In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.
– Angela Davis
If being in the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, the last month brought about an intensifying and urgent need for social change and activism in the short term, and hopefully in the long term. The reason for this watershed moment is the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Police in Minnesota USA, with bystanders recording the arrest showing officers restraining him and one, in particular, resting a knee on his neck, whilst Floyd can be heard pleading “I can breathe”. This racial violence was recorded on smartphones and shared on social media, which made the brutality of his death on camera go viral across the globe. You can only imagine what happens between the police and black men off the camera – hold that thought. Shocking and uncomfortable to watch and discuss. Floyd’s death has given greater coverage and a wider mission to the Black Lives Movement (BLM) from the across the USA, UK, Paris, Rome, India, Hong Kong to Oceania. In the same month, there was the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks. This has exposed the emotion, anger, annoyance and the solidarity with the BLM cause and movement. It has made the social justice fight more obviously to everyone’s consciousness, and this is an opportunity for positive change to correct the disparities in inequality between rich and poor, black and white, good and bad. I also know that there are good cops… and there are bad cops but some reform, training and education are needed.
Obviously, I am speaking on behalf of the black population that are marginalised and systematically oppressed over four centuries. For balance, we must also remember there are lots to celebrate in the black community’s resilience by the successes and excellence they gave and have achieved in all walks of life.
Don’t get me wrong, I wish there were more police walking the beat in my neighbourhood after having two police stations decimated about 10 years ago, and even greater reductions across the United Kingdom. However, the main issue is that Black Lives Matter, but there are high levels of the black population who are more than twice as likely to die in police custody, with little justice received by families. There are fewer opportunities for black people due to inequalities of wealth, education, employment and numerous barriers due to the colour of their skin. The prison service has a large number of black people who may not be able to live the normal peaceful life that most of us take for granted. There is a cycle of lack of opportunities and social mobility in very rich countries such as the USA and UK. In addition, there are not enough opportunities for black people in normal organisations…and higher up the corporate ladder.
It also seems that centuries of history of Afro-American slavery, the Americas’ and Europe’s relationship to the black community are being put to test due to the systemic, institutional racism and prejudices that continue to exist in society. We cannot deny this fact.
The Black Lives Matter movement started about seven years ago to respond to high levels of deaths and discrimination in the Black population and has a wider remit to encompass and campaign with activism for more equality in a world, which has been shaped like this over centuries of inequality, injustice and white supremacy – especially in former colonies. The shackles of slavery to the Americas have created insurmountable inequality and racial tensions throughout the centuries – Atlantic African Slave Labour was used for consumption and industry in Europe too. The wealth and remnants of slave traders, “West Indian Trader” and merchants are still honoured in our city centres, buildings, and richness treasures – procured, stolen or extracted with human slave labour and is still very much in our midst.
I didn’t study American history but we were taught indigenous history of the Americas and the Caribbean up to the modern-day. It is no shock to learn about the brutality and de-humanisation of slavery. There was no whitewashing of history and there is intellectual confidence in my peers in the Caribbean. Luckily I have personal insight and experience to know that the story is one of redemption, reconciliation and resilience for the descendants of slaves who still live in my homeland. The Afro-Caribbean community in the Caribbean are mainly okay now and have excelled in their chosen fields. They do not have the same levels of inequalities and barriers you get from the USA and UK. The societal structures are less rigid or oppressive, and you can have great levels of social mobility with a well-rounded education and opportunities. There was no knowledge deficit.
Learning about the Caribbean, and Europe, gave us a well-grounded and balanced reality, which meant we are able to rise about it. I am also the descendant of indentured labourers and business migrants from India, and so I empathise and understand with my Caribbean heritage its’ global influences. One thing the British Imperialist get wrong is the imbalances in the historical narratives – the feeling that they are better than others because of the Empire, the imperialistic pomp and ceremony, riches and splendour that accrued over time from the colonies at the expense of black (and other people of colour) lives. You just have to look at some modern-day black lives film (e.g. Twelve Years a Slave or Selma), and TV dramas to see that it was one rule for them and one rule for the others.
