What Black History Month Means To Me

October is Black History Month in the UK and what better year to celebrate this than 2020. The past events of 2020 has shone a light on racism in the US, UK and other parts of the western world including China re its reactions to black people living in China during Covid19.

From the police murder of Gorge Floyd and his last haunting words, “I can’t breathe”, to the white supremacists lynching of Ahmaud Arbery while peacefully jogging on the streets, the brutal murder of Breonna Taylor while sleeping in her own bed, the disproportionate police stop and search of black people during covid19 lockdown in UK to the many Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, 2020 has indeed been that strange year of strange happenings and reckonings too.

It is not unusual for people to ask why we need black history month. My answer is, 11 months of the year is white history month, it is the default history. It is what is taught in our schools every day. White history is the creed and the tenets we are urged to learn and live by every single day of the year. Surely, it is not too much to set aside I month of the year to shine light on the history of black members of our society. It is white history month all year round, just as it is heterosexual history month all year round. I’m definitely happy to officially be able to grab the headlines with my struggles, achievements and celebrations of my whole self at least one month a year. Black History matters too.

Some have argued that celebrating Black History month further divides rather than includes. I’d say the spirit of inclusion would be fostered by the knowledge we stand to gain through engaging in Black History Month. It’s a month we make that extra conscious effort to learn, share experiences and ask questions such as – What are these hidden contributions of black people to world history? Why are Black people so ill-treated? Is Windrush scandal a reflection of disregard of Caribbean people’s contributions to British History? Who are these unsung black inventors, heroes and heroines? What does equality really look like? Why are there so many complaints because Tesco featured a black woman in its advert? Why should Black Lives Matter?

For me, Black History month is a great time to reconnect with my root as a black person, to feel the pain and the triumphs of my people amidst all the racial struggles in this white privileged society I live in.

It is so sad that Black history is not taught in British schools; history, they say, are written by victors and of course, they write it in their own favour. Colonialism and the appalling, inhuman act of 400 years of Trans-Atlantic slave trade set black people back 400 years. Cultures were lost, so many native languages wiped out and people forced to assimilate into a new culture that was deemed ‘superior and civilised’, yet, artefacts looted from my so called ‘uncivilised’ black ancestors adorn the British museum galleries. I hope and wait with bated breath that one day, these artworks that are testaments to the great empires of my black ancestors will be returned to their ancestral lands and be reunited with the descendants of their makers. Black history needs to be taught in all schools at all level. Black children need to know they have black heroes and heroines they can be proud of.

Black history is not just about Slavery. They tell us slaves were taken from Africa. This is not true. PEOPLE were taken from Africa. These people were made into slaves in foreign lands to build the wealth of empires and white slave owners. A stupendous wealth of which descendants of these slave owners still reap from today. The consequences for the descendants of African people that were taken and made into slaves include Racism, low income due to redlining and segregation, economic disparity, police brutality, disproportionate arrests and a loss of identity for many African Americans whose ancestors were displaced. Imagine never being able to trace your root and not knowing the language your ancestors spoke.

So many atrocities have been committed just because one race believed (some still believe) that they are superior to other races. White people need to acknowledge the wrong done when they engaged in trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonisation. Honest discussion about racism, its impact and acknowledging how deep-rooted it is, will pave the way for change.

My heart breaks for every Black/Brown child who has been told that their skin colour is ugly and inferior. We are taught that Black is evil. It is an appalling society that created these divisions and discrimination, and are in one way or the other, still upholding these racist beliefs and systemic /institutionalised racist structures.

The famous Educator and strong white ally, Jane Elliot, conducted an interesting experiment with school children based on eye colour. Pls, google it, everyone should watch it and read about it.

As black children we are told we are not good enough, as adults we face same discrimination at workplaces. They tell us our accent is not good enough, our faces do not fit in leadership positions, we are systematically denied promotions etc. Black History Month affords the opportunity to change the narrative. To remind our black children that they are beautiful just the way they are. To celebrate all that is black in them and about them.

It makes no sense to determine that one person is superior to the other based on their skin colour, yet that is what racism did, what slavery did, what colonialism did. Unfortunately, this is what some still seek to uphold.

Everyone is entitled to human rights and dignity of person regardless of race, skin colour, sex, gender identity, geographical location etc. Human right is an inalienable right; it is not something you give to someone out of the benevolence of your heart. It is sad that we still need to demand, scream, protest for our human rights, in this day and age. White-supremacy or racism of any sort does not belong in any civilised society. A society that thrives on racism does not deserves to be called modern or civilised. We can do better; we must do better.

