You may have noticed that I have been quiet on social media this last week on the accounts with the pretty fabrics and the pretty photos. I have been taking the time to think over the fact that I have known better, but have not, for a lot of my adult life, done better, or at least done as well as I should have. I’m afraid this post will be rather an outpouring of the results of my ruminations, however I will state clearly now that if you don’t want to see ‘politics’ or even ‘humanity’ in your feed, then I am not the person you want to follow – note that this is not an airport, you don’t need to announce your departure, and I will be deleting anything where there is any suggestion of ‘All lives matter’, that ‘protesters should be doing things differently’, or any other related racist rhetoric. You have been warned.
This last week has embedded in me a deep sense of shame, for my own behaviour (and I’m counting passiveness as a chosen behaviour here) along with a feeling that I’ve felt this before, read about these issues before, and that things do not seem to have changed thus far. I really do hope that this time there will be more action by our governments, councils and leaders in other areas to make meaningful changes, and not at the usual snails pace that legislative changes generally go at – if we were quickly able to enact rules when a medical pandemic hit, we can certainly manage it again in other areas.
So why do I feel I have known better and not done better? Well you’ll need to go for a small journey through my life history to understand. By the age of 5 I had lived in Northern Ireland, Nigeria, the US, Scotland and England. I don’t remember much from those formative years, certainly nothing from Northern Ireland or Nigeria, but I do remember there being changes made to my behaviour and actions based on those experiences. From my primary school years I can clearly remember learning the following:
- It was absolutely not okay to discriminate against anyone because of the colour of their skin, whether it was choosing who was going to be in your team for games at school or referring to the owners of the corner shop, one did not call people names, nor shy away from them if they tried to touch you, or suggest that they smelled differently to you (although I remember privately wondering what exotic foods caused one of my friends, who was of Indian origin, to have clothes that were quite so pungent, I certainly didn’t ask her, and these days I eat foods that make my own clothes smell if I happen to have got some washing up on the pulley when I’m making the likes of Thai Green Curry)
- We did not buy things made by Nestle because of the baby milk scandal which especially affected mothers in third world countries (as I recall we were ahead of when this article suggests the UK opted into the campaign, as I remember this from the early 80’s, I suspect because we had seen the results first hand in Nigeria) It was my first lesson in the fact that having principles meant that sometimes you had to give up the things you liked in order to prove a point (I think my biggest regret at the time was Milky Bars) I’m not entirely sure that 4 decades later Nestle have got the point, but I still don’t buy their goods.
- We did not buy food imported from South Africa because of their policy of Apartheid – this was an interesting challenge because the UK had reached a point in its grocery shopping where it expected to be able to get certain foods year round – bananas, oranges and many other fruit and vegetables were in that bracket. Obviously seasons move around the hemispheres, so at certain times of the year what was available was coming from the southern hemisphere, but back in the day supermarkets didn’t tend to tell you the provenance of their goods, so you had to rely on stickers which might indicate where things had come from (certainly in Sainsbury’s and Tesco you can generally see printed both on the packaging and the shelves where things originate now)
- Newsreaders adopt a somewhat weary air, if not indifference, if they are reporting the same things repeatedly – I had to listen to the best part of an hour of the Today program on Radio 4 every morning of my childhood and I can vividly remember the monotonous, dismal tone of the presenter doing the summarising of the day’s news when mentioning that gunmen had burst into a house in North/West Belfast/Derry etc and killed one or more of the occupants in front of their families. They perked up a lot more when those same terrorists dared to set foot on the mainland – yep, the Brits set out to colonise many far flung places, but they also popped next door to the smaller island to the west and created chaos which has continued for centuries there. At the moment the media is all excited about the various protests around the world surrounding Black Lives Matter, I hope they will not be heading for weary indifference any time soon.
- Families could be made up of mummies and daddies, and mummies and mummies, and daddies and daddies, and all of these were okay, people were people regardless of who they loved, and we had family friends who fell into the latter categories of families so I didn’t really consider that anyone would think this was not the case. I never understood the playground taunts of ‘That’s so gay!’ because I never thought it was a bad thing. I’m still perplexed that this type of language persists.
By the time I got to secondary school I had expanded to:
- The understanding that no matter how strange a person’s name looked on paper, one had to suck it up and learn how to pronounce the names of your friends and acquaintances – this was not a huge stretch for me, as no-one at school could pronounce my Gaelic first name any more than they could initially pronounce my Taiwanese friend Shin Pei’s name, especially her last name of Hsieh. They got to grips with hers first, but I remember that she was always rather jealous of her younger brother who had been born in the UK after she and her parents had moved from Taiwan so that her dad could manage a division of one of the Taiwanese factories in town – they named him Ian.
- The need to recycle – I can remember wrestling a couple of huge ‘can bins’ through a crowded train and a subsequent 2 mile walk to school along with some friends so that we could place them in the canteen to help people help save the planet.
