Like many other black people around the world this week I have been reflecting a lot about the past year and the temptation is to look and think nothing has changed and that it is too big a mountain to climb. In March many reflected on a year of Covid and lockdown in the UK. I know my anniversary calendar looks very different than the calendar of my white friends. Here is a peak at what the first half of the year looks like to me.
Jan – Martin Luthor king New cross fire
Feb – Trayvon Martin the beginning of the BLM movement
April – Steven Lawrence
May- George Floyd
Now you might look at this and think that is all doom and gloom, but for me these days are a reminder of not only the lives that have been lost, but also the campaigns that have been fought and where change has happened.
Britain is not a racist free country where we all live in harmony together, but it is also not the country where Enoch Powell gave his river of blood speech either.
When my dad first came to this country as a teenager in the 1960’s, he felt that his only choice was to assimilate. This wasn't unique to him, many children who were brought over from the Caribbean by their parents were told this. Their parents had endured terrible racism, resulting in rejection and violence and they thought that this was the way to protect their children. This is not the message I gave my children a generation later. Things have changed.
Growing up in London I experienced racism almost daily, mostly from the police and those in authority, teachers, doctors, social workers, but also from neighbours’ classmates and strangers. I was and still am fierce in my passions and I have always hated injustice, so, I am far removed from my passive dad who tried to assimilate. Everyday life was a battle growing up. I would have to fight in school daily to protect myself from the bullies and I absorbed a lot of hurt and pain. There was no one to complain to about the racism, school and organisations were complicit in perpetuating racism overtly and covertly. For many communities and groups there was no shame in being called a racist.
As a child there were no positive images of black people on TV. I mean, none. I can remember the first black newsreader. Sidney Poitier and Cicely Tyson was the only black actors I knew. The rest were minor actors who played thugs and gangsters which was the only image of black people on TV. The black and white minstrel show; where white entertainers put on black face was prime time Sunday evening entertainment.
But things have changed
Not living in a large major city means that I live in a place where black people make up less than 10% of the population, a place where overt racism still happens, not to mention the daily plethora of micro aggressions. But look at this, these actions have names. Not because we are “woke “Leftists” (although some of us are and glad to be), but because they are acknowledged, they are seen.
My daughters place of work (in hospitality) has an active policy to protect their staff against any racist behaviour. If she says a member of the public has been racist to her, they are asked to leave immediately. No questions, no gaslighting.
Children in Pimlico school just ousted a headmaster who wanted to stand by his racist policies instead of admitting he was wrong. Children did that, and the newspapers covered it.
A police officer in the USA just went to prison for murdering a black man. For the first time ever.
As I write this, 2 UK police officers are on trial for murdering Dalian Atkinson. 10 years after Mark Duggan, 28 years after Joy Gardner, 11 years after Jimmy Mubenga, 36 years after Cherry Groce, all of whom were murdered by police and security forces. Things are changing.
Denzel Washington, Steve McQueen Idris Elba, Daniel Kaluuya, Michaela Coen, Thandiwe Newton, John Boyega, Amma Asante, Chiwetel Ejiofor have all become award winning household names in the film industry.
Conversations on social media about racism are happening every day. Racists are being called out for their words and behaviour. (There is a Facebook page called let’s get racist sacked!) Being a racist is no longer a badge of honour, no longer socially acceptable. Schools and organisations are thinking more about the books on their shelves, the diversity needed in education.
Is the life of a black person living in the UK the way it should be? Do black people have equal access to work, education and healthcare as their white peers? No, of course not. But things are changing. My white friends are far more aware of racism and its impact than they were 10 years ago.
Of course, I still have friends and people around me who say the wrong things, hesitate when they should act or hide their heads in the sand hoping that this will all just sort itself out. I still attend a church where the leaders are all white and where progress moves at snails’ rate (on a good day)
The church, the entertainment industry, the healthcare service still has a long way to go, but we have come a long way. And sometimes when we are battle weary, we can forget that. When I forget, when I am exhausted, I look to those who have gone before me and I remind myself that they are heroes they achieved great things. Not just the big names who stood on platforms and made great speeches, but the people who toiled day in and day out with no recognition like Olaudah Equiano (I’ll let you go and look that one up).
These heroes tell me (and you) to keep going, that we are halfway up the mountain and that we will reach the top, because things are changing.
So, what do you do?
Celebrate the wins, fight injustice everywhere, don’t get weary in doing good and keep learning.
You are the best thing By Tarana Burke
100 Great Black Britons
Black History for Beginners by Denise Dennis
Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly
On the Other Side of Freedom by DeRay Mckesson