With the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Sunday, Martin Glynn calls into question our so-called post-racial society and its promotion of racial amnesia.
Is the elimination of racial discrimination something that I, as a non-white person, can envisage happening in my lifetime? With the current discourse on race, racism and racialisation within the UK never rising above soundbite platitudes and opposition, the entrenched right-wing populism continues to denigrate the expression of blackness as witnessed by the responses to the recent Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd, both in the US and UK.
This situation further distorts and denies the contribution of black people to the national story by promoting, maintaining and sustaining a pathology that defines black people as merely ‘oppressed’ without revising the mythology that would reveal a more nuanced and sophisticated narrative. Born to a Jamaican father and a Welsh mother in the 50s, I was brought up with the slogan ‘no dogs, no Irish, no coloureds’ as my definition of Britishness. Visiting Wales several times in my early years, I was confronted with Welshness that rejected my skin tone, while my Jamaican family rendered any identification with my British heritage null and void. Hence I was born into a flawed notion of who I was from the outset. I always knew that racial discrimination was real, complex and messy.
Understanding the binary concepts (assimilation v integration, blackness v whiteness, powerless v powerful, race v racialisation, colour blindness v racial privilege, independence v interest convergence) used in simplistic arguments between liberals and right-wing people fighting over a patch of waste ground has never alleviated the damage that has been inflicted on my sense of self. This so-called ‘post-racial’ era is less concerned with progressive and meaningful change, and more interested in reminding me that as we now have a black Vice President and a few rich black celebrities, I must operate with racial amnesia at all times. Cultural commentator Manning Marable argues that despite the orthodox cultural ideology of so-called ‘post-racial societies’, power, privilege and the ownership of productive resources have always been unequally allocated in a social hierarchy stratified by class, gender and race. Race then only becomes ‘real’ as a social action when individuals or groups behave towards each other in ways which either reflect or perpetuate the hegemonic ideology of subordination and the patterns of inequality in daily life. A radical revision of history in my view, therefore, has a key role to play in shaping the way we should understand and engage with significant events in our lives, both past and present, in relation to the social construction of ‘race’. History is particularly important in understanding how the context and orientation of race has changed over time, as a way of leading us to look at how we can address old problems and concerns by deploying new ways of seeing, investigating, researching and transforming society.
How do the histories of slavery, lynching, colonialism, race riots, the rise of the far right, Islamophobia and numerous past and present issues become an integral part of the way we contextualise notions of a shared national identity? The increased level of black incarceration, the constant attacks on black popular culture, the pathology and labelling of young black people in street gangs combined with problems associated with racial disproportionality of stop-and-search procedures reveal a deficit model narrative that is still inextricably linked to shaping the perception of the racialisation of my Britishness.
So is the elimination of racial discrimination a possibility, or a dream deferred? Many of us are struggling to find a sense of purpose within our families, schools and communities when the right to self-definition is continuously being undermined by the oppressive nature of reactive racialized, gendered and classed constructs that are not helpful in untangling the complexity of belonging and nationhood. The vast majority of us are functioning and positive and see ourselves through a prism not defined by our oppression. Engaging in a truly shared dialogue as a way of critically seeking new solutions to the current positioning of our national identity is patchy and seldom actualised. To enable newer generations to interact, share power and shape policy, there needs to be a radical shift within the thinking of most institutions, service providers and wider society. I conclude by reaffirming my commitment to exposing, contesting, challenging and continuing in my quest for equity, not intimidated by the continuing onslaught of my consciousness and more importantly my soul.
Dr Martin Glynn is a criminologist and Winston Churchill Fellow with over 35 years’ experience of working in criminal justice, public health and educational settings. Dr Glynn is currently a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University and is the writer in residence at the National Justice Museum.
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