Build, Connect, Educate: Why The UK Needs To Examine Its Own Racism

For every George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, there's a Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Cynthia Jarrett or Mark Duggan. Police brutality and racism against the black community is not just a uniquely American travesty

Photos: Wikimedia Commons / dsgetch

Tuesday, June 2 was a big day for black squares. But in my household, it started with a black rectangle, namely the TV. Switched off.

After jumping all over our bed by way of saying ‘good morning’, my five-year-old takes himself downstairs and turns on the telly, which is an illegal manoeuvre in our household. I come downstairs to see him and his little brother, two, sitting on a sofa, watching images of America locked in protest, social unrest and rebellion, all over the news.

‘What’s happening daddy?’

It’s a good question. And I owe it to him to provide some sort of answer. So, I sit down and start explaining how a black man called George Floyd was killed by a police officer who kneeled on his neck. I explain how this was a terrible thing to do, and how George was treated in this way because of the colour of his skin. My son asks if he was dark brown, like me. I say yes. Then I explain that many people are very angry about what has happened, so they have gone out into the streets, together, to show how upset they are.

My son pauses to think.

‘Daddy,’ he says. ‘Aren’t the police supposed to help people?’

Yes they are. He pauses again.

‘Well sometimes even the police make mistakes, right?’ he asks.

And that’s when I pause and start thinking about writing this article.

Because, of course, the killing of George Floyd was not a ‘mistake’. We all know that. It was an extrapolation, to the worst possible extent, of systemic prejudice, structural racism and racist ideologies that permeate western society in both insidious and explicit ways. It was also the latest in a long and dark history of attacks and murders enacted by the police upon black individuals. George Floyd’s death represents the culmination of institutional biases that have led to the subjugation of African American communities, for decades.

But my son is five. All he knows of the world so far is that police are the goodies whose job it is to protect us from the baddies. And until he is told otherwise, he will perform little feats of logical acrobatics to make sense of senseless atrocities.

While I assume that no-one reading this is five years old, many of us are in a similar position as my half-decade-old son. By which I mean that many, if not most of us have been offered a painfully limited understanding of the world around us, and as a result, many are totally ill-equipped to understand what’s going on.

If this sounds accusatory, then good, because it is. I’m pointing the finger at all those people who have suggested that the killing of George Floyd is a uniquely American travesty. All those people who dare to suggest that we in the UK are somehow OK because our police don’t do things like that and besides, they don’t even carry guns in the first place.

Here’s what I know: I know that police brutality as a trend is not a simple case of bad apple cops gone rogue. I also know that the systemic racism underpinning US police brutality is fully evident in this country too, culminating in equally abhorrent deaths. If you want to go wider, I’m fully aware that the white supremacy that characterises the current global status quo stems back to colonialism, of which the British empire was an enthusiastic participant. For every George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, there’s a Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Cynthia Jarrett or Mark Duggan. Black people have died and continue to die at the hands of the police in the UK, at disproportionate levels to the overall black population.

Any debate over this fact is the result of ignorance, and it’s an ignorance that can’t be justified, unless you happen to be five. I am not five, and neither are you. But when it comes to understanding the realities of race, inequality and oppression, the system that we are born into likes to keep us at an infantile level. Our job is simple: open our eyes, look around and grow up.

Recent events have sparked an outpouring of sympathy for oppressed black communities, whose lives, according to the hashtag, matter. But no amount of sympathy can plug the gap of ignorance. At some point, you have to learn the truth. It’s no good to simply feel sorry for the victims of racism. Similarly, anger alone is not in itself a solution. For white people, solidarity and allyship go a bit further than purely emotive reactions, but ultimately, the road to anti-racism must be paved with cold, hard knowledge and acceptance of realities that have been concealed. Admitting ignorance is the first, vital step.

The process of decolonising the mind is difficult, and ongoing. I say this from experience. I’ve made a conscious effort to challenge the post-colonial, default white paradigm that I was born into. Being black made this process no easier, other than my proximity to non-white cultures and communities. It takes work.

A scroll through the timeline reveals how frustrated people are (often white liberals in particular) by wanting to do right by humanity but feeling unable to effect positive change. Pictures get posted, hashes get tagged, posts get liked, but there seems to be a pervading sense of, ‘what do I do now?‘ Over the past few days I’ve had more social media traction than ever before by telling people to read books about the black experience and think hard about how to influence their spheres of influence, but there is something else. Something that black people do consistently and thoroughly. Something that you can not only do, but actually live: explore black culture. Champion black art. Seek to understand its contexts. Celebrate its heroes and heroines. Support its products. Listen to its narratives.

When I opened my first book with the words, "Black music, like always, paves way for the mainstream like hallways," it was a deliberate, political positioning of black culture. Music has, does and will always have the power to shift the centre and shake the zeitgeist. Music is celebratory and disruptive. My book about grime was all about successive genres of black music that have challenged the mainstream. Just look at the prevalence of black music as dominant pop culture, globally. From rock & roll to hip-hop, black culture has stood tall in the counter cultural debate, and won every time.

So what now? Accepting and supporting black narratives is a step towards liberation from the forces of racial inequality that continue to disease our social structures. I celebrate black art and black culture as a means of shaking narratives that denigrate black communities. Put simply, black culture is black activism.

Blackout Tuesday was well-intentioned, but it was a misstep in the fight against racism because it wasn’t active. It was passive. It felt like a silencing; a muting of the blackness that we need to celebrate and promote in the face of white supremacy. It was negative energy spent, as opposed to proactive measures to build, connect and educate.

My children won’t grow up thinking that acts of police brutality are ‘mistakes’, or things that happen in other places, far away. As biracial boys who society will undoubtedly see as ‘black’, I can’t let them grow up with a blinkered understanding of race in the UK. I wouldn’t allow it for myself. I can only hope that a similar urgency is being felt by everyone and anyone who is finally realising what we, as a global community, are up against.

Jeffrey Boakye is the author of Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials And The Meaning Of Grime and Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today