Why black matters
We live in an age when self-identification is all the rage. And yet, for many years, there has been a storm growing in sound and fury about the use of the label ‘Black’ by racialized minorities in the UK. It is a Very British Debate which even our US cousins struggle to understand.
I say ‘even’ because of the disproportionate influence that American ways of thinking about race wield in this country. The US failure to understand the debate implicitly dismisses the significance of it within the British context and can undermine it, particularly for younger activists.
We both crave and shun labels. We crave them because we want to control our own narratives. We shun them because they can be reductive, particularly when imposed by others. But the history behind the label ‘Black’ is infused with political struggle.
Many of the younger people who find the concept of ‘political blackness’ irrelevant to their activism today complain that there has been very little handed down to them about that history. I hope to unpack some of that history.
But is it just a question of ignorance? There are those who zealously police the use of the word ‘black’ and who has the right to use it. The paradox is that race, which does not exist as a biological category, can be so strictly monitored, and yet there is a growing consensus that gender, which is not a biological category either, can be changed through self-identification.
My own personal journey to ‘Black’ began with me self-identifying as Indian when I first arrived in the UK in 1975. This slowly morphed into ‘Asian’ as a way of situating myself within the national discourse and stayed that way until I joined the anti-racist struggle and adopted ‘Black’ gratefully almost overnight as a marker of my politicization.
The long tail
One of the most influential thinkers on race, A Sivanandan, Director of the Institute for Race Relations from 1972 onwards, articulated a definition of ‘black’ which left its mark on a generation of activists. For him, it was a political colour. It stood for an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist politics rooted in the Global South and the independence struggles in British colonies, many of whose representatives were based in London and understood the strength that comes from unity and collective action.
This premise opened the way for inclusion of the Irish too, which reveals the extent to which Sivanandan wrenched ‘black’ away from its literal moorings. However, the concept of Black, then as now, but more so now, was shot through with tension between its ‘ethnic’ and ‘political’ roots.
As an umbrella term, Black had been knocking around in the anti-racist and independence movements for a while. The Black Panthers who came into existence in the UK in 1968 had Asian, African and Caribbean members. Farrukh Dhondy, an Indian member of the group, said in a podcast interview with Reni Eddo-Lodge: ‘There was no colourism in the Black Panther movement, obviously there were no white members. There were supporters, associates, but the membership was basically Asian and Black. They saw it as a common fight against the ex-colonial masters.’
Whether or not ‘black’ was used as a descriptor, there were a number of organizations campaigning against the British state which drew their membership from all three communities, a form of joint organizing that is less in evidence today.
In his essay ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain’ for the journal Race and Class, Sivanandan traces the history of black struggles starting as early as 1945 when Asians, Africans and West Indians came together in a Subject Peoples’ Conference, followed by the setting up of the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD) in Birmingham and the Conference of Afro-Asian Caribbean Organisations (CAACO) in London in 1962. All of these local developments were underpinned by the Bandung Conference of 1955, where the newly independent states of Africa and Asia had come together to form a joint force against the colonial and imperial West.
Black was not just about race and nationhood but class too. The newly arrived immigrants from Asia and the West Indies were concentrated in the poorest-paid jobs – the Asians doing menial jobs in inhospitable conditions in factories and foundries and the Caribbeans doing similar work in the transport, health and service sectors.
The racism that these workers faced from trade unions, afraid that white jobs would be lost to immigrants, meant that they had to fall back on their community organizations and each other for support. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, trade unions either opposed black workers’ demands for better conditions and pay, or provided limited and grudging support.
During the infamous strike at Imperial Typewriters in 1974, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) even attempted to break black unity by persuading some Asian workers to remain at work, arguing that the strike was the result of tensions between Asians from the subcontinent and Africans.
The Grunwick strike of 1976, although ultimately unsuccessful, was the turning point in trade-union attitudes to its black workers because the strike drew one of the largest mobilizations of workers in support across the country. This gave black workers increased confidence with which to organize within trade unions. Today there are race relations committees and seats reserved for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) members on the executive committees of various unions. Similar moves for minority representation in the Labour Party led to the creation of ‘black sections’.
