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‘When Black lives matter all lives will matter’ Part 2: forging new alliances

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 September 2020

Ann Phoenix, Afiya Amesu, Issy Naylor and Kafi Zafar – a teacher and three students discuss the BLM movement in their second blog.

The scrutiny of racism that Black Lives Matter has produced raises questions of commonalities and differences in experiences of racism across groups. One consequence is that Asian people have found themselves remembering the pain of being subjected to implicit and overt racism. One example is learning that others thought there was something inherently wrong with darker skin through being asked at age five years, “why is your skin black?” before having any concept of race, ethnicity, or skin colour.

Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, displayed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Photo by Les Hutchinson via Creative Commons

Part of the complexity ingrained in everyday racist practices is that it is not simply between those who are white and those who are ‘other’. Instead, South Asian children learn early that, not only is there a great deal of racism and casteism towards South Asians, but also within their own South Asian communities. Comments from elders range from complaints of becoming too tanned in the summer, and darker skin ruining marriage prospects for young girls, to offhand remarks about how beautiful a baby is for no other reason than their fair complexion. This is, arguably, as destructive as external racism since it tears South Asians apart from the inside. This colourism is now recognised to be one face of racism that has gained strong footholds because of histories of enslavement and colonialism. It highlights the importance of recognising what Avtar Brah, in the 1990s, called ‘differential racisms’.

Increasingly, young British Asians are fighting against these ideologies through not only embracing their own dark skin, but also breaking down the stereotypes and stigma associated with darker complexion for both Asians and Black people. During the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few months, people of all castes and creeds have come together to fight for an end to racial injustice. Many young South Asians have broadcast testimonies to the world through various social media platforms in opposition to the tradition of South Asian colourism.

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped open intergenerational conversations about ‘race’ amongst South Asians. The harsh reality is that we live in a culture which has favoured white people in terms of education, job opportunities and even social perceptions for centuries. In the UK where 3% of the population is black, 2.3% is Indian and 1.9% is Pakistani, alliances across racialised minorities are more crucial than ever. Such alliances, advocated by some since the 1970s, require a shift away from colourism, and towards cohesion. There is still a long way to go, but the fact that these conversations are even being had in households across the country is enormously hopeful.

Decolonising the nation

On 7 June 2020, as part of a Black Lives Matter protest, the statue of Edward Colston was torn down from its plinth by a crowd of passionate activists. The body of the bronze statue was smeared in red paint representing the blood of slaves murdered under Colston’s authority and dragged through the city in disgrace. A corpse representing slavery was thrown defiantly into the river Avon. Colston’s statue had been a site of controversy in the city for years, having stood in Bristol city centre for over a century, despite frequent calls for its removal.

The inescapable realities of colonialism and slavery are deeply entrenched in the history of the United Kingdom and Bristol, as in many other settlements in the UK and around the globe. Bristol is a city whose fame and affluence were built on the notorious slave trade.

We hope the toppling of the Colston monument  symbolises a tipping point towards real transformations. Intensified by the fury and urgency generated by the Black Lives Matter movement, antiquated racist beliefs and attitudes are being challenged and are perhaps changing. Acts of decolonisation are taking place across the country, including the denaming of the Pearson building at UCL; the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University and the numerous petitions circulating on the subject of decolonising the national curriculum and the need to teach black history at schools in the UK.

These arguably long overdue acts of decolonisation make an important start. However, we need to ensure that there will be more than tokenistic gestures in the examination of the role that British organisations played in the slave trade and the systemic racism that persists in these institutions.

Artist Kara Walker highlighted the need for this scrutiny in her testimony to the transatlantic slave trade Fons Americanus, a subversive allusion to the Victoria Memorial fountain. Her monumental artwork, displayed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, aspired to bring the past back to the present and confront an often misremembered history of colonialism, empire and imperialism, as part of an ongoing analysis of historical narratives in the UK.

Just as water is a key theme through Fons Americanus, it was a symbolic act to drown Colston’s statue in water since many slaves brought over from West Africa by the Royal African Company, under his command, perished in the Atlantic Ocean.

On 15 July, artist Marc Quinn erected a temporary statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on Colston’s plinth titled A Surge of Power. This temporary installation of a black woman where Colston had been memorialised, was intended to encourage and advance a necessary, yet uncomfortable, conversation about racism in the UK. It was designed to take forward the campaign towards justice and equality. Unfortunately, due to a lack of formal permission, the statue remained on the plinth for a too-brief 24 hours before its removal. It did, however, ignite a debate on the future of the plinth and the possibility of a statue acknowledging the pain and suffering of black lives in the UK. The Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees stated that it is up to the people of Bristol to determine the fate of the plinth.

One thought-provoking possibility which has emerged from this debate is the option of the plinth remaining empty, thus highlighting what is no longer there. The aim would be to prompt individuals to investigate the history of Bristol and the slave trade. However, others have suggested that this would, once again, render black lives invisible.

The empty plinth has presented both a metaphorical and physical platform for the Black Lives Matter movement. In this way, Black Lives Matter has contributed to making it undeniable that the world needs to wake up to the true history of our supposedly ‘great’ countries.

A socially just future?

All the examples above point to the conclusion that complexity, not kneejerk reactions, are central to real social change. Black Lives Matter has already made an unprecedented statement in the fight for social justice. For any change to be sustained and taken forward, we need the difficult conversations that have started piecemeal in homes and institutions to continue. As students and faculty, we are committed to the continuation of such conversations in universities and for action towards real change to be identified and supported socially and economically. This requires a thorough examination of the power relations structured into universities and commitment to change in admissions policies, the curriculum, staffing, the student body and the value added to different ethnic groups in terms of the degrees awarded.

Universities need to show that they are shifting their practices away from the maintenance of the status quo and will reward good practices and censure poor practices. Anything less would suggest that universities are interested only in short-term ‘virtue signalling’ while their practices continue to emphasise that only some lives matter.

Ann Phoenix is Professor of Psychosocial Studies, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Social Research Institute and Kerstin Hesselgren Visiting Professor at Umea University, Sweden. Issy Naylor and Kafi Zafar completed the BSc in Social Sciences at UCL in 2020. Afiya Amesu has just graduated from UCL Laws.

Read Part 1 of their blog here.

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One Response to “‘When Black lives matter all lives will matter’ Part 2: forging new alliances”

  • 1
    Amanda Arbouin wrote on 23 September 2020:

    Great piece. Interesting how the removal of Colston’s statue through official channels took years (and ultimately never happened through those channels), yet the removal of the black woman statue was done within hours. Actions speak louder than words and send a message about who is/ isn’t valued in this society.