Accepting shared blame – offering allyship to the BLM movement

Charlotte Russell

Wiseman Khuzwayo Scholarship PhD student

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white US police officer in May this year sparked wider and more vocal support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Those supporting the movement have expressed the lack of ‘innocence’ in nations beyond the US. International narrative has indicated the structural racism woven into the fabric of societies worldwide. This has prompted us to examine our role individually and institutionally in building a racism-free UK. That racism pervades throughout our society today, and continues to place Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people at disadvantage cannot be disputed. From education to socioeconomic opportunity, representation in the workplace to beauty norms, racial profiling to healthcare standards, cultural appropriation to covert racism, it is clear that we have a long way to go. What remains less clear is the most effective and appropriate ways to offer allyship to the BLM movement.

While demonstrations of support  are certainly beneficial, many individuals and institutions have been quick to celebrate their role or self-view as anti-racist, or perhaps ‘colour-blind’ (See: Emmanuel Acho: Seeing Colour). But both the human mind and social structures are so innately complex that we cannot reliably declare either to be wholly any one thing. Thus the vocal admission and discussion of our culpability, from a personal to a structural level, is vital in preventing implicit denial of fault in our self-assertion as allies.

Allies wishing to demonstrate anti-racism must be careful not to do so in such a way that we distance ourselves from the reality of ongoing racial inequality and our role within it. Until 2015, the UK were paying off £20M of compensation to 46,000 slave owners for ‘loss of human property’. Tweeting about this, the Treasury framed the present day taxpayers’ contribution to the compensation of slave owners in a positive light, presenting the information in such a way as to encourage the self-congratulation of both the institution and the reader.

This was removed a matter of hours later after an outcry about the details of the payment agreement, which were omitted from the Tweet. Even discounting debates over malintent versus ignorance, this occurrence indicates just how easily our national history can be misrepresented and ‘whitewashed’.  Focusing on abolition whilst staying silent on the centuries of slave-trading and slave-owning which preceded it demonstrates the risk we face when reducing an action which concerns human rights to its bare elements.

The question I feel we as individuals and as institutions should consider is the extent to which our denouncement of racism can achieve tangible change without open discussion of our own culpability in ongoing mistakes. Be it conscious or unconscious, it can only be through ongoing actions that structural racism continues. However, when we examine what admitting this requires, we can see all too clearly the challenges which we face. In admitting to ongoing ‘blame’, non-BAME people risk both their personal comfort and a degree of control over their reputation. In the first instance, individuals feel threatened when the image of themselves as ‘not racist’ is contradicted; secondly admission opens individuals up to scrutiny of their imperfections, not only in the past but the present. We are far more vulnerable in admitting these uncomfortable truths than we are in vehemently denouncing racism or declaring that we will now be anti-racist moving forward. Thus we see non-BAME people appearing far more comfortable with denunciation of racism which is in some way distanced, in their view, from their own lives. But to raise and discuss these same issues as having been committed, allowed, or unquestioned by themselves leads to far more personal and social vulnerability. It is human nature to avoid this risk and discomfort, but to do so maintains a firm barrier to social progress.

At the Wilberforce Institute, we seek to learn from historical slavery and related humanitarian crimes in order to reduce their existence today and in the future. What we can be sure of is that in seeking to address these issues we have to continue to question the stereotypes and assumptions that are embedded in our culture, and provide a platform in which admission of ongoing mistakes is exemplified and normalised. We must be open not only regarding the reality of the past but of the resultant situation of racial inequality in our society today. Fundamentally, it will be a willingness both to admit this and to learn accordingly which enables social progression.

Pushing against racism is a task that applies to everybody. By focusing upon a self-image we believe is not racist, we as allies risk prioritising self-soothing over the change we are outwardly pursuing. This practice sees individuals and institutions indulging in self-congratulation regarding behaviour we believe to be anti-racist, celebrating actions taken towards racial equality without acknowledging ongoing fault and trauma, denouncing racism without addressing our past culpability and ongoing mistakes, or distancing ourselves from the label of ‘racist’ when our behaviour has knowingly or unknowingly been so. Instead, we ought to seek vocal acceptance of not just past, but ongoing mistakes. Trying to distance ourselves from the label of ‘racist’ isn’t going to create an environment where we can call one another out, accept misgivings and accept correction without taking personal offence. Only through the cultivation of a culture in which this acceptance of culpability is normalised can we move towards genuine societal growth, learning and ultimately, change.

