Hijacking Blackness: A Take on BLM and Anti-Racism
Previously published on A-Citizen.com
Since George Floyd’s heinous killing in Minneapolis last year, there have been many of all colours purporting to speak on behalf of black people, how oppressed we feel and what solutions we need. American culture has a formidable reach and whilst the narrative of the African American experience appears to be informing race relations worldwide as it often has, few voices are highlighting the incredible diversity of the “black experience”, if such a singular thing based on skin colour can exist.
A crucial presidential election has just taken place and as has occurred during several US election cycles, racial discord took centre stage and appeared to be politically exploited. It was puzzling to watch career politicians who have been in office for decades, call for the removal of statues they all of a sudden could not stand, and amusing to watch them drape themselves in Ghanaian Kente fabric whilst taking a knee for embarrassingly awkward photo-ops. It was much less entertaining to see calls to defund rather than reform the police, which resulted in heightened crime rates across a number of metropolises with large ethnic minority populations. At some point, even self-interest should have been contained to avoid the further stoking of violence and destruction of property, which often occurred disproportionately in the very communities the movement claimed to be advocating for.
The Black Lives Matter protests swiftly spread to several countries in Europe. I can imagine that few black people have been untouched by the movement, either by virtue of active involvement in the demonstrations, or by suddenly becoming ambassadors for black oppression as those around us have reached out to comfort or seek clarity. Nevertheless, something seemingly lost in the discussion is that various communities can be oppressed in different ways, and that (thank heavens!) not every black person feels down-trodden, or allows themselves to be defined by oppression, in spite of the casual or blatant racism that we might encounter.
It is important to both honour the pain and grievances of the African American community, whilst recognising the danger of extrapolating specific experiences to a significant part of the global population. I would imagine that even the black American community is much more nuanced than it is being represented but I have had too little direct exposure to it to say more with much credibility.
One would hope there are many who, whilst unprecedented attention has become attuned to racial inequities, would rather focus on tangible solutions capable of redressing them where they exist — in particular education systems, workplace discrimination, economic empowerment, policing, and in some communities, family structures. More often, it seems the momentum has been dominated by pointless virtue signalling or even worse, used as the latest tool for the increasingly alarming “cancel” culture. An entire industry of experts and buzzwords (cue “allyship”) has sprung up around the notion of anti-racism, ensuring that we continue to unhealthily obsess over race as it applies to even the most banal of situations. In my view, a simpler message likely to be more effective would be the age-old golden rule: treat others exactly as you would like to be treated (or in other words, be a decent human being and stop being an ass to others based on their skin colour).
One of the worst aspects of racism is how it can rob people of their humanity and individuality. It is in being treated less than, before someone knows your name, character or your aspirations. It is in the assumptions people make, for example that one’s family must have come from a disadvantaged background, that you attained a certain opportunity through a diversity initiative, or that you will hold certain political views or speak a certain way. It rarely goes amiss to quote Martin Luther King, who famously said:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
This is not to say that we become colour-blind, which has always seemed a sensory-defying objective to me, but that people are simply permitted to be people and live their lives. It isn’t evident that the anti-racism movement in its current state is being very helpful in this regard.
Since moving to Europe from Nigeria, I realise a great privilege taken for granted was growing up in an environment where most people looked like me and were consequently defined by other qualities and social markers. It was never a surprise that a black person could be a lawyer, a head of state, or well-off — every potential constellation of who a person could be had very little to do with race. Millions of black people have a similar experience, and such freedom seems the very thing we should be working towards.
Recognising cultural differences and social context not only deepens understanding of others and paints a more accurate picture, but can also offer hope for what can, and has already been achieved: that in spite of a tenuous history, many African Americans have ascended to prominent positions today, that Nigerian immigrants are one of the most successful groups in the United States — here’s a pretty funny piece on the topic — or that minority groups, in particular South Asians and Black Africans, are some of the most educated in the UK, all show what is possible. However, highlighting any of these facts does not seem to fit the current narrative of fetishizing black oppression and is likely to even be perceived as undermining the movement itself. We should be able to freely discuss both the challenges and successes within any group, without apology.
Equally worrying are some disturbing attitudes and proposed solutions that seem to deny the agency that all people, including black people, should proudly have over their own lives. As earnest as the intention might be, gestures such as those made by the Reddit founder, who stepped down from his position earlier this year so that a black person could be appointed in his place, do not sit well. In the current push to do more, there is a real danger of descending into tokenism to assuage guilt, when there is much more dignity for all involved, in striving for systems that fairly reward merit and personal achievement.
Finally, there are some question marks over the Black Lives Matter organisation itself, an observation that has already gained traction in recent months. Whilst due credit should be given for its efforts in raising awareness, BLM is not just simply focused on addressing the harms caused by racism but has a fully-fledged political ideology: on a manifesto-like page since taken down from its website after it received much attention, it openly promoted a number of ‘Marxist’ ideas, including its goal to disarm the nuclear family. That is great for those who share such political views but in the wider scheme of things, does not seem particularly relevant to eliminating racism, or maintaining the support to do so.
In spite of all this, black lives do matter and it was truly heartening to see thousands of people of all backgrounds take a stand to protest under such a bold, unapologetic slogan this summer. It demonstrated the unity that currently exists to oppose racism and effect change where it is needed. Sadly, I am afraid we are wasting it on superficial statements and posturing, that may very well have the opposite effect they claim to seek.