Putting this simply – the term white privilege and white supremacy was brought about as a form of oppression between classes and races that the elite-controlled to keep the status quo. The rules and infrastructure of segregation between the races were created for the so-called ‘white supremacy’ to uphold privileges and prevent integration of races. We are talking about systematic and institutional racism that still exists in the UK, and most evidently still in the USA. You just have to look at the issues with Windrush Scandal in the UK, and other major inequalities to see that this issue has not gone away. Lack of empathy and knowledge is the real impact of colonisation in the 21st Century. There is also a need for humility and recognition of injustices in the past from our white community as the celebration of Empire and colonialism had deep scars and hurt. This is one of the reasons for a call for decolonisation of history and adding Black British history to the curriculum. In recent weeks, I have seen many discussions on the lack of teaching about centuries of African Slavery in British Colonies in British schools today.
I am not naive to think in the Caribbean and other parts of the world do not have their own racism. I also think it will not ever go away and we will need to keep reminding people to think of our privileges, unconscious and conscious biases. We must aim to be anti-racist as civilised human beings in the 21st century.
It was twenty years ago that I was asked to catalogue the Macpherson report when it was released on the 1993 killing of Stephen Lawrence, and the institutional racism that prevented his family from getting the justice they deserved. You could say that I don’t know what I am talking about, or that I am a trouble-maker but these are the same issues we should be talking about as librarian and information professionals who are serving various communities across our countries in a global world. At the SLA Leadership symposium in New Orleans, there was a strong focus on Diversity and Inclusion with a practical exercise on white privilege. This endorsed my libraries and information professional stance. There is also a test for you to check your privilege and there are numerous resources, best practice and reading materials I have helped collated, seen and shared in the last few weeks. We are also looking to make these into actionable targets, to make a genuine change with organisation culture and in wider ways with the Black community and everyone.
I also mentioned the Black Lives Movement and Decolonisation campaigns in my talk in September 2019 at the SLA Europe conference. It is rigid and unfair institutional racial structures, media irresponsibility and personal unconscious and conscious bias that makes humans behave this way. In recent weeks, the sheer shocking emotions and discrimination witnessed by everyone are being discussed now and has come to the forefront of our social consciousness for social justice. It is with this momentum that I was asked to take part in the SLA Diversity Inclusion Community and Equity (DICE) arranged talk on ‘What is the reality of COVID-19 where you live now; What does the protest movement look like where you are; and what have these individual or combined epic events mean to you? ‘. This solidarity and standing up for the injustices for people in our community is not something we can just let it go by until it blows over. There does seem to be a real sea change for action and genuine empathy and understanding in the current mood during a global pandemic that is not just a few weeks old…but a couple of centuries late!
The protest movement in Bristol a couple of weeks ago on the dismantle of Edward Colston’s statue was a defining moment in British Slave History. I don’t know much about British Slave owners in the UK but I do remember learning in secondary school about the champion of freedom such as Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Haitian Revolution and abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. It is a shame that slave owners and traders are still glorified today without some context to their supposed acquired wealth and glory. I must admit that I was pleased to see that the statue was dismantled considering the enormous part Colston played in slavery, death of Africans bound to the Americas and the pretentiousness of his philanthropy in Bristol. When we talk about plantations in the Caribbean and America – we know whose labour was used for the sugar cane, cotton, minerals etc. These products were then sent back to Europe – where there is very little to explain where and how the raw materials and wealth came to Britain. The death of George Floyd in the last few weeks created a wave of protest against institutional and systematic racism which still perpetuates today and the dismantle and vandalising of statues and buildings that glorify this dirty and seedy economic and human history are only catching up with the shady past. Obviously, I don’t encourage the damage of property but the wounds, emotion and feeling in the current generation of all races are raw as ever. The Black Lives Matter movement has given an identity and a label to this energy to make a difference just like Toussaint and Wilberforce.
A lot of white people are saying that ‘All Lives Matter’ – yes they do but…the correct argument is that Black Lives are more disproportionally at risk from death in police custody, poverty, inequality, injustices, employment, promotion, reward and life chances. A young black boy may be stopped by the police 40 more times than a young white boy. The young black boy may be more exposed to crime due to the area and the lack of opportunities he has (I do know that not all young black men are into crime). The black role models in our media are lacking in the UK in positions of authority and power. Even as an adult, there are still struggles, barriers and oppression. White Privilege means that you are unlikely to experience these barriers, obstacles and constant judgement based on the colour of your skin. I am brown and I am certain that I do not encounter all the issues that a black person may experience throughout their life. You Gov have recently published a survey on 1001 BAME persons which states that virtually identical numbers of people believe racism exists in the country today (84%) compared to (86%) thirty years ago. This is the true negative ‘lived experience’ of being Black and British from four hundred years ago…to now.
