Anything But Change

The replacement of Edward Colston's statue with Jen Reid is a nice moment. But is symptomatic of a culture of symbolism in lieu of action.

Photo: AP

The public execution of George Floyd and home invasion turned execution of Breonna Taylor, both at the hands of white police officers in the United States, sparked worldwide protest and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The metaphorical and literal stranglehold of white supremacy on black people has never been plainer for all to see. Even if sections of the British public are still meandering through life with their eyes wide shut. Instead choosing to defend statues of racists who's legacies they know nothing about. The most high profile case of this was probably the removal of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. A philanthropist who was honoured due to his financial contributions to Bristol which apparently cancelled out one of his other favourite past times: selling human beings in the transatlantic slave trade. During my Masters Degree at Goldsmiths a number of students protested against a litany of racist practices at the institution, including the refusal to remove statues of figures with ties to the slave trade. I myself was greatly disturbed to be paying money to and being educated at an institution that saw fit to celebrate someone who would have seen me and my family as cattle to be sold and worked in to the ground until our deaths. So I enjoyed seeing Colston's statue topple as much as anyone. So at risk of seeming like a negative Nancy it's important to remind everyone that statues themselves are a symptom of white supremacy rather than the problem itself. The removal of statues in lieu of de-colonising our society won't accomplish anything. Whether statues of racists like Edward Colston are removed or ones of racist like Churchill are left up, the point is that there were still people who felt compelled to try and excavate Colston's statue from the docks and journey to London to defend the statue of Churchill. Statues can hurt black people symbolically but the living and breathing people who go to great lengths to defend them actively mar everyday life. The football fans making monkey noises at matches, the Hugo Boss adorned beer and cocaine fuelled lads who ruin nights out, the HR managers who throw a CV out when they see an Arabic name. As long as we live in a society where anyone even feels comfortable with (not least defends) statues of genocidal racists in public, there is nothing to celebrate.

Photo: FOX; Mike Coppola /Getty Images

In the United States Mike Henry who voiced Cleveland Brown on Family Guy opted to step down after 20 years of playing the role, following the lead of Jenny Slate who stepped down from playing Missy on the Netflix show Big Mouth. Citing the belief that black characters should be played by black actors. Morally I commend them for doing what they think is right though I personally never cared. One also has to question why something suddenly became wrong to Henry after 20 years since racism isn't a new concept. Whilst I understand that white actors playing black characters has the capacity to promote harmful racial stereotypes, in Family Guy's case that's sort of the premise of the show. Peter Griffin is a white overweight uneducated alcoholic after all. Much like the protagonist of the most successful cartoon of all time Homer Simpson, an unintelligent overweight alcoholic who has inexplicably landed a job as a nuclear technician despite being perilously unqualified. The original poster boy of white (or perhaps yellow) privilege. In a sense these cartoons provide as stereotypical a caricature of white men as they do everyone else, so the point of them isn't to stir racial hatred. Whether you agree or not this is a slight deviation. The wider point is that who voices cartoon characters doesn't bother me as much as lynchings so maybe we should focus on that.

Western societies fixation with symbolic change was predicted by Malcolm X who was quoted as saying “The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice". Which  in the case of Colston's statue being replaced with a statue of Reid begs the question: how does the new statue remedy the legacy of slavery? This is not a slight on the artist Marc Quinn who has done some fantastic work in the past trying to showcase the pluralism of British identity (see 100 heads). But we need to be looking at our governments to instigate societal change rather than artists. Boris Johnson and the conservative party's record on racism is so pronounced it doesn't bear dredging up again. Which leaves Black British citizens at the mercy of new leader of the opposition Keir Starmer to catalyse the sort of progress society needs. 

Photo: Twitter/Keir Starmer

Few things elucidate how pointless empty gestures are better than the above image and corresponding tweet from Starmer expressing his pretend support for Black Lives Matter shortly after adding the mother of misogynoir Jess Phillips to his cabinet. He followed up this photo-op by responding to calls to discuss defunding the police by saying “Nobody should be saying anything about defunding the police. I was director of public prosecutions for five years. I’ve worked with police forces across England and Wales bringing thousands of people to court, so my support for the police is very strong". The words of DC Starmer mean much more than an awkward photo and corresponding tweet. Indeed Officer Keir has made it obvious he has no intention of problematising the police structure which over the past 10 years has seen 163 people die in police custody. With the proportion of black people dying being nearly triple of the proportion of  society we make up. Similarly in the United States, key democrats like Nancy Pelosi kneeled wearing Kente Cloth to present a police reform bill. Creating a scene reminiscent of a care-home performance of Black Panther, this pandering exercise in performative allyship came from members of a party who's leader Joe Biden made it clear on The Daily Show that he did not support defunding the police. If politicians in Britain and America aren't going to listen to the demands of protestors that is their prerogative. They should just say that with their chest because kneeling instead is not a consolation, it's insulting. The words Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor have been echoed so often that they have somewhat lost their meaning and become part of the social media zeitgeist. To remind everyone, the police invaded her home and shot her to death as she slept in her bed. Over 20 shots were fired and none of them have had any criminal charges brought against them. Even life sentences for her killers will not bring her back, but anything less is a disgrace. In the U.K. compensation for the victims of Windrush, criminal charges against those responsible for Grenfell and an end to racist policing will not remedy hundreds of years of colonialism and slavery, but anything less is a disgrace. After that let's talk about statues and cartoons. 

Article written by Martyn Ewoma. See more from Martyn here

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