As a white person, please educate yourself about how deep rooted racism really is and how the system is built to uphold racism. Stop being so defensive when we mention racism. Listen, Learn and Act. Only then can we truly begin to dismantle racism. Listening is great for understanding, Action is important for accountability. I look forward to a better understanding and accountability on racial issues.

Silence is compliance. It is not enough to just not be racist, you need to be anti-racist for progress to be made. It is not enough for white people to say they are not racist; they need to be vocally anti-racist. Every ally, every support, every voice counts.

As Black people, we need to decolonise our history and tell our stories.

To me, Black history month is

My history. My reality.

My Pain. My celebration.

My story to tell.

Your sins, awaiting atonement.

Your conscience, a lifetime to cleanse.

As we celebrate Black History Month in UK –

Think Equality,

Think Freedom.

Think Justice For All.

Stand up to Racism.

Stand up for Black Lives Matter.

It is the logical thing to do. Do not allow racists and xenophobes divide us. There is strength in diversity, together we are stronger. A better world is possible; be part of the solution, not the problem.

 

Time to get uncomfortable; Let’s talk about Racism

It is no news that white colleagues often feel uncomfortable when Black/Brown colleagues talk about racism. They fidget, try to change the subject, subtlety excuse themselves and some see it as a cue to tell us that their best friend is black. What is it about discussing racism that makes white people uncomfortable? Whatever it is, it is time to address this discomfort.

The conversation is a difficult one to have but it must be had. It is a privilege to be able to ignore racism, as a black person, I do not have this luxury. Racism has its ugly knee on my neck, even when I scream “I can’t breathe”, I am told to be silent. The people who benefits from the system which emboldens the perpetrators are the ones quick to say they are uncomfortable, you’d think they are the oppressed with the knee on their necks!

Denial of racism is itself a racist act.  When as a white person, you become annoyed whenever we speak about racism, you are being dismissive of our reality. When you say to us, “but we are nice to you, why do you keep talking about racism”, you need to understand that trying to silence us is an act of microaggression. You might be ‘nice’ to us, you can try to convince us how much you don’t see colour (which itself is problematic), however, we live in a world where we are exposed to some treatments and realities you are protected from because of your race.

Please, understand that this is not about making you feel guilty for being white. It is not necessarily about you; we are not after your guilt. We are opening your eyes to our experiences which you might not be aware of because it does not affect you. It is about creating awareness and demanding change. Look at it as an opportunity to learn and to take an active stance against racism by committing yourself to being a white ally. We want to build a better society and we want you to do your part to make this happen. So, no, we don’t need or want your guilt, we want you to be anti-racist.

Silence is compliance. We live in a society where the voice of a white person is deemed more important and more valued than the voice of someone from a BAME community. White people listen better to other white people on racism than they would black people who actually experience racism every day. This is sad but it is our reality. Therefore, it is important for our white allies to keep educating themselves so they can educate other white people.

Racism hurts and the micro aggression directed towards us in the workplace because of our skin colour, accent, hair and everything that makes us different is extremely sad and painful. As Black/Brown children we are told we are not good enough, as adults we face same discrimination at work, our accent is not good enough, our faces do not fit leadership positions, we are systematically denied promotions etc.

I always say microaggression is one of the worst type of racism out there as it is so easy for the perpetrators to flippantly dismiss it as “it was just a joke” or “You are too sensitive”. As women, society expects us to take small space, as black women, we are even expected to take less space and be “less loud” and “less aggressive”. It is a challenge to be our true self in the workplace especially when our true self is not valued. As a black/Brown person, when we enter a room or try to contribute at a meeting, people assume because of our skin colour and accent, we are less educated and just there as the token BAME to fill the inclusion seat.

I listened to a talk given by a colleague on micro-aggressions where he shared some of the heart-breaking racist experiences he had been subjected to in the workplace.  As a black man with an ‘African’ accent, he was not believed when he mentioned on the phone that he worked for the department. He was advised by his manager to go with a white colleague to verify his identity. He needed a white colleague to verify to another white person that he is legit. This started me thinking about ‘borrowed whiteness’ (for lack of a better term).

Are you aware that as Blacks, we sometimes attempt to ‘borrow’ white privilege from our white friends, spouses, partners? A white colleague mentioned that his Asian partner would hold his hand at airports to borrow his whiteness for protection. It is a scenario I understand very well.

