Black Britons and the vaccine: Government distrust, the comfort of religion and the post-truth age of social media
Outside of racism and the prospect of Carnival going ahead this year, what has united a vast majority of the black British community? And no, I am not talking about being fed up with this whole lockdown.
It's the strong distrust against taking the COVID-19 vaccines.
Whether old or young, second generation or third generation, African or Caribbean, there is a universal truth among black Britons right now: Don’t trust the vaccine. It’s even official now. Stats from the UK Household Longitudinal Study showed that 72% of black people in the UK were unlikely to take the jab.
The fact that such a high percentage of black people in the UK are so against the virus does not surprise me. Some of my friends, who are educated and mostly well-balanced black men and black women, have straight up told me they would have to be tied down and drugged off their faces for anyone to inject the vaccine into them. Most of my family aren't keen either - my Mum is outright against it (more on her later).
Many black social media influencers have basically voiced their doubts about the vaccine. Some have made humorous videos showing exaggerated side-effects of taking the vaccine, such as half of your face sliding down or slurred speech. Although it's content for entertainment, it fuels fears among the black British community that the vaccine could seriously affect your ability to do anything, from walking to having sex. This is despite the reassurances from qualified medical professionals that there will be no other ramifications apart from protection from the virus.
Now it is easy to simply dismiss black people's reluctance to take the vaccine as a another example of us being cynical for the sake of it. Even if you're from the community, to do that is to ignore the complex and intertwining reasons why black people are such adamant anti-vaxxers.
Distrust of a government who have historically not had their interests at heart
Most black people don't trust the government. This is universal. To be fair, we black people have not had the best relationships with those in power in the western world. In Britain, when the first West Indians stepped off the HMT Empire Windrush onto British soil in 1948, they weren't exactly embraced. Instead, they and their children would be subjected to two solid decades of racial abuse, discrimination and police brutality that was encouraged by the government. And if it wasn't pushed by the British government, then whatever mistreatment that befell the burgeoning black British community was largely ignored by it.
The West Indians who came to Britain and the Africans who migrated afterwards in the 80s have not forgotten. Britain's appalling treatment of its new African and Caribbean population has left a bad taste and a deep, raw distrust in white-dominated government. This anti-government stance has been passed down to the next generation of black Britons born into this country.
Worse still, we have a Conservative government in power. Given that Thatcher's Conservative government resided in parliament during the 80s, when black Britons really had an awful time, the black British population's cynicism toward the British government is even higher. This is further compounded by some of the questionable remarks the current PM has made about black people in the past, and well… you can sort of see why many black Britons aren't really buying into the government's endorsement of the vaccines. I honestly think the Labour party, which historically secures black votes, would have a marginally better chance of convincing black people to take the vaccine.
But even Labour would struggle to convince black Britons to trust the vaccine for another reason.
Big pharma have a history of abusing black bodies*
Pfizer, the American multinational pharmaceutical company, is manufacturing the main vaccine currently be rolled out across the country.
But Pfizer has a dark past of endangering black lives to test new drugs. Almost 25 years ago now, Pfizer carried out drug trials on children living in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria. Tragically, 11 children died and dozens more suffered irreversible disabilities. What's worse, the trial was carried out underhandedly and was effectively illegal.
Although Pfizer did eventually give massive payouts to the family as compensation - the damage had been done. Not only would these families never see their children again but Pfizer's reputation had been seriously damaged, perhaps permanently.
So it's not surprising then that many black Britons aren't exactly queuing up enthusiastically to take vaccine, given the history behind those who have manufactured it. Young black people, because of social media, are well informed and know about the Kano incident.
But this brings me to my next point.
Influencers and celebrities have more sway than actual experts
Among young black people today, celebrities and social media influencers have significant sway on their opinions. A friend of mine told me he wasn't taking the vaccine and when I asked him why he sent me a video of a social media comedian explaining why the vaccine is potentially dodgy. It wasn't a video from a qualified expert but a comedian whose job is to make people laugh, not to provide educational content on vaccinations.
The government's problem, and this isn't exclusive to black millennials but the younger generation at large, is that young people don't really give a toss about the objective truth anymore. Experts can be ignored. To play devil’s advocate, government experts have made some assurances in the past about when we would be out of lockdown only to backtrack on their word. So there is a credibility issue about the truth behind the words of these medical experts.
Also, social media is a whole lot of noise. Everyone has an opinion. The person with the most engaged followers has the power to change millions of views with their own uninformed opinions about the vaccine. The government has quite a task on its hand cutting through the social media jungle and engaging these social media influencers to communicate the correct information to their legions of followers. But there may be some reluctance among the black influencers to peddle the government's message. We have seen black stars like Ashley Walters use his Instagram channel to encourage his fans to take the vaccine. But this is few and far between.
The strong hold of religion
Religion is like gravity for many black Britons, especially the baby boomer generation. My mother is a fervent Christian, and she has told me that she would outright refuse to take the vaccine when it is offered to her. In her eyes, the vaccine has not been sanctioned by God.
Often, in African and Caribbean households, science takes a backseat to religion. It will be challenging to convince a steadfast Christian like my mother that she should take the vaccine. This is where the government will need to work closely with community and church leaders to educate people with strong religious beliefs about the vaccine's benefits. But even that might not be enough. Religious black people are notoriously stubborn – I speak from first-hand experience.
Widespread fake news and misinformation
Fake news has probably been the most defining aspects of western society in the last five years. The proliferation of messaging apps, like WhatsApp, has only exacerbated this. Not a day goes by when my mother hasn't sent me some ridiculous 'news report' on WhatsApp. I once got a video from someone on WhatsApp suggesting Barack Obama was a lizard in disguise.
The older black generation, who did not grow up with social media or even this level of complex technology, is easily tricked by fake news. Technology has also enabled fake news to look legit, and only the discerning eyes of someone well-versed in the norms of social news can spot when a news report is just a load of fabricated nonsense.
