Black Lives Matter revisited – my lessons and reflections.
“I can’t make people not afraid of black people. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head. But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving your kids, taking care of things that I care about—maybe, just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of your discrimination. Maybe that slowly will unravel it. That’s all we have, because we can’t do it for them, because they’re broken. Their brokenness in how they see us is a reflection of this brokenness. And you can’t fix that. All you can do is the work.”– Michelle Obama
On May 25th we saw the death of George Floyd. A vicious, inhumane and awful killing of an African American man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The outcry, protests and uproar was like nothing we have seen before. The world finally appeared to unite and Black Lives Mattered. However, let’s get this clear too, it was not just about George Floyd. It was about Breonna Taylor, Tarika Wilson, Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, I could go on. We are four months on, so where is vigour, energy and drive to reshape the social fabric of society?
Black Lives Matter is everyone’s issue because racism is everyone’s issue. However, some say that’s it’s impossible to retain the same level of vigour and energy for any movement. For the majority of BAME people, the social trends of late autumn and the summer were as close to a breakthrough as we were ever going to get. A breakthrough to challenge cultural norms, values and traditions that have for so long been the bastion of implicit racial biases. Tearing down statues was a symbolism of the removal of racial divisions and the celebratory rhetoric of the evils of empire and slavery. With over 21,000 public complaints against the dance group Diversity for incorporating Black Lives Matter into one their routines, people now appear to be triggered by Alesha Dixon wearing a garment. Britain’s uneasy relationship with race grows more uncomfortable. But where are we now? What’s next? Where do we go?
It wasn’t just about George Floyd.
Let’s make this clear, there have been inroads and I am so proud to say that I know teachers who are continuing to fight for a more socially unified future. Without naming anyone, I know of teachers have been campaigning with exam boards to address racial stereotype within specifications. BrewEd’s are becoming increasingly diverse, inclusion and equality are also permeating into daily dialogue. The BAME Ed network is also growing and not forgetting how hard teachers are working to embed anti-racism values into their pedagogical toolkits. There is some absolutely incredible practice and this article should never detract us from that. Thank you to everyone who is still working at the very grassroots to create a more socially just society.
However, alongside the victories, we must also confront some trends that also need to be considered, highlighted and analysed. This is a personal reflection piece and based upon personal observations. There are three themes I am seeing and becoming aware of everyday. Slacktivism/selective populism, gatekeeping and the homogenisation of BLM.
Slacktivism and selective populism – The notion of slacktivism has been with us since the mid-90s. The idea of real-life pickets and protests being replaced by micro-protests through the algorithms of petitions or hashtags. Indeed, there is a time and place for both methods of protest. However, with Black Lives Matter it became painfully obvious for many BAME people that, sadly, for some, this was a mere # and a selective form of ‘discontent’ to attain validation. One of the pillars of privilege and platform is to freeze and reheat debates based upon what fits your own personal narrative. This ability to selectively decide on what issues deserve acknowledgment and public attention is also a nugget of privilege. Those who were once ‘standing by’ and saying ‘I got you’ have now retracted, ghosted and BLM is now a mere three month trend. Almost like a new pair of shoes which looked fashionable, attained great reviews but once they were no longer so desirable, they are swapped for something new. This is selective populism. But Black Lives Matter is not a pair of shoes. It is a movement for social justice and racial equality that campaigns on behalf of racialised minorities. This ability to select and then emotionally detach from the grim and often fatal realities of so many is beyond frightening. Joining a movement of equality means you are aligning your values with the principles of equality. When you begin to consider yourself as an ‘ally’ in the dialogue about equality too, your empathy aligns itself with those who have been the victims of inequality and injustice. The notion of ‘victims’ is not intended to imply a lack of autonomy but rather the weight of historical systemic oppression. True allyship does not need to be broadcasted. Allyship is not about standing on soapboxes or public acknowledgments – it is about how we interact and treat others. If you joined Black Lives Matter for validation and not equality, then I suggest you reconsider your allyship. Reconsider your stance as Malcolm X once said, “you are in the middle of an ocean and you can’t swim yet you are worried about someone that’s in a bathtub that can’t swim.” That bathtub of populism you are struggling with is someone else’s ocean – a ocean of inequality that generations before them have downed in. If you have the intention to help create a more socially just society, then your allyship will be cherished by those who will someday meet you in their field of unity. That is the destination we should all be striving to get to – a unified future and not a divide past. The BAME community and BLM movement are acutely aware of this selective populism and it will never derail their message. Don’t work too hard or spend too long trying to suss others out. Eventually people just reveal themselves.
