Racist ideologies are an organic component of attempts to make sense of the present crisis. The fear that society is falling apart at the seams has prompted the elaboration of theories about race which turn on particular notions of culture. The ‘alien’ cultures of the blacks are seen as either the cause or else the most visible symptom of the destruction of the ‘British way of life’.
The above quote is from the book ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Race and racism in 70s Britain’, written by Errol Lawrence, a leading figure of what was the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. While he writes about Britain, the racist, nationalist ideology he speaks of can be found in many countries.
He explains that when black people are seen as alien cultures destroying ‘a way of life’, they become an enemy that is, at the same time, ‘within’ but not from here: ‘They are in Britain but not of Britain’, he says. This can lead to a ‘kind of historical forgetfulness’, which got my brain thinking about the protests happening worldwide.
‘Historical forgetfulness’ lets people align themselves with a certain part of history that supports their world view while erasing the aspects that don’t.
When Britain colonised countries and the bastard children of the Empire established in the mother country, ‘the blacks became a home-grown problem’, as Lawrence puts it. With it, the whole meaning of 'Britishness' embedded in powerful images of the purity of nation, family and way of life, was endangered by external agents. It turns out, you can’t crash a stranger’s party, empty out their booze, feast on their food, trash their furniture, steal their dog, and then get upset when people show up at your place asking for a share.
By erasing the past that led to the present moment, we align ourselves to certain aspects of culture that are cherry-picked at our convenience. For example, it’s common to hear Argentineans say 'we’re all descendants of European immigrants’ - while this is true for around 60% of the population, it also erases from history that this was possible only after a state-funded campaign killed up to 225,000 indigenous people in the 19th Century, which was later recognised as a genocide (and today’s racism against brown and black immigrants continues to be rampant). Similarly, in Australia, a country at the centre of several racist incidents, there were between 1 and 1.5 million aboriginals in 1788, and by 1901, after the government implemented genocidal policies, less than 100,000 aboriginal people remained.
Every culture has something to hide from the past that doesn’t fit with the myth they portray to the world, but as Lawrence says, ‘The past is alive, even if transformed, in the present.’ People erase and forget parts of history to cope with their ‘fear of society falling apart’ and replace them with new narratives, but the cost of doing so is high. We can’t forget that racism is the result of the combined effect of economic, political, ideological and cultural processes. We can’t forget police brutality, even if they try to gaslight us. We can’t forget that while messages of solidarity from brands are welcomed, few of them have black people in leadership positions. We can’t forget that black lives matter every single day of the year and that we can be allies in different ways. We can’t forget that racial microaggressions happen under our noses all the damn time, and it’s our job to call people out and stop it. We can’t forget these protests have been going on around the world for decades, if not hundreds of years, and change is due.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Alabama, USA.
Hi, and thanks for reading me again. I took a month hiatus from this newsletter, the past month has been hard for a number of reasons and I’ve struggled to make sense of what is happening around me and in the world. I feel a little bit hopeless at the minute - finding inspiration and the right words to talk about what I care about has been hard. For once, I decided to stop being so hard on myself and take a break. Hope you’re taking care and will try to hit your inbox again soon.
PS The first chapter of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ is in the link, if you’re interested in reading.