Initially, there had been a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus. Now we are seeing this repeated with the vaccine. I remember, when this whole pandemic began, my black friends were sending me videos about how the pandemic was part of some clandestine distraction so the government could install 5G. Remember when we had people destroying 5G towers? It's a perfect example of what happens when social media and fake news come together to form a dangerously convincing narrative that can galvanise a lot of people to do the wrong thing.
Give it time
Giving all the twists and turns of this pandemic - the broken promises and the backtracking - black people simply aren't in the right frame of mind to trust this government's endorsement of the vaccine.
However, give it a year or two, and if there have been no cases of any significant side effects from taking the vaccine, then black people will more likely be open to taking the vaccine. But right now, the black British community stand mostly united against it.
And that's on God.
*This section was added after the original article was published
It is not remiss to say that Megan Markle has been the most divisive and most radical addition to join the British Royal Family ranks since the late Princess Diana (may she rest in pace).
Since getting married to Prince Harry back in 2018(is it me, or does that feel like it was much longer), Megan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, has caused quite a stir among the Royal family, British media and the broader British culture. It is fair to say that she has not been treated kindly by the Brits.
At first, there were many high hopes. There was an initial outpouring of love and excitement when Prince Harry officially announced he would be marrying Megan Markle, a divorced American actress from California who starred in Suits. However, it soon turned sour. After that memorable fire and brimstone, full-on African-Sunday-service wedding reception, the British media soon had their claws out. We had a news outlet stating Megan's DNA was 'exotic'. A BBC presenter tweeted an image comparing her and Harry's then-unborn son to a chimpanzee (thankfully, that idiot journalist got the sack) and even suggestions that Megan Markle eating avocado is somehow linked to human rights abuses and drought." Ok then. *rolls eyes in confusion.*
Then came the rift with the Royal Family. We first got an inclination of this family feud when the Queen banned Megan from wearing the royal jewels worn by Princess Diana. Allegedly, this was a response to Megan's demanding behaviour ahead of her wedding. Things came to a head when the Duke and Dutchness of Sussex announced they wanted to be 'financially independent’ and carve their business entity/empire outside of the Royal Family while still benefiting from the brand association. The fact that the Sussexes did not consult the Queen before making this decision only added gallons of petrol to the fire.
Was it just racism?
After months of uncertainty, the Sussexes have now officially announced that they will no longer be working members of the Royal Family, effectively severing ties with the Royals. With an upcoming stint on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, their brand building in America now underway, now is a good time to reflect on Megan's treatment by the British press.
Many of those in the Black British community believe Megan was a victim of blatant racism from both the British media and the Royal family. And that’s it. But I do not think it's that simple.
Prominent Americans and the Royal Family have never mixed well
I am an avid student of history. You want to know why? Because history reveals seeds that were planted long ago and grew into the current situations happening in the present. Nothing is by accident.
The history books show us that whenever an American, especially a famous one, becomes entangled with a Royal Family member, it is almost always a messy affair. For example, Edward VIII, the shortest-serving king of the United Kingdom, caused a constitutional crisis when he proposed to Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, in 1936. This caused a great deal of headache for the Royal Family because Miss Simpson was twice divorced, which put Edward VIII at odds with the church, eventually forcing his hand to abdicate the throne altogether so he could marry his love.
There have been other times when Americans forming close relationships, romantic or otherwise, with British royals has brought scandal to the Royal Family. Kiki Preston, another American socialite, was a drug-addicted, free spirit who befriended Prince George, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George V and Mary of Teck. Preston encouraged Prince George to embark on a hedonistic and scandalous lifestyle of sex and drugs. It is even alleged they both had a son out of wedlock.
Prince Andrew had a short-lived affair with Koo Stark, an American actress, much like Megan Markle, who starred in a very raunchy film. Prince Andrew's close friendship with the disgraced and deceased American investor Jeffery Epstein has been well covered. Another American investor, John Bryan, effectively ended the already rocky marriage between Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson when the former was caught sucking on the former's toes in 1992. What a scandal!
As you can see, there has been a precedent of prominent Americans having relations with British Royals that almost always ends in scandal. The fact that Megan Markle was a divorcee before falling in love with Prince Harry would raise eyebrows among the Royal family, least of all someone as conservative as the Queen.
American's showy behaviour is also very much at odds with the dignified reservation that the Royal Family aims to perpetuate to the public (even if we all know they're not as prim and proper as they make out to be). It's not surprising that the Queen has been unhappy with Megan Markle since the former actress refuses to bow to conformity and follow protocol.
The Queen's disapproval of Megan Markle significantly influenced the negative tabloid reporting around her.
The British paparazzi have always been nasty. Megan is not the first to experience it.
While I do not deny that there is undoubtedly some racial element involved with how the British press has reported on Megan, it is not the only factor. Again, good old history shows us that the British media always love a juicy Royal scandal. The British paparazzi is one of the most reviled and brutal in Europe. The tabloid's obsession with celebrities contributed to the tragic death of Princess Diana.
Although Princess Diana's mental health was already precariously on edge with her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrating before the public, the relentless media onslaught made it worse. It has been well documented how journalists were incentivised with big pay-outs for getting exclusive snaps of the Princess of Wales. The media did praise Princess Diana of course as the people’s princess, a reception the Duchess of Sussex has not received, but they were also quick to highlight her several love affairs. As you can see, media intrusion and bad press is not exclusive to Megan Markle.
Megan’s individuality invited criticism, not her black heritage
The British press used Megan's biracial heritage to embarrass her, but I would argue that her conduct has brought this much negativity on her more than her race. Now, before you crucify me, I am in no way stating that Megan has done anything wrong in the way she has carried herself. I personally think she is a wonderfully progressive and independent woman who has brought much-needed rejuvenation and relevance to an outdated Royal Family.
