Reni narration: Welcome back to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
In the last two episodes of this series, I took a deep dive into the politics of whiteness, looking particularly at how it functioned during key UK elections.
You’ll notice in those episodes that I was very careful not to use the word ‘black’ to describe people who are not white. In my work I use the term ‘people of colour’ to define anyone of any race that isn’t white. And in this episode, I want to dig into the meaning of the word ‘black’.
One thing I noticed when I was recording for this podcast was how many of my interviewees wanted to talk about this idea of political blackness. Often it came up in our conversations unprompted.
Let me tell you a story. In 2016, Kent University student union ignited internet anger after they included the pop star Zayn Malik and the politician Sadiq Khan in a poster display for Black History Month.
The student union was called a ‘national embarrassment’ by one of its own members. The official twitter account for Black History Month tweeted: ‘deeply disappointed at @KentUnion's ill thought and misdirected Black History Month celebrations….With Asian Heritage Month being observed by a growing number of countries in May, will Black icons be celebrated by Kent University then?’
Much press coverage and bewildered commentary ensued. The president of the student union ended up issuing a statement. It read: ‘I want to apologise on behalf of Kent Union to any individuals who were upset, uncomfortable or offended by the image shared.
“There was no intent for this to happen and I am very sorry to anybody who felt this way,” he said. “Whilst we made every effort to include black and minority ethnic students on the planning for the month, clearly, we haven’t got it right on this occasion.”
I can understand the anger. I mean, Asian people are Asian, right? Not black. Black people are black.
But it appears that this has not always been the case. Kent Union didn't really explain it very well in their initial statement, but it seems that what their poster exhibition was referring to was a ‘political’ kind of blackness. It’s quite difficult to find an ‘official’ definition, but I understand ‘black’ in the political sense works an umbrella term, in order to be an organising tool against white supremacy.
I sometimes call it ‘trade union black’, because when i was first getting involved in politics, that’s where i first saw it in use. I remember being dead against it at the time. This was on the basis that it’s use wasn’t widespread enough so, rather than having its unifying intent it was actually alienating.
My stance back then appears to be the consensus now.
Reni: Have you seen that backlash?
Diane: No there’s been a huge backlash against the idea of political blackness.
Reni narration: Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott.
MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington for over three decades, she was the first black woman in Britain to be elected to Parliament. We spoke in her Portcullis House office.
When we came in in 87, there were, there were…
Reni: For the benefit of the tape Diane’s looking for something, what she found? You got a picture here?
Diane: This picture of...a picture of me and Bernie and Jeremy actually and Bernie Grant’s wife.
Reni: So we’ve got a very young looking Diane here, we’ve got Bernie Grant, was he an MP at this point?
Reni: Yeah so he was the MP for Tottenham, which is where I grew up. Then we’ve for a very young Jeremy Corbyn with a very very full beard and lady on the end who you said, she was Bernie Grant’s wife?
Diane: Sharon Grant
Reni: Sharon Grant
Diane: She was a councillor in Harringay and Jeremy was a councillor in Harringay also. So, yeah, there’s been a huge backlash against political blackness. So when we all got elected in 87, Keith Vaz was actually from Goa, I think he was Indian, from Goa. Paul Boateng, his father was a Ghanaian politician, his mother was English. I think Paul, I think he was born in this country but a certain amount of time in Ghana as a young person. Bernie Grant was born in Guyana and I was born here but my family are from the West Indies but we had no problem all calling ourselves black but from the 90s onwards there was a challenge to the notion of political blackness and first of all people needed some [inaudible] we’re not black and then even within the Indian subcontinent you had Hindus saying we’re not Muslim and Muslims saying well we’re now Hindus and then even in Africa you had people from Northern Nigeria saying we’re Hausa we’re not black, and you got Yorubas saying we’re Yoruba, and you got Igbos saying we’re Igbo and so what you’ve seen over the past 20 years is a pushback against the concept of political blackness and increasing fragmentation because if it means more to you to assert your identity as a Yoruba than to assert your identity as a black person then you’re looking at a weakened political push
I’m very, I mean my family is from Jamaica, I was born here, my father’s from Jamaica, I’m very proud to be a Jamaican I think, even though I was born here I see myself as culturally still...that’s my cultural heritage and I’m proud of it. And I think it’s important to be proud of your cultural heritage but i think the extent of which the black community has fragmented and has rejected any notion of political blackness has tended to weaken it, that’s my view.
