When I first heard this phrase after the sad and shocking killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the USA I was completely dumbfounded. What a ridiculous thing to say: of course black lives matter. Surely it didn’t even need saying did it? Clearly it did – and it does!
I grew up in south London in a multi-cultural community in the 1970s. Race was a big issue then and had been going back to after WW2. Tensions were growing throughout the 70’s as was shown when racially motivated riots erupted in Toxteth, Liverpool in the early 80s. These were the first race riots I remember personally. I don’t know if my parents had any racial tendencies. It wasn’t something I took a great deal of notice of growing up. To me I just had friends… some were black, some were not. I have never seen any real difference. I noticed cultural differences… my next door neighbour was from Bangladesh, he was a restaurant chef and cooked curry all the time giving our block of flats a wonderful fragrance late in the afternoon. One friend, Michael, always took me round to his house where his mum would try to force feed me Caribbean food saying I needed feeding up! I saw these things as different but not particularly related to their race or colour. So, having grown up in this way, mixing freely with persons of all races, you would think that I would be very much in tune with racial issues. Well, I don’t think I am.
I say I am not racist. Well, that is a bold statement for anyone to make. I might be non-racist in spirit and in heart but am I truly non-racist? I think it is fair to say that I don’t want to be racist and that I genuinely abhor all racial prejudice. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to be totally non-racist in our society and this is something that the world is starting to come to realise – that racism isn’t just about individuals prejudice towards others, but it is about how our society has embedded into it racist values. It is not enough for individuals, such as I, to say we are not racist. If we support the racist values that are woven into our society and accept them as the norm then we are racist by default no matter how much we don’t want to be.
In the recent demonstrations in the UK against the killing of George Floyd a statue was pulled down and dumped into the river in Bristol. The statue was of Edward Colston, a member of the Royal African Company, who transported about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, memorials and buildings. In 1895 a statue was erected in Bristol to commemorate and celebrate his support for the city. Yes, he was philanthropic towards Bristol but at what cost? Should that statue have even been erected in the first place? In 1895 slavery was long abandoned in the UK but attitudes clearly saw that it was acceptable to build wealth through the exploitation of other humans otherwise why would they commemorated it? What erecting that statue did though was normalise, and even celebrate, what Colston did. It made racism, and all that it meant, acceptable to society. While there are symbols of celebration in our society such as this racism will not have been properly addressed and it will continue on in obscured ways. We cannot say that as a society we are not racist unless we remove from society these symbols of support for racist attitudes.
So, I don’t support the celebration of Edward Colston and others like him and I would like to see all racially associated symbols such as that statue removed. I would also like to see street names and park names changed too where appropriate. But does that mean I support the way it was removed; forcibly by a raging mob? No I don’t and neither do I feel that it helps in the long-run. If the removal of a statue like that is to have any true meaning then it must be done with the approval of the community and the authorities, not just a few angry persons, regardless of how honourable their motives. Without that approval it is in danger of being seen for the thuggery for which it was instead of having the necessary healing that is so necessary if we want the racism to be removed from society as a whole. Now it is down I am pleased to see it go but I still believe that it would have had a greater effect were left standing but then removed officially, and with full approval of the community. So yes, it is gone and good riddance, but now there is one less symbol for people to focus on to remove not just the statue but the racism it represents.
This whole sad affair has caused me to reassess my statement – I am not racist. Through my personal actions I try not to be racist and I believe I am pretty successful at that. I believe Black Lives Matter. But while our society commemorates, celebrates and even glamorises racism in the way it does through statues and in other ways, and while we, as members of that society, do little to see those symbols removed, then can we truly say we are not racist?