But I also understand that it is because she is an ex-divorcee, an American and is also very independent that has caused her to be shunned by the Royal Family and be a victim of a smear campaign of negativity by the British press.
Ultimately, the unkind treatment of Megan Markle by the British monarchy and the media is simply a display of progressive attitudes clashing with conservative ones. It is a battle of ideas. Megan Markle married into a family that isn’t big on modernity or breaking with tradition. As much as I admire Meghan, I think it's better for her, Prince Harry and their children to live in America.
They’re both far too cool for the Royal Family anyway.
‘Blackness’ is a white European invention that makes sense in America but is lazily applied in Europe.
One of the books I've finally got round to reading since I have so much time to stay indoors now has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half Of A Yellow Sun.' I am about 30% through it, and it's honestly one of the best historical fiction novels about Nigeria that I've ever read. Well-written, brilliantly researched and filled with a great cast of characters all living in Nigeria during the tragic Biafran war – Nigeria's first and only civil war.
There is a scene in the novel, and I won’t go into too much detail for spoilers, where an Igbo academic explains that the purest form of a Nigerian’s identity is essentially their tribe. The whole concept of 'blackness' is the invention of white Europeans who colonised and enslaved Africans.
It was a revelation in the book that hit me, and I had to re-read that part several times to digest it.
And I had to agree with the statement. This term ‘black people’ only exists outside of Africa. The entire concept of ‘blackness’ has not only robbed so many Africans and Caribbean of their true heritage, but it has effectively confined people with melanin skin and restrict us economically, socially and even culturally.
The very idea of blackness is probably the worst thing to happen to people of African descent.
Blackness was inevitable in America. But in Europe, it’s just lazy and dismissive
What it means to be a ‘black person’ is different across the diaspora. In my view, this concept of ‘blackness’ created by white Europeans has different connotations in America and Europe.
In America, the label of ‘blackness’ is inevitable. The children of African slaves who were shipped to the Americas have sadly lost any real connection to their African heritage. If you were to ask an African American where they are from, they would say from "New York" or "California." What else could they say? They see themselves as American. Since they have melanin-rich, brown skin, which signals their African heritage, they have been collectively labelled as African Americans, which they have proudly adopted. How else would you describe the population of people in America with African heritage who no longer have a link to Africa and, even if they do, it’s tenuous at best.
Even if an African American were to trace back their ancestry and head back to whatever country in Africa their ancestors came from, they would still be African Americans. You wouldn’t call them American Nigeran or an American Ghanaian unless their parents migrated to America during this century, so the connection to their motherland has not been tragically robbed from them.
But the idea of a collective ‘blackness’ in the European side of the diaspora doesn't make sense in the same way it does in America. In Europe, people with melanin-rich skin are very aware of where they came from in Africa or the Caribbean. Unlike African Americans, there is no disconnect to their African or Caribbean heritage.
In modern Britain, the term 'Black British' sounds odd to me now. A British Jamaican and a British Nigerian, the latter I identify as, are not the same, even if our shade of skin might be. Many, if not all, of the third and second generation of black people living in the UK today, have parents who had migrated from one of the former commonwealth colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. These children heard Yoruba, or Twi or Jamaican patois and ate African or Caribbean food at home. They heard, even if they didn't actively listen, to the African or Caribbean music from their motherland. It’s why Afrobeats, the popular music genre created mainly by the third- and second-generation European Africans, is so heavily influenced by music from the motherland. That kind of African influence is barely present in the R'n'B and Hip-Hop genre created by African Americans.
The term 'black people' to describe people with African heritage living in Europe is plain lazy. Instead, I would use the prefix 'British' in front of their place of origin or ancestry—for example, a British Nigerian. But the phrase 'black people in Britain' doesn't make much sense to me anymore. What exactly do you mean by 'black people' in a European context? It makes sense to use that term in America, but in Europe, it's just condescending. ‘Black people’ in Europe are not homogeneous in their culture the same way African Americans are in America.
Tribalism is the trustiest form of the African identity
This idea of blackness is ultimately a by-product of the transatlantic slave trade carried out by White Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, African Americans are reduced to being 'Black people' because their link to their African lineage has eroded over centuries. But it's important to remember that 'blackness' is not the identity of Africa's children.
Tribalism is the most authentic identity of every brown person whose ancestry begins in Africa. Even Nigerian nationality is a construct from the minds of white Europeans. My real identity, one that white European hands have not moulded, is British Yoruba. Both my parents are from the Yoruba tribe, so that is what I am. White Europeans did not create the Yoruba language and its customs. It is pure African culture.
Of course, I understand that using the term 'black people' or 'Black British' is a much simpler way to group various ethnic minorities. And I agree in that context. It would be a headache trying to group people by their ancestral tribes on a hospital form. I still label myself as a 'Black British' author because it’s easier for my author brand. But what is important is that I remember who I am. I will not allow myself to buy into the white European construct, especially in Europe, that I am just a "black person."
A recent friend of mine sent me this YouTube video of a white filmmaker named Michael explaining why white pride does not exist because there is no such thing as white culture. Michael argues that there is only white ethnic culture (e.g. German, Italian, Polish etc.), but there is no overall white culture. However, in his view, there is such a thing as a universal black culture because black people have collectively suffered under racism, systematic oppression and universal slavery.
To some extent, I agree with Michael’s well-articulated answer (he’s definitely allowed to spud me). However, for me, where he loses me is when he says a black culture exists because of black people's collective suffering. When he said this, I had to wince uncomfortably. I get where he is coming from, and I understand its well-intentioned, but equating black culture with black suffering is not only very harmful, it's a typical narrative driven by white people. Unfortunately, it's one which black people have dangerously convinced themselves to be true.
Let me break it down.
Slavery is not black culture. It’s black history.
In America, slavery will always be the needle that stitches the African American identity. As everyone knows, the ancestors of African Americans were kidnapped, gagged and chained. Ripped away from the African continent, these African slaves toiled and served under white masters for over hundreds of years. Almost 300 years after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, its legacy and long-lasting and damaging ramifications are still deep-rooted in America.
But is this black history or black culture? The dictionary definition of culture is:
“the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”
If we take the above description of culture as gospel, what are we implying if we believe that black people's enslavement is part of black culture? African Americans' subjugation and the systematic racism that hinder their progression cannot come under black culture. The slave trade was an entire ecosystem created by white people to profit from the bodies of African men, women and children. It's an unfortunate part of African American and black history, but it is not black culture.
Whenever I see a white person say or imply that slavery is black culture, I can’t lie, I do get triggered, and I am not a fan of that word. Slavery is black history, but it doesn’t make it black culture. For example, the Nazis and the Holocaust atrocity are part of German history. Still, I am sure if you asked most Germans today, they wouldn’t associate such horrific acts of human brutality with German culture.
In the same way, we should not be slapping slavery under the black culture label. I see many well-meaning white people and even some black people do this. Do you want to know why it has me worried?
Because if we do this, black culture becomes one focused too much on black people's suffering under white Europeans rather than a celebration of black people’s art, music, African history, clothing, various African ethnicities, and the fantastic food. Of course, the history of slavery will always influence black culture, but it's not representative black culture.
Black people did not create the transatlantic slave trade, and most did not profit from it. It was designed, enforced and exploited by white Europeans. Black people have made the best music on earth, delicious food, the best clothing style, and some of the world's best entertainers and sportsmen. That is black culture. Black people in America and worldwide should celebrate that as our culture and not our dark history written by white Europeans. Slavery and colonialism might unite black people under a shared history but it does not define black culture.
Even when carnival is cancelled, it will still attract some controversy around it.
But this year, the controversy was not the usual. It wasn't around the numbers of people who got stabbed which, by the way, is always sensationalised by the media. Nor was it around all of the mess on the streets Notting Hill carnival leaves in its wake.
This year’s carnival (or non-carnival) attracted controversy because of Adele’s hair. Yep, to celebrate non-carnival, the pop star decided to tie her hair in Bantu knots, a hairstyle typically worn by black women to protect their afro hair.
And many voices within Britain's black community were in an uproar.
To some black observers, Adele had shown poor taste by ‘culturally appropriating’ a hairstyle that is traditionally worn by black women. Many of her critics pointed out that Adele would never wear that hairstyle on an album cover and has never worn that hairstyle in any other context outside of carnival. For many, this demonstrated that Adele is not really appreciating black culture but culturally appropriating a black hairstyle only when it is safe to do so.
Would Adele wear Bantu knots on her album cover? Probably not. Does that mean she is culturally appropriating black culture? Probably, but how harmful is it really and does it warrant this much aggravation from the black community?
Cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural discrimination
I would never make an argument that cultural appropriation of black culture does not exist and that, in specific contexts, it's not an insult and exploitation of black heritage. Films which cast white actors to play African people (e.g. all those Egyptian epics from the 50s). That is negative cultural appropriation. Britain plundering Africa of its cultural artefacts and displaying them at museums without any permission from those who created those artefacts. That is negative cultural appropriation. White people who wear blackface at parties as some kind of grotesque joke. That is negative cultural appropriation.
But Adele wearing her hair in Bantu knots? Yes, it is undeniably cultural appropriation but is it the type that is dangerous or harmful to black culture and black heritage? Of course, it isn't. You'll need to come up with a convincing argument that it is without looking very, very silly.
Scrolling through the internet and reading some of the criticism, something became apparent to me. Many of those who are deeply upset with Adele's choice of hairstyle (and it is understandably coming from black women) are looking at cultural appropriation and cultural discrimination as if they are the same. It is for this reason that the black community's anger is misplaced.
Yes, it is true that if a woman were to wear Bantu knots to her corporate job, she would be met with raised eyebrows and probably an email from HR. There is no denying the stigma against black hairstyles in the workplace and within other institutions in western society. But that is a matter of discrimination which should not be conflated with cultural appropriation.
Every one of us culturally appropriates other cultures, including black people. Whenever a black person goes to a Chinese restaurant and uses chopsticks to eat food, we are culturally appropriating Chinese culture. Black people who read a lot of manga and go to cosplays dressed as their favourite anime character are culturally appropriating Japanese culture. All of these examples are done in the spirit of celebrating that culture. How do we celebrate it? By consuming it and sometimes adopting its customs.
Justified but misdirected rage
Adele, who, don’t forget, grew up in Tottenham, which has a sizeable black community, was celebrating the spirit of carnival with her chosen hairstyle. To think otherwise means you are projecting your unjustified and misplaced rage onto her because of the stigma around black hairstyles perpetuated by the white elites in western society. The fact that she wouldn’t wear it on an album cover is because her record execs, who control her image, decide what is and what isn't an appropriate look for a pop star. If you want to have this rage, you should direct it at them, not at Adele.
Furthermore, why does the black community pick and choose which forms of cultural appropriation is deserving of their wrath? The Indian community have been profiting from black hair and black hair products for a long time, but black people are curiously silent about this. Yet we have our pitchforks raised when a white woman decides to adopt a black hairstyle. I can't help but think that Adele being a white British person is the reason she is getting this much heat. If she looked more tanned, would black people have cared? The cynic in me says no.
Lastly, black people have a lot more urgent and essential matters where we need to be channelling our energy and rage. The killing and imprisonment of our black men, lack of job opportunities for young black men and lack of economic prosperity among the global black diaspora – these are matters that need our urgent attention. Remember, only very recently, a black man was shot in the back and paralysed in front of his children by white police officers.
