Thinking about race

Black Lives Matter protests
Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

It has been impossible not to lately. The death of George Floyd in the US after a police officer knelt on his neck was the catalyst for widespread protests. It shocked us out of our Coronavirus news coma. Black Lives Matter demonstrations happened all over the UK, reminding us that this is both an international and a local problem that we need to address. We started to question our statues and everything else.

Like many, it’s prompted me to listen and think harder about the inequalities in our society. And whilst I’m no clearer on how to improve things, the idea that ‘this doesn’t apply to me’ has to be challenged. There have been calls for practising anti-racism as opposed to simply trying not to be racist. This means greater proactivity, looking for the facts and examining past behaviour to evaluate where we are today.

What is our history?

History was only a compulsory subject at my school until Year 9, meaning I attended History classes for three years of secondary school until the age of 14. By that point, I’d learned about the Roman empire, castles and the battle of Hastings in 1066. Also how to write neatly in fountain pen, using coloured pencils for bullet points and under-lining (my teacher was a stickler for presentation). I hadn’t understood if and how history was relevant to my life.

I learned more about socio-economic trends from a Geography teacher who told us about the riots in Toxteth, Liverpool. This was in the context of housing and how ‘inner city housing’ causes problems. The riots happened in 1981 but sound surprising familiar: police using powers of stop and search to target young black men, leading to violent clashes and protests. A news report describes it this way:

It was widely argued that police harassment had exacerbated chronic unemployment, racism, bad housing and poor education in an area with a large population of black and mixed-race residents.

A 2001 BBC news article remembering the Toxteth riot

That is a lot of issues to unpick. Why were these people in poor housing with a lack of job opportunities in the first place? But we must remember who writes the articles – a media who were and still are in the majority white and private school educated. So are we getting the full story? And what are we missing?

Fairly major topics, as it turns out. Somehow missing from my education is any clarity on British colonialism. And this subject is still not taught. A news article from earlier this year describes a campaign by teenagers to update the curriculum and contains a statement that stopped me in my tracks: by 1913, Great Britain had complete or partial control of more than 23% of the globe. Understanding events surrounding that seems important.

I’m seeing a lot of excellent petitions to address the education gap, including this one calling for the addition of books about racism and immigration to the GCSE reading list. I studied literature at A-level and as a degree, and the book Wide Sargasso Sea had a huge impact on my perceptions of race and femininity. So I would love to see more diverse reading lists. A colleague also shared Class 13 which is a new education charity designed to help UK teachers challenge racism. Support it if you can.

Travelling stories

One of the most fascinating things I found from travelling the world is how different historical stories are by country. Travelling in the US, I found myself with time to spare in the Bullock museum in Austin, Texas. There I learned that Mexico used to own a number of states including Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California and Texas. On the news at the time Trump was threatening to build a wall to control Mexican immigration. Interesting how modern debates about immigration seemed to ignore the long history of people moving and borders shifting. Who were the real immigrants? Who can claim to own land that their ancestors stole or negotiated from someone else? Or begrudge people moving for a better life or job opportunities? Visiting Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and hearing war stories, I played them back in my head as I read the descriptions of kamikaze bombers at a museum in Tokyo, Japan. Trying to piece together history. It all depends on who is narrating.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling without having to worry about the colour of my skin in many places. In New York I once found myself staying in a neighbourhood of Brooklyn where black people are the majority. I felt very foreign, being both British and white, an outlier with a strange accent who stood out whilst desperately wanting to blend in. The discomfort of this struck me as a wake-up call. Was it an unsafe neighbourhood or did I just fear difference? I felt disappointed in myself.

Listen and learn

The gaps in my knowledge of the country I was raised in and of others are all too clear, despite being an avid reader all my life. These days I read a lot of books and articles by women writers, but many are a lot like me. White, of a similar age, often based in the same city and living a similar life. Time to actively seek out different voices.

Listening to this interview with Akala, I was struck by the mixture of racism and class inequality he explains. People struggling in disadvantaged areas can easily be convinced that it is others who are the problem – other races, immigrants, anyone different. I saw this all the time growing up in Stoke. It distracts from understanding the real patterns and being able to change things. In London, I’m still often taken aback by how close wealth and poverty sit. There will be homeless people next to flats that cost more than a million. A desirable and ‘safe’ neighbourhood will be 2 minutes walk from a dilapidated tower block where kids get stabbed. Are we doing anything to address that?

Candice Braithwaite’s book I Am Not Your Baby Mother tells the story of her experiences as a black British mother. There were lots of things I found eye-opening such as the horrifying stats on how much more likely black women are to die during child-birth. But the book is also very funny and easy to relate to. I’ve often wondered how anyone can afford a £1,000 pram, and indeed how anyone can afford to have children these days. I really enjoyed hearing this perspective and learning about the additional challenges racism brings to parenting.

At work the Juneteenth holiday was recognised yesterday. This is an annual celebration to commemorate the end of slavery. Perhaps things are improving and at the very least, awareness is improving.

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