I don’t really check the news on Friday evening so I found out about the Paris attacks via social media (which is another thing I want to cut out of my Friday evenings). My first thoughts were for my family in Paris. I had a moment of panicky Facebooking until I got a reply. Everybody was safe. In fact, they didn’t even know about the attacks till I asked. In our language barrier muddle she had thought “Are you ok? The attacks?”, was some kind of strange way of asking about her post-pregnancy symptoms.
My next thoughts were of the victim’s families. I remembered when the 7/7 bombs struck London -I was in the car on the way back from the dentist. We had a school trip that day and my class of blue clad teenage girls would have got on a tube on the same line just a little later than when those bombs went off. I remember sitting in the back of the car, my Mum’s hand reached out to mine as I went into a panic attack. I sat there listening to the news reader slowly, carefully relaying the events of that morning, and I gasped for air. I don’t know why. No one I knew had been on those tubes or that bus, but for some reason the mere thought of it so close to me, the randomness and luck (or in my thinking, divine mercy) of my not being there sent me into a wave of panic.
And on Friday I couldn’t imagine the intensity of emotion of the families of the victims of the Paris attacks. Panic and utter grief and anger and despair, all amplified amidst the noise of shock and confusion. And I prayed for them that night. I prayed for Paris, for Baghdad, for Beirut.
Paris is close to home. I understand why Paris felt more troubling to me than the attacks in Beirut. I understand the solidarity British people feel with Paris. They are after all, their allies.
I say ‘they’ because I don’t feel British.
A few days ago was remembrance day. It happened to be my day off and I was glad for that. I didn’t want any questions about why I don’t wear a poppy, insinuations I have no sympathy for those who are injured in current wars (I do). The ordinary soldiers on either side who fought in both world wars were working men who often, without choice, sacrificed their life for a cause that perhaps they didn’t fully understand. I am saddened by the loss of life and I respect their descendants desire to honour them.
I can’t though, subscribe to an ahistorical rendering of the story that suggests that I, a young Black British woman of Jamaican heritage has any particular connection either World War. Or that many of those who fought in both wars fought ‘for my freedom’ despite them and their families being the same people who threw rubbish and rocks at my grandparent’s heads when they first came to this country. (And even at the heads of Caribbean, Asian and African soldiers who had fought for a country that disregarded and cared little for them). Or that the poppy hasn’t been co-opted by far right groups and those with imperialist leanings to promote an agenda of racism and neo-colonialism. Or that the majority of white British people in this country actually see me as British. So although I respect the minute of silence when in public I don’t feel a particular connection to it as a British person – only sympathy as a fellow human that human life was lost.
I am a definitely Londoner, and I’m beginning to think that being a Black-British Londoner (or black -British in any of the big cities) is itself a unique culture. But living outside of London has made me realise that that unique culture does not make me British. If I think about emigrating to, say America and the community that I would become a part of there, undoubtedly I would much more likely be absorbed into the African or Caribbean American community, not any kind of white British ‘ex-pat’ group.
We know that white Western bodies are valued by white Westerners more than non-western and non-white bodies. It only takes another tragedy to remind us of that. I question though whether it is not, in fact, normal and human to feel solidarity with things that are closer, not only in terms of geographical, but cultural proximity.
What is interesting and perhaps saddening, is that this perhaps normal human sentiment is not present for many non-white Westerners. We are also taught to value white Western life above our own. The solidarity that Europeans had in the wake of the Paris attacks is normalised, whereas non white-Western solidarity in the face of continual attack is treated with suspicion.
Let’s not beat around the bush – the sentiment in France that we’re currently seeing on the news in a country where in recent years 15% of the vote has gone to the National Front, stinks of racism and xenophobia. Non-white french people have stated very clearly that many of them feel merely tolerated in France. This will only worsen after these attacks. Not only that, but French foreign policy especially in regards to its former colonies has been nothing short of despicable. We cannot ignore this.
I mourn for the victims of the Paris attacks because they are people like me. They had families they loved, who loved them. They had aspirations and dreams. So did those in Beirut. So did those in Nigeria. So did those in Baghdad. I do not mourn because the French are my allies or share my ‘values’. I mourn because all human life is precious. And I mourn that in the wake of these attacks, some of us are forgetting that.