On Saturday 12th August a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia led to 35 injuries and the tragic death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The British response has been deeply disturbing.
The spirit of the phrase ‘black lives matter’ is made clear with the addition of the word ‘too.’ Similarly, the protest phrase ‘white lives matter’ is incomplete until you prefix it with ‘only,’ yet much of the discourse seems to consider the problems “on both sides.”
Here in the UK we tend to oscillate between squeamish discomfort and silence when it comes to race. Fear of causing offence or being seen as race obsessed renders many silent. That Theresa May had more to say on Big Ben than the events in Charlottestown is unsurprising. Though expected, silence on this topic is not okay.
A letter from the father of one of the white supremacists at the march stated:
“We do not know specifically where he learned these beliefs. He did not learn them at home.”
This got me thinking. Whilst some children are taught the values of love, respect and tolerance and still develop racist views, many children do in fact learn racism at home. I still remember classmates at school telling me: that black people were the problem with this country; that Jewish people aren’t wanted anywhere for good reason; and that the problem with immigrants is that we smell. Many British children don’t learn anything at home that counteracts the racist rhetoric still ubiquitous in our media and carried by our very discourse. Surely to stop the evil of racism, we need to actively be honest & open about these issues? Solutions come from teaching ourselves and our children that people are not less for their skin colour or anything else. Silence is one of the necessary conditions for racist extremism to flourish.
Silence breeds racism
The problem is that we don’t like to talk about these things. When they happen we like to be shocked and wonder where these people come from... then stop talking about them the next day. Violent racists do not come from nowhere and they do not disappear because we don’t speak of them, as though our silence on these issues means they won’t cause any problems.
The KKK did not disband peacefully after a few equality laws were passed. The racists that killed Emmet Till and countless other did not all magically disappear along with any family members that shared their poisonous views. The Charlottesville March is a reminder of that fact. The case isn’t any different here in the UK, as a glance at the comments on race related articles in The Sun or The Daily Mail will show.
Our schools often gloss over British race relations, opting to teach about the Civil Rights movement in the US whilst neglecting to mention the violent attacks of the white Teddy Boys, the racism fuelled Notting Hill riots or the Bristol Bus Boycotts, all around the same time here in our green and pleasant land. It’s important to remember these things happened here in the UK. It’s illogical to believe that the impact, or the problem, has gone away. Many of the perpetrators of these racist attacks are now in their 80s, their views would have been passed on to their children and grandchildren. Racism is part of Britain’s murky past.
There is a problem even for those not descended from racists. Rather than being taught the truth about our nation’s sketchy past and the complex truth behind the diversity in the UK, today British children are taught to consider the economic benefits of slavery, and to take pride in the British empire whilst condemning race relations as a US problem. They aren’t taught to think of solutions to the problem of the disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched or killed in police custody each year, or to the discrimination faced by those with Asian and African names. The very fact that we won’t speak about, let alone speak out, against structural racism perpetuates the very environment which creates white supremacy.
Ignorance breeds racism
So what made these angry white supremacists march, and why does it matter here? Whilst many of those marching in Charlottesville are just plain racist, others have developed fears through ignorance. The angry white Americans scared of whiteness being ”erased” have not been taught that their ancestors came from Europe and erased the native Americans. Their sympathisers in the UK have not been taught of African, Asian and Caribbean soldiers that died fighting for the freedom of the British, or of Wind Rush and the Caribbean people who came to rebuild this country after the war. They have not been taught of the nurses and doctors who followed. They’ve not been taught of the black slave labour on which the wealth of the British empire was built.
Adequate teaching of world history in all its ugliness is essential to avoid ignorance fuelled racism and the silence that allows it to thrive. If any of the history above comes as a surprise to you, start researching for yourself. A great place to start is with Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book and some of Emma Dabiri's articles and documentaries. You may find that you can no longer stay silent when it comes to race.