Culture History Long Reads Opinion

Black History Month on White terms

There is a deep-seated ignorance, denial, and deceit in White supremacist thinking that continues to remain ingrained in White liberals and some progressive patterns of thought and action. Such “do-gooders” – particularly of the liberal ilk, simply wish to tick off diversity and equal opportunities boxes yet have no genuine desire to learn about Black history nor genuine commitment to ending racism. To learn about Black history, it has to be on their terms in order to protect what the White American sociologist Robin D’Angelo aptly refers to as “White fragility,” or what can be termed “White denialism of racism.” It is White power, White superiority, sensibilities, and ego that has to be protected. This sense of Whiteness that feels threatened by guilt, fear, and shame that is roused when discussing emotive subjects such as slavery and colonialism in British society induces racial distress and stress. D’Angelo refers to the White woman reduced to tears when her racism is pointed out or the White man who gets angry and verbally defensiveness when accused of racism as examples of “White fragility.”

“To learn about Black history, it has to be on their terms in order to protect what the White American sociologist Robin D’Angelo aptly refers to as “White fragility,” or what can be termed “White denialism of racism.” It is White power, White superiority, sensibilities, and ego that has to be protected”

It may appear astonishing, but as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, there remains considerable ignorance and unwillingness to honestly engage with the historical experiences of British slavery and colonialism, or if there is a willingness, it has to be done in a manner that is non-threatening to the sensibilities of some White people. Note I have used the expression “some White people,” as I believe other White people (sadly only a few) are beginning to engage with anti-racism. But far too many seek to remain in their privileged White cocoons. Also, I use the word “astonishing” since I am of that generation that can still remember seeing Rodney King being subjected to a wholly unprovoked 15 minutes vicious beating on TV by policemen from the Los Angeles Police Department on 3 March 1991.  Fast forward to the heinous modern-day lynching of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. It was an almost 9 minutes public murder that I have refused to watch to this day. Therefore, it remains astonishing that Black people in the UK continue to face racial violence at the hands of the police and in covert micro-aggressions in the workplace and everyday life.

Many White people may not think of themselves as racist and associate racists with other White individuals who are “bad” and non-racists (such as themselves), as “good people.” They cannot accept that racism continues in subtle, covert ideas, attitudes, beliefs in institutional and unconscious bias that perceives people of African descent and other brown people as inferior, lacking, inadequate, and less than human beings.

The deplorable truth is that when most White people think of the Caribbean, it is in relation to holiday fun, sunbathing on beaches, cruises, and carnival, far away from the British Isles. Rarely do they associate Caribbean islands with a historical past of enslaved brown bodies, sugar plantations, or backbreaking exploitative work in cruel socio-economic conditions. Or if they do, they are quick to move on to “modern-day slavery” as equally iniquitous, which indeed it is.

“How are we to understand the pulling down of the statute of Edward Colston by Bristolians and Black footballers taking the knee, as well as the failure to “kick racism out of football,” without examining the underlying historical conceptions and stereotypes of Black people?”

Recently, I was invited to give a Black History Month talk via zoom to a corporate organization that has about 5000 employees with a minority of Black and brown employees. After informing the White organizers that the title of my 30 mins talk would be: “How Britain benefitted from slavery and colonialism,” I was asked during the early discussions if I could rethink the word “benefit” in the title and reword it. I thought nuance was what they were seeking so I came up with: “To what extent did Britain benefit from slavery and colonialism?” A week before the agreed date of the presentation, I was informed that the HR person continued to remain uncomfortable with the title as she suspected some of the employees would be.  I was then asked if I could word the presentation: “Britain and the history of slavery and colonialism.” This was a title they proposed to me which I found unacceptable. After pointing out other synonyms for “benefits” such as advantages, merits, gains, perks, rewards, I said that if slavery was unbeneficial, why did Britain engage in the traffic of slavery from the 1560s to 1807, i.e., for over 300 years? The organizer then asked if I would touch on the legacies of slavery and colonialism. I responded that one could not fully understand the horrific killing of George Floyd and the emergence of Black Lives Matter movements around the world without placing these acts and responses within the historical context of slavery and colonialism. Likewise, how are we to understand the pulling down of the statute of Edward Colston by Bristolians and Black footballers taking the knee, as well as the failure to “kick racism out of football,” without examining the underlying historical conceptions and stereotypes of Black people? Meanwhile, I had provided some bullet points of questions that were to be addressed in the talk for internal publicity i.e., how did the slave trade operate; what specific ways did Britain gain from the trade; why did Britain acquire colonies; how did the slave trade and colonialism enrich Britain – among other questions.

In the end, the organization canceled the event on the basis that the organization was not quite ready and they were not an academic organization, which was simply a lame excuse to cancel the event.

Who Controls the Agenda of Black History Month?

Overall, it appears that some White corporate organizations want Black History Month on White terms, that is to say, Black history that is palatable, unthreatening to a White racialized identity that does not make them feel uncomfortable. It also appears that in this instance, some White people have become gatekeepers or unconsciously become controllers of what is exposed as Black History to their employees. 

“Overall, it appears that some White corporate organizations want Black History Month on White terms, that is to say, Black history that is palatable, unthreatening to a White racialized identity that does not make them feel uncomfortable”

Last year I gave the same talk to another corporate organization and it was well-received because the organizers of the Black History Month event within the organization were Black, despite the fact that the majority of their employees were White .  It appears some White people who would deny they are racist and claim that they support equal opportunities are afraid of unsettling and bringing discomfort to the majority of their White employees whilst ignoring the interests of the few “ethnic minorities” or Black and brown people within the organization. What does this really tell us about inclusivity and equal opportunities in Britain today? What do Black and Brown people in corporate institutions genuinely feel about these policies? To what extent do such people in such institutions have a say on the activities put on by such organizations during Black History Month? Do some White people simply want a sanitized interpretation of slavery and colonialism in which only White saviors exist such as the good old Thomas Clarkson? Do they simply want to hear every year that the British government benevolently granted Black people freedom from slavery and that colonialism brought “good things” to the natives, such as the three “Cs” (Christianity, Civilisation, and Commerce)?

One of the many problems of the UK as a country and society is the lack of honesty to address its colonial history and involvement in slavery not simply on a symbolic level of an apology from the government for colonial wrongs, since the closest the country got to this was during the bicentenary of the slave trade in 2007, when Tony Blair (otherwise known as B-liar) regretted Britain’s role in this heinous traffic of African bodies. He certainly fell far short of an apology for the British role in the  slave trade.

Interestingly in 2020 a YouGov poll published that 32% of Britons were proud of the British empire; 37% said they were indifferent; 19% were ashamed of the British empire, and 12% had no view. Yet, we need to also ask: Are most Britons aware of the fact that the £20 million in compensation agreed in 1833  that was paid to British slave owners (worth £20 billion in today’s money) was finally paid off in a loan from the Bank of England in 2015? Are they proud of this fact and that the enslaved Africans did not receive a penny? Are they proud of the fact that their taxes, and that of every Black, brown, and every other ethnic minority person in Britain who has paid taxes since 1833 until 2015, were used to pay off this loan?

Tokenism Still Prevails

More importantly, there are very few meaningful spaces and opportunities to consistently encourage a genuine engagement and reflection on slavery and colonialism within institutions and ordinary communities. Black history or African history, as some prefer to call it, should be taught and promoted three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, and not only in the month of October. It should be integrated into our vision of not simply history, but all the disciplines for all children and adults to appreciate and understand within a perspective of the world and broader humanity. Instead, Black History Month has become a box-ticking exercise within equal opportunities and inclusivity policies of many institutions. It has become an equal ops performative ritual or stunt. For example, during the lead-up to Christmas 2020, Sainsbury’s showed adverts featuring Black families celebrating Christmas that led to racists claiming it was not representative of “Britishness.” Another such stunt came from Channel 4 on Friday September 10, 2021, when it broadcasted all Black presenters, writers, contributors and program makers for that day. This is gesture and posture politics that may be well-intentioned but distracts from the much-needed focus on consistently improving on a daily basis greater representation and involvement of Black people at all levels of broadcasting. For this to happen policies need to be implemented alongside a cultural shift in institutional values that shake up the wholly White dominated upper echelons of such institutions. It requires White people in those upper management structures to commit to anti-racism through consistent deeds and not simply rhetoric and to open the doors to these echelons to Black and brown faces in greater numbers.  

“Black History Month has become a box-ticking exercise within equal opportunities and inclusivity policies of many institutions”

What does a genuine commitment to inclusivity and equal opportunities really mean?

A genuine commitment to living and breathing inclusivity and equal opportunities can only be based on a genuine commitment to anti-racism. This requires honest and sincere work on a personal level and institutional level by individuals who inhabit and lead such bodies. Institutions are made up of individuals who must enact and live out the ethos, vision, principles, and work of the organizations they work for.

The new book by Nova Reid titled “The Good Ally” and her work in anti-racism among White people is an important contribution directed at White people sincerely committed to ending racial discrimination and racial inequality to engage with. It is a long-term work. It is by no means easy work. It is not a one-off act but a process and an engagement that requires self-awareness and integrity. It requires inner work and questioning ones’ unconscious assumptions and actions. As Reid points out that it will require honesty, humility, and acknowledgment that one will get it wrong. But one must be prepared to stick with anti-racist work that will ultimately change the existing racist status quo. But it is for White people to do this work and not Black or Brown people.

Black history or any history i.e. women’s history, gay history, indigenous people’s history, etc. cannot be determined or controlled by the powerful nor those White posturers of a liberal or left-wing bent who claim to support equal opportunities, or the Black Lives Matter movement or “taking the knee.” Reid calls this “performative allyship.” It must be genuinely celebrated by all people and be part of global history. For to celebrate Black History on White terms will perpetuate the racial inequalities that equal opportunities and inclusivity claim to address.

“For to celebrate Black History on White terms will perpetuate the racial inequalities that equal opportunities and inclusivity claim to address”

3 comments

  1. Excellent article, thank you Dr Biney. I will continue to strive towards true ally-ship and being anti-racist and the book you recommend by Nova Reid will assist me in my personal internal work, which will impact in my small circle

  2. This is a formidable, honest article about a topic many of us in the global majority feel when it comes to Black History Month. The other day my friend said her diversity officer who will be organising their black history activity is white and cares nothing about the subject. We must recall in light of this article that before the killing of George Floyd there were moves to rename BHM Diversity Month, which would eclipse “black” but be forerunner to the “all lives matter” response to the Black Lives Movement. It’s a great thing for the truth of history that some of us are “long memoried” as Dr Biney points out. We can see the machinations because we have experience of movements coming and going, with the status quo still in place. We will break down these oppressive forces but honesty, integrity and the will to do so are needed for it to work for all to “benefit.”

  3. Thank you for an honest open and straightforward forward article with which I fully expect agree. Yes, there is much gesture-politics, the government, in my opinion being a large part of this. And until the powers that be engage in meaningful and serious dialogue about Reparations for Crimes Against Afrikan Humanity, this sends a green light to others that Afriphobia is ok and any commitment to inclusivity, equal opportunities … doesn’t have to be taken seriously.

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