One of my earliest experiences of borrowing whiteness was when I travelled the world as a trade union organiser. When travelling with white colleagues, I was always the only black person in the group. I made sure to stay close to my white comrades, to be associated with them, so I would be looked at less suspiciously. This gave me some sort of protection from being immediately classified as a criminal. I borrowed/hid under their whiteness to be protected from racist gaze and scrutiny, a white privilege they did not even know they possessed because they had never had to consider it.

It is heart-breaking that we need to be associated with the skin of another to afford us protection/validation because our skin colour is considered not good enough. Even at a crime scene, our words are not good enough unless a white person corroborates us. The witness evidence of a single white guy in a crime scene carries more weight than the witness evidence of three black guys at the same crime scene. Ask mothers who have been at the brink of losing their black sons to crimes they did not commit only to be saved at the last minute when a white witness turns up and corroborates what the black witnesses have been saying all along.  This is degrading and dehumanising, this is how systemic racism works.

There are reasons black people do not trust the police, every black person knows a family member or BAME friend who has been a victim of police brutality. There is undisputable evidence that Police use their Stop and Search powers to disproportionately target Blacks. During Covid19 lockdown, 22,000 young black men were stopped and searched in London. We are stereotyped as prone to committing criminal activities, we are deemed guilty before proven innocent, our skin colour used as the damning evidence of our guilt. Even the healthcare system is not immune to this racism. Blacks were used as guinea pigs in medical trials, most times in inhumane conditions, and are still used as guinea pigs to this day. Just a few months ago two French doctors made racists remarks on TV that Coronavirus vaccines should first be tested in Africa. My very first encounter with a GP in UK was steeped in racism and it almost proved fatal. However, that is a story for another day.

Discrimination really hurts. It is painful to be looked at differently with suspicion in a park, supermarkets or departmental store when all you want to do is buy a bottle of perfume. Remember what happened to Leona Lewis and her father? Even as an international superstar, she still experienced racism in a store. Her black skin did not fit the clientele. Her black skin was viewed as criminal, as suspicious, as inferior. I can tell you that Blacks have same experience every day as Leona Lewis and her father.

My sister who recently started an event planning company has become weary when speaking to white customers on the phone. She told me about a recent case where she had been communicating with a white woman via emails and had almost sealed the deal. However, when it was time to complete the transactions on the phone and exchange bank details, the woman was surprised that my sister was Black and asked where she was from. The woman then said she will get back in touch and that was the last she heard from her. Unfortunately, that was just one of such cases since she started her business. She has now put up a beautiful picture of herself on her website dressed in resplendent Nigerian attire. This way, she avoids the hurt that comes with being rejected to your face or deemed not good enough because of your race.

White colleagues, you should take time to reflect on why you are uncomfortable when we bring up racism. Listen, learn and empathise because if you do not put yourself in our shoes you might not understand the pains of Black people whose ancestors were subjected to the worst kind of man’s inhumanity to man and whose descendants are still being treated as less than human by individuals, police and the system.

Some of the things we read on social media make us wonder where our colleagues stand on Racism Some of us, both black and white, lost friends when we voiced our support for Black Lives Matter. Don’t be afraid to take a stance against racism even if you lose childhood friends. Take solace in the fact that your friends’ group is now less racist. Who wants to be friends with racists anyway. You wouldn’t want to be friends with paedophiles even if they were childhood friends, so why make excuses for racists friends who refuse to learn and are easily offended when we challenge racism?

It is sad that we work and live in a society where speaking out about oppression in our workplace is considered a brave thing to do. The fear of repercussion is real, the ostracism that comes with challenging our oppression is a price too high for some of us to pay.  How did we come to this?  Not today; it is centuries of oppressing and silencing black people. I understand just how tempting it is for us as BAME to hide away and not challenge perpetrators. However, in doing so, we gradually lose our voice and wither away.

It is time to have honest conversations no matter how uncomfortable some might find it. White colleagues need to remember that their discomfort is nothing compared to the daily experiences of their black colleagues who live with racism every day. We must hold racists accountable for their actions. We need more than placating words, we demand action.

A society where racism is still rife has no business referring to itself as a modern society. No one is born hating another for the colour of their skin, society taught this hate, society promotes this hate, it is time for us to collectively act to break the chain of this injustice. It is time to be vocally anti-racist. Time to stand up for true change and help build a better, fair and just society where no one is treated as inferior to the other or denied opportunities because of their race or accent.

Finally, pls, understand that Black Lives Matter is not about White vs Black, it is Racism Vs Anti-racist. Where do you stand?