Black people’s fight is not with Adele’s hair. It’s with the elites and the establishment. Can we please redirect our rage back to the real battle?
This post is the third part in my five-part series of blogs educating white people and all non-black races about the injustices, prejudices and conspiracies designed to oppress and encourage discrimination against black people. You can read the first two lessons here (1,2).
In this lesson, I am going to explain the often debated and very heated concept of white privilege. I am going to look at what it is, how it manifests and if anything can be done about it.
With the preamble over, let's start the third lesson.
White privilege – Once you understand it, you start seeing it a lot
For a long time, I ignored the conversation around white privilege. I did not want to be one of those black people who blame all their misfortunes on the advantages of white people and the disadvantages of their skin colour. Some within the black community do play the race card to deflect from their shortcomings, and I did not want to have that mindset.
But my perspective changed in 2015.
I remember watching the news about the Charleston church shooting in that year. A 26-year old, white male named Dylan Roff had entered an African-American church in South Carolina. He then massacred nine black church members in cold blood. The brutality of the act angered me in such a way that for two days, I was not the nicest person to have a conversation with.
It's what happened to Dylan Roff immediately after his killing spree that made me realise that I needed to take white privilege seriously. After he had been apprehended following a short manhunt, the police had given Dylan Roff a Burger King meal when he complained that he was hungry. It was then that I understood what white privilege was.
Imagine if a black male walked into a church with a predominantly white congregation and slaughtered nine white people with a machine gun. Do you think he would be given a Burger King meal afterwards? If you're struggling for an answer then let me help you: he would have probably been killed by the police immediately after they caught him.
How white privilege affects the black community in the UK
As I've said many times, the UK is a far more tolerant and sophisticated society than the US. The British judicial system is impartial, and those who commit a crime receive the most appropriate punishment, irrespective of their ethnic background. Of course, it is not always the case, but it's more often the case than it is not.
But white privilege does exist in the UK, and I am going to give two examples of it; one mainstream and one personal.
Let's start with the mainstream example. Last year, Blue Story, a film about young black men involved inner-city gang warfare, was released in cinemas across the UK. Unfortunately, a small group of teenagers incited small-scale fights during the film’s screening in Birmingham.
Following this incident, cinema chains across the UK temporarily stopped screening the film. Some of the mainstream media started attacking the violent nature of the film and how it encourages bad behaviour among young people. Now during this period, The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's violent film about a murderous hitman who worked for a white crime syndicate was also playing in cinemas. Also, on British television, we had Peaky Blinders, a TV series about a violent, white youth gang terrorising Birmingham’s street shortly after the First World War.
Both The Irishman and Peaky Blinders are far more violent than Blue Story. Still, both received critical praise from media outlets. There were no calls to ban The Irishman from cinemas or cancel Peaky Blinders from British television screens because of their depiction of violence. Conversely, Blue Story was criticised for its supposedly excessive brutality (it's not as bloody as Peaky Blinders, trust me) and its depiction of gang culture by several media outlets.
Content about white people committing crime and violence is seen as just entertainment. But any content about black people committing the same acts is encouraging bad behaviour in our society. That is one manifestation of white privilege within mainstream culture.
Now let me give you a more personal and very recent example. Boris Johnson had announced, during his now-infamous daily updates on the COVID-19 national quarantine, that British citizens could exercise once a day. Following the Prime Minister's words, I left my house in the afternoon. I took a stroll to Cassiobury Park in Watford, which is about a 40-min walk from where I live.
Watford's town centre was teeming with people. Three police officers in the middle of the town watched as dozens of people, all white and Asian as I remember, walked through the high street. As soon as these police officers saw me, the only black person on the high street at this time, they confronted me.
Not one to antagonise police officers, I remained calm and exercised patience, as they began questioning where I was going and what my reasoning was for venturing outside. After I had calmly answered their stupid questions, they left me alone to continue my afternoon.
These police officers racially profiled me because I was a young black man. That afternoon, I saw young white men walk past them, but they did not confront them. It was me, the black man, that they had to stop for questioning. When you're white, the police are rarely suspicious of you. When you're black, for many police officers, you're suspect purely on the basis that you're a young, black male. I do not have the white privilege to protect me from their assumptions.
Can we do anything about white privilege?
White privilege gives white people an advantage over other ethnic groups, particularly black people. Being white enables white people to have access to certain benefits, to excel much quicker in their chosen fields and be protected from specific criticisms and punishments. Black people do not have these same benefits.
But here's the caveat, this is not necessarily the collective fault of all white people. History has made it this way.
The British Empire was the largest in the history of mankind. At one point it had control of over 23% of the world's population. The English had successfully conquered the world. Even though they are no long the uber power they once were, the English still dominate the world. Britain's colonisation efforts destabilised a lot of African and Caribbean countries. Therefore black people, many of whom were part of the British's Common Wealth territories, had to scatter around the world for a better quality of life. So now, many black people find themselves as a minority in many Western countries, especially in the UK.
The fact is there is a much larger white population in the UK than there is a black population. By that admission alone, white people will always have more representation and more advantage over the black community as we are rather small by comparison. We are called an ethnic minority for a reason.
However, what is essential is that the white population, particularly those in positions of power, recognise their advantage and influence, and then use this to create more opportunities for ethnic minorities. Asking the white establishment in the UK to give up their advantage is never going to happen and why would they give it up. But, they can provide a fair chance for others to be able to climb the social ladder and make the UK more of a meritocracy rather than one based on nepotism.
We can't expect the powers that be in western society to eradicate white privilege. Still, they can ensure that it does not stop ethnic minorities from fulfilling their potential.
But most importantly, those with white privilege must use it to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and justly, regardless of their skin colour.
Next lesson: Why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is incredibly racist
Disclaimer: I have made some edits to this post as I realised I got an important date wrong.
