By Audrey Sebatindira
I’m getting tired of learning new names. Names I shouldn’t know because no one would choose a viral hashtag over living, breathing anonymity. I’m tired of talking about the bodies to which those names now belong. And of watching eyes roll when I bring up each new victim, as if I enjoy dwelling on their murders. But mostly I’m getting tired of being tired, knowing there’s no promise of rest ahead. Only more names to learn.
And I’m not alone in this. During my time studying in England I’ve observed growing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Not only among my friends who are people of colour, but among our white peers as well. The success of a solidarity campaign for Michael Brown’s family at my university is strong evidence of this. Over 200 people turned up to have their photos taken holding messages declaring that black lives matter and offering support to the university’s black community. Similar solidarity campaigns were held at other universities across the UK as well, ranging from candlelit vigils to marches.
However, what’s less encouraging is the fact that solidarity is about as far as a lot of people go. There’s a feeling that some distance themselves from what’s happening now in the US. An unspoken but firm belief that racism “isn’t as bad” in the UK, and so there’s no need to evaluate what the murders of black Americans means for black lives everywhere else.
It’s true that police brutality (while not a non-issue) is less prevalent here than in the States. And, wholly aware that this is most likely down to my own class privilege, I don’t fear state violence in England to the extent that appears to be the case for black Americans. Indeed, I often feel like I’m co-opting someone else’s struggle when I use violence against African-Americans to prove a point about racism in the UK and elsewhere.
Yet it’s illogical to think this way. The cultures and experiences of black people across the world do differ wildly from each other, but white supremacy is a global issue. The details of its exact manifestations change from region to region, country to country, even from one social class to another. But its ultimate aim remains the same. And if black lives have been devalued in North America to the point where they can be taken with such frequency – such violence – that is of relevance for black people everywhere.
There are probably a number of reasons why this can be difficult to see in Britain, and as a foreigner here going only my own observations, there are a number I will miss. But one of them, I think, is the extent to which its racist past (and neo-colonial present) has been erased in dominant cultural discourse. This is most clearly evidenced by the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric here, which fails to acknowledge the role that Britain has played in destabilising the regions from which refugees are fleeing. Moreover, in virtually all mainstream discussions of Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade it is portrayed solely as liberator. The almost total erasure in the mainstream of Britain’s historical subjugation of people of colour makes it extremely difficult to critically engage with racism here and have people see it as a real issue.
But this is changing. Britain is increasingly being forced to come to terms with its violent past. A recent documentary being aired on national television is honestly detailing the country’s role in the slave trade and bringing many necessary truths to light. Moreover, the hypocrisy of current anti-immigration hyperbole is being pointed out by some in mainstream media. Whether this will change attitudes in any meaningful way remains to be seen, and what’s likely needed in addition is analysis that points to how the past is informing the present.
In terms specifically of police violence there are potential signs of North American influence. The story of Sheku Bayoh, a Sierra Leonean man who died in police custody in Scotland this May, has gained a lot of traction in England. This is particularly heartening in light of the 509 Black and Asian deaths in police custody over the last 24 years, resulting in no successful prosecutions of officials involved. Rarely do these deaths make news, and I’m hopeful that this will change over time. Moreover, in a recent Channel 4 interview, Home Secretary Theresa May was specifically questioned on whether she believed black lives matter in the context of her review of deaths in custody. So there’s evidence that, at the very least, the language of the US movement is beginning to be adopted in Britain.
And I remain hopeful that this will continue to be the case. Especially in light of the success of other international black movements in Britain. For example, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, which calls for the decolonisation of educational institutions, originated at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and has been adopted by students at Oxford University and inspired a similar movement at Cambridge University as well. This is in addition to other independent movements at universities across the country which question Eurocentric curricula. That being said, it should be noted that such strong identification with a movement abroad is likely down to the fact that Eurocentric teaching practices are a widespread problem with which many people from a variety of nationalities can identify. Ultimately, the extent of police violence inflicted on black Americans is partially down to unique aspects of North American culture than don’t feature across the pond. But there is clear evidence, at least among black activists at university, that we understand that we’re fighting a common enemy.
A wider understanding of this will only build solidarity, as black British activists and black activists everywhere can see what they can contribute to the movement in North America, and vice versa. If racism is borderless, so, too, should be our activism.
About the Author
Audrey Sebatindira is a Kenyan undergraduate student studying Law at Cambridge University. She has been involved in political activism during her time there. Specifically, she administrated FLY, the network for women of colour at the university, through which she established a blog where WoC detail their experiences, both at university and beyond. She also put into action the ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ campaign: a collection of short films capturing the opinions and daily lives of WoC at Cambridge.