Last night I spent the evening at the theatre, courtesy of BBC Radio’s Lockdown Theatre Festival. I listened to Rockets and Blue Lights by Winsome Pinnock, which was the production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre when everything got shut down.
It was great – absorbing, creative, and also very topical. A tale about the transatlantic slave trade, crafted in two interweaving timeframes and inspired by JMW Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (above). Not a play for radio but an audio production of a stage play, which is somehow subtly different. It felt like I was at the theatre, but I discovered a preference for just the audio without the visuals. The experience was more intense and immersive.
And of course the subject matter fed into thoughts swirling around my mind these days about racism and racial discrimination, prejudice and history. If the recent protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in police custody – the latest American outrage – have achieved anything, they’ve at least reignited debate and made us all think more deeply about the issues. Like so much in life, racism is nuanced and complex.
I have a degree in American Studies, so I feel fairly well-versed in African American history and culture. I’ve read Du Bois, Baldwin and Morrison, I’ve studied the roots and outcomes of the civil rights movement, I can sing along to Gil Scott Heron and Public Enemy. But it’s hit me in the last few days how complacent I have become!
There’s an awful lot of black history and culture I don’t know about. I know very little about the establishment and development of the transatlantic slave trade and not much about European colonialism. I found this piece in the Guardian by Gary Younge about how race issues in the US are relevant to us in Europe very thought-provoking. I realise my knowledge of the historical and present experiences of ethnic minorities is limited.
And of course people of African descent are not the only ethnic minority in our society, and ethnic minorities are not the only people to suffer prejudice. I guess it’s the long threads of ancestry that differentiate racism from other discrimination; that a group of people is seen as homogeneous and inferior, and therefore able to be exploited and stripped of their individuality. Why must we put people in categories? Why are we so bothered by people unlike us? Humanity! Sort it out!
I know I feel really pathetically powerless when it comes to massive global injustices. Like there’s nothing I can do about it. I could get angry and protest, but I’m not sure that gets us anywhere. It just makes everyone more set in their position, fuelling divisions rather than bringing about insight and understanding.
So I think the solution is more personal. There was a line at the end of that play: “Educate yourself.” This resonates with me in several ways.
Educate yourself about yourself. You probably consider yourself an open-minded person without prejudice (few people in this day and age would actually call themselves racist, no?), but we all have unconscious biases. Find out yours with the Harvard Implicit Attitudes tests. It’s illuminating.
A friend of mine’s black friend suggested that learning a foreign language was a good way to make a positive difference to human relations. I couldn’t agree more. Language learning opens doors to different cultures, shedding light on other angles from which to interpret the world and its people. As well as giving fresh ways of expressing oneself, it’s a humbling lesson to realise your way of life is not the only way. And when you’re struggling to say the most basic things and regularly publicly embarrass yourself, it also takes you down a peg or two. You’re not so dominant now.
We all should engage that brain more! Be knowledgeable and critical. I’ve got quite lazy, I must admit, even though I love learning and I love history – in my opinion, it’s the most important subject to be studied. How can you understand why things are like they are if you don’t understand how they became that way?
So I intend to read whole articles, not just the headlines, books, podcasts… gain a broader knowledge of history. Have more information in my store to widen my horizons and be able to see patterns and connect ideas.
But when it comes to day-to-day life, I am aware that I really cannot know how racism feels. I’m a middle-class, educated, white professional in western Europe (which is the most privileged part of the world to start with); I don’t know how it feels to have someone treat me differently because of the colour of my skin, to have ancestors who suffered so painfully for the benefit of others.
I am, though, a woman. So on behalf of my gender I do feel the historical weight of oppression and I am all too aware that in many parts of the world life would be precarious for me.
So, yes. Educate myself. It’s a lifelong project.