George Floyd: On May 25, a 46-year old black man was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for 526 seconds. The white police officer ignored the pleas of the black man that he was no longer able to breathe. The police officer was unmoving as his eyes closed and his life slipped away.
We all aspire towards a shared humanity built on the foundational principles that all lives matter. But the reality of the word we live in shows us that from slavery and colonialism to explicit and implicit forms of segregation delivered through institutions as diverse as schools in the US and churches in the UK, there is a particularly dehumanising and malicious form of violence that has been directed at black people. The shootings of black people in America is a particularly visceral form of violence carried out by individuals who had sworn to protect the innocent. Instead, countless families have been left to grieve their loved ones, including the families of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The horrific murder of George Floyd was captured on camera and broadcast around the world leading to mass protests and demonstrations. In the UK, all forms of media have been flooded (and rightly so) with posts and messages condemning this action and calling for change. While most understand the significance and urgency of the response, there are many who would question what the fuss is about: after all this happened in the USA and not in the UK, and the British police aren’t armed.
We’re okay, right?
If you’re thinking this I would suggest that you’re in one of two camps: either you believe that there is no racism in the UK (a point which I will address shortly), or you believe that the UK is racist but not as racist as the US. You can forgive me if I don’t get excited about living in a country that is content with being ‘less racist’.
So, back to the first camp. YES, the UK is racist. Let me expand and provide a personal perspective as a black, British person.
From Stephen Lawrence to Belly Mujinga
Remember that it has been less than 30 years since perhaps the most notorious race related murder in the UK, that of Stephen Lawrence. After the initial investigation, five suspects were arrested but not charged. It was suggested during the investigation that Stephen Lawrence was killed because he was black, and that the handling of the case by the police and Crown Prosecution Service was affected by issues of race. A 1998 public inquiry, examined the original investigation and concluded that the force, indeed, was institutionally racist.
The Stephen Lawrence case highlights the two forms of racism that exist in the UK today. We have overt, brutal racism such as that suffered by Belly Mujinga, the Transport for London worker who died in April 2020 from coronavirus after being spat at and assaulted by a man who claimed he had Covid-19 (where no further police action would follow); or the trauma of health workers being told by patients that they didn’t want a P*k* to care for them; or to a much lesser extent, my own experiences of being stopped and searched by police on several occasions on my way to school.
But there are also deeper structural inequalities that have pervaded our institutions and psyches. Structures that were built on the foundational principles that being white equals better. Structures that have created both glass ceilings and glass floors, to prevent minorities from climbing too high and their own from falling too low. Structures that influence the perceptions of teachers and recruiters as much as it does police officers.
To avoid things becoming too abstract, let me provide some practical examples:
- Someone answers the phone. They have an Indian accent. What judgements have you already made about their competence?
- Applications for roles in many competitive industries rely on individuals getting work experience that is unpaid and unadvertised. If the vast majority of current employees are white and middle class, who hears about these unadvertised opportunities? And who doesn’t hear about them?
- There are two CVs of comparable candidates, one with the surname Begum and the other Smith. Who is more likely to be called back to interview?
- It’s night and you’re walking home. A young black man in a hoodie is walking towards you on the same side of the street. Do you clutch your handbag more tightly? If this incident were in the US, would you begin to think whether you’d brought your handgun with you that day?
So why are structural inequalities important? They provide an obstacle to fairness and justice and objectivity. They convince us to believe lies and stereotypes about people who deserve much better. They prevent representation and without representation there is nobody to challenge erroneous and discriminatory mind-sets. Mind-sets which leads to actions. Actions which could cost someone an internship, a job or their life.
So, we’ve established that the UK has a problem. What do we do about it?
- Learn: I have only provided a very brief summary of a string of complex issues but there are countless numbers of books and outlets that will give you a more comprehensive summary. Why I no Longer Talk to White People About Race, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and Me and White Supremacy are excellent. In reading these books you will need to prepare yourself to embrace discomfort. They will challenge many of the structures and ways of thinking that you’ve always taken for granted.
- Critique your own thoughts: I imagine that most people reading this blog post are not the spitting, abusive people I described earlier. But many of you may be in the second camp where your unconscious bias, prejudices and assumptions lead you to drawing inaccurate and discriminatory conclusions about an individual who looks different to you. You should observe your thoughts and actions and those of your children and colleagues, identifying instances where you fall short of being your best self.
- Be our voice when we’re not there: Structural inequalities and underrepresentation mean that often minorities are not in the room when discriminatory decisions have been taken. We need individuals and allies who are able to stand for justice in whatever sphere of life they find themselves in. People who are able to use their platforms and positions of influence to ensure justice for those who can’t be seen, who can’t speak and who can’t breathe.
A word from the CONNECTFUTURES team
We recognise that a blog around why BLACK LIVES MATTER isn’t enough. And it isn’t. Because practical actions speak louder than words.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be compiling and sending all those interested a follow up of practical resources on structural racism as well as signposting.
This will include reading and re-directing to pre-existing sources suitable for educators, adults and young people.
Empowering through reading
- Black and British: A Forgotten History. David Olusoga
- Back to black: Black radicalism for the 21st century. Kehinde Andrews
- People like Us. Hashi Mohamed
- Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World. Layla F Saad
- Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Afua Hirsch
- The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Reni Eddo-Lodge
- I am not your baby mother. Candice Braithwaite
- So You Want to Talk About Race. Ijeoma Oluo
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peggy McIntosh
- Natives, Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, Akala
- A tale of three cities: Public officials and senior representation in the NHS, University, Police and Local Authority. Zubeda Limbada
- Decolonise the curriculum. The Teacherist
- Wellness for All: Anti-racism in the early years: