It’s been a few weeks now since the Black Lives Matter movement hit the headlines with a surge of media coverage. As we all know, it was triggered by one particularly heinous incident in the US but there have been countless other instances along the same lines throughout history. Why then all the furore now? Perhaps the shocking footage being circulated across social media, perhaps the need to lash out following weeks of being confined to homes. Whatever the reason, it all seems to be fading again. What has it achieved? Call me a pessimist, but perhaps not much. It is even possible things have been made worse.
While mostly peaceful, some of the protests have been marred by violence (far eclipsed by the far right counter demonstrations). More to the point, it has also highlighted, from my perspective, a vague sort of righteousness from many corners that in many ways feels a little disingenuous; as if one must speak out on this as more of a procedural duty rather than from any meaningful understanding. While many campaign, I wonder whether some really get it. ( I should say that most – the BAME campaigners, many of whom will have experienced some form of racism – will almost certainly ‘get it’ in one way or another.) Arguably however, the campaigning that does take place is not necessarily useful.
I understand from some points of view the need for democratic decision in a civilised society when it comes to removing a statue. The debates regarding the statue in Oxford are probably more in keeping with this rather than the unceremonious toppling we saw in Bristol. Having said that, if the democratic process is demonstrably failing to acknowledge the issues, I can’t be too critical of those involved. When you see young girls burning the union jack on the cenotaph however, it is clear to me that the emotions (justifiably strong) of some are misguided.
My fear is that this movement, as well meaning as it is, is merely deepening the divide. There will be a significant proportion of people in the UK I am sure who will see these protests in a negative light and this will galvanise inherent racism all across the country. (Particularly as they fell in the midst of a pandemic which many will have been diligently isolating from – don’t forget, those out protesting and not observing the lockdown may not become unwell themselves but will potentially spread coronavirus and be responsible for deaths of others that could have been avoided. Raheem Stirling said that there was only one virus. I’m afraid he is wrong.)
However, more worryingly, I can’t help but wonder if other more moderate individuals will begin to feel a little intimidated by the ease with which BAME individuals label anything that happens to them as ‘racist’. For example, I mentioned to someone the other day that a friend of mine was playing a character with a Caribbean accent and they replied asking if that’s ok to do? It got me thinking. Why shouldn’t it be? From my point of view, being able to impersonate and Australian accent or an American one but not a traditionally BAME accent deepens the divide rather than heals it. Many celebrities have come out recently apologising for using ‘black face’. This is a little more contentious perhaps but nevertheless open to interpretation in the same way. I would argue that, as long as done without malice or under a genuine misguided sense of superiority, it is not offensive. Of course, things are not often so simple and there is a spectrum but we must all use a bit of common sense from time to time rather than cry fowl at every opportunity.
In many instances, this oversensitivity is counter productive and could be seen as ‘political correctness gone mad’ by many. BAME individuals will inevitably be treated differently under this scenario, with many people tip-toeing around issues or even avoiding altogether in order to avoid making some unintended faux pas.
Of course, I do have sympathy to the reactions of many considering the unimaginable injustice that has occurred historically and unfortunately that still does today. My point is that, while racism must be tackled, tackling it in the wrong way makes it somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. All the while, the more damaging and malignant stuff carries on underneath. In order to wipe out this sort of discrimination, it needs two things: time and focus.
Generally speaking, racist leanings are learned behaviours from parents or peers. Once learnt, they are very difficult to wipe. The call for education and inclusion in curriculums of things like slavery therefore is one of the positives of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the older generations fade, time will hopefully bring more enlightened younger ones. Hence time but also focus. Arguably the focus element is most important here. To avoid letting all of that unfocused anger simmer into a lifetime of disquiet and more division, the movement needs a leader.
It needs someone who is measured and accessible to people of all races. Someone who can guide the anger of those who have been wronged and help them to heal the divides and encourage others to heal their own prejudices. Someone who is able to build influence enough to discourage people from self destructive behaviours such as the protests during the pandemic (not all self destructive I should say because it has of course got everyone talking about it) but instead encouraging people to channel their emotions into more sensible and tactically more beneficial endeavours; ones that are not going to alienate the huge swathes of society that are probably the ones they need to win over the most.
While there are higher proportions of BAME people living in poverty, this is a result of historic disadvantage and current division and cannot be changed overnight. Poverty, from an economic point of view must be tackled as one issue, not divided up into white and BAME poverty or else the divides will continue through the generations. From a social point of view however, BAME poverty can be changed only by a focus on changing attitudes.
To find someone who can guide us all through such a change is challenging. Whether someone suitable will step up to the plate is hard to say. If no one steps up – or indeed if the wrong person does – and perpetuates the divisions further, then I fear this brief surge in popularity will have little impact in the long run.