- The need to let people know that denial of human rights was not okay – my friends and I ran the Amnesty group at school, and sent countless letters to regimes around the world, from dictators passing laws denying the rights of some of their subjects to governors of prisons in the US presiding over executions on death row. I don’t think I can ever remembering writing to a governor to spare a white man’s life on death row, because I’m pretty sure the ones being threatened with execution were almost all black. I did learn that both dictators and governors didn’t really care what privileged little white girls thought of their behaviour, and since this was long before the days of social media where we could broadcast our thoughts to a wider audience and potentially summon up more support, most pleas went unheard, and all went unacknowledged.
- The knowledge that just because a person shares a race, creed or skin colour with someone, does not make them the same. I remember first really thinking about that as a 16 year old high school exchange student in rural Canada when my host father and his father tried to tell me that all indigenous Canadians were lazy drunks living off the state. The perception was that they were handed money by the state just because they were First Nations people (although that wasn’t the term being used at the time) and that they were completely work shy. I was baffled, Surely they weren’t all that way, because if nothing else some of them weren’t even old enough to work or buy drink, and surely no-one is born thinking that when they grow up they want to be unemployed and drunk. This was a new form of racism to me because the native Canadians were not being picked out for the colour of their skin, but because they happened to be there first and occupied lands that the new white settlers really wanted for themselves.
- The understanding that there were a lot of people who considered life expendable, both in the present day, but also atrocities carried out in the past. Whilst I had been aware of current atrocities in third world countries through my Amnesty work, and I had been aware that in the Deep South of the US there had been racial segregation and inequalities even as recently as the 60’s, it wasn’t until I read a text book in my Social History class in Canada that I ever saw it written quite so starkly that in the past people had been recruited for certain jobs because it was considered at the time that it didn’t really matter if they died. Attending a history class was one of the requirements of my exchange program, and I was worried that given that I’d been put up into grade 12, I would have missed most of the history of the country thus far (since history lessons in the UK had taken 11 whole years, with large chunks missed out along the way, given that it went Egyptians -> Romans -> 1066 and Harold getting his eye taken out in the Norman invasion -> the war of the Roses, Henry the 8th and all his wives -> the industrial revolution -> WW1, the Russian Revolution, WW2 and the Cold War) I needn’t have worried, because we covered the entire history of Canada, from a white perspective, in a single semester. I have no idea what they had learned previously, but the bit that really caught my attention was the casual mention, in passing, of the fact that both the US and Canada had brought in a lot of Chinese labourers with their knowledge of dynamite in order to blast through the Rockies and other mountain ranges so that they could put a railway line across the country. Apparently, if they died, they weren’t deemed to have mattered because they were only Chinese. I remember thinking, ‘Wait, are we not going to talk about this?!’ when the bell rang. We never did pick it up again in the next class.
And then I went to uni and I became too busy to continue to fight injustices beyond reprimanding fellow students on their use of certain language or donating to a few causes and signing a few petitions. I say I became too busy, but really, I stopped making the time. I hadn’t seen an Amnesty group at the Fresher’s Fair and there were lots more interesting things to explore and spend my time on, and even after I graduated, I continued with that passive behaviour.
In 2007 though, I was sent to work in South Africa for 6 months, in Johannesburg specifically. The pensions and insurance company that I worked for in the UK had bought a life insurance product from a South African insurance company and I was employed to make sure the actuarial calculations were correct in the software they were writing for us. Well boy did that open up an interesting set of discussions! In the UK we were only allowed to make changes to the calculations of someone’s life insurance premiums based on their age, gender and smoker status, all of which were deemed to be things which would affect the age at which one was likely to die. In South Africa they were allowed to throw in rate adjustments based on race, where you lived and much more. I was shocked – the last apartheid laws had been repealed in 1991, and Nelson Mandela had become the first elected black leader of the country in 1994, so how were these still acceptable practices well over a decade later? And why did nobody seem to think this was crazy other than me?
The actuarial conversations actually took place in the 6 months or so before I was sent out to Jo’burg, so it should have prepared me a little for what attitudes would be like when I got there, but it didn’t. In our area of the office there were black employees as well as white, but the whites were all senior to the blacks and any other people of colour, and the blacks were often treated as if they were stupid. It happened that it was the 2 black ladies in the test team who were assigned to my area of the project, and I spent more time talking to them than anyone in the office while i was there. We had interesting and eye opening conversations on both sides, for one thing they were convinced that I might actually die from malnutrition if I didn’t eat more meat (I can go meatless for days, I’m just not that fond of the taste of most of it) and they were astounded that I didn’t have both a housekeeper and a gardener at home. I admit that I was rather astounded that they did, but as time went on I began to understand a lot more, such as the fact that the welfare state in South Africa was nothing like it was in the UK, and if you had no job, you had no money to eat or put a solid roof over your head, it was that simple. To that end, there were jobs there that we wouldn’t think of employing people to do in the UK, such as the lady whose job it was to go round and clear up all the mugs and glasses from the tea/coffee stations on each floor in the office (I was quickly reprimanded on my first day for trying to be helpful and put my own glass back in the dishwasher, because if everyone did that then she wouldn’t have a job) and many working in white collar jobs, regardless of whether they were black or white, had people to help them out at home with gardens, cleaning and babysitting.
