If you’re not desperate for change you’re not paying attention. (Or, ‘hard times require furious dancing’- thanks, Alice Walker)

feature image ©. Debbie Humphry

Waking up to the audio of George Floyd saying “I can’t breathe”, a day after his death on May 25th 2020 will stay with me as a profoundly disturbing moment. Immediately I was intimately involved (via World Service news bulletin) in an event, that like every well-crafted story, contains in its details the bigger issues, the global themes that are capturing us all in their hurricanes. Floyd’s last eight minutes and forty six seconds as a sentient human, prompt grief, despair, mourning and a catalyst for important and long overdue resistance, learning, rebellions, discussions, soul-searching and change.

In all of this I am focusing on where we need to get to, and how to do this. Recognising and reinstating black and BIPOC people’s rights to full, unconditional humanity, to full rights, legal, artistic and personal expression, dismantling centuries of structures that privilege white colonials, will be hard. To understand how slavery and people trading fits into a larger system of gendered/racialised scientific hierachies, wealth accumulation, land tenure, laws and global trade, that still persist, requires enormous amounts of change to our education systems. Learning about slavery is not enough. Britain must start to grapple with the ways it has defined itself in terms of the other. Britons must take a long hard look at why we have created and sustained systems that brutalise belonging and existence in this country for many in order to hold onto power. This is hard. No doubt. But we – that’s everyone- have limitless treasures and possibilities if we do. In short inequality and oppression, based on colour and ethnicity, really only serves a tiny fraction of society. Let’s not forget the majority of the world is black.

Those racialised as white make up less than 11.5% of the global population.

black lives 1

(Photo credit Debbie Humphry)

George Floyd’s shameful death has been appropriated,  weaponized, scrutinised, and even turned into a bizarre sort of ‘black victim porn’: the sheer volume of traumatic, violent images on social media have left many of us exhausted and pissed off with seeing yet more stereotypes of black bodies** as mutilated victims. This creates an awful paradox: it is vital not to silence the egregious crimes that systemic racism commits. Yet it is also awful and difficult to witness, again and again, for years on end. I find myself returning to the same feelings: I need to find ways to act, to initiate change, to survive, to not go under, to not retreat into despair and paralysis.

One of my strategies to achieve (long overdue) change is to truly acknowledge that I have gained so much, so much, by a life enriched by my black family and black mentors (from South Africa, Puerto Rico, Grenada and Guyana) and by my life growing up in London enriched by engaging with Black LGBTQ and BIPOC people and culture.  Mindful of the sensitivities, I will continue to find ways to confront, learn and talk about,  the ways that I have benefited from this society, built on the largely unacknowledged labour, colonialism, continuing unequal global trade arrangements  and generational trauma of millions of Africans, Caribbeans, Chinese and Asians.

black lives 2

(Photo credit Debbie Humphry)

But I also want to acknowledge, with trumpets, a slick co-ordinated dance routine and five part harmonies, the strength, the courage, the imaginative, humorous ways that non-whites have inspired and emboldened me, and IMAO, British society. Black and BIPOC writers have helped me define and make sense of my identity and where I belong (or don’t). I am enriched beyond words by my relationships with people of non-English descent or first/second generation Britons.   In my teenage years, against the soundtrack of Joan Armatrading, I threw myself into Black female writers, drawing strength from Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange. Their eloquency, subtlety, confusion, rage, ability to triumph over personal violence and a society that misread them, spoke to my own dislocation, despite looking as I do, Anglo-Indian, Turkish or Greek.

Later Caryl Phillips, CLR James, Nikesh Shukla, Stuart Hall, Isabelle Allende and Frantz Fanon gave me the intellectual foundations to improve upon the Shakespeare, Bronte and William Golding that the school curriculum pushed at us.    My long term friendships and professional relationships with people in UK, South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania have nourished, challenged, supported and provided examples of ‘the right way to be…..’ as well as all the other bits of meaningful relationships. (Think cod-philosophising, watching tv, car journeys singing  at full pelt.)

              alice walker

Like millions of people growing up in the UK, music from Angelique Kidjo, Eek-a-Mouse, The Four Tops, Janet Kaye, Richie Havens, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Nina Simone and way too many others to list, have given me ways to dance, to talk, to socialise, to deconstruct, to think, to be. But this is problematic: black people are not here for my entertainment. For too long the only ‘acceptable’ black BIPOC diaspora people are those conforming to very narrow ideas of sexy, musical, funny, or sporty, whilst all the while they don’t own the record companies or publishing houses, and don’t own the media rights to sporting events or distribution.