This post is the second part in my series of blogs educating white people and all non-black races about the injustices, prejudices and conspiracies designed to oppress and encourage discrimination against black people. You can read the first lesson here.
The second lesson is about why white people and anyone who is not black for that matter cannot use the 'N-word'. To avoid putting those reading this article into a moral problem, I am not going to spell out the complete word but instead, refer to it as the 'N-word'.
So let’s begin the second lesson.
If you can say the ‘N-word', then why can’t we?
I must have been around the age of 24 when a young white male called me the N-Word to my face for the second time in my life.
It was late 2014. The Black Lives Matter movement was still in its infancy, having only been formed a year ago following the police killing of African-American teenager Treyvon Martin in 2012. It was a time when black racial injustice was still occurring, but it did not make headline news a lot. Bear in mind that social media was not yet the global beast it is today. The establishment could still control the message.
During this time, I was working at a marketing agency based in the heart of Soho. I worked closely with this white male colleague who was around the same age as me. Surprise, surprise he was from America. Now, this colleague, let's call him Dickhead, was not close to me. Still, we went out for lunch occasionally to discuss football and girls as young men in their early 20s often do.
One day, after work, myself, Dickhead and a few other colleagues were staying at the office late one evening. We had been having a serious drinking session and playing a very dodgy game called ‘Cards Against Humanity’ (look it up) in one of the meeting rooms. For some reason, and I can't remember why, but we had started discussing race.
During this group conversation, Dickhead decided to stand up and tell everyone in the meeting room “But why can’t white people say the N-word?” Even as he said this, Dickhead glanced at me. Then he fully turned to me and said “If I call you the N-word, why should it piss you off? Black people say it to other black people. It doesn't mean the same thing anymore. So why can't everyone say it?"
I am not making this up by the way. At the time, I did not confront Dickhead about this and just shrugged my shoulders and continued drinking. It was a period of my life where I wasn't very political, being more focused on making money and having a good time. But now, in hindsight, I realise I had experienced not only racism but a form of white privilege.
Ownership of the ‘N-word' and white privilege
The usage of the N-Word is still debated among the black community. A lot of black people, myself included, have reclaimed the word. We use it as either a friendly term to address another black person or in a sarcastic or snarky way depending on the context. Others in the black community feel the word carries too many negative connotations and dark history. For them, the N-word must never be spoken by any human being, black or white.
But the black community have the right to debate the use of the word. A white person or any other non-black person cannot say that word whenever they please. The use of the N-word is one thing black people have total ownership on. Can we at least have that?
When Dickhead was arguing that he has the right to use it because black people do, he was saying that from a place of white privilege. He felt, as a white male, that he is entitled to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants and to whoever he wants. After all, he's used to a world which allows him to live as he pleases without any judgement. Black people cannot relate.
I would be extremely offended if anyone who is not black called me the N-word. It's a racial slur and a hate crime.
However, merely uttering the N-word is not automatically offensive if you're white. It's the context in which the word is used. In 2018, Kendrick Lamar got into a heated exchange with a white female fan who uttered the ‘N’ word. He had asked her to sing the lyrics to ‘M.A.A.D City’ from his critically acclaimed album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.’
Personally, and this a controversial opinion among the black community, I felt Kendrick Lamar was wrong to scold the fan for using the N-word. If the word is part of a lyric of a song which he has written then is a non-black person supposed to censor themselves when the N-word pops up during the song? Or if a non-black person is reading a book aloud and the N-word appears, are they supposed to not say it?
It can become a bit too overbearing if black writers and rappers are demanding that non-black people never say the N-word but then frequently use it in their art.
Using the N-word to address a black person if you're white or any other race that is not black is wrong, and that is non-negotiable. However, saying the word if it's in the context of a lyric or in a book is acceptable. But this is my opinion on the matter. I do not speak for all black people.
Remember, not every black person feels the same way as I do. Black people are individuals. We are not a bunch of ants with a hive mentality.
Next lesson: White privilege and can white people do anything about it?
Another black man assassinated on the streets of America.
Another black man’s spilt blood fuels the anger raging within African Americans like a wildfire.
From this rage, a riot emerges. Buildings burn. Placards are raised. Shops are looted. People attack. The police attack back.
As we watch several parts of America burn to the ground following the death, no sorry, the murder of George Floyd, we are once again reminded of what happens when black people have had enough of the brutality they are subjected to by racist police officers. They swore to protect lives but treat black lives as not worth protecting but destroying.
Rioting is not just a physical manifestation of hurt, angry and disenfranchised black people but a catharsis – a release of decades of oppression by those who have more power than them and abuse it to inflict suffering upon African Americans.
Thankfully, Britain is a much more tolerant country than its cousin across the Atlantic. I am proud to be Black British, and I do love being part of British society.
That being said, Britain is no black utopia. Sadly, nowhere really is. Not even Africa.
As much as the British try to bury it, history shows us that the English have not always been tolerant or even accepting of its black population. It is easy for us millennial black Britons to forget the struggle the previous generation went through when the first set of black immigrants from Jamaica arrived in the U.K. on the HMT Empire Windrush.
We've had black riots in the U.K. over several decades. As the British black community shows its solidarity with it African American counterparts, we should also look back on the black riots that have happened in the U.K. and reflect on how far Britain has come, and how long America still has to go.
1958 Notting Hill race riots
The Notting Hill race riots were the first type of riots specifically targeted towards Britain's then-burgeoning black community. Working-class white boys who wanted to keep Britain white carried out a series of attacks against West Indian families living in Notting Hill.
The riot erupted when a white Swedish woman named Majbritt Morrison, who was dating a Jamaican man in the area, was assaulted by a couple of white youths. Later that night, a mob of white people, around 400, began attacking West Indian houses for over a week until the police finally decided to intervene and arrest the perpetrators.
