When I was 8 months old my Social Services file was altered to include the words “No Negro blood, no Jewish blood – suitable for adoption” and with these words my life was changed. As a consequence of this new page in the file I was adopted by a white middle-class family.
I identify as white with mixed heritage. I have fair hair, fair skin and blue eyes. I’m 20% white European and the rest of me is Sephardi Jewish, Gujarati and Gambian. I can trace my family back for 39 generations, which is a lot of history and some of that history is not very nice. Between the Spanish Inquisition, the East India trading company and the Royal Africa Company, there’s a lot of evil people doing evil things in order to line their own pockets at the expense of others.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about race and racism. Why we are still having these same conversations and why some people still aren’t listening, or not even realising the conversations are about them.
The government seems more concerned about statues than statutes and I worry they are waiting for the current wave of anti-racist energy to burn itself out and then they can get back to business as usual. You should never be proud of ignorance and admitting you need to do things differently is a sign of strength.
It’s time that we owned the lies about the past and the way that past has affected our present. Racism persists in this country because from birth it is drip fed into us and “othering” remains a very real thing. A few millennia ago that tribal mentality kept you alive. People were either from your tribe and therefore trustworthy, or they were “others” from another tribe and therefore probably dangerous. But for a long time now the tribes we’re born into have fractured, re-formed and transformed as we move around the world in search of work, better work, opportunities and a new life.
My personal belief is that racism in the UK is a result of the way we perceive our history and the way the history of slavery and empire is taught and passed on. Both are long over and yet both still affect our thinking. We need to recognise that change around this is essential.
Let’s start by removing the statues to all those who have harmed others through racist acts. Moved to museums where information puts them into a context would be far more useful and informative. And we really don’t need to get our knickers in a twist about removing statues – it’s also been going on for millennia and if the Greeks and Romans could do it without a twinge of remorse, I’m sure we can. From the top down preferably (though bottom up will do if the top isn’t prioritising this) we must acknowledge the role that the UK played in slavery and terrible acts committed in the name of empire.
Everyone is agreed on the evil of slavery and no one looks back on that longingly, but somehow, when it comes to the past “glories” of the British Empire, there’s a far more rosy and nostalgic glow. How nostalgic you are about countries invading other countries depends very much on if you were the invader or the invaded. But lets make no mistakes here, the British Empire was not built on glory, kindness to fellow man or the altruistic belief that our guiding hand would improve those people’s lives – it was built on greed, quest for power and on the assumption that we could just take whatever we wanted regardless of the consequences.
We are now at a place where we need to acknowledge this without glorifying or trying to re-write it to make us look better. We need to build for a future where the painful past is left behind and not allowed to continue to affect the present or the future. Acknowledge, change, build. Teach the truth in schools so the next generation understands it. Built self-belief into our children. Make them proud of who they are and show them that race, gender, religion and sexual orientation are no barriers to achieving the best possible life. My generation didn’t have that. I spent all my childhood feeling like I needed to apologise for using up space in the world and this affected the choices I made as a adult.
I was thinking today of a mum I used to know. Her daughter was a wheelchair user, non-verbal, epileptic and had some very challenging behaviours. But she was a person in the world and she had worth. Her back story was that when war broke out in their country her mum was tipped off that militia were coming to massacre their family. In the dead of night her mum left with her and her younger sister. They escaped across the desert with mum holding her younger daughter’s hand while she carried her older daughter on her back. For 400 miles. Eventually the family settled in the UK and we met when her daughter and my son started at the same school. There was no place for racism at that school – they were much too busy building happy, healthy, fulfilling lives for young disabled people and instilling into them a strong sense of self belief and self-worth.
A few days ago I said to my partner that if one more person came back to me with the reply “ALL lives matter” I was going to lose it. If all lives really do matter, as opposed to just using that saying as a neat bookend to end the racism conversation, then I say show me how all lives matter.
And please, can we start it today?