How a serious issue with racism was reduced to a tick-boxing exercise

14 June 2020

2:17 AM

14 June 2020

2:17 AM

Who needs statue topplers when the state will do it for you? Some bright spark in authority has decided the way to defend the statues on Parliament Square is to board them up. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has taken his lead from protesters and started a national trend, with councils setting up posses of the unelected to assess whose statues might survive the great 2020 cull. Meanwhile, the BBC, so terrified of bad PR, has pre-emptively removed from its i-player an iconic episode of Fawlty Towers, written as a satire on Little Englander mentality. Own goals all round.

What started out as a genuine, furious, international reaction to the brutal killing of George Floyd seems to be turning into an institutional nervous breakdown. Corporates and elite institutions are scurrying to demonstrate their adherence to #BlackLivesMatters, in the process turning any possibility of a progressive moment into a deadening, bureaucratic, tick-boxing exercise – with undertones of McCarthyism aimed at anyone who does not nod along.

Events in Minneapolis might have initially seemed like a historic lightning rod that could launch a deeper discussion about how to achieve social change, uniting us all in fighting discrimination. Instead, it is fast turning into a quagmire of censorious intolerance. If you want to initiate a broader debate about racism, is it really healthy to create an atmosphere in which it is not only statues that are being toppled but a range of cultural artefacts, TV series, celebrities, columnists and controversial broadcasters?

In what has been a whirlwind few weeks, an overall atmosphere of banning, covering up and cowering has flattened not just historic specificity but all nuance, depth and complexity in debate. When Lockdown started, I tweeted in reply to a friend that at last I would have enough time to watch Gone with the Wind again. Earlier this week I momentarily considered if I should retrieve and delete the quote in case anyone thought… well… we all know how that might be interpreted in today’s febrile climate. Today, as vast swathes of British comedies are cancelled, I realised that millions of people would need to delete tweets, purge their DVD collection or wipe their i-Player viewing lists if they applied the same logic. But my original instinct of panic speaks to a powerful mood at the moment – say the wrong thing and you might well be branded a bigot and cancelled.

Would it matter that my mother loved the film because she associated Scarlett O’Hara with a depiction of an awesome, feisty, independent Irish woman? What about the fact that, after watching it as a teenager, I became fascinated by the American civil war and for the first time thought about the horrors of slavery? I went on to read the novel and explore the history of the period, discovering the writings of Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass. In a bizarre way, Gone with the Wind was just one part of my education that developed into a life-long, passionate commitment to fighting racism. In other words, like everything, it’s always more complicated.

Today’s simplistic climate however is not conducive to a complex discourse on historic slavery, contemporary injustice or indeed much else. People conclude that if the famous can be dragged through the virtual public square and unceremoniously dumped, the fate of any random tweeter or the average man or woman on the street can seem even more precarious. Fear of such humiliation means that far too many become nervous about speaking – not because we are all one tweet away from being racist, but because we are warned that there are only a narrow, prescribed set of views one dare put forward without crossing some invisible line of offence. You learn lessons quickly – best not to ask if all lives matter, to query whether police brutality in the UK is really on a par with the militarised, armed US force, to object to going on mass demonstrations mid-pandemic – because for committing such thought crimes, prominent people have been cancelled.

But staying schtum is not an option either. Quotes such as ‘white silence is violence’ and ‘if you’re silent, you’re part of the problem’ are splattered across social media and hand-made placards alike. This is not a call to develop arguments that might inspire our peers to speak out, but a demand that unless you sign up to vocal activism NOW, you will be damned as a somehow complicit in racist brutality. On the Black Live Matters (#BLM) demo I attended last weekend, some speeches merited cheers, others far less so – but the pressure for us all to whoop regardless was reinforced by the regular chants of ‘silence is violence’.

The consequences of this is that discussion about serious issues like racism are reduced to little more than a cut and paste formulaic script; passively demonstrating you are on the right side via ubiquitous hashtags and symbols. I don’t doubt the initial sincerity of angry protestors – many of those young people feel viscerally that they are powerless and marginalised. #BLM became the banner behind which they could express their frustration and rage. However, it has increasingly morphed into a problematic free-floating, top-down imposition, adopted by mainstream organisations and often used to coerce enforced activism.

When the music industry announced #blackouttuesday on 2 June, people I know who work for major arts institutions were reprimanded and berated if they failed to post a black square onto their Instagram feed. When one objected to being told by her manager what to post on her social media, she was shamed in front of colleagues for not understanding the nature of ‘institutional racism’. With less publicity, June 10 was declared as #ShutDownSTEM day. I know this because an email to Nature magazine was met by an out-of-office reply declaring that a #strike4blacklives had been called (no debate, vote or any of that messy democracy business). The website statement declares – amongst other things – that ‘unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it’.

This statement is not designed to win hearts and minds to the cause of anti-racism. Instead, its purpose is to emphasise that if you’re white, you are guilty of racism whether you know it or not: ‘Those of us who are not Black, particularly those of us who are white, play a key role in perpetuating systemic racism.’ This corrosive trend of racialising identity is now de rigeur. Those who politically theorise the artificial concept of ‘whiteness’ infer that anyone who has white skin cannot escape their unconscious bias. If you object, you are accused of failing to come to terms with your white privilege. For all its radical posturing, this is a toxic trap that does not allow us to transcend racial difference and instead emphasises it as a source of tension.

Recently I was accused of whitesplaining for engaging in a perfectly civil disagreement with a fellow newspaper reviewer about events in Bristol, when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled from its plinth. My fellow panellist is black, I am white – we were there as equals. Yet somehow that was supposed to fatalistically shape both our outlooks. Neither of us credited with agency. The charge of whitesplaining insulted us both.

