Toppling statues doesn’t destroy history

On March 7 2020, there were mass gatherings in cities across the UK to demonstrate solidarity with the movement Black Lives Matter. Everyone from our household went to our nearest one: my son and his girlfriend; my daughter with a couple of college friends, and I went with my partner and our youngest daughter. 

It was well organised, peaceful and incredibly moving to listen to various people speak of their own personal experiences of being black in this country – specifically Cambridge, where we live. 

I listened to a young man describe how at the age of six, he was coming back home from the shop with his big brother, when the police stopped his brother and started interrogating him and held him. Even though he was minutes away from his home and was with his little brother casually walking along with shopping for their mum, the police said they stopped him because he matched the description of a robber that had been reported. 

In what way did he match the description? He was black. 

The memory of that incident had stayed with the boy all his life. The boy is now a young man in his early 20s and has had plenty of first-hand experiences of racism since the one he described. He got choked up remembering how confusing and upsetting it was to see his big brother being wrongly accused of criminal activity – purely because of the colour of his skin.

A while later, his older brother took the mic and said how he had found it moving to listen to his little brother’s recollection of that incident, because for him, by the age of 14, it was just one of many similar incidents. He remembered crying all the way home from school one time and trying to hide it from his Mum by going straight to the shower and locking himself in. He told her his eyes were puffy because he’d got shampoo in his eyes. Yes, by the time he was 14 he was obviously used to name-calling and wrongful accusations. 

Those boys grew up learning that whenever they went out anywhere, they could never be sure if they were going to be stopped and questioned or if someone was going to hurl abuse at them. 

I try to imagine how that would feel. 

I think about how it felt earlier in the lockdown – before we all started to acclimatise and get used to the dodge and dance of distancing – how inhumane it felt to have others cross the road when they saw you or to get accusing glances if you seemed to be socialising in a public space. Such behaviours are reasonable under the circumstances; there’s nothing reasonable about racism. 

I think about the fear I have as a woman out on my own, obliged to consider whether a route is safe and choosing carefully where to sit on a bus or a tube train. There’s nothing reasonable about sexism either. 

The mother of these two young men, Letitia, stood up and spoke. She described herself as a middle-class mother. She described moving into a middle-class village on the outskirts of Cambridge, where we imagine people would behave in a civil and neighbourly fashion. But it no matter how good a job she had, or how well she looked after her garden, no matter how politely she brought up her three sons to behave, no matter how hard they worked at school, and how many extra-curricular activities she took them to, she and her family didn’t fit in. Why? 

Over all the years of living here, and bringing up her three boys, she has had to fight for them in every institution they’ve enrolled in: nursery, primary school, scouts, secondary school, football club… she’d even written to FIFA to complain about the treatment her boys had experienced and FIFA responded by saying they were aware of the racist behaviours in football, but they weren’t going to do anything about it.

It’s fair to say that, I’ve experienced prejudice as a woman and I’ve experienced prejudice as a northerner who moved south when I went to university; I’ve also experienced prejudice from northerners when I went back home and my accent had softened slightly… but none of these experiences are as anything compared with the experience of these boys and this woman. Listening to their stories really brought home to me that I do not have a clue what it is like to walk in their shoes in this country.

For me, taking the knee is not only an act of solidarity; it is a small gesture of atonement. Because I’m not black. My parents were not black. My grandparents were not black. And they all lived through times when they could enjoy freedoms that people with black skin could not enjoy. And, while they never intentionally seat out to cause any harm to anyone, they did nothing to change the status quo. I feel, in some measure that I need to atone for the words bandied about in my family when I was six. One memory that stays with me from that age is asking what the word ‘paki’ meant, and my Mum telling me I wasn’t to use that word and that my auntie should not have used it either.

But she had used it. And I had heard it. And I was aware of the awkwardness around it. And that’s how all children start to learn this warped idea that we are different; that there are ‘others’ who ‘don’t belong’ and you can tell they don’t belong because of their skin colour. 

I grew up in Blackpool in the 1970s and there really wasn’t much opportunity to find out about people with different ethnic backgrounds; I think I can count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities at my state secondary school. I dread to think how it felt for that tiny minority whose parents had had the courage to make this place their home. 

But whenever we went to visit my relatives in Bolton, where I was born and where my relatives lived, there was plenty of talk about ethnicity. And the talk was rarely kind.

My father’s childhood home was a terraced house on Higher Swan Lane. His spinster sister still lived there long after their parents had died and she would tell us how she had to walk that bit further to get the cakes she wanted because the local baker had stopped selling custard tarts and Eccles cakes. For her embroidery threads she had to go all the way into the town centre on the bus now, because the local haberdashery had become a sari shop. 

She was living in the middle of a rapidly changing community and obliged to adapt and get on with people who had moved here from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but my father came away from the place he used to call home and he struggled with the radical changes. His confusion and resentment fed the language he used and, as soon as I was old enough to argue back, it was the source of a lot of strife between us. Looking back, it seems as if I was more bothered by it (or maybe just more vocal about it bothering me) than other of my siblings (I have three brothers and three sisters). It troubles me deeply that, even now, after both parents have passed away, the old racist tendencies I argued with my father about, live on in two of my siblings. My eldest brother, for example has quite the repertoire of racist and antisemitic jokes and comments. (And yes, he voted to leave the EU. And yes, he thinks Boris Johnson is doing a great job.) 

When I was ten, my older siblings were my heroes, but recently I stopped even trying to engage with my eldest brother, because more often than not, I end up being upset and the line I get from my other siblings is, “What did you expect?”

I suppose I expected my brother to continue being someone I could feel proud of. Like the brother I looked up to when I was six. But that’s not the case any more. I can expect him to do and say whatever he wants without regard for others. Because that’s what he’s always been allowed to do. Because nobody likes the confrontation.

That’s how bullying works: bullies use everything in their weaponry to wear you down, mock, deride and hurt. Like sexists. Like racists.

That’s why I won’t stop speaking up.

As I was kneeling on Parkers’ Piece for that one minute on Saturday I thought to myself how many times in the course of my life I’ve heard and read similar stories to the one about George Floyd. I thought about the 24-hour vigil outside the South African Embassy for the duration of Nelson Mandela’s captivity. And I thought how many other stories I’ve not heard of terrible, devastating experiences that people have had to live through because of the wilful ignorance of people with the same skin colour as mine. People who have never known – and will probably never know – how much it means to be able to walk down the road to the shop and know you won’t be stopped or looked at or suspected of something you would never dream of doing. That is white privilege for you. 

It is the same white privilege that declares they are appalled to see a statue toppled. A statue of a man that they had never previously heard of in a location they may well never have visited. “By destroying the statue, they are trying to destroy history,” I saw one person claim on Twitter yesterday.

That claim alone speaks volumes for the ignorance that lives among us. Because history is one thing you cannot destroy – no matter which way you want to write it and no matter how many statues of slave-owners we tear down. The facts speak for themselves and it’s time we owned up to them, because one day in the future the facts will expose wilful ignorance for just that.

Links

  • https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/diversecollections/