Travelling while black can be exhausting. As a British traveller you are often perceived by Americans, Australians and Europeans as a fellow ‘westerner’ and ally. This, combined perhaps with a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be a diasporic African, can allow people to feel comfortable enough around you to come out with some wildly offensive commentaries. Such comments can range from the mildly problematic to the outrageously racist but almost all of them are truly worth analysing.
I was once speaking with a New Zealander about her prospective relocation to Dubai for a tax free wage that would relieve the financial pressures of living in London, and finally allow her to start saving. She despaired having to adjust to a new culture and worried about things like covering up in the heat and not kissing her boyfriend in public. Her frustration culminated in this sentence: “I get that they want hold on to their religious values and stuff but they need westerners”.
My lips parted as I hoped to articulate some kind of response, but no sound escaped as I stood, dumbfounded. I know nothing about Dubai. But from her description of her life in London, she definitely needed Dubai more than Dubai needed her. The patronising tone behind the words “their religious values and stuff” had me completely floored. To dismiss an entire religion, culture or way of life as if it were small print to the greater story of My Life seemed painfully ignorant and self-involved. The arrogance of this statement marked me. As an immigrant arriving into a country solely to earn a better wage that you have no intention of paying taxes on, how is it possible to still feel such a sense of entitlement?
This brought into sharp focus a term I jokingly came up with years previously to explain some of the equally arrogant and ignorant things I would hear (almost always white) travellers say. The term empire syndrome, I decided, denotes the belief that ‘westerners’ have unparalleled rights to the world because the world has so much to learn from them. Empire syndrome is responsible for phenomena such as the selectively used term ‘expat’ and domestically can be connected to our unforgivably poor treatment of refugees here in the UK. It is the worrying belief, often manifested by British travellers, that there is always some element of contribution in being British abroad. The world needs the English language, British education and good, tolerant, liberal western values and here you are giving it to them! What commendable philanthropy!
The stereotype of the ‘Brit abroad’ as loud, proud and unapologetically ignorant is a label usually tacked onto ‘lads on tour’ type holidays in Spain or Greece that will later be made into a reality TV show. Of course, not all holiday-makers in on the continent are embarrassingly drunk and those who are quietly minding their own business always go unnoticed (indeed, positive stories of working class life, generally, go less reported). But in every brash British holiday maker is the hint of an attitude of “Here! Have my culture! It’s probably better than yours anyway.”
The ‘cultured’ middle classes tend to remain exempt from this label and many travellers whether to India, Peru or Madagascar are indeed polite and respectful in their attitudes and the way they interact with people. But more, in my humble experience, are simply incredibly polite neo-colonialists. These are the people who, with a straight face, will take one cultural norm they’ve ‘discovered’ from siestas to lateness to disregard for traffic signals, to explain why [insert entire state, continent or religion here] will always be behind the west. It is culture, not colonialism, pillage, unfair international trade deals or monopolies on means of production which is at the root of global inequality. How blessed the backwards people are to have you, Mr Neo-colonialist Sir, in their midst.
Academic discourse on foreign direct investment into countries with smaller economies, usually in the case of expansion of international corporations, tends to suggest that it is good a for a country’s economy. It provides jobs, teaches key skills, trains locals for future opportunities and brings in wealthy ‘expats’ who in turn contribute to the local economy. The problem with foreign direct investment, much like colonialism before it, is that it further weaves states who are at a structural disadvantage (because their exports are mainly raw materials and their currencies are weaker) into a global system of capital, built on inequality and exploitation, which will always benefit already wealthy states.
Whilst ‘expats’ who work for multinational companies may be spending money in local economies, they are making much more for themselves and whichever company sent them. Indeed, plantation owners in Guyana two hundred years ago were providing work to Indian indentured labourers, in the same way that most of your favourite high street shops are doing so across China and Bangledesh today. They’re hardly the heroes of history though, are they?