1977 Battle of Lewisham
Although Lewisham has a visible and thriving black community today, 43 years ago, it was an entirely different story. In the 70s, New Cross and the surrounding areas in South London was a hotbed for the National Front, a British political group who were mainly against multiculturalism, and neo-Nazis.
On Saturday 13th August on 1977, hundreds of National Front members marched through Lewisham. A counter-protest group, a mixture of anti-racist and anti-fascist groups and local black residents, confronted the National Front. Soon these factions were fighting amongst each other, and the police were brought to calm the clashes but only made the situation worse as they began attacking those demonstrating against the National Front.
1981 English Riots (Brixton, Chapeltown, Toxteth, Moss Side and Handsworth)
As I explore in my first novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, the 80s was a challenging and alienating period for black Britons at the time. The introduction of the Sus laws, which gave police the power to stop, search and potentially arrest anyone they felt had committed a crime, was disproportionately targeted towards black youth.
The introduction and the subsequent abuse of the Sus laws by the police was the catalyst for several riots across the U.K. during this period. High unemployment and boredom among the black youth at the time were also contributing factors. The first wave of riots began in Brixton in April. A series of riots then happened in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, but to a much lesser extent).
1985 English Riots (Handsworth, Brixton, Broadwater Farm)
High unemployment rates among black Britons and the continued hostility between the police and the black community fed the fire of the riots that erupted across England during the Autumn of 1985.
Firstly, there was the riot in Birmingham which took place in Handsworth just like it had in 1981. Soon after that, Brixton experienced it second rioting when the police accidentally shot an old black woman named Cherry Groce during a botched arrest, an incident which plays a significant role in my novel.
With tension between the police and the black community at boiling point, the Broadwater Farm experienced its second riot due to another botched police raid which resulted in a black woman dying. The Broadwater Farm riot is notable in that it resulted in the brutal death of a police officer, PC Keith Blakelock.
1987 Chapeltown Riots
Following the violent arrest and assault of a young black man, around 70 youths began rioting in the Chapeltown area of Leeds. Again, high unemployment among the black youth and a fully realised and deep-rooted malice towards police were both significant, contributing factors.
1995 Brixton Riots
Ten years after its second riot, Brixton experienced its third one in 1995. Unsurprisingly, the uproar began following the death of a black armed robber who died while in police custody. What started as a peaceful protest outside Brixton police station quickly descended into a full-scale riot across the area.
For five hours, black and white youths turned Brixton into a warzone, just like it had become in the 80s. Missiles were thrown at police officers, cars were turned over, and buildings were vandalised. According to eyewitnesses at the time, the police behaved very aggressively towards the youth.
2011 England Riots
Anyone over the age of 20 who was living in London during this period would remember the 2011 England riots. I was 21 at the time and a recent graduate. Mark Duggan, a local man from Tottenham and a suspected gang member, was shot dead by the Metropolitan police when they stopped the minicab where he was a passenger.
News of his death quickly spread through London via Facebook, BBM (Blackberry Messenger for those of you who remember) and WhatsApp. I always refer to these riots as the 'social media' riots because social media apps played such a crucial role in the organisation of the rioting.
What angered people was that Mark Duggan had been killed when he possessed no handgun even though initial reports from the police said he had pulled out one on the police before being shot. For many of the older generation, Mark Duggan's death reignited the black community's scorn for the police.
Mark Duggan's death, as well as the high unemployment among the youth, were factors which, in my opinion, caused the 2011 England riots. I remember my BlackBerry going off constantly with people I knew asking me to participate in the looting in my local area. All I am going to say is I was young, but I was not dumb.
From the 6th-11th of August, various parts of England were subjected to these riots. First, it started in Tottenham and spread to other areas of London. Soon other cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, to name a few, had copycat riots which were organised by young people using social media and messaging apps.
Can the U.S. learn from the U.K.?
The 2011 England riots were the last in England with a racial element involving some form of police brutality against the black community. While I cannot say, hand to heart, that racism is well and truly gone from the U.K. (one word: Brexit), it's no longer as damaging as it used to be. Relations between the police and the black community is at least lukewarm, even if the mistrust still lingers quietly.
America is such a different animal compared to Britain that the improved police relations between the Metropolitan Police and the black community primarily comes down to British culture. The British did not want that level of smoke (literally and figuratively speaking) anymore. America, on the other hand, just seems to be escalating the violence as the latest reports on what's unfolding has shown the world.
In my opinion, the officer who killed George Floyd needs to be made an example of for this callous act. He needs to be punished with the full severity of the law, so police officers are deterred from killing another black man.
But on a deeper level, the police need to build bridges with the African American community, and this is no easy feat. Deep-rooted racism is too institutionalised within the American police and legal system. For the situation to improve, this racism needs to be eradicated like the cancer that it is to American society. More good police officers need to stand up to and call out those white police officers within their ranks who abuse the power and responsibility that the badge provides them.
If America does not deal with the racism that blights African Americans, then a riot will only be the start. England managed to avoid a race war. I am praying America will do the right thing before it finds itself in a full-scale one.
Stephen lawrence day: A tragic incident that shifted police’s attitudes to the Black British community
For decades, the British police and the black British community never had a comfortable relationship. Actually, I am putting that lightly. They both despised each other equally. Black people in Britain, especially those from the Caribbean, did not trust the police, and the police didn't trust them.
As I explore in some detail in my first novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, the British police, particularly in the 70s and 80s, made life very difficult for many black British people, especially young black people. All of the major riots during the 80s, the Brixton riots, the Broadwater Farm riots and the Handsworth Riots were all caused by police constantly harassing black people daily.
A major house fire in New Cross (an event I also examine in my novel) in 1981 where 13 black teenagers died in a suspect arson attack by white racists in the area was a significant turning point for the UK's burgeoning black community at that time. It was the first-time black people realised that not only did the British police harass them, but they didn't even care about their lives. If black kids die in a racist attack, then so be it. The police figuratively and literally shrugged their shoulders.
