I honestly would not have realised it was the ‘anniversary’ of the death of George Floyd if it were not for journalists constantly asking me. This is not to dismiss Floyd’s death, which was a tragic public spectacle. It’s a recognition that there was little unique about his murder for those of us who have been paying attention to racism prior to last summer. For us, Floyd’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back, rather than a watershed moment. The difference last summer was that mainstream (white) attention was captured in part because of the excruciating video, and because lockdown meant there was little else to focus on. Today’s date has meaning to me because it is Africa Liberation Day, yet in terms of reflecting back after last summer, the most I can feel is numb. After all the hand wringing, black squares, and BLM statements the only thing that has changed is that we are in a worse position in terms of race relations in the UK than we were a year and a day ago.
We should never assume that talking about race means we are making progress. If you want to talk about race Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown is selling tickets for the latest tour. The KKK probably talk about race more than anyone else but I doubt I would have a very good time at a Klan meeting. The increased focus on racism since last year has led to an inevitable and impressive backlash, with a magnified impact because it is being led by the government. The
Sewage Sewell Report was the declaration of warfare on anyone interested in racial equality but it is something we should have seen coming. Boris ‘picaninny’ Johnson became prime minister in no small part by appealing to narrow, racist ideas of Britishness. Priti ‘deport-dem’ Patel is presiding over an immigration policy so hostile that the National Front might find it extreme. Meanwhile Kemi ‘white privilege’ Badenoch continues to pretend the school curriculum is a model of decolonial thought and condemns those of us who can actually understand the data of being biased. ‘Keep Britain White’ was controversial in the seventies but it has basically become government policy. When the latest policing bill becomes law the kind of protests we saw last year may well be impossible. If defacing a statue will have a longer prison term than committing rape, it is truly terrifying to think what the consequences for dashing Colston into the dustbin of history would incur.
Far more damaging and eye-roll-inducing than the howling wolves of racism is the passive-aggressive faux concern of the smiling foxes. If I see one more BLM statement posted from a deeply racist institution I will either throw up or have been pushed so far over the edge I will fall into stereotypes and unleash some full-on Black rage. Tearing some s**t up might not be generally productive but at a certain point it becomes the only outlet for dealing with the constant assault of Whiteness. My own employer chose today to launch its anti-racist pledge, it somehow managed to write with no meaningful engagement with staff or students, as though it was some sort of anniversary present. Surprise! look how committed we are to race equality! I showed my solidarity by reading it while applying the skin-lightening cream that L’Oreal removed the word ‘fair’ and ‘whitening’ from to describe the product. Sick, tired, exhausted don’t even come close to explaining the effect of this supposedly well-meaning gas-lighting. It feels more like being exhumed to have to keep going through the same dehumanising processes again and again. That is exactly is what will happen to George Floyd’s memory every year.
But don’t despair. The backlash and platitudes are exactly what we need to fuel the emotions we need for meaningful change. You should be angry and that heat is what will get us through, keep us moving. Seeing so many people out onto the streets and now organising for racial justice is all the hope we need. We’ll look back at Tony Sewell as an accidental Black hero, whose Uncle Tom foolery was so transparent it made us understand the race relations industry was always a dead end. Once we stop expecting more from the institutions built to oppress us we can start to work on being free.