Reni narration: Diane says that as a community, we have lost the notion of collectivism.
Diane: I remember going down to Brixton, the day after the riots and walking along the streets and there was broken glass and there was ashes and it was just extraordinary. So what the riots did, those riots in the early 80s, first of all, I think they built a cohesiveness because if you were rioting on the street no one was saying are you Nigerian, are you from Sri Lanka, are you Indian. You were a person of colour and you were rioting but also they made society stop and think about issues around black representation which they had never thought about before.
Clearly as Shadow Home Secretary I’m not saying that I support violence in any form but there’s no question, historically that the reason you were able to get black people elected to parliament at all, was not because people turned around and said oh I know, this will be nice, let’s have black people in parliament. It was a convergence.
So what happened in the 80s, which was the election of the, first time four self-defined black MPs being elected in 1987 for the first time, myself, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and of course Paul Boateng, but you also had, around the same period, you had the emergence of black council leaders like Bernie Grant and Linda Bellos and I think that the emergence of that early generation of black council leaders and specifically the emergence of Paul and Bernie and Keith and myself, owes everything to the urban interactions of the early 80s.
It was a convergence that actually of a generation of struggling activity by people like the Race Today collective, it was the convergence of the kind of really seismic effects on the society of the riots and the fact that, I mean the people I refer to as black leaders in the 80s, like as I say John Leroe and Farrukh Dhondy and Darcus Howe and so forth were born abroad without any exception. So the point was, that my generation was the generation was the generation that was born here and our slogan, our favourite little slogan was here to stay here to fight.
Reni narration: In episode 1 I spoke to Farrukh Dhondy in episode one about his time as Channel 4’s Multicultural Commissioner. But he was also a committed member of the British Black Panther Movement during the 1970s. He’s South Asian.
Farrukh: I found the Black Panther movement extremely impressive. They were talking sense. They were not talking cult of leadership They were not talking back to Africa black nationalism. They were talking about how do we find a place in British society here, all the rights that we should have. And the leaders, a very charismatic young lady from Trinidad called Althea Jones, at the time she was undoubtedly the leader, right. She was doing university medical student. They saw that I’d done my reading on socialism and so forth and so they recruited me to the movement and I soon became a member of the central core. There was no colourism in the black panther movement, obviously there were no white members. There were supporters, associates, but the membership was basically Asian and black. They saw it as a common fight against the ex-colonial masters.
Reni narration: Farrukh told me about the horrific racism he faced when he first moved to England.
Farrukh: The simplest one was they never served you in pubs. If you went as one or two or three or four Asians in a group of friends you went to a pub they stood at the bar and they’d ignore you for half an hour even though you said sir can I have a glass of beer, sir can I have? You know, you excuse me please they wouldn’t listen. Landlords we were poor. We lived in bedsits if we could afford it, because we earned our money walking dogs, cleaning flats as ex-graduates who didn't have a regular job and you couldn't get a bedsit unless it was from say a Pakistani landlord you know or somebody who said okay we’ll give you this dirty room. So you had the dirty room you shared the bathroom with 28 other people. If you went to a house which was, say South Kensington or even Notting Hill, they'd say sorry the room has just gone. You wandered around for days sleeping on friends floors and trying to get to a room of your own. And then of course on football nights I'm met with people coming up the escalators who give you a slap as they passed or just catch you because you didn't look as though you were a supporter of Celtic or Arsenal or god knows.
Reni narration: He was living above a squatted bookshop in Brixton, named Freedom News, in the early 1970s.
Farrukh: We’d sell black literature, black history from there and so on. I lived on the second floor. And one day on the 15th of March 1973 I woke up with the whole place full of smoke. I thought somebody was smothering me with a pillow. And I got up and I couldn't see anything. Opened the window of the second floor took a deep breath the whole place was on fire. Freedom News bookshop the glass was bursting out towards the fire. That's what happens. Somebody had bombed the place.
Reni narration: Farrukh told me that he and many others believed that the far right National Front were behind the bombing.
Farrukh: I had to jump out the second floor window, broke my ankle and got burnt of this and that. That was the worst case of racism that I have faced, somebody trying to kill me with a firebomb.
Reni: I'm going to ask if the police ever caught them but I think I already know the answer.
Farrukh: They never did a word. The police never even questioned me. They did not want to know
Reni: I mean, how do you feel about that backlash against the idea of the trade union black, political black.
Farrukh: I think it’s the most disgraceful thing that has happened to our ex colonial community. I used to call them new communities. Now they're not new communities, they are pretty damned established communities, beginning with your generation or even with the generation above and the disparity between new communities or any hostility between them is absolutely shameful.
It's a kind of, a kind of nationalism has taken over. There was such a strong back to Africa movement that we are Africans and we have African culture this that and the other. One of my greatest friends, was a black philosopher who lived in my house for a year called C. L. R. James.
Reni: And there's of course a library named after him in Hackney.
Farrukh: Of course, of course or course of course. he lived with me. He had no disrespect for Africa but he said look over the last three four hundred years we have become part of Western civilisation. We are part of , and clear phrase, the Western intellectual tradition and our ancestors are not some tribal chief but Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart, Karl Marx that's who we have, through the force of history, become. Absolutely no antagonism towards adopting African cultural modes. He said jazz is the contribution to Western classical music that black Americans have made.
Reni: There is a link there but also I feel that despite the fact that we are part of that into the Western intellectual tradition we constantly have to fight for and defend our place in it.
Farrukh: We've been trying to do that for years and years and years and it sort of works you know. In my generation no black woman would be allowed to run a podcast institution. They wouldn’t have written books, right. hey wouldn't have. There has been progress.
Reni narration: One key contention with political blackness is that it doesn’t account for anti-black attitudes among people of colour who are not of African descent. I put this to Farrukh.
Farrukh: one could say that in a general Asian community you would find prejudice against black people and in the black community you'd find prejudice against coolies, as they called Asians, right. Not in the political movements obviously, right, but certainly there would be in some kind of shopkeeper mentality or some Bangladeshi communities they'd say it's because of the blacks that this is happening and in some black communities these people are, well not us, but of course we were fighting that.
Reni narration: I think that there is a generational divide on this issue.
Many of the members of the feminist activist group Sisters Uncut were barely twinkles in their parents’ eyes when Diane Abbott MP and Farrukh Dhondy were organising in the 70s and 80s. I’m interested to know what the younger generation of activists think about the concept of political blackness.
I spoke to two members, Angelica and Kelsey, about the issue.
Angelica: I think sisters as a group doesn't really we don't organise under the banner of political blackness
Reni narration: That’s Angelica’s voice.
Kelsey: Yeah it's not really a phrase that's thrown around or said much in our circles I think.
Angelica: It’s kind of old school
Kelsey: It’s just people of colour. I think we use to mean anyone who's not white.
Reni narration: That’s Kelsey’s voice.
Reni: What do you mean by old school?
Angelica: Just like you said that has a very specific like history and context. I know like the NUS was still using it for a while
Reni: It’s used in a lot of union spaces.
Angelica: Union spaces yeah and I think that is reflective of that kind of 70s 80s political, like British political tradition. Sisters was founded in 2014. I don't...yeah
Kelsey: I guess in terms of the concept as well like we don't tend to lump everyone together like we are aware of like a specific anti blackness and things like that like. And that there are different privileges within the range of people of colour. So we don't tend to like organise as if like everyone is having exactly the same experience or anything if that makes sense.
Reni: What I can glean from the original usage was not really that everyone's having the same experience but rather we are all you know and against the same power structure.
Angelica: Yeah it was strategic.
Angelica: And the thing is I, for a lot of people I think of our generation in terms of organising they are so adamantly against the idea of political blackness and they think it's like insulting it's offensive. I don't I personally don't have that position. I appreciate what it was at the time and I understand like the certain like the conditions out of which that was born. But it's not a hill that I'm willing to die, for some people they’ll say if you organise under political blackness like I'm not going to you know I'm not going to f with you. Like that's messed up. I personally don't feel the same way.
Reni narration: I think discussing identity is only useful insofar as it can be used to look at structural power. My main concern is analysing the political power of whiteness. So I don’t really want to get stuck in conversations about who’s black and who isn’t. But then again, I’m so obviously of west African heritage that my race is never called into question. But that’s not the case for every POC.
I had a really interesting conversation with the rapper, author and activist Akala about this very issue.
Akala: I identify as black because that's my upbringing obviously I'm biologically mixed and I recognise that and I don't deny any of my heritage and I think it's a different conversation when I have a conversation with a person that's two black parents like yourself and they’re like well if you’re black then what am I, I have two black parents what’s the difference. I think there a different internal conversation among people radicalised as black where I am happy to say well yes obviously I'm mixed. My problem is that most mixed people who emphasise their mixed-ness in my humble opinion, and from looking at history of it, is to emphasise I'm not black. It's not to say look I have this position I'm caught between two worlds in a World partly governed by white supremacy the tradition of what I'll call mulatto nationalism has always been a regressive political tradition whereas black nationalism. I mean the most famous black nationalists of all time Bob Marley or Marcus Garvey both Jamaicans, ones mixed. How was black nationalism broad enough as a nationalist conceptualisation to incorporate someone like Bob Marley, white nationalism you can't imagine the KKK saying hey Bob welcome in right. So this is one of the reasons it’s absurd to compare black nationalism and white nationalism and black nationalism literally evolved in resistance to slavery, white nationalism literally evolved as justifying a means of owning another human beings not comparable. Black Nationalism and white nationalism are quite different. The recognition of colourism. The conversation about political blackness versus social blackness. All of that is internal conversations I'm happy to have but I generally don't emphasise my mixed-ness publicly for a number of reasons. 1 my political education came from the Black Radical Tradition, I went to Pan African Saturday school. I had an extracurricular African history class at my school. My godfather and the other members of the African Caribbean community gave my white mother the assistance her white community would not give her to raise her children. So I feel a tremendous sense of loyalty to that. Similarly white society only tries to claim those of us that mixed once we've done well.
Reni: Of Course
Akala: Mark Duggan’s mixed-ness was irrelevant. He was a Yardie. He was a gangster he was the bad guy. In fact the fact they could be shot by the black on black violence police department should tell us something very profound about the way blackness is conceptualised. So I think it would be very naive for those of us who are mixed. By all means be proud of both sides of your heritage but there is a racial conflict here. There is not a conflict of equals.
Reni narration: It’s worth remembering at this point that Akala’s older sister is the multi award winning rapper, singer and producer Ms Dynamite.
Akala: I remember when my sister was at the peak of fame the Daily Mail wrote an article unsurprisingly basically saying she's not really black, I mean look how clever she is. That literally was the article she can't really be the voice of the black street and they actually just made up stuff about us growing up all Scottish family. Now let's be clear my mum’s family is half Scottish half English. Scottish family were totally cool. They didn't care that we were brown, in fact in a sense they were kind of like at least you’re not English yeah so they were not really bigoted but they lived in Scotland, we didn't see them really. I went to Scotland once. My sister literally lived with my Jamaican grandmother when she moved out of the house because her and my mum weren't getting on but the Daily Mail couldn't accept as a lot of white people still find it hard to accept that my intelligence frankly is a product of a black radical political tradition, I literally went to a site of a school called the Winnie Mandela school while my, some of my middle class white teachers were put in special needs group for kids who don't speak English even though I was reading Lord of the Rings at home. I was forced to identify myself within that conflict and look at the absurdity that being half white in Jamaica made me high colored and an object of privilege, it meant people assumed I was intelligent, had money all of this whereas being half black in England comes with the exact opposite implications and so I think mixed identity has to be trodden very carefully.
Reni narration: I asked Simon Woolley what the ‘black’ meant in Operation Black Vote.
Simon: It's interesting that you asked that because the perception of that has changed over the years. When we began in the nineteen nineties there was an international concept in which political black, it was internationalist but driven really from a British Caribbean perspective in which non-white was black. And when you look at the Caribbean, when you look at the Caribbean countries you know the kaleidoscope of ethnicities which emerged from the independence movements of the Caribbean that we were looking outwardly as internationalist and we took that back to the UK and began this black political which meant that people of colour faced a particular type of discrimination, broadly say racism and that an Asian struggle was an African Caribbean struggle or Africans struggle and that we were stronger united. Yes we’d have our differences. Yes most of them we celebrate and our challenges. White supremacist society was built upon divide and rule. And so we knew we had to confront that. But what it meant was that non white collective could be galvanised in such a way that one we support each other and two politically we could be uniquely extremely strong.
Reni: Is that the context of Operation Black Vote still works under.
Simon: It is, I think particularly since 9/11 when divide and rule was at its zenith that the focus was on Muslims and so other religions said we're not Muslim, they're the baddies. And so you know there's been a push to fragment our different communities.
Some of young black activists have said you know we're Africans we're not this political black it's outdated. And I lament about that. I mean you know yes I want to see black empowerment, African empowerment but that golden thread of unity to confront persistent racism is true back then as it is today.
Reni narration: Diane Abbott spoke to me about that change in perception that Simon spoke of.
Diane: I think that some, as I say the rise of a more individualist politics has its merits, but we;’ve lost the notion of collectivism. So what people want to know, I mean for years I ran two projects in parallel. One was London Schools and the Black Child, which is about black children and education and the other was Black Women in Business, which was about women entrepreneurs and with Black Women in Business, we always found that the most popular events, which were events about how to make money.
If the emphasis on individual advancement, which is very part and parcel of the Thatcher years and New Labour, hasn’t helped to have a coherent and unified movement in the black community and yet people can see what has happened to them as a community and they lament what is happening to them as a community, but they don’t quite see that unless we come together as a community there is no real remedy. You can talk about it, you can write about it, you can say how dreadful it is but unless you come together as a community there’s no real remedy.
Reni narration: I’m not usually the one calling for unity, and I think it has be be done carefully here, so as not to flatten differences or ignore existing discrimination. But it’s really clear to me that there needs to be some intergenerational dialogue. There may never be a consensus on political blackness, but we could learn a lot from each other.
Angelica from Sisters Uncut is hopeful about the situation.
Angelica: There's a problem with like knowledge not being passed down from our older activists, foremothers and fathers. And I think sometimes with younger activists myself included there's a bit of an arrogance. We feel like OK we've got it all figured out. Like the older generation like that they don't know shit like they’re old school dededededer and actually we’re going through, we're experiencing a lot of the same things again and again. And they they did like think, they were dealing with similar things
Reni: More vicious and more violent in the 70s and 80s
Angelica: And like there's this incredible like radical activist tradition in the UK. And I don't think all of that knowledge has been completely uncovered and passed down.