Gatekeeping – I have written about racialised gatekeepers in my Different shades of BAME article. However, it was Musa Okwonga who brough this phrase to public attention. Gatekeepers have come out in their numbers to solidify the historical structures of injustice. Their sustained conservative mindset fits neatly into Okwonga’s assertion about the premise of their existence. Okwonga stated gatekeepers are validated in their opinion through the idea of “look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies therefore do not have racially regressive effects.” Their ‘representation’ in discussions about equality is tainted by their efforts to attain validation and provide an ‘intellectual’ veneer for others to project their implicit biases on. These people gain enough attention but as Black Lives Matter was an opportunity to reflect on historical behaviour, these gatekeepers are brought in to discussion not to add expertise but to glad-handily agree, endorse and ‘validate’ elitist opinion and commentary. Reni Eddo-Lodge in her incredible Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race warns us that “representation doesn’t always mean that the representer will work in the favour of those who need representing”. Gatekeeping has become a prominent feature of derailing conversations about race to create a narrative that we live in a world that is somehow free of inequality and oppression. They rigidly align themselves with the worldview that a meritocratic society is available to all. Their privilege, status, wealth, influence and endorsements create a rigid tunnel vision view of the world that “If I did it, why can’t you?” or “We all have the same chances, I just made the most of mine and you made excuses”. Who does this support? Black Lives Matter was an opportunity for BAME people of influence to help promote meritocracy and equality but why rock a boat when you profit from its voyage? Fragile monopolies of power need constant validation, reassurance and approval. Who better to attain it from than those who have emotionally detached themselves from a community they allegedly ‘represent’?
The homogenisation of BLM – I continued to hear how ‘Marxist’ Black Lives Matter was. How there was the use of ‘reverse racism’ and ‘white bashing’. I am aware of the aggressive overtones of telling people to ‘recognise their privileges’ as well as the nebulous nature comments. My White Noise article actually focuses on incorporating everyone into dialogue about inequality in a progressive manner. Black Lives Matter is not a monolithic and homogenous movement. Intersectional Feminists, the LGBTQ+ community and people from all theoretical and political positions believe that Black Lives Matter. Brandishing BLM with the one-size-fits all critical race theory argument is beyond misinformation. Does every single member of the Black Lives Matter movement follow critical race theory? Absolutely not. Even if the movement itself was built upon this theory, does this not mean there is a multiplicity of world views? Critical race theory was found in the 1980s and aimed to dispel the idea of a ‘colour-blind’ and reappropriate the dynamics of race into conversations about inequality. Commentators who have said Black Lives Matter is built upon the false pretence of white privilege and white supremacy are denying the existence of these power structures that have caused generations of division and inequality. Black Lives Matter is not a homogenous movement but rather an amalgamation of ideas and beliefs that are looking to challenge racism and inequality. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “unity has never meant uniformity.” There is diversity within the movement. Not everyone who takes a knee in protest wants to politically indoctrinate your children with Marxism or create a socialist revolution! Black Lives Matter is so much more than just police brutality, it is about systemic racism and inequality, with vested stakeholders from all walks of life.
The excellent practice can never go unnoticed. Keep up the good work. Keep collaborating, sharing resources and retain your focus on the questions that truly matter. So many people are holding conversations that matter, critically reflecting on their positions and platforms. What comes next is in our hands. We have a choice to continue to support one another, share a message of unity, seek justice for those who are oppressed and continue the fight. It was never just about George Floyd. Yet, we have a golden opportunity to make this a landmark era. This starts with reflecting on our own interaction, challenging our own biases and working to realign our principles with equality. It truly is in our hands. History will ask us, what did 2020 teach you? The answer should be; Black Lives Matter.
Malcolm’s message towards the final few months of his life was about unity. How we find that unity, that is question Malcolm left us all to answer.
This year has been truly unprecedented. A global pandemic met with more civil unrest that has once again revealed the scars of inequality. Black Lives will always matter even when the movement itself is not trending on Twitter or sportspeople have stopped taking a knee or wearing a badge. All life is precious and to prevent history from repeating itself, a unified approach is what is required.
Four months have passed and every fragile monopoly of power continues to solidify its walls. These walls were built for a purpose but are in desperate need of dismantling. With the fall of autumn comes dark clouds but also rays of sunshine.
Thank you for reading.
Musa Okwonga article – https://bylinetimes.com/2019/10/03/the-dangers-of-priti-patels-racial-gatekeeping/
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, London, Bloomsbury