Calling time on the imaginary grey area of ‘not racist’.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol, UK this Sunday, a statue of 17th Century slave owner Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into the sea. But was this a symbolic act of civil disobedience or a violent crime against history?
Tens of thousands of protesters came out to show their solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. There were speeches, banners and an eight-minute silence to commemorate George Floyd and all of the other innocent black people who have been killed because of the color of their skin.
As the first wave of protesters made their way through the city, a black shroud could be seen placed over the controversial statue of Colston. Minutes later, protesters climbed up to throw ropes around its neck.
As the statue toppled protesters whooped and cheered. People jumped on the statue and someone knelt upon his neck. Colston was spraypainted silver and red.
As the rest of the march continued peacefully through the city, protesters rolled Colston to the river and unceremoniously tipped him over the railings and into the water.
The Bristol harbor churned and fizzed as Colston sank into the very river his ships once sailed in. His body sank, as many thousands of black bodies sank as a consequence of him forcing them to cross the Atlantic in unspeakable conditions.
The waterway used to transport over 84,000 enslaved humans beings swallowed down this piece of Bristol’s shameful history. Yet again the protesters cheered.
A hundred and fifty miles up north in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, a wooden sign featuring a carving of black man’s head with offensively exaggerated features had been earmarked to be removed by the council. Overnight, this head disappeared. In its place was a sign, saying Save Me.
As usual, there is the white backlash against progress and equality. Certain residents want to keep their ‘history’ more than they want to stop being racist white supremacists.
Robin DiAngelo defines white supremacy here:
“White supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea — the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” — Robin DiAngelo
Infuriatingly, but understandably, the surrounding professionals are compelled to pretend that this head-hiding stance isn’t racist.
Lucy Hill, who was part of the original campaign to take the offensive item down, said we are “in no means stating that the population who are trying to keep the head are racists.”
I disagree, and I find it hard to believe she doesn’t too. But she is trying to appease the powerful in order to achieve her aims. This is how white supremacy works. It fucks you over while insisting that you are inventing the problem. White racists are the ultimate gaslighters. But their time is running out.
As Ibram X. Kendi writes in How To Be An Antiracist:
“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”
We have allowed this illusory ‘not racist’ space to thrive for too long.
Those in Ashbourne, who want to keep this head, in spite of how offensive it is to the people it is supposed to represent, are racist. And they continue to get away with it because people insist that racism is not nuanced. That intention is more important than impact.
It is white privilege, rearing its ugly head again. White people refusing responsibility and pointing the finger elsewhere.
I sympathize with Lucy for hedging her bets, because in my experience, calling white people racist makes them furious. Especially when they are racist.
In fact, I wonder if the level of anger a white person expresses on being called out as racist might be correlated directly with how deep and unexamined their racial bias is.
The drowning of Colston splits opinion, and according to Kendi’s theory it’s racists on one side and anti-racists on the other. There is no middle ground for the ‘not racist’.
If you were feeling generous you might suppose that those in Ashbourne hiding the bust believe that its removal would be ‘reverse racism’. But I’m feeling especially ungenerous towards racists at the moment. And reverse racism doesn’t exist:
“Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within a hierarchical structure with power at its core. Racism only works because one group has power and other groups do not.” — Metro
If a black person treats white people badly because of their skin color, it’s unfair and unacceptable, but it is less likely to have wide-reaching negative consequences across the various aspects of their life.
If a white person treats black people badly because of the color of their skin it is morally wrong, and it can have a serious impact on their prospects and life. Prejudice against black, indigenous and people of color can and does lead to systemic disadvantage in every area of their lives, from the health care they receive in hospital to the justice they receive in court.
Racism requires an imbalance of power to exist.
The statue toppling has been picked up internationally, triggering discussion about how relics of colonialism should be treated.
UK PM, Boris Johnson offered support to the Black Lives Matter movement, but with this caveat: “I will not support or indulge those who break the law, or attack the police, or desecrate public monuments. We have a democracy in this country. If you want to change the urban landscape, you can stand for election, or vote for someone who will.”
Johnson fails to mention that people have been campaigning to have Colston’s statue removed from the city centre for decades.
As usual, Johnson, betrays his unimaginable privilege and myopic education when he suggests access to parliament as a simple and fair process. His perspective isn’t surprising. It isn’t even disappointing. It is simply an example of how white supremacy operates.
The most powerful white man in the country uses his power to defend the systems, institutions and means by which he maintains that power.
After years of transporting human beings as though they were cattle, in conditions so cramped and inhumane that nearly a quarter of them died, Colston went on to become an MP for the Conservative Party (that Johnson now leads). In parliament, Colston fought for the right to continue slaving.
While Johnson defended a democratic process that continually fails to represent and advocate for black, indigenous and people of color, Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees, called the removal of the statue by the people, “historical poetry”.
Rather than being a crime against history, the toppling of Colston is an act of history itself.
125 years after his statue was erected, 299 years after he died, Colston lies at the bottom of the Bristol Channel. Here’s hoping that his legacy will soon disappear with him.