going to do to continue opening up the conversation about racism in this country? What real action and permanent legislative change to ensure that black people and people of colour are treated equally and as British citizens, which they are, in this country? It comes as little surprise that a man who has a history of saying incredibly racist anti black things should propose such a “solution” or “amendment” in order to simply “assuage” the Black Lives Matter movement rather than to take real action and accountability.
If the the government hadn’t already proven to be ineffective and out of touch when it comes to handling the issue of racism in this country, the appointment of Munira Mirza, Special Advisor to Boris Johnson as Head of the Racial Inequality Commission, should tell you all you need to know about the government’s position of enacting real change in this country as well as how little they care. Mirza has a prominent history of dismissing racial inequality, and structural racial inequality in Britain, much like her Tory counterparts. Not only does the appointment of Mirza further undermine Johnson’s commission, but further exposes the Tory party’s true attitude towards conquering the problem of racial inequality. This is a point well made by academic Dr Fatima Rajina who “criticised the Conservative government for its tendency to hire ‘ethnic minorities who agree with their point of view'”.
Dr Rajina states: “It’s reminiscent of the colonial practice of creating a class of racialized people who continue to comply with institutions and structures that are there to diminish and silence communities of colour.” Rajina goes on to say that “Mirza leading this inquiry is the latest way for this government of telling people how little they care about issues impacting racialized communities”. I could not agree more with Dr Rajina. By appointing ministers of ethnic minorities who agree with Tory sentiment and attempt to diminish or even ignore, racial inequality, as well as the active role they play in creating and furthering it, allows the government to weaponise one group of people of colour against another people of colour who clearly see and experience racism in Britain. As a result, we become divided and our fight for equality and an end to racism here becomes weakened and trivialised.
The Conservative Party aren’t the only ones guilty of such rank incompetence and disregard for racial inequality and discrimination. The Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Units internal report was leaked a few weeks ago that “set Twitter ablaze“. The report not only exposed the “intricate web of bureaucratic plotting” against former leader Jeremy Corbyn, but exposed the anti black racism endured by black labour MPs such as Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott, the latter of which, reportedly cried in the Commons’ toilet due to the racial abuse from both the public and from her white counterparts. Despite public pressure, new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is yet to address the report. Perhaps in hopes that we will forget or simply move on. For a party that for the most part, portrays itself as a “party of the people, for the people” and as a viable alternative to the Conservatives, the covering up of the reports by Labour and Starmer is yet another massive let down from the Party.
Racism isn’t just an angry white man screaming at you to’ go back home’. It takes many forms. It is multifaceted. It is political, social and economic. It is the Conservative Party creating a “hostile environment”, in order to have the Windrush generation prove their “entitlement” to live in their country, and avoid being treated as “illegal immigrants” despite their vital contributions to the UK. It is past Prime Ministers and Cabinets on both sides of the spectrum such as Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill creating committees to see whether or not black people who migrated into the country were heavy drug users and seeking to wholly benefit from the welfare system. These damaging narratives, which still exist today and are constantly utilised by governments and the media to justify the legislation and cuts put in place to make life incredibly hard for black people and poor working class people in this country. Britain has a long history of both systematic and systemic racism and it is time it acknowledged it.
Black people in Britain are murdered by members of the police. There seems to be a collective narrative going around that police brutality towards black people in Britain rarely happens and therefore we needn’t worry or address the issue. Simply stating that we’re ‘better’ than the US because police brutality in Britain is not as bad as it is in America doesn’t help anything about racism at all. It only served to move us backwards. The mere fact that police brutality does exist here is a massive problem. If you are BAME in the UK, you are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police.
The mere fact that countless black people such as Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh, Christopherr Alder, Kingsley Burrell, and many others have been murdered at the hands of the police in Britain is enough to prove that this country and its police force has a serious problem when it comes to racial injustice and police brutality. The nine police officers believed to have been involved in the 2015 death of Sheku Bayoh while in police custody in Scotland, a 31 year old trainee engineer and father of two, have not even been terminated let alone prosecuted. Countless families of the victims such as Sheku Bayoh still have open enquiries years after the deaths of their loved ones. Belly Mujinga, a black British woman, a mother who leaves behind a husband and an eleven-year-old daughter, an essential worker who died of COVID-19 after being spat on has not received justice. The British Transport Police concluded that Belly Mujinga’s death was not linked to the incident and the 57 year old man who assaulted her has not been charged. How can this be allowed to happen? Many black British people and British people of colour have been murdered in racially aggravated attacks and too many have not received justice. Zahid Mubarek, a 19 year old boy was murdered in March 2000 by his racist cellmate Robert Stewart while detained at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Zahid was still placed in a cell with Stewart despite staff being aware of Stewart’s intolerance and hatred towards BAME people. Shukri Abdi, a 12 year old girl, whose mother says she was subjected to “extensive bullying” at school drowned in a river in Greater Manchester, a group of children were with her at the time of her death.
Shukri’s death has been adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement in hopes that there will be a successful inquiry into her death so that she and her family can receive the justice they deserve.
Furthermore, technological advancements used by the police to solve crime such as CCTV contribute to institutional racism. As reported in Gal-dem magazine, research carried out by technology graduate student Joy Buolamwini in 2018, at the Massachusetts Institute, in studies investigating facial recognition systems from the likes of Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon, found that the technology was “endemically racist” (Lothian McLean, 2020). ”Initial research found that the tech only mismatched images of light-skinned men 0.8% of the time” (Lothian McLean. 2020). Research showed that ‘”when it came to black and brown individuals though, the rate of inaccuracy shot up. Darker-skinned women had a misidentification rate of 34%” (Lothian McLean, 2020). Pairing existing discriminatory and racist police practices with racially biased technology is sure to only worsen things.
Britain has a huge problem facing up to its own racism problem and that is deeply reflective of British culture as a whole. It’s time it faced up to it. Real action needs to be taken. We, as a country, need to do far more to properly tackle racial injustice and discrimination in British schools so that all students have an equal chance of reaching their full academic potential and pursuing higher education if they wish to do so. So that black students don’t only make up 8% of the UK university population. We need to decolonise the curriculum and teach children and students the history of Britain’s imperial past to ensure that people are properly educated. So that when black people and people of colour in Britain rightly call Britain out for being a racist country with a racist past, they are no longer gaslighted or silenced. We need to hold the British police forces accountable for their role in the murder of black people in this country and ensure that they are terminated and prosecuted swiftly.
A police force in which both explicit and implicit institutional racial bias exists cannot be allowed to continue with zero changes. Perhaps, like the American Black Lives Matter movement, we need to start looking into serious reform or the possible abolition and replacement of the police force. However, I am all too aware that that point will garner much criticism as we have only just begun to have forward thinking discussions surrounding racism in the UK. We need to hold the current and past governments accountable for their roles in pushing forward anti-immigrant, islamophobic and racist sentiment which has proven to be pivotal in creating today’s politico-social sphere in which right wing protestors feel that it is okay to openly “demonstrate their frustrations” by “taking things into their own hands”, threatening to pour acid onto black protestors and attacking the police. The media must be held accountable for its central and active role in stirring up racist sentiment, and suppressing conversations surrounding the racism and white supremacy that is alive and well in the UK. There is so much that we need to do in Britain in order to make permanent change for the better. One can only hope that as time goes on, these conversations will continue to be had and that real action will be taken and measures implemented.
Image Credit: Kyle Kotajarvi (@kylekotajarvi)
If you’re interested in any of the works mentioned in the article, their links are below:
Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada by Michael Mascarenhas
Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins