British Racism Is Designed To Destroy The Mind.

Words: Danielle Dash

In the months since the world was forced to watch the horror of George Floyd’s killing by a white cop, I constantly slam up against a painful knowing that while American white supremacy is explicitly physically violent, British white supremacy is just as mentally violent. British white supremacy has been expressly designed to destroy the minds of Black British people who care to question its existence.

In the recent visuals for Kano’s Hoodies All Summer song “Teardrops”, he makes it clear that since 1990, over 100 Black British people have died in police custody or following police contact, but I want to look at how the manifestation of British racism affects our minds. It sounds hyperbolic but watching the John Boyega/Jo Malone saga unfold alongside dance supergroup Diversity’s Britain’s Got Talent debacle, it is impossible for me to ignore the toll Britain’s specific brand of genteel racism takes on the Black people it affects. It cannot be overstated enough that African Americans are killed by police in greater numbers than Black British people. Six thousand, five hundred and fifty-seven people were killed by police in America in the years between 2014 and 2019. Black people make up 25% of those killed, even though Black people only make up 13% of the American population. No one should be killed by police, but African Americans are killed at a disproportionately high rate and under extraordinarily violent circumstances compared to other ethnicities, thus the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

Founded and run by Black women organisers and strategists, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter is a global organisation that started in America in 2013, whose mission is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” The need for such a movement in America is clear, but the myth of Britain being a “tolerant”, “progressive” society obscures the urgent necessity of Black Lives Matter UK. The myth of British tolerance is so thoroughly ingrained that there’s no shortage of coons like Dominique Samuels and Calvin Robinson who will, of their own free will, get up on national television and tell the world that as Black people they stand against Black Lives Matter because “it is stoking up racial tensions where there weren’t any to begin with.”

Ah, but there has always been racial tension in Britain. Despite making up only 3% of the population, Black British people account for 8% of deaths in police custody and the police are five times as likely to use force against Black people. When compared with American statistics, these numbers do not hold a candle to the state violence visited upon African Americans, but for a country purporting to be a safe and welcoming environment for people who are not white, they are too fucking high. This is to say the violence of British racism more often than not targets the minds of Black British people instead of our bodies. The effects of British racism are less likely to be dead Black people and the absence of physical markers of racism encourage racist white people, and Black people who uphold white supremacy, to explain away racism because in doing so they protect Britain’s image and themselves from having to do any work to dismantle a system of oppression that does not only affect Black people.

Many Black people have their own version of the story where their parents sat them down and gave them the Rowan Pope “you have to be twice as good to get half” speech from Scandal. Recently, Channel 4 aired a one-off discussion called The Talk, in which Black British celebrities and everyday people discussed the first conversations they had with their parents about race and racism. While deeply scarring for Black people, this experience is designed to protect and prepare them for the inescapability of racism in Britain. Many Black people internalise that message, work hard to gain success in their respective fields of expertise and then go on to come up against the jarring reality that Black excellence cannot stop white violence. In the last couple of weeks, Lewis Hamilton, Ashley Banjo, Alesha Dixon and John Boyega have all been made to navigate racism.

“You cannot enjoy the talents of Black people without engaging with all of our experiences, both the beautiful and the painful.”

Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1’s only Black driver who is on track to become the most successful racer of all time, turned up to the Tuscan Grand Prix wearing a t-shirt with the message, “Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” emblazoned on the front, and a picture of Taylor on the back under the words “Say Her Name”. Motor racing’s governing body investigated whether Hamilton broke any rules with his protest. They have since decided not to pursue action against Hamilton, but the irony is not lost on me that more has been done to investigate his calls for justice than actually securing justice for Breonna Taylor. These kinds of petty, punitive actions are designed to silence Black people and stop them speaking out about racial injustice. Lewis Hamilton, however, is not a Black person who can be easily silenced out of fear that he might lose his job and his ability to provide for his family. Black autonomy is a clear and present danger to white supremacy.

Now, I don’t watch Britain’s Got Talent. It’s not for me. But I went looking for Diversity’s Black Lives Matter performance to find out why it has since racked up close to 25,000 Ofcom complaints and become the most complained about television event of the year. The performance was energising and provocative. Troupe leader Ashley Banjo recreated the moment George Floyd was killed and had a white man dressed in a police uniform kneel on his neck during a four-minute performance that discussed a whole gamut of social issues, from austerity and the ‘rona to state violence and hope for the future. Ashley Banjo has spoken out about receiving thousands of messages of hate and threats of violence but is defiant in the face of bigotry. In a recent Instagram post, he explains that the negativity makes “every single second of that performance and every single complaint worth it.” I wish he didn’t have to be so strong. What exactly are they complaining about, you ask? Well, speaking recently on Good Morning Britain, journalist Calvin Robinson (and his ‘Make America Great Again’ cap) tried to explain that Britain’s Got Talent viewers were offended because Diversity’s performance was “violent” and the reality talent competition isn’t the right place for this type of discussion.