Black was a rolling stone which gathered meanings as it rolled along. For black women the ground they were standing on was eroded not just by race and class; gender too had muddied it. They knew they had to come together to fight on all these grounds, that the struggle for both racial and sexual equality is inextricably linked; that if either struggle is waged alone, the other is in danger of being compromised. In the 1970s and 1980s, the consciousness that minority women’s concerns did not figure very high in white feminism brought black women together under a single umbrella.
The Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), set up in 1978 by African women, was the first black women’s organization of which I became aware. An unnamed member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, writing in Feminist Review (FR), described her surprise when 250 women turned up to its first national conference.
They had no idea of the appetite for political organizing on the ground. It was the women who attended that conference who went back to their local areas and set up Black Sisters organizations around the country – Camden Black Sisters, Liverpool Black Sisters, Birmingham Black Sisters and so on. It did not matter what their internal composition was, or which ethnic group dominated, because Black was accepted as an organizing principle. Only one survives today: Southall Black Sisters (SBS).
OWAAD organized a protest at Heathrow Airport against the virginity testing of Asian brides by immigration officers to assess whether their marriages to British spouses were genuine (based on the state’s stereotyping of Asian culture in which women were always virgins at the point of marriage) and against ‘sinbins’, a shorthand for the exclusion of African-Caribbean boys from school.
Despite mutual support for each other’s struggles, OWAAD closed in 1982, unable to deal with ‘the complexities of putting the political principles of Afro-Asian unity into practice’, according to the FR article. Even the understanding that colonialism had divided the Asian, African and Caribbean peoples into ‘coolie’, ‘savage’ and ‘slave’, as Sivanandan put it, did not save them.
There were tensions between women who were involved with liberation struggles on the African continent and Caribbean women who wanted to focus on issues of racism in the UK and, although they knew that the two struggles were connected, they were unable to come up with a practice that accommodated both. They were reluctant to address the issue of cultural differences with Asian women because they were focused on unity, afraid that it would prove divisive and unable ‘to grasp the fact that recognition of cultural differences can be a political strength’.
The unidentified writer of the FR piece believes that the demise of OWAAD should teach us ‘the need to develop political unity without minimizing the differences between us as Black women, whether these be of a cultural or tactical nature.’ Although she was writing in 1984 and some of the material realities have changed, structural racism continues to destroy lives through police brutality, immigration laws, lack of employment and educational opportunities, and the disproportionate impact of austerity. Those differences that tore OWAAD apart are being emphasized with increased decibel strength today.
Those who pushed for separate organizations in the 1980s argued that Asians and ‘Afro-Caribbeans’ (the label then in vogue) faced different issues: Asians were up against immigration laws and the Caribbean struggle was about black boys underachieving at school and being overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Both experiences were facets of the same racism and we shouldn’t cling to the different stereotypes attached to us as evidence of somehow being more or less in the bosom of white society. Today we have the Windrush scandal, Bangladeshi boys underachieving in schools and Asian men being disproportionately caught up in stop-and-search post 9/11 and under Covid-19. The contexts have changed and the issues have been exchanged.
Southall Black Sisters founder members emerged from those early black feminist struggles in 1979 (I joined it in 1989) on the one hand and out of anti-racist struggles on the other. They had stood shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades in Southall, facing mounted police as they demonstrated against that infamous meeting of the National Front (NF) in 1979 which had been given permission by the Council to meet in the town hall of Southall, a predominantly Asian area. This was a hugely provocative gesture to which the police added fire by protecting the fascists of NF and enabling their meeting to continue by charging with horse and baton at the crowd that had turned up to protest. The women who had been part of the defence committee, to ensure that justice was handed out to the young men arrested on a variety of charges, experienced sexism from their ‘comrades’ and realized that they would have to organize autonomously if women’s issues were to be taken seriously.
For SBS, the term ‘Black’ freed us from our religious and caste identities and provided space for a secular politics. Nationalist and religious forces which recrafted identity in increasingly narrow ways were exacerbated in the 1980s by funding policies introduced by the state to placate black communities in the wake of uprisings in Southall in 1979 and Brixton and Moss Side in 1981. It was partly that rush for funds that led us to not just split up into Asian, African and Caribbean but into Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Jamaican or Nigerian.
