The Covid crisis has laid bare the structural inequalities in our society. The government’s report into the ‘Disparities in risk and outcome of COVID-19’ show that Black and Asian ethnic groups have the highest death rates from COVID-19.
Despite the fact the report did not account for occupation, we know that Black and Asian people are more likely to be working in lower paid, more precarious industries and work that you can’t do from home than other people. The majority of children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks in England are non-white; their families are most likely to live in overcrowded accommodation and face discrimination in education and employment. When we look at these inequalities, the death rate becomes less mysterious. Covid exposes these inequalities that we already know exist.
At the same time, the concept of ‘white privilege’ is not an easy one to put onto people who are also struggling through this crisis, living in poor conditions or really suffering mentally or physically as well as economically. We can’t bundle everyone up together. We need to build bridges and understanding if we are to break down the barriers of inequality. That’s challenging stuff.
Beyond statues: How can we make Bristol more equal?
Over the past few months there have been unprecedent protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol was shown on the news around the world and led to the removal of some other notorious statues; for example King Leopold II in Belgium. This was a monumental action which had reverberations worldwide – but systematic change does not happen overnight. This was part of my discussion with Sakiya Ghalib, Desmond Brown, Marie-Annick Gournet, and Pat Hart in my first Beyond Statues event . Below, I have included some more important issues and resources.
We must ensure that these events are followed with real action – I am committed to making Bristol more equal and tackle structural inequalities. I want to hear your thoughts and work for everyone. If you would like to comment, share your experience or views, you can email me directly.
Progress and change
When I began to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests, I acknowledged that many similar events have the same fascinating discussion but do not result in tangible actions or real change. As Desmond Brown said during our event, it is the same conversations happening today as they did in the 60s and 70s. For example, see Black Leaders Discussion feat. Angela Davis, Kwame Ture & Fannie Lou Hamer (1973)
For members of the younger generation, like Sakiya, there is another view. Sakiya is an outreach worker at Integrate UK, the organisation campaigning to end Female Genital Mutilation and gender inequality. She said of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, there is a “passion that has been ignited in young people. It has to change. We don’t want it for yourselves and it’s not the future we want to live in.” It’s great to hear about the young people that are using social media for good, such as this recent Instagram page, Bristol Black in Business. Give it a follow – it’s already got over 500 likes.
Whilst it has often been young people leading the current Black Lives Matter protests, it was interesting to also discuss this with the older generation of campaigners, who like Desmond Brown, said that “I feel culpable in thinking that if I work hard, got qualifications we would get ours at the end of the day. We still haven’t got ours – the Runnymede report says that things have got worse in 2017.” Have you seen the Runnymede report? You can find it here.
We discussed white privilege, and Pat Hart pointed out that there is not just white privilege, but there is Asian privilege too. He said: “We have to acknowledge that when we walk out on the street, how do people perceive us?” He believes we need to think about “what are your immediate actions? They might be uncomfortable to acknowledge”.
This is challenging for those of us of Asian, mixed race and other non-white origins, used to interpreting and dealing with racism as it affects us, also have to own and scrutinise our own positions and views and I am grateful to Pat for pushing us to do that. Asian people and Black and Caribbean people have our own, different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting or contradictory, experiences and interpretations of our histories of colonialism, of the routes which brought us or our parents to the UK, the complex set of assumptions we have about ourselves and each other.
It’s so important to recognise that we all have issues and trauma around Transatlantic slavery that we must confront. As Desmond Brown says, both black and white people need to get under this – “We come to the table with different experiences. It’s not a hierarchy.” For this, see Joy DeGruy Leary post-traumatic slave syndrome:
We spoke about how the government’s reviews and commissions continue to let down black people. In our discussion, Desmond Brown said, “both the Covid and Windrush report were buried. We can no longer say that these aren’t wilful. These aren’t mistakes. If it doesn’t end we will see more protests like we have in America and I can’t fault the young people and I will be behind them. It is a process that needs to be resolved.”
A large part of our discussion was about education. Sakiya Ghalib talked about her own experience at Integrate, working with many different schools to bring people together and tackle racial and gender oppression. She cited her experience of teaching in a school of predominantly white-working class students, telling them that they have so much in common and share many of the same challenges as their non-white counterparts. I agree with Sakiya, that education and representation can make a huge difference. As she said, “if young black people don’t see anyone in senior positions, we won’t believe that we can be there.”
There’s already some brilliant work happening in Bristol on this. I recently held a meeting with the BAME students group and Dr Joseph Hartland at the University of Bristol School of Medicine, where they are leading the way in decolonising the medical curriculum through recognising its critical shortcomings, for example the way to recognise illnesses are largely taught through the way they look on white skin. Aisha Thomas, the Assistant Principal at City Academy, has already put together an example curriculum, which is being piloted at three local primary schools.
As Marie-Annick reminded us, understanding where racism is coming from is really important. She explained that it was an 18th Century made-up term in the West – this hierarchy of colour was set up to justify the countries they were colonising. It is and was a construction – and it is incredibly important to understand what the colonial powers at the time were doing to the world and how this has continued to today.
As Marie-Annick said, a lot of young people are talking about decolonising the curriculum, but we need to have a decolonial approach to the curriculum which includes different ways of learning “We can’t obliterate what happened, so we need to know how to teach the link between the impact of Colston’s presence in the city, and how it still affects people today.”
Ubuntu – I am because you are
I would like to share with you the last words from the panellists, ones which they asked you to take away.
He believes we should approach unconscious bias in our own attitudes as we would other problems. “Google it please – don’t ask your black colleagues, you need to look to yourself and then we can tell whether it’s a good thing or not. On police reform and mental health issues, we need to understand the nuances of Black Lives Matter. We need a new way of doing things which aren’t Section 60 stop and search.’
“We need to understand the nuances of Black lives matter. We have Black queer people, Black trans people, Black people with disabilities, Black people with mental health issues, Black women… And it affects people completely differently. We need to make sure that there are policies in place to ensure their safety… more funding for mental health support, after-school clubs.’
“Police have taken strides in Bristol; they have had training. How many people who make our laws, locally and nationally, how many have had diversity and inclusion training? How many of them understand the implications of their decisions? Yes we should educate our young, but we must educate our decision makers.”
“I would want us to move from the symbolic to the systemic, how we move away from scratching the surface of things so when we think about inclusion for example, we think about how we change the ways our institutions work. If we think about the way we distribute wealth in our society, for example teachers, we have to think about how we ensure that black teachers have an equal experience in schools so they progress and we see more black headteachers. What is really stopping us from reaching that kind of equality?”
And my own thoughts – I’m valuing the time I’m spending reading and thinking about my own relationship to my country of origin and experiences of being mixed race in the UK. This is not a fixed or linear identity – we all have multiple layers of who we are and how we express it. We may be environmentalists, we may be feminists, we may have a faith or philosophy of living which is very important to us, we may have hobbies which describe us better than our jobs, we may have ways of being with our families which link us to our cultural histories, we may be different things at different times to different people. These multiple layers of identity are part of what makes human life so challenging and so rich and rewarding as well. Being willing to challenge ourselves and each other is something to embrace and learn how to do with respect and joy, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Thank you to everyone who was part of the event and I look forward to seeing you all at the next one.