These identity tropes are all too familiar to those of us who have documented the way an illiberal cancel culture, under the guise of defending particular identities, has consumed universities over the last five years or so. More recently its norms have seeped into the pores and fabric of media and cultural institutions. But for millions of ordinary people, unfamiliar with the mores of identitarian divisiveness, watching the culture wars burst open the Lockdown and take over the popular domain, can feel shocking, alienating and infuriating.

For example, unless you followed the #RhodesMustFall movement that preoccupied Oxford University a few years ago – and has morphed into a wider ‘decolonise the curriculum’ campaign across higher education – you might be bewildered by the rush to depose inanimate objects as though they are actively playing a role in the treatment of black people today. Should you object, expect to be labelled as a part of a right-wing backlash, keen to wallow in historic ignorance. Those celebrating this spate of iconoclasm pose it as mass history lesson and boast that the nation will at last learn the truth of Britain’s bloody past.

The problem with these self-flattering educational claims? They are too often rooted in student activism rather than a genuine debate about history. As a consequence, it is assumed that those unfamiliar with the discourse of dead-white males need to be schooled and taught a lesson. Those not au fait with the preoccupations of privileged Oxford students are now being lectured to by their educational betters.

And what about the NHS workers and patients at Guy’s hospital? Do they need a right-on army to correct their historic amnesia? After all, they seem to have been oblivious to the fact that Thomas Guy, who founded the hospital in the 18th century, had shares in the South Sea Company which was involved in the slave trade? Maybe we should applaud the bosses of the NHS foundation trust, who’ve said they will remove Guy’s statue in response to #BLM protests, and thank them for raising the consciousness of their employees.

When I talk of ‘ordinary people’ looking on aghast at these events, some will believe that I’m using a code for the white working class. But don’t assume too much. Many from ethnic minorities feel at odds with recent events. One Ghanaian acquaintance complained to me that she is fed up of being BAME-d: ‘I don’t see myself as BAME. I am a British citizen and a proud Ghanaian, and I hate it that now my neighbours assume I want to ban all these comedy programmes when I love them.’ What of those minorities who are horrified and angry that the founder of the international scout movement, which has been so popular in many Commonwealth countries, is now being impugned? What of their anger that Baden Powell’s statue should be removed in their name? Are they – like Priti Patel – the wrong kind of BAME? What is going on here? Surely statue-toppling is far removed from any real-life grievances of black people in the UK, let alone the tragedy of George Floyd’s killing.

But, of course, it would be disingenuous not to admit that the majority of those who feel at odds with this moment, and indeed feel resentful that they are somehow being held culpable for gross historic attitudes, are white. Many white people sense that they are being blamed for the sins of white slave owners and imperialists merely through some lineage of ethnicity. Activists’ constant stress on white privilege can lead to an unhealthy defensive posture of white victimhood. This kind of victim politics, itself a form of identity politics, can be exploited by racists keen to stir up trouble.

The good people of Poole standing guard over a much-loved local Baden Powell statue, are not doing so because they are white or mobilised by opportunists such as notorious EDL founder Tommy Robinson, who has adopted statue protection as his latest persona, but because they are decent people who happen to believe that tearing down the public square might at least merit some democratic debate. In the seeming absence of any political leadership in this situation (the Cabinet are well and truly staying at home) and with the police abdicating all responsibility, it is inevitable and even honourable that people feel the need to take a stand.

What guarantees trouble is when complexity is dumped in favour of a simplistic story, whoever the story-teller is. Sadiq Khan lambasts ‘extreme far-right groups for hijacking this crucial cause’. Of course, a vacuum created by the near ubiquitous political quiescence to the dismantling of historic monuments will be filled by those keen to exploit the situation for their own ends. The crowd gathered in Central London on Saturday no doubt comprises a fair few people (but not all) with dodgy views. However, to brand everyone who is horrified at the vandalism of the Churchill statue, or who simply want to protect the cenotaph from desecration as far right, is a catastrophic error of judgement. Over simplifying is always a problem. Is it legitimate to suggest that everyone who attends events under the banner BLM have signed up to the frankly immature, crass anti-capitalist demands of official #BLM? Should we call all those who in good faith campaign to remove statues of slavers as a thuggish army of nihilistic cultural warriors? Of course not. Sadiq Khan would be the first to suggest such simplistic generalisations are unfair. However, it is now fashionable to have a hands-off approach to critiquing any activity or attitudes that claim to be motivated by anti-racism. In contrast, there is far less caution in lumping anyone: who expresses disquiet at the hi-jacking of history; who complains about the censoring of culture; who rejects the ‘white privilege’ narrative; into a generalised pot of hate-fuelled bigotry. A warning to those in the media, in #BLM and even the police: insisting on the mischaracterisation of all these people as far right racists can only exacerbate tensions and polarise society.

But it is also up to the public to avoid being dragged into an over-simplistic ‘whose side are you on?’ row. As citizens we need to try and untangle this messy political situation in as positive a way as possible. We must resist letting others label us through our ethnicity and insist on a humanist, universal, collective fight against racism and injustice. At the very least, we should refuse any narrative that tells us what we should think, read or watch. On that, the masses have spoken. Inevitably – because censorship works like this – Gone with the Wind has hit number one in the Amazon charts. This is not proof of an outbreak of pro-slavery enthusiasm but is an act of defiance against censorship. And you never know, as new generations watch the film and find out what the fuss is about, maybe they too will end up reading Life and Times of Frederick Douglass about his journey from slavery to becoming national leader of the abolitionist movement. They might realise – as Douglass did – that ‘to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker’. That’s one lesson from history we should all get behind.

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