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Amidst the very difficult -and few positive- consequences, of George’s death and the growing focus on the Black Lives Matter has been a shit-ton of virtue-signalling. From quacks to snake oil purveyors, my in-box is busting open with invitations to ‘awareness, diversity and mindfulness training’: new kids on the block cruising in on the diversity bus that has just pulled into town. More invidiously, many corporations, especially transnational American ones with astonishingly poor records in recruiting, retaining and promoting  BAME/BIPOC or having any sort of meaningful anti-racist policies or accountability in place, are now rushing to proclaim their squeaky-clean credentials.  In this respect it is resonant of South Africa in the 90’s and early noughties. Suddenly, no white South Africans or corporations had actually ever supported apartheid. 88% of the population had, it seemed, either undergone a lobotomy and ‘forgotten’ their collusion, or been skilfully silenced by ‘the man’. This apartheid denial of South Africa was, and is, a fast-track to avoiding confronting the extremely nuanced, and detailed processes that have to occur if racial injustice is confronted. In the words of Father Michael Lapsley “The tragedy for white South Africa is that it did not have a leader {FW De Klerk} with enough moral stature to lead it on the journey of facing guilt and shame, of confession, repentance and restorative justice”.

A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl PhillipsThe Nature of Blood Quotes | GradeSaver

What is more helpful is addressing employment and recruitment practices of our orgnanisations. Asking who is doing our cleaning? LITERALLY – what is the gender and ethnic make up of the people cleaning your office? And what are they being paid? Are there people of colour in upper management, as trustees, making decisions?

On the morning of May 26th my immediate impulse was to ring MJ, a trusted wise friend, trauma therapist, wife to a talented, thoughtful black artist and mother to two black teenage boys and a black ten year old girl. We talked about how we should, and could, talk to younger members of our families about what was occurring on the daily news tv and all media. How to explain, without either creating fear, paranoia and inadvertently suggesting that to be a black child now in the Global North is a burden, a problem, something other. We talked about ‘how political’ to be, and whether to put the onus on white oppressors, and arming our children/teenagers with pride and knowledge about their history, what to do if they are arrested, or whether to go for the softer “look at what’s inside” approach. There are, thankfully many resources available, and more emerging, but this doesn’t address what is the elephant in the room.

The elephant, I think, is this: how do we, in the UK, create a unified, wide-reaching, multi- institutional response to dismantle, and discuss, the systemic racism in the UK?

How long have we got?

The numerous, myriad ways that change needs to happen, from personal soul-searching, to legal reform, overhauling the psychiatric and policing services, addressing our racist-fuelled welfare crisis, knowledge gaining, to understanding white privilege (or white supremacy as it’s referred to in the USA) need to start somewhere. How about actually funding, supporting black businesses? Employing black writers for something other than ‘race’ issues? How about not leaving all the diversity schtick to BIPOC?

black lives 4

(Photo credit Debbie Humphry)

We have enough reports. No more reports please.[1]

Wading through the hand-wringing, performative empathy and white fragility, I am trying to balance taking up too much space, being useful, and recognising that the onus for work is on the of the majority of white people in this country. Particularly those who control budgets in public spending, museums, education, the arts, children’s homes, prisons. Those who have intellectual and personal capital, who have platforms, must, must step up now, to push for change. It’s not just Rhodes, Coulston or Churchill who must fall, the UK’s economic inequality that is heavily racialized and gendered, must be toppled too. James Baldwin  articulates the sheer subtlety, toxicity and monstrosity of colonialism and racism. He recognises that by failing to be honest with ourselves about fear, our histories, difference and change, white people are stuck in a groundhog day of ‘othering’. If white people can not truly, deeply, look black people in the eyes as equals, capable of literally every single human action and emotion, (including composing sonatas, inventing quantum physics and dancing badly) then we will not know ourselves.

“Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country’s industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of under-development and poverty, and sinks into it more deeply.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Racism is not about the artificial construct of race. It’s about power. I am working out which battles to engage with, on a practical, daily level. How to support my friends, colleagues and family who perhaps don’t know where to start, how to learn, how to be an authentic, a useful ally, how to listen better, how to celebrate the inconceivably large body of work created by black intellectuals, scientists, arts-practitioners, how to constantly push to the top black achievements and black achievements, the list grows

Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel | The New Yorker

(Chinua Achebe: Nigerian author)

I work in education, journalism and recently with museums, focussing on UK and  East Africa. I’m pathologically drawn to the experiences of refugees, the diaspora, to people of mixed ethnicities,  (it’s in my DNA as a person of mixed heritage, I’m the daughter of political exiles), to the complications, the hybrids. I understand that within the mutually complicit dynamics of deconstructing racist structures and racist behaviours lies ambiguity, complexity, internalised racism, dissent, contradictions, and it will probably always be this way; this is a work in progress. Some of us have been doing this work for several decades and we remain informed by those before us: The Last Poets, The UK Black Panthers,  Linton Kwesi Johnson, Marjorie Blackman, Claudia Jones, Olive Morris, Margaret Busby, Darcus Howe, Leila Hassan and many more.


Deep Equality  is non-negotiable. But there’s room too for ambiguity. This is a thing: ‘ambiguous looking people’. It’s a term from the USA (no surprises) and it encompasses those who ‘pass’ for white, but actually aren’t  – for example people of Syrian, Turkish heritage. Or those who look white but have predominantly black family, or white sounding names. In other words people who for a variety of biological and social reasons don’t get to ride for as long, or as comfortably, on the white privilege pony.

Busby-256x300                           Busby 2

Margaret Busby: author, broadcaster and publisher

Last night a friend and I compared notes growing up in London in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

Pimlico school

(Pimlico School, 1980’s)

We both agreed that having to negotiate colour, and inequality from a young age, is an crucial part of trying to decode how to act to create benefit now. She was from a posher, whiter bit of the capital, I was in a poorer part in the South East (Elephant and Castle, then Nunhead). She went to an all-girls fancy state school, round the corner from my trying to be pioneering Pimlico comprehensive school, where over 30% of us had the benefits of world backgrounds. I cycled pass Railton Road (where Leila Hassan, as part of the The Race Today Collective,  ran the basement sessions) and saw the smoking ruins of the New Cross fire in 1981 first hand. Mark Duggan was shot round the corner from where I worked to fund my undergraduate degree.

Black lives 6

(Photo credit Debbie Humphry)

My home life was significant in allowing me to be exposed to, talk and think about racism from an early age. Peopled with humans of all colours and diverse sexualities: my parents, understanding the existential and actual hurdles of getting established in a new country with limited family support, set about creating de facto aunties and uncles. A collection of immigrants, ANC members in exile, some of them odd bods, outliers, many of them black. Our bookshelves bulged with Commonwealth and African authors, my granny’s work in French West African literature meant I actually thought the word intellectual meant black person, so often was the term used to describe Aminata Forna, Assia Djebar, Amin Maalouf,  Chinua Achebe, Lamine Diakhate, Aminata Sow Fall  and others. Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela and Audre Lord were names often bandied in our household. Not normal or common for most people in the 80’s in the UK, but still not enough to understand that my education was fundamentally eurocentric.

Angela davis change

My parents and uncle- one working in education, the other two in media, went out of their way to challenge and  critique the news, the racist sitcoms (and misogynist, homophobic, but that came later,)  the presence of NF in our area, and what I was taught at school.  They offered me support when in 1980 the school asked me to take in ‘an important photo’ and I brought in Sam Nzima’s photo of Hector Pieterson, the teenager in Sharpeville, shot down, cradled by Mbuyisa Makhubu in 1976.  They helped me research the photo, and explained what apartheid was, why we were banned from South Africa until liberation happened. My mum came up to school to confront the headmaster when Ashvin and I, the other kid with African heritage, were singled out with chants of ‘zulu, zulu’ and monkey imitations. My uncle went out of his way to explain the racial, political and social contexts to the  films he was making: Biko, Schindler, Anne Frank Remembered, Ochberg’s orphans.

