#icantbreathe

This past week has been… a lot. I’d been so busy that I was mostly unaware of the events unfolding across the US. Until last Saturday morning after logging into Twitter.

I saw the same violent disregard for black life echoed in different situations and in different cities. The next thing I knew I was curled into a ball, sobbing, on the kitchen floor.

Since then, I’ve been in tears probably more than I have since my Mum’s passing. Some of the tears have been due to abhorrent treatment of people protesting the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police. Some have been due to the kindness of those who have used their privilege to ensure that black voices are amplified and that change starts to happen. It’s also been due to friends reaching out privately to check that I‘m ok. Some of the Twitter comments from white people commenting about black people acting like victims and playing the ‘race card’ have made me cry too.

While the tears have spilled from my eyes, these words have been sitting, calcified, on my chest. When friends have checked in, after the initial “I’m fine”, these words tumble out in frustration, grief and anger. I am not fine.

This is not fine.

Not fully understanding the intensity of my reaction, I sat down a few days ago to try to put into words why, 4000 miles away, this all feels so personal, so close…

I am the mother of two black teenagers, I’m worried about the state of the world for them. They are two intelligent, kind, responsible young men who are routinely treated with suspicion. They are followed around stores, crossed over the road and bags hugged away from. While in school uniform they’ve been spat at by a passing car of grown men. They’ve been prevented from doing simple things like going into stores, or into the cinema with their friends. I know their pain when these things happen to them because I experienced many of the same things and continue to experience them today — even as a middle aged professional woman. All because of the colour of our skin… Yes, in the UK… Yes, in 2020.

When I see this and the data showing that when they begin to drive, they’ll be 4.8 times more likely than their white peers to be stopped and searched by police — again, just like I was when I was younger #icantbreathe

I am the daughter of two ambitious, creative young people who were told that the Mother Country needed them. As British subjects in 1959, they left their home, landed on England’s shores and were met with racism, vilification and violence. When I think about the injustices STILL happening to the Windrush generation, people like my parents — British subjects who brought their energy and dreams here by invitation to help rebuild this country #icantbreathe

I am the great great granddaughter of a woman born enslaved in the Caribbean. I do not know her name. I do know that the British people who owned all the Africans enslaved in the Caribbean, were paid for ‘loss of property’ when slavery was abolished. When I think about how this £20m debt — amounting to £billions in today’s money, was only paid off in 2015 by British taxpayers — including those, like me, descended from the enslaved #icantbreathe

My ancestors were torn away from their homelands. Packed like sardines for months at a time, the ones who survived the middle passage journey, were forced to work on plantations. These weren’t the lovely whimsical plantations that we see frequently romanticised in films and wedding destinations — they were brutal. The Africans were first dehumanised — then traded, persecuted, bred like animals and worked to death. All for the sole purpose of building Western wealth and power.

I imagine that they lived in constant fear — husbands could be torn from wives, children torn from mothers at the mere whim of a white person at any time. They had no control of their own bodies. A master, an overseer could walk into their space and ‘take’ their wife — or daughter. Black men had few choices, fight and die — leaving loved ones unprotected or swallow their rage.

Violence against the enslaved could happen at any time. And it did. It’s one of the reasons our skin spans such a spectrum of browns. This difference in our skin tones was used to divide us and foster mistrust so that we would depend on the slavemaster for everything. 400 years is a long time to embed a strategy to a captive audience. When I think about how the effects are still manifesting among us today #icantbreathe

They could be murdered, or worse — for any supposed insubordination, for a wrong look, the wrong words, their tone of voice, or because somebody white felt like it. Just like George Floyd. And Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. And Sean Rigg. And Joy Gardner. And Stephen Lawrence. And hundreds, if not thousands, more whose names we do not know. Even with video evidence, the scrutiny turns to the victims. Black people recognise this pattern… murder, then vilify.

Last week when we saw these situations unfold before our very eyes, to many of us, it felt familiar. As does the feeling that, like the others, these perpetrators will not be brought to justice. The situation feels real to us because it is real to us. The ancestral trauma is in our DNA and #wecantbreathe.

Back to the beginning

To understand how we, as a society, have arrived here, we have to go back to the beginning…

I was asked recently, if there was slavery in England. Yes there was. In the latter half of the 18th century, the black population of the UK was around 15,000. Some were enslaved, many were not. As part of the triangular slave trade, enslaved Africans were traded for goods from ships that left the docks in London, Bristol and Liverpool between 1660 and 1807. The fruits of slavery helped Manchester become a catalyst for the industrial revolution through cotton grown on Caribbean slave plantations.

Typically, when we speak about slavery though, the focus goes to America. We fail to consider that American slavery began under British rule. The Trans-Alantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, with the Royal Navy policing international waters to suppress further trafficking, although Caribbean slavery was allowed to continue until Britain’s most lucrative crop, sugar, began to go into terminal decline and slave revolts became too frequent.

‘Was there slavery in England?’ This question is part of the problem. Why is it that all British history is not taught in school? I remember my history lessons where the only time that black people were mentioned was when we were told we were slaves — the comment dripping with the self righteous pity that was synonymous with those torturous lessons.