Those national identities split further into religious identities such as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. The Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone even funded the cultural arm of mosques and temples. At SBS we stood against that tide by arguing that the cultural similarities between women of the sub-continent were so great as to make the provision of services based on religious identity nonsensical and unnecessarily divisive. In fact, many were escaping religious pressures to conform to unacceptable ideals of womanhood. In addition, as Pragna Patel, director of SBS, says: ‘We invested the term with secular and progressive political values that sought to emphasize unity and solidarity across communities in the quest for social justice, while resisting the myth of “community” that failed to reflect caste, class and gender fault lines.’
This is not to say that cultural and artistic groups should not organize along ethnic, regional or linguistic lines because shared cultural understandings are central to their work. This realization dawned on me when I joined the Asian Women Writers Workshop, which was set up in 1984 with Lambeth Council and subsequently GLC funding. I led the arguments for renaming it the Black Feminist Writers’ Collective. Influenced by the political developments of the time, we made the transition from a workshop to a collective to institutionalize equality in the name and structure.
While we were renaming ourselves, I was keen to also change ‘Asian’ to ‘Black’ – a battle that I lost. There were women who felt that the cultural differences would make it difficult to respond knowledgeably and critically to ‘Afro-Caribbean’ writing and vice versa. There were others who felt that they were not welcome in ‘Black’ Women’s Writing groups because it was open only to African-Caribbean women. Yet others felt that as our whole raison d’être was to provide a home for isolated Asian women writers and to encourage them to join us, we had to reflect the composition of the group in our name.
Looking back to the debate we had then, which I recorded in the introduction to our first anthology, Right of Way (1988), I said that those of us who wanted the group to be called black wanted ‘to show our alignment with that part of the movement which believes that Asian and Afro-Caribbean women face a common oppression and that the way ahead is to fight together’. We reached consensus when it was agreed that we would work closely with black women’s groups and that we would participate in black literary events. Those invitations were not always forthcoming. In the cultural context, a demand to be included felt competitive, like trespassing on someone else’s success, which in a political context as a united struggle against racism would have been a valid demand for inclusion.
‘Black is cool’
We are facing a similar situation today. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the global rise of Black Lives Matter, part of the British establishment is belatedly falling over itself to give space to black people and issues of racism: reading lists to understand black history; stories of young black people and their experience of growing up here; the predicament of black actors, writers and artists; and special apprenticeship schemes. These articles and programmes are usually populated with people of African and Caribbean descent. While this attempt to reverse years of neglect and racism is laudable, although most likely fleeting, it leaves those of us who argued for an inclusive definition of black in a difficult position. To argue for a wider definition of black now would be seen as jumping on a bandwagon which is meant to draw specific attention to the British role in the slave trade and experience of racism and police brutality here.
There are a few exceptions. Vogue, of all magazines, under the editorship of Edward Enningful, of African origin, invited Riz Ahmed, a British Asian actor and rapper, to be a contributing editor to the September edition. It focused on activists, whatever their ethnicity, but with an emphasis on those of African and Caribbean descent, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their essential anti-racist reading list of 12 books included two by Asians: Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India; and The Good Immigrant, an anthology of writings by Asian, African and Caribbean people, edited by Nikesh Shukla.
While political blackness is out, cultural blackness is very much in. This kind of black visibility in mainstream culture is quite different from the sporting of ethnic cultures by celebrities, also known as ‘blackfishing’. Wanna Thompson, who invented the term, is quoted in The Guardian, saying, ‘Black is Cool, unless you are actually black.’ Kim Kardashian, in particular, draws fire for blacking up, wearing braids and using a foundation which darkens her skin.
But it is the money that she makes off the back of her ‘blackness’ that is the real issue while real blackness is relegated to the pits. The battleground of cultural blackness is marked out by fears of cultural appropriation which descend sometimes to ridiculous levels of rage on social media against white women braiding their hair or wearing bindis or using henna, or white chefs creating fusion foods. The underlying issue, of course, is one of power, profit and access.