In Britain, Black people are celebrated for singing, dancing, acting, writing, playing football, being politicians and/or simply being alive as long as we do not criticise an environment and society that is openly hostile towards us. The Daily Fail erroneously reported that Alesha Dixon threatened to quit BGT if they apologised for Diversity’s performance. Dixon made it clear that she was not a media puppet and had made no such threat but did unequivocally stand in support of Ashley Banjo and Diversity. If racial tension didn’t exist in Britain, if Black Lives did in fact Matter in Britain, why would 25,000 people make it their business to boycott and protest Britain’s Got Talent for this gripping performance? You can’t make sense out of nonsense and the truth is Britain is a racist country that prefers to be coddled and infantilised into a belief that Black people are safe from harm in this ununited kingdom when Ashely Banjo’s inbox full of hate is evidence to the contrary. You cannot enjoy the talents of Black people without engaging with all of our experiences, both the beautiful and the painful. Erasing the ugliness Black people have to endure in day-to-day life only serves to delay the work that has to be done to dismantle white supremacy once and for all.

And finally, John Boyega: a young Black man who has risen to become one of the preeminent actors of his generation and a producer and director in his own right. Boyega served as a brand ambassador for British perfume brand Jo Malone. During his tenure, he created an award-winning ad-campaign for the brand who then recast him with a Chinese star, Liu Haoran, for the Chinese market without his approval nor his knowledge but making sure to (poorly) replicate his original content. The advert was based on Boyega’s experiences growing up in Peckham, South London, so their erasure of him is particularly galling. However, while speaking to an insidious British racism that moves in the shadows, the move also highlights a global anti-Blackness.

This isn’t the first time Boyega has had to contend with acts designed to placate presumed Chinese anti-Black sentiments: in 2016, his prominence in Star Wars posters was reduced for the film’s China release. Jo Malone, the brand, could have included John Boyega in their discussions but instead they went ahead and took action they must have known would be seen as racist. The backlash has been swift and severe, with Boyega stepping down as brand ambassador and saying: “The film celebrated my personal story, showcasing my hometown, including my friends and family. While many brands understandably use a variety of global and local ambassadors, dismissively trading out one’s culture this way is not something I can condone.”

I’ve found a few things about this situation upsetting but one thing that stands out to me as emblematic of how racism functions in Britain, is Jo Malone’s tweet addressing Boyega’s departure. “John Boyega is an incredible talent, artist and person and we were proud to have him as part of our Jo Malone London family. We respect John’s decision and we wish him all the best.” In the words of Kelechi Okafor, this tweet is very smelly. Here, Jo Malone had an opportunity to address the situation fully, atone for their terrible decision-making and lie that they’ll do better in the future but instead put the responsibility for his departure on Boyega as if he just got up one day and chose to do so, as if their actions aren’t the direct cause of him leaving. If Jo Malone truly respected him and were proud to have him as part of their “family”, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. It’s that simple.

Britain throws stones and then hides its hand and gaslights Black people every chance it gets. The country tells us that all we have to do to be afforded equity and dignity is behave, work hard and obey the law. The idea is that racists are only racist because Black people refuse to assimilate and do as we are told. The stereotype that Black people are angry, violent and volatile helps justify why we fall victim to racism and it is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that even Black people internalise this fallacy and weaponise it against outspoken Black people.

If Black British people are angry, violent and volatile, it’s because Britain has made us that way. The micro and macro-aggressions we endure, the fact that Black and other racialised people have died at a disproportionately high rate from COVID-19, that our communities and schools have been defunded within an inch of their lives, that Black people are overpoliced and continue to be unable to gain access to quality mental health services are reasons why if Black people do not feel compelled to play along with the façade that this clapped bin fire of a country is anything but living, breathing racism we are justified in doing so. But the truth is, that’s not all we are. Some of us are angry, but we’re also galvanised more than ever to live our lives to the fullest, to heal, to dance, to read, to sing, and it makes racists mad to see us doing so well despite all the physical and mental obstacles they put in our way.

It is so important that we continue to create spaces where Black people can be affirmed that our lives, our bodies, our minds: they matter. I know this work is exhausting, but every chance we get and whenever we are able, we must remind each other that racism is not a figment of our imagination we lean on so we can play victim. Racism is real and it is not our fault. We are doing so extraordinarily well and we just have to keep going.

Posted on September 17, 2020