Race

The Myths of British Progressiveness

About a week ago, a video of a BBC journalist interviewing the Prime Minister of Barbados made the rounds on Twitter. If you didn’t know already, as well as the removal of the Queen as Head of State, Barbados has announced plans to hold a referendum on gay marriage. The BBC journalist questioned Mia Mottley on this, asking her if, in Barbados, “people should be allowed to be gay.” Mottley, quite rightly, found the question offensive and asked the journalist if that was a question he would ask the UK, to which he sanctimoniously responded “well we have laws on gay marriage, you’re having a referendum on gay marriage so it is pertinent.” Mottley handled him and his nonsensical, offensive, questions with admirable aplomb, but of course Black Twitter had to point out the moral superiority exhibited by this wayward white journalist, and the absolute cheek of someone from the UK taking this attitude towards the Prime Minister of a former British colony.

Why? Why isn’t it ok to point out that Britain has passed laws on marriage equality? Why was the journalist wrong for asking that question?

As I wrote on Twitter, the journalist’s question, along with sanctimony dripping from it, is emblematic of that British coloniser mentality – the idea that Britain is far superior and far more civilised than those it colonised. Stating that “we” have laws on gay marriage just screamed “LOOK AT US! LOOK AT HOW MUCH MORE PROGRESSIVE WE ARE!” Those laws were only passed in 2013, but you’d think Britain has been blazing the trail of equality since the dawn of time.

That superiority, that arrogance, displayed by the journalist is seen far too much in British discourse when it comes to discussions about societal progressiveness. Britain has a rather high opinion of itself that it hasn’t really earned, and too often British people use it to absolve the country of the atrocities it has committed in the past. There are a couple of ‘myths’ of British progressiveness that I see crop up time and time again, and it really angers me when I see them because they are arguments of complete erasure. I’m sure there are more, and I’m no historian, but these are the two that really boil my blood.

“wE eNdEd SlAvEry.”

Eurgh. Whenever (and I truly mean every single time) Britain’s sustained act of genocide is brought up, some ignoramus opens their chapped lips to talk about how Britain “ended” slavery. Like the fact that British people had slaves to ‘liberate’ in the first place is something to be proud of – “look at us, we liberated the slaves! Look at how progressive we were!”

No, Britain, no.

Britain did not end the slave trade or abolish slavery (because these are two different things) out of benevolence. I’m sure many of us know about the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, the Quakers and William Wilberforce. But what often gets left out of this telling of history are slaves themselves.

Britain abolished slavery altogether in 1833 because slaves in the Caribbean were rebelling – burning plantations to the ground and costing their owners money. An excellent example of this is the Christmas Rebellion that took place in Jamaica in 1831, led by Sam Sharpe, one of the island’s national heroes. Sharpe planned and led the rebellion – the largest in the British Caribbean – which mobilised approximately 60,000 slaves across the island and lasted eleven days. Emancipation was being debated in the British Parliament at the time, which planters in the Caribbean were, of course, staunchly set against. The Christmas Rebellion had such a significant impact on slavery in Jamaica that it led the British Parliament to emancipate their slave colonies fully. Sam Sharpe was hanged at the end of the rebellion; his final words were “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live as a slave.”

This is not to downplay the role of the Quakers and William Wilberforce, who everyone seems to have heard of, but to highlight that slaves also played a significant role in their emancipation. For every person in Britain who has heard of Wilberforce, I wonder how many know the name of Olaudah Equiano?

Anyway, I digress. The point is, Britain did not voluntarily abolish the slave trade or emancipate slaves in the colonies. These were freedoms that were fought for, and then the Treasury added insult to injury by making us all – including us descendants of slaves – pay for it through our taxes. Yes, you read that right. Slave owners were compensated to the tune of £20m for their loss of property in 1833, and we only finished paying off that debt in 2015. So I paid compensation to the descendants of those who owned my ancestors. That’s just great, isn’t it? But sure, let’s keep celebrating how we “ended” slavery.

Britain is the least racist country in Europe

This one does have *some* ring of truth to it, but it is still annoying as hell. As Dave said during his brilliant Brits performance earlier this year, “I say the least racist is still racist.”

Some British people like to pretend that life is soooo hunky-dory here for Black people, and they just have to compare this country to other European countries to make the point. But again, in doing so they wilfully ignore the long history of racism Black people have had to endure here. In her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge tells the story of Charles Wootton, a Black seaman in Liverpool who was set upon by a crowd of white people, who threw him into the King’s Dock and pelted him with bricks when he tried to swim, until he eventually drowned. Actual lynchings happened in this country, yet British people have the audacity to question whether white supremacy exists here.

Look at the number of riots we’ve had to have to fight said white supremacy on Britain’s streets and in its institutions. Brixton. Notting Hill. Broadwater Farm. And that’s just in London. Furthermore, how exactly do these people think we obtained some semblance of equality in this Babylon? Do they really think that successive British governments just handed it to us willingly? Eddo-Lodge tells us that in 1960 Labour MP Archibald Fenner Brockway tried to bring forward a Race Discrimination Bill. He tabled it nine times, and every single time it was defeated.

Black people’s rights in the UK were hard won. People like Paul Stephenson had to exist (the Bristol Bus Boycott). People like Dame Jocelyn Barrow had to exist (the Race Relations Act). Black people had to campaign. Black people had to fight. Black people lost their liberty in the struggle, Black people lost their lives.

And we are still fighting. Institutional racism is still endemic here and despite the ‘progress’ that has been made, this country is still a truly racist and unjust place to exist in when you are Black.

Conclusion

For every milestone of ‘progress’ mentioned in this post, Britain has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to make change. Some British people want to turn a blind eye to the fact that, at its very core, this country is a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. You see, when you acknowledge that fact, it becomes clear that of course, it wouldn’t willingly relinquish its powers in that regard. People have had to fight – people have died – for some of the freedoms and rights we have now, and to ignore that is both disrespectful and egregious. This country has little to feel morally superior about, and it has no right to look down its crooked nose at the countries it enslaved, exploited and plundered for years.

Anyway, big up Barbados.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.