Is There Room for Black in the Union Jack?

As a Black person in the UK, unfair portrayal in the media, over-policing and a lack of power and representation in the political system can often make it seem as if the Black British identity is a contradiction in terms. Are we a part of Great Britain or are we simply visitors, permanently on the outskirts of ‘real’ British society? As cultures understood to be Black become a part of mainstream British consciousness, from Notting Hill Carnival to grime music, our place in society seems to, at least superficially, have been confirmed. Last night, a group of concerned individuals, four panellists with an audience of around a hundred, sat down to unpick the question: is there room for black in the union jack?

The first step towards understanding Black Britishness involved attempting to converge over a definition of Blackness itself. Beginning aesthetically, the chair challenged the panel to define his own ethnicity. With a mixed heritage from Turkey, Ireland, the Caribbean and more, how can we attempt to categorise him using a term whose meaning is so multifaceted. Surely Blackness is more than the aesthetic of having skin a shade somewhere between caramel and cocoa?

Regardless of your heritage, existing in the UK with skin dark enough for you to be perceived as Black, will result in a shared experience with those from the African diaspora. This of course was another key interpretation of Blackness. It was suggested that all those who come from Africa, whether modern day migration or historically through slavery, can be considered Black. Aesthetically, being North African is not the same as being Sub-Saharan African which can look very different from being Caribbean or African American. Again this would produce a range of experiences of interaction in white spaces. One thing that was not disputed was the idea that Black denotes a collective identity. Those who ascribe to being Black may not share nationalities or skin tones, and we may find huge cultural differences amongst ourselves, but somewhere along the line we’ve all acknowledged that we share Blackness.

The conversation then transformed into a more theoretical approach, based not on shared experience or identity, but on the social and political structures that uphold Blackness. Blackness was invented or imagined prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to create a system of hierarchy of humanity, which could defend treating those with black skin as sub-human. Race, it has been thought for some time, is a social construct. A construct to hold in place the divides in a society that contains both Black and white people. When describing the connection between Africa and Blackness, one panellist claimed that blackness was born not on the continent, but on the slave ships. This begs the question: can there be blackness without whiteness? By calling ourselves black, are we subscribing to an identity that was invented by an oppressive white power who developed the term in order to enslave us? In the French language the word négre was the term used to refer to their slaves, it is the root word of négritude, developed by Aimé Césaire in the 20th century. Translated into English it will sometimes read Black and it will sometimes read nigger.

A conversation on ‘political blackness’ as a useful or logical term then ensued as we debated the need for allies versus the need for all Black spaces in pursuit of the emancipation of the Black voice. A comparison to the term “politically female” was used to highlight one panellist’s view that the term was a “non sense” reiterating the connection between Blackness and Africa and referring to the term as the “bastard child of white supremacy”. Joshua, a member of Black Dissidents which is comprised of black and brown activists, rightly pointed out that Africa was drawn out of white imagination, just as blackness was; white supremacy plays a role in the construction of all of these identities. The fear that ‘political blackness’ could lead to spaces in which conversations sub-consciously become focused around the protection of non-Black feelings and even slip into anti-black discourse is a legitimate one born of political experience. Nonetheless, for multiple members of the panel solidarity amongst those that are facing oppression seemed to be a priority. In a global capitalist world, the black bodies that were used as capital to fuel the industrial revolution during the slave trade have been replaced by the black and brown bodies that are currently being exploited in the production of goods that most of us consume today. We rounded off with a quote from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie who once said “I am not in the business of policing blackness”. We can define ourselves for ourselves without desperately attaching labels to others, which is what I believe we should endeavour to do.

Moving on to the idea of where we may fit into the Union Jack, we dipped into the concept of Great Britain which was built on the empire from which so many Black Brits came. Given the role of Black and brown exploitation and labour in the construction of the empire and hence the ‘greatness’ of Britain, there can be no union jack without Black. The difference is that white British people (in a very limited number of localities) are now faced with Black co-citizens rather than subjects, real human beings in neighbouring houses with equal rights.

This led, for some members of the panel, to a complete rejection of the question rather than a response. Questioning whether there is room lends itself to asking for room, which I wholeheartedly reject the idea of doing. The connections between the UK and the islands and continent that paint my heritage were forged long before my mother arrived at the port. That Black Britishness can exist is no more a point of contention than the existence of Britishness in any form.

The last section of the debate focused on “solutions” or rather, steps forward. As someone tweeted, unless we intend to make some kind of change is there a difference between healthy conversation and idle complaining? The response from the panel was a resounding yes, educating oneself and deepening an understanding of the society around you and your place in it, is always time well spent.

End everything. That was the suggestion put forward by OOMK zine member Fatoume. The system is so destructive and corrupt to the core that it allows for consistent racial abuse, the stripping of the humanity of Black people who are only ever allowed the opportunity to exist in one dimension, never given the space to be a fully-fledged individual. You cannot be Black, mediocre and successful. Black Americans are killed daily by the police force, Black Brits are 8 times more likely than whites to be stop and searched, racism is real and it keeps our bodies in a constant state of fragility.

Interestingly, I came prepared with a host of solutions on how we can better make Britain work for us as Black people and create a brighter future for our children through better education, self-organising, Black produced art, literature, media and so forth. The solution lay in the ethos that we need to make things for ourselves by ourselves in order to build the communities that we live in, so that we can be freer to be the people we want to be and do the things we want to do.

I had forgotten that as Steve Biko stated, and Joshua reminded us, “the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. We are constantly policing ourselves by reshaping our speech and posture to appear less threatening. We internalise the racist values purported by the society that we grew up in and we manifest this through fear of Black male bodies on dark nights, worshipping thinness, straight hair and other quintessentially white standards of beauty and through the pursuit of wealth that we have been taught is to be valued above all else, even the freedom of those we would call our brothers or sisters.

First and foremost we must liberate our minds. Liberation is knowing both logically and emotionally that the ideology of hierarchy and exploitation that propelled the fusion of the Black and the British is not only inhumane and absurd but it cannot and will not negate your worth as an individual. You are a human being and you, your humanity and your culture are beautiful. The process of unlearning values that are at the foundations of the society you live in may well be unending, but liberation is believing in your own worth and equality and then forgiving yourself for having ever not done so.

I’ll end with a beautiful quote from Somayra Ismailjee: “In a system built to trample upon and exploit our existence, to suppress and deny our humanity, self-love is a revolutionary act. Knowing your own worth is essential to resistance, and recognising your own beauty a meaningful act of defiance.

Thank you to Active Media, Decolonising our Minds and Take Back The City for allowing me the opportunity to share the panel with such great thinkers and beautiful speakers. Thank you to Ramairo, Joshua, Fatoume and Kevin for a fantastic conversation.