Black History Month is kind of a difficult one for me. I’m all about empowerment for the black community: self empowerment, cultural empowerment, financial empowerment, economic empowerment etc. Black brits like Naomi Campbell, Trevor MacDonald and Diane Abbott (yes, whether you like her not) achieved a lot of firsts for the black community and I definitely think it’s important we celebrate those historical wins.
But let’s be honest: we only really have a single month every year to highlight our issues. As much as I want to celebrate the arrival of the Windrush generation, too much of the media reporting is a selective skin-deep coverage our history without relating that history to what’s happening now.
I’m not saying history isn’t relevant, but discussing racism constantly through the prism of the past allows us to get complacent and think that’s the only place it exists. There’s no point having historical conversations if we’re not going to get real and acknowledge the hurdles black and mixed race people still face today, and have a proper conversation about how we start to eliminate them.
Here are some facts:
- The Department of Education found a black school boy is three times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to the rest of the population, which will then have a big impact on his education and life chances
- Researchers working for the Department of Work and Pensions found applicants with whiter sounding names were called to interview significantly more often
- Between the years 1991-2011 black men have suffered double the rate of unemployment
- Black people are twice as likely to be stopped and searched (a pretty humiliating experience, particularly when it happens on a consistent basis) and are much more likely to receive a harsher response from the police
And that’s just at the lower end of the social scale. If we take a glance at the top of our society, black people are horribly unrepresented. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK has, erm, zero black judges. In Parliament black people are still underrepresented in the House of Commons; from personal experience I know a person of colour is far more likely to be serving you your lunch than representing you as your MP. Over half of FTSE companies don’t have a single person of colour at boardroom level.
The statistics show that there is not a huge lack of ambition in the black population compared to everyone else, in fact you’re actually more likely to move onto higher education. So motivation to succeed isn’t the issue.
And I know what some people will be thinking: ‘well, women have it harder too, as do poorer people and people from an LGBTQ background’. This is true, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t just talk sometimes specifically about race - these complex issues all deserve their own conversations.
And I think that’s problem. We don’t want to talk about it. We’re afraid to talk about it in case we say the ‘wrong’ thing. We kid ourselves into thinking we’re ‘colour blind’ and we don’t even see colour. But the huge disparities shown in the statistics tells us that’s not true. Study after study shows that we make unconsciously biased decisions about people all the time and someone’s race does influence the decisions we make. Not because we’re a horrible society -black people are also perfectly capable of stereotyping other black people too because hey, even the wokest of people still absorb these stereotypes. It takes a long time to erase a whole cultural way of thinking.
Ironically, Black History Month is probably a time when as a society we discuss racism the least, burying the more uncomfortable reality rather than using it as an opportunity to tell people our experiences and create a greater sense of understanding.
So yes, please go to exhibitions and celebrations of the black communities’ contributions to the UK, because it’s important our successes are recognised. But more importantly, ask someone you know who’s black what their experience of racism is, ask them how it makes them feel? As a community, black people need to be steering the conversation more towards what’s happening right now, but it’s a two-way street.
Help create a space for us to have these conversations. Be inquisitive about our experiences and help figure out how we can level out the playing field. Your empathy, understanding and support is everything and will be the only way we can work towards the equal society that I know so many people want.
If you have a story, an experience or an idea you would like to share with HuffPost UK during Black History Month, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org