Children Falling Through the Net

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Charlotte Russell

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

The Wilberforce Institute is home to a number of students whose PhD research focuses on child migration and exploitation, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Four recently came together to explore the connections and the points of difference between their studies. James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury are first year students in the Falling through the Net cluster, and Charlotte Russell is in her second year. They share their thoughts below.

Our connections:

All four of our research projects are concerned with the situations and processes, emerging in the context of migration, that place children at risk of exploitation. Although approached in different ways, and applied in disparate geographical, cultural and historical contexts, there are common concerns relating to issues of vulnerability and victimhood.

Vulnerabilities are understood, in part, as a condition of childhood, since to varying degrees children depend on adults for protection and survival. However, settlement in unfamiliar territories brings with it cultural and linguistic displacement and furthers the risks of exploitation. This raises important concerns regarding children on the move, who not only have specific needs but are also the bearers of rights.  This in turn focuses attention on the power differentials between adults and children and the relationships between children and the state. It is notable in all our projects that the experiences of migrant children are varied and complex, but also, crucially, that their perspectives are often missing.

Victimhood represents the second of our common concerns. We all seek to balance the acknowledgment of vulnerabilities with the risk of imposing culturally determined images of victimhood upon migrant children. In managing these issues our work is linked by a critical approach, not the notion of ‘victim’ in itself, but to the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood upon children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma or harm in relation to forced migration.

Our differences:

James and heritage

My particular focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration. As a historian who is interested in memory studies and public history, I am concentrating largely on how museums and memorials have chosen to represent the topic of forced child emigration from Britain to Australia. This research raises a number of important issues; not only do I need to investigate the role that former child migrants themselves have played in defining their own heritage, but I also need to understand how the wider public relates to this history and their contemporary moral judgments of child migrant schemes. I will also be looking to make a comparative analysis of the British and Australian heritage regimes at large, in addition to how the creation of heritage markers in relation to the Home Children can facilitate the wider process of historical redress and reconciliation.

Jasmine and rescue

My project focuses on child rescue – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. I am looking at forced child migration (from Britain to Canada) and compulsory residential schooling (for Indigenous Canadian children) in the 20th Century, to explore the ways in which these drastic, and, ultimately harmful practices were legitimised. Factors that were significant in cementing these forms of ‘child rescue’ include, I suggest, the assumed moral authority of white middle-class philanthropists, religious institutions and other agencies of the state, in addition to the alignment of child rescue with imperialist and colonial political agendas, namely white settlement and assimilation. These cases raise important questions about the nature of the ‘parent state’: who is entitled to act on behalf of children; how are these arrangements constructed, which potentially conflicting interests do they also serve, and to whom are they accountable?

Saphia and the environment

My research looks specifically at modern-day child migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change. In my analysis of legal frameworks for the protection of children, I found that, while sufficient legal protections do exist, these are frequently not applied to children on the move. Moreover, there is a protection gap for people migrating as a result of environmental change, who do not fit the category of ‘refugees’.  As a result, many are pushed into exploitative situations, or suffer abuse or an inability to realise their human rights. As climate change reduces the number of people who can sustain a livelihood at home, we might expect the international community to provide support and sustainable solutions for those who need to move. Yet in the context of climate change, the issue of ‘agency’ becomes muddied; more so when considering the decisions made by children who leave their homes in search of a better life.

Charlotte and encampment

In my research, the refugee camp becomes the focus of attention as I assess the role of power and responsibility in the management of such camps. My study seeks to evaluate how these power dynamics, operating within the boundaried and politically contested zone of the refugee camp, influence the embodiment and enactment of a rights consciousness among the young refugees living within them. Children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma suffer the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood or harm in relation to forced migration. As a result, a key issue which my work aims to address is the effective representation of the experiences of young refugees in camps, without homogenisation or groupism. I’m seeking to balance evidencing young refugees’ expressions of agency with the acknowledgement of their complex and varied individual experiences of ‘childhood’.

Thank you for your interest in our research. We will be adding other blogs as our work develops.

Children photographed as they prepare to leave Britain in the 1960s.