But the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 changed everything.
Suddenly, the police had to start listening.
And it had been a long time coming.
Black British people had become to be reckoned with
For those readers who might not know, Stephen Lawrence was a 19-year-old black man, born to Jamaican parents who immigrated to the UK in the 60s. On his way back to his home with his friend, Stephen was confronted by a group of young white men who brutally murdered him in an unprovoked attack. According to his friend who was with him at the time, Duwayne Brookes, the men had said “What, what nigger” before engulfing Stephen and killing him. It was a racially, motivated attack.
I was quite young, maybe no older than 13, when I was taught about Stephen Lawrence's death in London. In the time we are in now, the idea of a white man killing a black man in a racial attack on London's streets is almost unbelievable.
Believe me; it was not always that way.
I recall, when I was around the age of 11, a few years after Stephen Lawrence's death, my younger brother and cousin were chased by a group of white boys in Canning Town. They had confronted us in the park and called us "niggers."
As we were outnumbered, myself, my brother and my cousin fled the park and ran as fast as our legs would allow back to my cousin's house while these young white boys were chasing us. Fortunately, we made it back to my auntie's home safely. Sometimes, I do wonder what would have happened if we had not. Would one of us have suffered the same fate as Stephen Lawrence? Thankfully, we never had to find out.
While the death of Stephen Lawrence did not eradicate racism in London or the UK, it transformed how police treated black people. Unlike the New Cross Fires in 1981, the British police could not just silence the family of Stephen Lawrence.
Of course, the Met did try to sabotage Stephen Lawrence’s friend and discredit his family, but their shameful tactics failed. The murder of Stephen Lawrence gained massive coverage in mainstream media. Such widespread media coverage would never have happened in the 80s and 70s. But what was unusual about the media coverage was that it was sympathetic. In the past, British tabloids would always shift the blame of any tragedy that had befallen black people back to black people, or they would ignore it entirely like they had the New Cross Fire tragedy 12 years earlier.
As we remember the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death today let us acknowledge that his death finally forced the British police to be held accountable to the black British community. Suddenly, the death of a black man at the hands of racists deserved justice.
It had been a long time coming, but black lives finally mattered in the UK.
In late January this year, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a well-respected black female lawyer and woman’s right activist got into a verbal spat with white British actor Laurence Fox, on BBC Question Time last week.
You can read more about their heated exchange here but essentially Mr Fox accused Dr Mos-Shogbamimu of racism because she had referred to him as a white-privileged male due to his comfortable upbringing and the fact he is a white male. Dr Mos-Shogbamimu responded by continuing to argue that Mr Fox life is much easier than hers because he has white skin and he is a man.
Now, I completely agree with Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu.
White privilege is very much weaved into the collective consciousness of western society, enabling white people, in some, not all cases, to get away with actions that a black person would be severely reprimanded for had they committed the same act. It is true that a white person, middle or working class, cannot begin to fathom what it means to live the black experience, where we must watch the way we talk, speak or act in fear of being judged or labelled due to the persistent negative stereotypes about black people.
But here’s the caveat.
Ultimately, white privilege doesn’t matter. And I am a black man writing this.
The black community are the only race who complains about white privilege
The black community is the only group of people who shout about white privilege as if we are the only race it affects. Asian people are also affected by white privilege. In fact, people who have white skin but are European, for example from Poland, are also, sometimes, treated as an “other” by white British people.
As unfair as it is, white privilege will exist for a long time simply because the history of western civilisation has made it this way. Yes, it is somewhat unjust that white people, especially white men from middle to upper class backgrounds, get to enjoy this advantage, even if some of them don’t want to acknowledge it. But that is just the reality in which we live in and the cards that black people, as a collective, have been unfortunately dealt.
It simply is what it is.
Having said that, it’s great that people like Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu have brought attention to white privilege so black people understand they are often at a disadvantage from birth and white British people at least recognise the advantage they have because of how they look. However, this paradigm is not going to change anytime soon so to continuously complain or shout about it will ultimately not lead to any progress.
There are lot more issues within the black community that we need to be addressing if we want to see real change for black British people.
We have too many internal problems within the black community
The only way black British people will circumvent white privilege is for us to be collectively better as a people. And yet, when I look around, we often failing at this incredibly.
For the most part, and this is just my own anecdotal observations, black British people don’t invest their money back into their own community to generate wealth for everyone the same way Jews or Asians do. We do not support or champion each other, especially our young men, who would rather compete with each other and boast of fancy cars and of girls they’ve slept with.
It’s all well and good preaching the evils of white privilege but the black community honestly needs to be looking inwardly at our own problems. To me, when the black community puts too much focus on white privilege, it's like a sprinter complaining about a competing sprinter that has been giving a head start in the race, yet the sprinter that is complaining isn't even in a good condition to run the race anyway.
Young black boys are dying on the streets on an almost weekly basis. More than half of young people in jail are from a black and minority ethnic background. Our cultural artefacts, from black music to black films, perpetuate and reinforce all the negative stereotypes associated with the black experience.
Simply put, there are too many internal issues within the black community, particularly among our young men, that we really shouldn’t be wasting our energy shouting about white privilege.
" To me, when the black community puts too much focus on white privilege, it's like a sprinter complaining about a competing sprinter that has been giving a head start in the race, yet the sprinter that is complaining isn't even in a good condition to run the race anyway. "
Instead, we should be addressing the issue of our “black culture” and what values we are passing down to the next generation of young black British people. The only way we, as a community, will get ahead is not by condemning white privilege but by cultivating and encouraging the right attitudes and values among our people, despite what other people may think of us.
Since the end of slavery, our right to do better and be better as people is a privilege that has always belonged to black people.
And white privilege cannot take away our freedom to improve.
So let’s be better, instead of bitter.