For most Americans, there is a lovely myth surrounding Britain which portrays it as an idealized, quasi pastoral place. It is the place where there are no guns and thus, we hope, less violent death. It is the place of intellectuals and polite politicians (or at least politicians far politer than the usual American fare). And supposedly it is the place of progressive politics, particularly racial politics—or at least so African Americans like to believe. After yet another spike in racialized violence—this time between police who are meant to protect and serve and various black citizens; after more protests and criticism of the protestors—deemed rioters and criminals in the conservative American press; after a frightening spike in white nationalism—now called the “alt. right” whose Ku Klux Klan members had resumed actively recruiting; after the recent fiasco that was the 2016 U.S. election season, African Americans looked for locations they might turn to, nations who had somehow managed to escape institutionalizing racism and which might offer them the chance to exists as full, equal citizens. Some looked to Canada, imagining it might be time to modernize the Underground Railroad. Others looked away from the hemisphere to parts of Europe and….Britain.
Admittedly I too once held such ideals, long ago before I acknowledged the ways the U.S. had, in fact, replicated British systems and thus attitudes. I began to suspect that, after America’s ascendancy to global power, the relationship still existed but as a two-way street. I suspected that some of the same discourses and tropes around racial difference might actually appear in the UK, given its colonial history—I hoped I was wrong, that perhaps I would only find these discourses in faded newspapers. That Paul Gilroy’s landmark text There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) would prove outdated….imagine my dismay when I discovered a second edition of the book entered print in 2002.
Encounter 1: At Camden Market in London, I was standing just beyond a stall waiting for the rain to stop when I overheard a customer and a merchant negotiating the price of a dress. Soon a Muslim woman, dressed in full hijab, walked past me followed by a Black woman whose head was wrapped in a scarf. I detected a faint accent in the Black woman and could only assume she was Jamaican, though how far back I couldn’t tell. It seemed negotiations had failed and the Muslim customer had walked away, as you do. But the Black merchant pursued, obnoxiously yelling “It’s a very nice dress, very pretty. It covers all your skin so no one can see anything, like you ghosts like.” I was mortified. Had I actually heard that? Surely the merchant new similar taunts had been flung at Black people for generations. How could she say such a thing?
Year Zero: Black Country (2014) discusses just these dynamics, examining the experiences of immigrants from India and the West Indies. The film reveals the distressing absence of coalition politics between different minority groups. The Indians in the film insistently defined themselves in opposition to the immigrants—both Black and Indian—from the West Indies. In a place where, as Paul Gilroy explains, racial difference/ otherness is intimately intertwined with geographic origin despite actual skin color, the person of color has an intense struggle in accessing citizenship. As he notes, anyone not born on Britain’s soil, regardless of skin color, will have profound difficulty being accepted as white, let alone British. Thus for non-white citizens of Britain’s colonial and commonwealth nations, the struggle becomes a complex question of who arrived first. But for Britons of color, receiving recognition as full citizens can prove equally difficult, regardless of how long their family has been in this country. The Indians in the film argued they were more British than other residents of color as Britain’s first major colony, and thus the first population to arrive and labor in Britain (of course, Miranda Kaufmann’s recent monograph Black Tudors (2017) argues otherwise, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). The distressing reality is that, in hoping to access citizenship, populations of color reproduce similar racial dynamics and politics of construction which predominate the construction of whiteness. It is a construction of self which relies upon locating difference in another (or an other) body and defining that difference as lesser. Thus the Black woman above was proving her national belonging through loudly marking the Muslim woman as alien other. Unsurprisingly, after her performance, the Black woman looked to the people around her for affirmation, turning to me and others jesting, “you know what I mean.”
Encounter 2: Walking towards The Moor Market one morning, a briskly walking older Asian woman crossed my past, pursued by a British white male of similar age. I assumed they must have known each other, maybe had a fight, until he spoke. “What, you’re afraid of me,” he brutishly chuckled, still in pursuit as the woman ducked into a store. He paused outside the shop’s door, laughing, before walking away. I never heard the woman say a word.
We all know that certain rights accrue with citizenship; but what most of us don’t have to daily confront is that among those rights is a degree of consensual civility between citizens. In this post-Brexit, post-Trump era, that civility has taken on profound ramifications, and now also signifies freedom from physical harassment and possible assault. Furthermore, the man’s comments allude to his refusal to acknowledge the way monstrosity can be associated with his body, though he was much larger than the silent, fleeing woman. This, too, is part of the dynamics of race and citizenship. Popular discourses, borrowing from Gothic trends (or is it, really, the other way around), locate monstrosity and terror in the other body, the one from without that threatens to invade, contaminate, and usurp the power of those rightfully within. And even while Gothic texts worry over the possibility of degeneration, it is a degeneration that typically originates elsewhere. Social discourses are, perhaps, worse, latching on to the performance of abjection without ever realizing its true lesson. Thus degeneration and corruption is always a consequence of those “monstrous others” who we should exile, but we don’t pause to acknowledge that we are already innately degenerative. So we can pursue and laugh, and wonder at the other’s terror.
Encounter 3: Leaving a screening of Britain on Film: Black Britain (2017) I had a chance to chat with a Black Briton about her experiences. I noted that the film, which was a collection of archival footage, primarily focused on Black Immigrants to Britain; only two of the film’s 18 archival clips really focused on native Black Britons. Explaining that the collection conveyed the sense that Black Britons are primarily immigrants, I asked her if this is consistent with her experience. “Yes,” she replied. “I was born here, my mom was born here, and my grandmother, but people still ask me where I’m from.” As we walked towards the exit, we continued conversing about citizenship and recognition, and the difference between accessing Britishness and accessing Englishness. As we parted, I asked her what it feels like to be an alien in her own country. She shrugged and started to walk away but then turned to ask, “Are you ever fully American?” “Depends on where I am in the U.S. I’m from Miami originally so I’m American compared to the Latino immigrant population….” Oh dear; I see her point.
For more on Black British History, see:
Black Britain on Film: How black lives in Britain have been captured on film over the last century.
Black British History on record
Black and British: A Forgotten History
Black and British: A Forgotten History