The delusional self-importance of ‘expats’ abroad has never failed to astound me on my travels, and the ignorance around the structures of inequality merely perpetuate it. No matter how poor the wages you pay or how little tax you contribute, the message is clear: the world needs western investment, western values and westerners and you are therefore helping.
The ideology of western cultural superiority reigns supreme, undoubtedly connected to the failure to teach the real and murky history of British travel and exactly what the UK would look like were it not for the empire. Until Brits confront the reality of how enriched this country has become off the very same places that some claim “need westerners” and begin to understand who needs who, empire syndrome will continue to reign and replicate the colonialism of the past.
Words are powerful. Sticks and stones may well break bones but words sow the seeds of doubt, fear, anger and every other emotion that makes people behave in strange and unpleasant ways.
Words with fuzzy meanings that often stay hidden when they shouldn’t and crop up where they are not needed are powerful. These words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid of are also dangerous. They are the words who grant authority to those who use them and instil fear in those who hear them. There is an unspoken assumption that whoever is brave enough to use them is best suited to confront their consequences and so often we fail to remark when the repercussions of these words are as brutal as the words themselves.
One of these words is terrorism. Few of us really know what terrorism is but we are sure that its gravity is unparalleled. Terrorists are dangerous, evil, soulless monsters. We take no risks with terrorists because they are crazy, their ideology is incomprehensible and they will do anything to anyone with no remorse.
Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial or unauthorised violence for political aims. This is not exactly the apocalyptic description of the clash of civilisations we now associate with the word, but a very accurate description nonetheless. Historically, terrorists have had very little in common in terms of their ideology, their stature during their era or their remaining legacy. Take Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini or King Leopold II of Belgium as examples. International heroes, cult heroes or brutal dictators according to history, but all terrorists according to their contemporaries. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims as many freedom fighters and/or dictators do.
The words terrorist and terrorism have become so mutated in the media today that we no longer have any idea of when it is appropriate to apply them. A while ago Russell Brand pointed out that if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet Lee Rigby’s murder, the “Sydney Siege” and #Leytonstone have all been blindly considered cases of terrorism which have inevitably propelled a climate of fear, the real victims of which will always be any and everyone who follows Islam.
We are quick to pick up on how crazy these terrorist monsters are but we are slow to have a real conversation about mental health and its effects on these cases. The fact that the family of the perpetrator of the attack in Leytonstone last week had tried to have him sectioned because he was so unwell was a lot slower to catch people’s attention than the relationship he had with his religion. Which of those two elements was more of a driving force in this event?
If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I tried to kill you screaming that it was for socialism, would your first thought be that I am a terrorist or that I am insane? A white man in Charleston shoots up a church in the name of white supremacy. Mental health. A white man in Tesco stabs a member of the public in the name of white supremacy. Barely even makes news. Man in a tube station stabs a passenger in the name of Syria, it’s declared a political act within hours and the Prime Minister finds it worthy of saying both the word “ain’t” and “bruv” in one sentence. Sorry, what just happened?
Whether the actions of Sydney’s Man Haron Monis, Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo or last week’s perpetrator constitute uses of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps some were wholly clear in their political aims perhaps others were simply not capable of executing a political agenda due to their mental state. What is truly worrying about the way this situation is being addressed are the actions taken through counter-terrorism with the complicity of the citizens who live in fear of their neighbours because of stories like these being framed as a part of some kind of wider war.
The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. The average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack.
The word terrorism has become synonymous with war on ‘our’ soil which invokes a trans-national mesmerising panic. This fear of ‘terrorism’ is so tangible that support for anything being done that ‘keeps people safe’ is seen as a necessity. Fuelling this fear by rushing to place this label on events that may or may not have considered political intention is reckless and manipulative.
This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Today, the government program Prevent which civil servants are legally obliged to partake in permits a seriously worrying encroachment on the civil liberties of Muslims in the UK. The fear of something whose actual threat is almost impossible to gauge has led to an aggressive and punitive policy that silences the voices of Muslims all over the country. And all this begins with a word. If we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, we can finally begin to liberate ourselves from the fear that is so often used to acquire our silent compliance.