I could go on a lot more about experiences I had in South Africa, in fact when searching for some lost photographs on an old hard drive last week I found a couple of diary entries I wrote after visiting Soweto and then, a few months later, Robben Island down in the Cape, while on a long weekend trip with colleagues. They capture my rage at the time about how people were treated during Apartheid, how that legacy still greatly affects people today, and my great frustration at the white South Africans who couldn’t understand why anyone would bother trying to learn about the history of the ANC, or how black people were treated both in general and as prisoners, or what happened when Hector Pieterson was gunned down in 1976 and the subsequent uprising, unrest, and lack of education for a whole generation of black south Africans. “It was all in the past,” they said, “Who cares?” I challenged beliefs and understandings, but there was no real appetite for understanding or change amongst the whites, and so when I left again I stopped fighting and pushing.
In the years since I have fought perceptions that overseas colleagues are stupid, an insidious and pervasive attitude that seems rampant within the IT community, unfortunately not just amongst the white members – for nearly 6 years my entire team was overseas, and they would tell you that I would ‘mama bear’ anyone that tried to imply that they couldn’t do their job in any way simply because of their location. Nowadays I have a split between UK and overseas staff in my team, but as a group we work well with each other and support each other to get the job done – the overseas line manager, on a call about my team’s annual reviews, observed that our team seemed a lot more cohesive than the other cross country squads, and I’d like to think it’s because we don’t have an attitude that anyone is better just because of their geographic location or skin colour. We also have a trans colleague on the UK side of our team that recently came out, who the overseas line manager was worried about her staff’s behaviour towards. In fact they didn’t bat an eyelid, and switched names and gender in one swift move, along with the rest of us. BTW, did you know that the Stonewall riots that were the precursor to today’s Pride parades were led by black LGBTQ people? Well now you do, and yet while many white LGBTQ people around the world happily march in the parades in western countries, there are many countries, especially within the continent of Africa, where it is illegal to be L, G, B, T, Q or anything that isn’t perfectly straight and gender conforming. A series that National Geographic ran over several years, Where Love Is Illegal, generated a huge amount of hatred on their Instagram posts, and there were many requests that Nat Geo went back to ‘what they should be doing with endangered animals’. So there is much to be done for this very special minority.
I have been following several activists on Instagram for years, and signed petitions and donated to legal funds when requests were made, but I have generally been lazy. Liking posts from a handful of people for a few minutes a day is not enough, so I have signed up to follow more accounts in more countries, both ones for activists and for people of colour in hobbies that I enjoy, namely photography and sewing. I have signed more petitions in the last week that I think I had in the last year, sought out and supported more diverse organisations and am generally trying to do better.
Whilst I had considered going to the protest down at Glasgow Green today, which not only supported the general Black Lives Matter movement but also marked the 5 year anniversary of the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody in Fife, having read a request by his sister, a nurse, for people not to attend and spread the Corona virus, especially given that BAME people in general were more at risk of catching and dying from it, I decided to go with the online protest, and to print out a poster for my window to mark my participation.
I will not do this perfectly, but I’m not going to excuse myself for that, and I do not expect any pats on the head for doing what I should have been doing for years, I knew better, I should have done better.
For anyone interested, here are just a handful of Instagram accounts both for people I think that inform me about issues, but also that show off pretty fabric and pretty pictures (actually, the pictures aren’t too pretty right now, what with many being related to the protests, but they’re very good photos even if they aren’t of a lovely lake at sunset) there are plenty more out there, but I’m sure you can find them with a bit of work
- Shaun King – activist (US). I started following him a number of years ago after seeing him in a BBC news article – he has many calls to action, information about incidents that haven’t made the national or international news, and also resurrected the North Star, a newspaper aimed at black people in the US
- S. Lee Merritt – civil rights lawyer (US) Often linked to Shaun above
- Candace Braithwaite – author and presenter (UK)
- Rachel Cargle – teacher (US)
- Layla F. Saad – author (US)
- Blklivesmatter – activism (US)
- mvmnt4blklives – activism (US)
- ckyourprivilege – activism (US)
- BLMUK – activism (UK)
- Amnesty UK – activism (UK)
- UK Black Pride – activism (UK)
- Pattie Gonia – environmental/LGBTQ activist (US)
- Greening Youth – charity helping black youth and young adults into careers in nature (US)
- BLKMakersMatter – black makers united
- Etta Vee – fabulously colourful artist (FR)
- Oh Happy Danni – artist (US) – you will probably recognise some of her work
- Rashida Coleman Hale – fabric designer and member of the original Cotton + Steel and Ruby Star Society
- Latifa Saafir – quilter (US) – the designer of the Clammy rulers and patterns
- Nicole (Mama Loves Quilts) – quilter (US)
- Sandra Johnson – clothes maker (US)
- Sheila Pree Bright – photographer (US)
- Alyssa Pointer – photographer (US)
- Eley – photographer (US)
- Lynsey Weatherspoon – photographer (US)
- Trevon Allworthy – photographer (US)