I don’t need to give a summary of the events of the last few days. It is a recurring theme in the past 400 or so years of black history. Of brutalisation, of violence, of unanswered questions. Of being painted as the aggressors whilst being the victims. Of hope almost enveloped in rage and helplessness. Of fighting with all the heart we have to not extend the same hatred that has been shown to us.
But I am not in Ferguson. My son will not likely be a black man in America. My brother is less likely to get shot by a policeman in London than on a cold American sidewalk. It is winter now, and the coldness is a fitting background for the events of the past few days. And what do we do here, in England? We cannot claim that police brutality is on the same level as it is for those across the pond. We watch, and we Facebook post, and we tweet in solidarity. We mourn with them. We are angry with them. We are angry for them. We remember that we too have similar gripes with the police force here. We too have black men who have died in police custody. We have our Mark Duggan and our Christopher Alder.
British racism has always operated differently from American racism. The nature of the beast is the same, but it wears a more genteel, aloof face here. Even the practice of slavery by the British gives an insight into how they would deal with the racism that trickled down from it. Most slaves were not kept in British houses, whipped in the back yard, raped in the house. American slavery got right up in your face. American whites looked their slaves in the face every day.
Britain has always kept a polite distance from its slaves. Islands in the Caribbean full of African bodies, working under a beating sun to fuel an industrial revolution, to provide sugar for British tea parties, were oceans away from those who drank the tea. Victorian ladies would be uncomfortable with the torture and rape needed to provide the perfect cup of earl grey being thrust in front of their face. The stiff upper lip is too delicate. So occasional reports from a Barbadian plantation were better.
This is British racism.
It thrives on denial. It thrives on lack of open conversation. It thrives on middle class bubbles with token middle class black people who don’t want to discuss race with their white friends because it would make dinner parties uncomfortable. It thrives on farmers markets in Brixton where white hipsters enjoy the ‘culture’ but segregate themselves from the people who provide the ‘culture’. It thrives on fairy tale ideas of multi culturalism. It thrives on using the coded language of ‘immigration’, ‘thug’ and ‘hoodies’ instead of nigger. It thrives on the pseudo racism of UKIP. It thrives on black professionals mysteriously being made redundant or passive aggressively bullied in the work place, and told they’re playing the ‘race card’ if they dare to mention it. It thrives on acting like racism, just like Caribbean slaves, is an ocean away – out of sight and out of mind.
This is why Britain needs to talk about race. But especially black people in Britain. We need to keep affirming each other that it is not all ‘in our heads’. We need to give ourselves spaces where we can emotionally release the frustration that comes from being marginalised. It’s not natural to internalise everything. Do not be placated by claims that Britain is much more progressive than America. It isn’t. The racism is less overt and less violent, and we are fortunate for that, but it is just as insidious. If anything, it’s just more intelligent. The social and economic disparities in England are vast. The structural racism is strong.
It’s ok to just have a space to vent and be angry and be frustrated. It’s human to need that. It’s ok. It’s ok to do that without having the onus of finding a solution to the problem being placed on you. It’s ok.
My heart and my prayers are with the families of those young men tonight. Every single one of them. The ones that died before and the ones that will die in the months and years to come, because there will be more. That they will find a space in their hearts for forgiveness, but that most of all they will find a modicum of justice and peace.