Please note: this is an edit of an earlier work. The original can be found here.
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.
“It is not possible to stop human mobility, if you try to stop it with violence, we are responsible for genocide”
Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo
As a student of global politics, I learned huge amounts about colonialism, imperialism, trade, aid, debt and all the other issues that tend to cause the world’s problems. Above all though, I learned how complicit I was; how complicit we all are in perpetuating the political and economic conditions that allow such huge inequalities to persist, from the way we shop, to the way we eat and the way we travel.
Back then I believed that if we all knew; if we all really understood the damage that the way we lived had on those we couldn’t see, we would immediately radically readjust our way of life in the name of humanity. The Calais ‘migrant crisis’, however, proved me wrong.
Trying, as I do, to understand this world and the people in it, I pictured a scene where a family of desperate people seeking refuge arrive in a village. Do the people of this village a) think for a minute about where’s best for them to stay as there must be somewhere in the entire village that this one family can camp out in, explain the story to the local supermarket and maybe get them sorted out with some food until tomorrow when a longer term plan can be considered. Or b) um and ah about how terrible their plight is but also kind of shrug because you and your neighbours need your spare rooms for storage and their situation is sad but also you don’t really know these people. You might give them some food though, and if you come up with any ideas on how to help them, you will let them know. Or c) do you meet their arrival with rage and indignation, disgusted that they thought it was appropriate to turn up to your village in their hour of need (perhaps because it’s the most affluent village they knew of) and commit to showing as much hostility as possible so ‘their kind’ won’t get the impression they can survive here.
Knowing Britain, I thought option b) was the obvious choice. But no, no this time we’ve decided to do nothing in halves, and I’d say that c) best fits the recent reaction to the migrant crisis we now claim to be facing. Some may say that the difference between my analogy and the current situation is the scale of the arrival of the migrants to temporary camps in Calais. Really? 2000-5000 people between two countries of a combined population 130 million? Yawn, for want of a better word. Around 2000 babies are born every day in England and Wales alone, yet on February 29th headlines do not read “PANIC! POPULATION CRISIS RIFE AS UK TRIES TO COPE WITH 2000 EXTRA HUMANS”.
When my naïve, student self wanted nothing more than for the average citizen to see and understand the connections between our choices and the living conditions of the Chinese labourer or Palestinian child of war, it never occurred to me, not once, the fear that a threat to one’s ‘way of life’ could drum up. Neither did I consider that this fear could grow to such a magnitude and become so palpable that it would override the most basic human emotion of empathy.
Empathy, is all it would take to restore my faith in humanity. A sense of responsibility would simultaneously blow my mind and restore my faith in the education system (almost). When people migrate, they don’t simply pick a spot on a spinning globe (unless they are rich, white and adventurous). The movement of people follows the movement of capital. If we don’t want the migrants, we’ll have to give up the cash too. And if you think all this cash is ours because we earned it fair and square, think again.
Regarding this language of a looming threat that these swarms of migrants are supposedly posing, the politics of fear need toning down. As this title suggests, I’m as big a fan of hyperbole as anyone, but when I use such disproportionately dramatic language, I’m usually ridiculed and laughed at. The only fear these speeches incur for me, is the fear that these politicians are actually being taken seriously. Otherwise, I genuinely struggle to understand what it is I am supposed to be terrified of, what daily delights will be torn from me should more people come through the tunnel?
This government’s welfare cuts have made it crystal clear that they are not interested in the well-being of poor, brown people and seem committed to the idea that poor, brown people should have as few links to the state as possible. So if you are already more or less committed to the idea of ignoring the existence of poor, brown people, what difference does it make to you if there are a few more thousands of them? Besides, my recently gentrified area could frankly do with a few more poor, brown people to curb the enthusiasm of culture vultures and property developers who I consider far more of a looming threat to my way of life.