Please Stop Imposing American Views about Race on Us
Looking at the experience of black Britons through an American lens obscures more than it reveals.
Construction workers reopen Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square after it was covered with metal panels to protect it against defacement by protestors.
Over the past couple of months, many Britons have imported American discourse on race wholesale. When asked to analyze the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent.
Take a look, for instance, at a meme that has been circulating among some of my white friends on Facebook and Instagram:
I have privilege as a White person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it … I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery). I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson). I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#Jonathan Ferrell and #RenishaMcBride). I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark). I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards). I can play loud music (#JordanDavis). I can sell CDs (#AltonSterling). I can sleep (#AiyanaJones). I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
The post goes on and on, like an interminable spoken-word poem. All the individuals listed are American, but most of the people who have shared this on my timeline are British. In trying to express their solidarity with black Britons, they are affirming a supposedly transcendental truth: to be black is to live in perpetual terror of being murdered by the state.
But Britain is not America. And importing American race discourse into the United Kingdom not only prevents us from recognizing the specific ways in which racial injustice manifests in this country—it cloaks the reality of black British lives behind an abstraction that flattens our humanity.
Britain has a long and painful history of anti-black racism. In the twentieth century alone, the growing black presence led to a long catalogue of abuses: the 1919 race riots in Liverpool, Cardiff and London; the 1958 race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill; the 1969 police murder of David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who was tortured, pissed on and finally drowned in a river in Leeds. I could list other examples. It is not hard to see why the horrific killing of George Floyd has evoked such strong feelings in this country as well.
But for all of the country’s flaws, Britain is not America. Trying to understand its racial dynamics through the lens of another country’s does more to obscure than to illuminate the situation that black Britons like myself actually face.
The average black American in the United States can trace his ancestry further back than the average white American. Most black Americans are descended from enslaved Africans. Their forebears suffered through the segregation and racial terror of the Jim Crow era. The majority of black people in the United Kingdom, by contrast, are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Though many of them have certainly had harrowing experiences with injustice or discrimination, they do not have the same history of racist disadvantage.
To understand the experience of black Britons, it is not only necessary to grasp how different their history is from that of black Americans: we need to understand the diversity captured by the label “black British.” For example, around two out of every three students with Congolese or Somali origins get free school meals, a standard indicator that their parents are poor. Among students with Nigerian or Ghanaian origins, only one in five do. It is also noteworthy that black Caribbean students are twice as likely to be excluded from school as black African students.
The discrepancy in educational attainment is just as stark. On average, 58% of black African students graduate from middle school at grade level (defined as achieving A* to C grades at GCSE)—about the same number as white students. But black Caribbean students are significantly less likely to do so—while those whose parents hail from Nigeria actually outperform their white peers by a considerable margin.
None of this is to disavow the label “black British.” But we need to invest it with the nuance consonant with its reality—and to cast doubt on the idea that every discrepancy in representation must be explained by structural injustice or white supremacy.
There has, for example, been a lot of concern about the underrepresentation of black Britons in professions like the arts and publishing. But why would you choose to go into theater or journalism—rather than law, medicine or finance—if you are a talented child of ambitious but not well off immigrants?
This is not a flippant question. While representation can be important, anybody who actually wants to improve the condition of black Britons should at least be a little curious about why they are overrepresented in some prestigious professions and underrepresented in others. In a country in which black people make up only three percent of the population, for example, six percent of junior doctors are black. Would the country—or the black community—really benefit if more black Britons chose to ditch medicine for the theater? The debate is worth having. But in the place of that debate, there have only been pious paeans to diversity.
The stereotype of the West African parent who wants their child to study law or medicine bears some relation to reality; but the widespread view of black people as perennial victims devoid of agency is a defamatory abstraction. The black person in Britain, like Ralph Ellison’s iconic protagonist, is “invisible because no one wants to see him.”
So much of the British reaction to the death of George Floyd has constituted a failure of nerve. Desperately seeking to assuage their feelings of guilt, to do something, many Britons have sacrificed their critical faculties to a narrative that does not actually help black people—a narrative that, by reducing us to passive abstractions, only makes us more invisible.
Racists assume that black people are all the same. Ironically, anti-racists sometimes do so too. But anybody who is truly committed to racial equality needs to recognize that this kind of simplification neither serves justice nor reflects the truth.
Tomiwa Owolade is a writer who lives in London.