I am also grateful to see that my employers and others leading businesses have taken a stance on correcting some of the wrongs, allowing and partaking in open discussions in large groups, which is being enabled by video conferencing. On the one hand, we are still trying to work through a pandemic of COVID-19…and on the other hand, we are trying to focus attention on Black Lives Matter – a pandemic within a pandemic as it has recently been put in protests. It seems that racism within the police force mentioned in the Macpherson Report is still happening now in the 21st century. It is not enough to just not be a racist. It shows great leadership to demonstrate and work towards being an anti-racist organisation at all levels in a global community.
There are other issues too with lower-paid and front line jobs compared to the white middle-classes who tend to have better jobs, reward packages and benefit from social mobility and better quality of life. In COVID-19, there have been higher deaths in the BAME population both for health and social care staff employees, but also for patients who have died. Inequalities, being in the front line for lower-paid jobs and racism are some of the reason for the disproportionate levels of the death being higher in the BAME community in the UK during COVID-19. We have every reason to shout BLACK LIVES MATTER!
Only in darkness can you see the stars.
– Martin Luther King
The Black Lives Matter protest movement has been great for bringing communities together to protest and campaign for better rights, better equality, understanding and respect to the black community for their part in building societies from America, the UK and other parts of the world. For far too long the rhetoric and the ‘systems’ have been prejudiced against black persons, indigenous and people of colour. I loved seeing the Rolling for Rights protest videos last week in San Diego – there were thousands of young and mixed supporters marching for Black Lives Matter, this has been replicated in various cities of the world.
In my own neighbourhood, the Stand Up to Racism campaign with volunteers has brought about solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter causes from the long term and new instances. It is a meeting place for young and old supporters to tell their stories of biases and what still needs to be done to improve relations and representation in a multicultural city. Multiculturalism and multiple ethnicities are the legacies of colonisation and imperialism. There is a disconnection with other cultures and the people in this world that played the part of all our shared global histories. The saddest part for me is hearing of deaths in police custody or at the hands of the police at this event. I am also not happy with the high level of deaths of young black men in the city that I live in too due to gang culture and drug dealing! I also do not like terrorism in the city that I live in. There is a lot of hatred and misunderstanding as a result of race, cultural and religious differences. In all aspects of life, we try to avoid talking intelligently and fairly about race and politics, but they have been put on the agenda in the last decade (or forever!) due to the current political and racial tensions. Race is uncomfortable for all of us to discuss but there are some tips here by the Smithsonian Museum.
So what do we do now?
Big and small businesses are responding to the situation by being proactive with changes and actions in their messages, recruitment and corporate culture in a world that is diverse. At my employers, the British Library, we are working on Black Lives Matter and it is on the agenda for the long term. There have been some proactive demonstrations of leadership on BLM and I hope this will be sustained in future. Some best examples are SONY, Ben and Jerry Ice Creams, KPMG, Netflix etc – this is the best practice. It is also up to us to have a personal responsibility to be anti-racist and to check our own biases and privileges for a fair society for humanity. We should use creative arts, culture and education to connect us to our history and the myriad of colours and people that are part of the same history. We should also re-balance history with the great ancient civilisations of Africa, as I saw mentioned recently by a Black British celebrity.
We should be allies of the Black Lives Matter movement just as you may want gender equality, LGBT+ equality and rights, and even white-male-bonding-without-the-racism. We should aim to make steps forward, take positive and confident action to bring about genuine change in a colourful world that is far more interesting in just black and white.
I have had my own little battles over the years but generally do not encounter overt racism. People tend to look at me and see an Indian woman – they do not know that I am Trinidadian and I am way ahead of the game in my knowledge of slavery, my respect for black role models and black culture, which is part of my Trinidadian culture and identity. What I can do for my black brothers and sisters, is to share my insight, support and knowledge of our place in global history, the present and hope for the future. I will take personal responsibility to stay true to my authentic self, and will stand up for other races, cultures and lives in a multicultural connected world.
We may have come on different ships, but we are on the same boat now.
– Martin Luther King.