By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
Millions of people around the world have watched the horrific video footage of George Floyd’s death which shows the 46-year-old innocent black man struggling to say “I can’t breathe”. The emotional intensity of what was in reality a public execution sent shockwaves far beyond the US. We saw protests, both peaceful and violent, in towns and cities across the world.
Despite the COVID-19 lockdown, anti-racist protesters of all backgrounds, but significantly white people, have joined the #blacklivesmatter movement which has shifted its focus, from the killing of George Floyd to the glorification of the slave traders and white European imperialists in public places, most notably statues and street names.
In the former slave port of Bristol, England last Sunday we saw the ignominious toppling and of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston; like many of the slaves who were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, Colston ended up in the Bristol port.Inspired by this example of direct action, we have seen a wave of protests and demands for similar statutes to be removed across the UK and Europe. In Belgium, a statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II — who became ultra wealthy from the enslavement of Congolese people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — was removed by the city of Antwerp.
And in East London we saw the removal of the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan. Earlier, London mayor Sadiq Khan said the capital’s landmarks – including street names, the names of public buildings and plaques – would be reviewed by a commission.
But the question remains, will these powerful symbolic gestures really make a difference. To answer this question it is necessary to look deeper into how racism is produced and reproduce.
Racism is often portrayed as a problem associated with hateful and prejudiced attitudes harbored by poorly educated whites. Yes, these people can be unpleasant and dangerous. But, because this kind of racism is mostly direct and crude, it is easier to tackle at source.
Indeed, having grown up amongst poor white working-class people, my experience is often that their racism is a manifestation of frustration with their own lives and low self-esteem. Their racism, therefore, is a product of lack of critical thinking about their own lives and simple scapegoating – i.e. taking one’s anger and frustration out on those perceived to be less powerful than oneself in a ‘dog eats dog’ scenario.
Now, there is another kind of racism that is associated with ‘educated’ white people who harbour a self-delusion that if racism exists it does so somewhere else. For them, racism is associated with the kinds of behaviours identified above, i.e. a problem associated with what the Victorian novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton termed the ‘great unwashed’. These are white people who occupy professional roles and are usually very polite, that is until they and their authority are challenged, in which case the mask quickly slips.
A recent report about systemic discrimination against Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff in employment within the National Health Service (NHS) Blood Unit highlights this kind of subtle racism. The report uncovers how BAME staff report how they are ‘repeatedly… rejected for jobs they felt they should have got, with white candidates securing posts despite having less experience and qualifications.’ Though within the public sector, be it health, education, or local government, we do now have a significant number of BAME staff employed, this is mostly in lower-paid roles.
I have had experience with both kinds of racism. Growing up in a poor working-class community in the UK I experienced my fair share of ‘Paki-bashing’, but, I was able to fight back and most of the scars have healed. Much more insidious and psychologically challenging is the racism I have faced from ‘nice’ white people in academia, where, nepotism and white supremacy are so entrenched, even to raise the issue is seen as evidence of lack of rationality and delusional. Don’t get me wrong, there are some/many wonderful white people in academia and I see them as my allies in the struggle against racism. But there remains a stubborn rump that still exercises significant influence in recruitment and selection, and, partly due to their prejudices and insecurity, will routinely promote less-qualified whites.
In terms of the way forward, for BAME colleagues, I would say, keep on fighting – there is no other option. For white colleagues who wish to become allies in the struggle against racism and white supremacy, Nicola Rollock, in a piece in the Financial Times (June 4, 2020) entitled ‘It’s time for white people to step up for black colleagues’, says it all: “White allyship means divesting from the very histories, structures, systems, assumptions and behaviours that keep white people in positions of power.”
At George Floyd’s funeral ceremony on 10 June, speaker after speaker in the church in Houston, Texas, lined up to remember a man whose only crime was that he was born black. But perhaps the most powerful and hopeful words came from the veteran civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton. He told the service: “All over the world I see grandchildren of slave masters tearing down slave masters’ statues.” Referring to George Floyd he said: “God took the rejected stone and made him the cornerstone of a movement that’s gonna change the whole wide world.”
On the basis of the massive mobilisation of fair minded people of all colours and ethnicities across the world in raising their voices that not only do black lives matter, but all human life is sacred, there certainly is good reason to hope of a better future.
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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