Political Black under attack
Many Asian youngsters will say that the term ‘Black’ simply does not land nowadays and many African-Caribbean youngsters will ask ‘why are you begging black?’ Reni Eddo-Lodge introduces her podcast on Political Blackness with the case of the students’ union at the University of Kent, UK, which got into trouble for including pictures of Sadiq Khan and Zayn Malik in a poster advertising Black History Month, saying: ‘I can understand the anger. I mean, Asian people are Asian, right? Not black. Black people are black.’1
Currently, SBS is under attack for using the term ‘black’ because it is predominantly Asian in staff and management. In 1982, when the SBS centre was set up, workers were equally divided between African-Caribbean and Asian as a conscious organizing principle. However, this raised its own challenges given that the demand for SBS services came largely from Asian women who did not speak English as a first language. Furthermore, insufficient regard was paid to the political values of the women who were recruited and so political differences soon emerged and led to a split.
Anecdotally, it does appear as if African and Caribbean women are more active on issues like deaths in custody and gun and knife crime than violence against women and girls (VAWG). An Asian academic teaching at a London university reports that some of her students have complained that the African Caribbean experience is being subsumed under the term ‘BME’; that the research on VAWG is mostly about Asians so the African and Caribbean experience has been little researched or addressed; and that BME organizations accessing funds are, in fact, South Asian-led and provide services predominantly to South Asian women.
The latter is true in the case of SBS only insofar as the immediate community in Southall is predominantly Asian but African, Caribbean and Middle-Eastern women represent at least a third of the client group. SBS stands accused of monopolizing the funds designated for ‘black’ women and depriving those groups who genuinely serve ‘black’ women of much-needed funds.
I spoke to Chardine Taylor Stone, musician and trade-union activist, who took part in the online discussion on ‘The Power of Political Blackness’ hosted by the School of Anti-Racism. She found it worrying that a longstanding domestic violence organization was being attacked on these grounds and attributed it partly to austerity. ‘What difference does a change in the name make to the services you provide?’
BAME – sometimes BAMER, the bureaucratic and muchderided acronym for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and Refugees – services have been disproportionately cut back in the age of austerity and instead of turning our attention to the state, the anger is directed inwards with a destructiveness that suits the British state.
London Black Women’s Project (LBWP), a predominantly Asian women’s group which changed its name from Newham Asian Women’s Project in 2015, has also been subjected to similar attacks. It began with a rumour started by a man on Twitter that they had changed their name deliberately in order to attract funding and that is ‘how other communities use us to get ahead’. This accusation was made in the context of fevered online speculation about how Black Lives Matter (BLM) UK would disburse the huge sums it had raised, currently standing at over $1.3 million, even before it had spent a penny of it.
Barbara Ntumy, a political activist closely involved with BLM UK, told me that there has been intense pressure on social media from people arguing that the money raised was in response to the death of George Floyd, so if that money is not distributed specifically to African and Caribbean organizations, that is a problem. ‘My view,’ says Ntumy, ‘is that if it’s a problem for you, then ask for a refund. Racism isn’t something that affects a particular set of people.’
One of the updates on the gofundme page of Black Lives Matter UK carries the following statement: ‘We assure you all organizers involved with BLM UK are Black (not politically black; Black and of the African and Caribbean diaspora)’. This ‘assurance’ draws our attention to the attempt to placate noises offstage. However, this was still not enough for some.
One of BLM UK’s key organizers, Joshua Viraswami, was accused of not being ‘black’ enough and felt obliged to reveal his mixed Asian and African heritage from Mauritius on Twitter. Ntumy tells me that the ‘We assure you…’ statement led to a split in the group. She believes that BLM UK has been a politically black formation since 2015 even if it has not said so openly. The statement promises that ‘the funds raised will be diligently used to transform the nature of Black life in the UK through intentional and national infrastructure building, support of existing Black-led groups and organizations across the country in addition to campaigning for the demands we pose to the powers that be.’
It also goes on to say that: ‘Our commitment to all Black lives means that we lift up the experiences of the most marginalized in our communities, including but not limited to working class, queer, trans, undocumented, disabled, Muslim, sex workers, women/non-binary, HIV+ people.’