As if it were our shame. Yet, it is a shame that I and many other black people wear — that is, until we discover the truth about ourselves in the history of colonial Britain and of Africa.

Africa before Europe
Africa’s history did not begin with, but was interrupted by, slavery. The images that we see of starving children, war and poverty do not tell the full story of the richest continent on the planet. African civilisations were thriving centuries before colonialism. If it weren’t for economic greed and the desire for free labour, this current narrative that casts black people as subhuman may never have emerged. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade removed 12.5million people from the continent and in 1885, with the African nations weakened, European colonial powers got together to divvy up the rest. At the Berlin Conference, they gave each other permission to plunder and destroy. Under colonial powers, forced labour (slavery) in Africa remained in force until the 1940s. Africa is still plundered even today, much of her riches are owned by foreign powers and used to back European economies.

British institutionalised racism
The institutionalised racism in this country has meant that the policies and procedures of all of the basic structures of our society are designed to reinforce the disadvantage of black people. There is plenty of data about the inequalities in education, in housing, in health, in the workplace, in policing and the justice system. It is irrefutable. Understand that none of this is new and none of it is by accident. This is the racism of which we speak. Not someone calling out the N-word or burning crosses on the lawn. It is the consistent denial of progress, of fairness, of equity and in England, it’s usually done with a smile.

‘I don’t see colour’, the race card and the black ‘victim’
It’s easy for this problem to be invisible if it’s not happening to you. If you are unaware of the history or economics of blackness, you could believe that our complaints are based on thin skin and a ‘chip on the shoulder’. It might feel natural to dismiss, refute and deny the lived experiences of black people — after all, some of us are successful, it can’t be that bad, right? This silencing and gaslighting is what we hear all the time. We’re making it up… Being too sensitive…. Playing the ‘race card’ (that has racist connotations, btw). Speaking up can result in being put on disciplinary for ‘reverse racism’, losing a job, or even family divisions. Today, this is the most damaging part of racism. The consistent denial of our experiences. The feeling that we have no voice.

Which brings us to today. This past week, thousands of black people have taken to the streets around the world, using their voices to protest racism, bigotry and violence against black bodies — this time, joined by thousands more people from all ethnicities. Finally.

The time for change is now.

Let’s not waste this opportunity, here are some things we can all do to erode racism and begin to create a fair society for everyone

Allies — we need you. Thank you for standing up. This is a time to listen and learn about the experiences of black people. Please don’t be afraid to speak out in support for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’. The only wrong thing to say is nothing

Black people

The section below contains resources for those of you curious to find out more. The information is readily available if you know what to search for so I’ve shared 1–2 resources and intentionally used titles that you can use to search online if you’d like to do more research.

We’ve been here before…

The contribution of black people in the UK is immense. In sports and entertainment, the contribution is undeniable and we also excel in science, education, the arts and business. Black (BME) spending contributes £300 billion to the UK economy, despite racism being a consistent presence since the 1900s…

1919 Race Riots

The Windrush Generation and the NHS

Windrush generation experiences

No blacks, no dogs, no Irish

The race card — ‘if you want a *N for a neighbour, vote Labour’

Experiences of Caribbean immigrant and the destruction of Moss Side

Injustice in the UK

The last 30 years…

Windrush Scandal

Policing and the judicial system

Joint Enterprise Law

Stop and search law

Outcomes in education

Unfairness in employment

The richest continent

The Africa you don’t see

7 Influential African Empires

Ancient Civilisations interview — video

African art and the effects of colonisation

Exploitation of resources

African colonial history:

Scramble for Africa (African Partition)

Colonised Africa

The creation of race

Language matters

Cute names for trendy bars like ‘Cottonopolis’ and ‘Insert-name-here Plantation’ are hurtful. We feel invisible when it’s normal to celebrate something that is so painful for so many of us. Please stop.

I thought about throwing this writing away, but it’s something I’m compelled to publish. There are so many black people in the UK who feel like me, whose bodies have been aching with the trauma of everything that we have seen this past week — and have not understood why. For the people who are unable to speak out, this is for all of us — to honour our ancestors whose strength in overcoming the most prolonged shame in human history, means that we stand strong today.

Update: April 2021

The verdict is in. See the follow-up article here: https://diversenett.medium.com/imagining-utopia-a-world-with-equal-consequences-5750307f592c

UPDATE: Wednesday 10th June, 23:03

Thank you so much for all your positive responses. I'm happy that this is connecting human to human -- it feels good to have your support. If you, like me, are wondering how you might be able to do more, I'm launching a range of initiatives through my company to help identify the barriers to entry for black people in UK Tech, discover how to support black employees already working in the industry and get visibility on how Tech is impacting black lives. Learn more hereTech is everywhere, touching every part of our lives -- so I thought it would be a impactful place to start.Let's keep the momentum going and create lasting change. Even a small amount will go a long way -- donate through GoFundMe and share share share.You can find out more about the work we do at DiverseTechNW.comAnnette

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Annette Joseph

Passionate advocate for diversity in Tech. UK Founder of Diverse & Equal and DiversetechNW Tasters and bootcamps, facilitator, agile coach/evangelist