Revolutionary acts of social justice have truly had a landmark moment over the past few months. White-owned frameworks are finally pivoting away from their hallmark elitism, from the Italian National Fashion Chamber’s newly released inclusivity manifesto to the Oscars’ decision to implement diversity requirements for its Best Picture accolade – measures that are designed to address Black representation and celebrate Black achievement and talent.
However, the defamation and negative rhetoric against the Black community hasn’t entirely waned. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in June, further backlash rose as people began using the slogan “All Lives Matter”, which became popular among the right-wing media. The author Ian Haney Lopez described the term as a form of “colourblindness”, which undermines or diminishes the reality of racism. The BLM movement has also not stopped the police from racially profiling members of the Black community; take the Olympians Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos who were pulled over by officers in July and handcuffed in front of their child, or the MP Dawn Butler, who was also stopped and searched this summer. In July, the same politician was also forced to close her Willesden office when she and her staff received racist threats after she addressed the Black Lives Matter movement. These ranged from violent verbal abuse to bricks thrown at her office windows.
The fight for racial equality is far from over and Black History Month plays a crucial role in tackling it in a way that is more meaningful than surface-level methods adopted by some on social media. Performative allyship is a big part of the problem, defined as the act of speaking out about a cause for the advancement of one’s social image rather than to support and bring awareness to injustice. These displays aren’t helpful; they are damaging. They enable people to feel as if they’re doing something when really they’re just talking. Talk without action is futile.
The first day of October marked the start of Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated for more than 30 years in this country as the annual observance of the contributions that Black and brown people have made to the nation over many generations. “Black History Month shines a light on Black accomplishments in history that have been tragically diminished and nearly erased due to systemic injustices and enduring racism,” reflects the American model Sabrina Elba. “Through these teachings, generations will benefit from positive representation, which can help to combat the negative stereotypes and biases that are attached to Black people as a result of racialisation.”
As Elba observes, it’s imperative to speak up and abolish negative stereotypes of race, as well as champion the successes of the Black community. BHM represents an effective approach at tackling racism because it forces many to consider the reality that racism has had in all its guises. Against the backdrop of performative allyship, BHM offers the opportunity to decolonise and reclaim untold fragments of history, which not only empowers the Black community but also forces white people to acknowledge a reality of racism that they might have previously felt too uncomfortable to confront.
BHM challenges humanity to amplify conversations, work in solidarity and teach Black history, but of course education on these issues should not be limited to just four weeks. “It’s important that individuals and communities learn how to be effective allies all year round,” remarks Raphael Sofoluke, the founder and CEO of the UK Black Business Show. “Through honest and open conversations people can better understand ways to challenge discrimination and call out microaggressions, going from being bystanders to upstanders. Be ready to evaluate your own chain of thinking and realise that we can all make a difference to our communities.” Eulogising the accomplishments of a minority in a white-owned framework isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to enact real change. To eradicate performative allyship, as Sofoluke says, it’s important to understand the multiple faces of racism, questioning their existence and actively fighting against institutionalised inequality, be it colour, class, gender or cultural provenance.
To say that racism can be ‘fixed’ all at once is wishful thinking, but in the wake of all the episodes of brutality we’ve faced this year, could Black History Month 2020 finally eradicate short-sighted activism and pave the way for a long-term state of equality? If we know more about Black contributions to history, then we won’t need symbolic tokenism. BHM might not end the fight, but it acts as a jumping-off point in helping society understand racism and Black narratives better.
The broadcaster and curator Eunice Olumide describes the event as great starting point, but stresses the need to “incorporate our shared intertextual and intersectional history in order to fully appreciate the vast and significant contributions of the African diaspora economically, socially, and culturally to the modern world”. She says this can only truly be achieved by reforming how Afro-Caribbean history is taught within the existing national curriculum. “We must ensure that it negotiates both pre- and post-colonial history, highlighting Afro-Caribbean figures such as the first Black Queen of Britain Philippa of Hainault, Charles Darwin’s teacher John Edmonstone and Elijah McCoy, who revolutionised the steam engine,” she comments. “Without this, institutional racism and discrimination will continue flourish.”
Educating society about Black history has long-term benefits that have the potential to change hearts and minds beyond a perfunctory Black square on Instagram or a filmed mass celebrity apology for their racial wrongdoings. “To my mind, tokenism is actually an underpinning of systemic oppression, functioning to maintain the status quo and overall system even though it appears to look like progress,” reflects the businesswoman and transparency activist Gina Miller. She explains that substantive change in fighting racism requires systemic change in three areas – education, positions of power/leadership and the media. “We must diversify educational syllabuses to include a greater range of perspectives, cultures, histories, narrative and literary voices such as Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange,” she adds. “It is also important to teach young people about the slave trade and civil-rights movement so that they grow up with an awareness of Black history and the impact of it. But we must also school them on brown history – indentured labourers, the other side of the Empire, what happened to the people of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. There should be no attempt to teach it with rose-tinted spectacles either to ensure that students know the extent of suffering.”
The state of negligence has sparked an all-round revolution since protests began, and as white privilege has hampered many ethnic minorities, we cannot afford to be complacent. Black History Month may not be the ultimate answer in eradicating systemic racism. It will take far more time – and data – to determine the tangible outcomes of this moment on a social level. However, learning every valuable contribution made by the Black community can help defeat the tokenistic approaches we’ve recently witnessed. BHM helps us to recognise integration at the very core of our structures; it shows us that Black history is woven into the essence of what Britain is.
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