Hector Pieterson 1976

Hector Pieterson, shot by SA army, in South Africa, with his sister, photo Sam Nzima 1976.

Mum, along with June Bam Hutchison, Sue Adler and others rewrote the history curriculum (primary) to include legacies of slavery and empire; it was subsequently all eradicated when the conservatives came to power and neutralised history, leaving us anchorless, without context to root triumphs and failures.

https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database; slave routes

Overview of the slave routes out of Africa, see here for time lapse over five centuries

Now, in the present, I am passionately sure that making BME, BIPOC/post-colonial history is central to our healing and growth. Funding a black university (similar to Moorhouse), addressing the egregious inequalities in education entrance system, and making the curriculum black, are essential. Why is our curriculum so white, and our university personel so white too? Why do talented black academics like Kwame Antony Appiah(and others) leave the UK – denied recognition, employment and promotion- for the USA?
One week or month a year to ‘celebrate black history’ is a nonsense. Our feeble efforts to explore immigration in the current secondary curriculum need serious work. We need BIPOC everywhere, in every walk of life…. As goodies, baddies, pioneers, rebels, rejects, the whole gamut.  We need to take heed from Black Mirror, and do a proper national MOT, self-check.

In my working life I go out of my way to interview and hire women of colour, promote or push forward non-white colleagues, interrogate representation in the media, make space, and step aside.

This is feminism 101.

I don’t expect my black and BIPOC friends to explain or help, or be especially delighted if I am the palest person in the room. I recognise that for years now, women of colour carry the emotional burdens of others as some sort of go-to setting.  I use examples from the Caribbean, China,  Africa and Asia in my teaching materials. I try and locate non-white authors if I am writing an academic piece, and use non-white commentators. I remind colleagues that only 1% of university professors are black  ( 25 people, or .33% in the UK are black women). I use my experience of being a stereotyped minority (and the rage I felt) as a touchstone,  and try not to forget the unbelievable hurdles that BAME or BIPOC people face: from being more likely to die from COVID 19[i], to being far more likely to end up in prison, foster care, homeless, mental hospital or excluded. I create book lists and teaching materials that have BIPOC and BME authors, and ask colleagues to do the same.

I am the one in a group of white people who won’t laugh at the racist joke, and will challenge any ‘us and them’ discussions. Not because I am morally superior, but because this is my history and my dearest loved ones they are mocking. Of course this means that I am labelled as difficult, it means I am trolled, I have been fired, and I have lost friends. It means that I have had death threats (from white people).

radical means

We are done with a ‘civilised debate’ –  ‘tonal racism’ – sidestepping or silencing people whose histories have been agonising, and who may be understandably furious, and don’t want to be told to ‘be less angry and less hurt’. I am aware that there’s a younger generation who isn’t interested in hearing about the importance of ILEA, James Baldwin, the Anti Nazi League, or the successes of Rock Against Racism. We can’t be diverse, or inclusive. This is not enough. We need to be proactively anti-racist.

I am in danger of making this another ‘aren’t I great, I’ve done all the work piece’….. so I will end.  George Floyd’s death has to be a call to arms. For paler folk.

We have too much to lose if we don’t.

For further resources, see here

Thank you Debbie Humphry. She is a photographer, social researcher and housing campaigner  www.debbiehumphry.com

Images first published on CITY: Analysis of urban change, theory, action website Photography Black Lives Matter Debbie Humphry 2020

* * In an effort to de-centre whiteness, I  have used the terms black, non-white, white, BIPOC, BAME intentionally, aware that these are clumsy complicated terms: they will do for now.

[1] The Macpherson report (1999, following the death of Stephen Lawrence 1993, defines institutional racism as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.

[i] Kadra Abdinasir, Head of Children and Young People’s Mental Health at the Centre for Mental Health, speaking on African Parliamentary Group webinar 19.6.20

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