Given that the billboard that they erected in London in June with the words ‘I Can’t Breathe’, in a nod to George Floyd, contained the names of over 3,000 people who died at the hands of the state, including Asians and white people, I felt that their use of the term ‘Black’ required further interrogation. In an email exchange, I asked if they meant exclusively African and Caribbean members of the working class, queer, trans communities or all working classes, queer, trans, including white – as they too are marginalized.
This is how BLM UK responded: ‘We work in solidarity with other communities of colour and included a minority of non-Black names for the purposes of solidarity and to make a wider point about how the state oppresses us but all of us involved in BLM are Black people. There is no confusion over who is Black or not when we are murdered by the state. We believe political Blackness, like many people actually, to be an outdated term and idea. We can very much be in solidarity whilst understanding our differences as people of the African and Asian etc diasporas and not practising erasure.’
This issue of erasure has long electrified the debate around labels. Chardine Taylor Stone believes it is nonsense: ‘People who go on about erasure have only themselves to blame. You need to speak up and make space for your own history.’ Racism makes us defensive of our cultures, which we uphold as a proud marker of our race, but for women our culture is often a straitjacket that restricts our freedom of movement. Think of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), so-called ‘honour’ crimes or forced marriage. Isn’t it a failure of intersectional analysis that we clasp our cultural identities close to our chest and worry about erasure? Surely some kinds of erasure that take place under the umbrella term ‘black’ are to be welcomed.
Ultimately, these tussles over language are not about linguistic accuracy but about political positions. While Stone personally prefers to use the term People of Colour (PoC) and is happy to let go of the term ‘politically black’ if it alienates rather than mobilizes people around a certain politics, she is reluctant to let go of those political understandings. ‘What people don’t understand is that political blackness was not about erasing differences and making everybody the same. What people understood was that those histories and those oppressions were all coming from the same place.’ She believes it is more about where people are positioned politically, whether they are Marxists or socialists who understand class and imperialism or cultural nationalists whose solutions lie in building up black capitalism and economic power.
Ntumy says: ‘My skinfolk aren’t necessarily my kinfolk,’ referring to Shaun Bailey, Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London who represents a brand of politics that she in no way shares. These stark differences are visible in the BLM movement itself.
While I was searching for BLM’s mission statement, I came across a website called blacklivesmatter.uk which encourages businesses to advertise on its site with the statement ‘Commercial and/or for profit we can help raise profiles of black companies, organisations, services, brands even entrepreneurs to get more business you need with effective advertising.’ Black salvation, for them, seems to lie in building up black capitalism.
The fact that the group behind this website owns many possible variations to BLM urls tells us something about their competitive and monopolistic practices. Their political position appears to be in pointed opposition to BLM UK: ‘We stand with you who stand with the black lives movement and we can do this without unrealistic change of a radical political agenda that has no legs to run. We seek equality; social and racial justice that will need to come through a democratic vote…’
BLM UK, on the other hand, does not believe that the transformation of the fabric of society can come through parliamentary politics, according to Joshua Viraswami.
Black versus PoC
There does appear to be a generational divide in the preference for each label, with ‘People of Colour (PoC)’ among the younger generation. Two members of Sisters Uncut interviewed by Eddo-Lodge thought political blackness was old school. One of them reported that there are people who find the term offensive but ‘it’s not a hill that I’m willing to die on’. Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies, was quoted on gal-dem.com arguing that political blackness was problematic, that ‘defining yourself and organizing around the absence of whiteness is “really disempowering”.’
Wilf Sullivan, trade unionist and political activist, who spoke in the same debate, believes that neoliberalism has commodified our differences and sold them back to us. Ntumy believes, like Stone, that those who reject the concept of political blackness are neoliberals who are invested in the idea of the hierarchy of pain, the individualization of the experience of racism and the primacy of lived experience over political analysis. There is a therapeutic edge to the language of race discourse today – of hurt, healing and intergenerational trauma. The mirror image to that is white privilege and white guilt. There is a satirical video on Facebook in which white people literally risk death or calamity before they can bring themselves to use the word ‘black’, so trapped and guilt-ridden are they in their whiteness.
There is a Facebook group in which white people are only allowed to express themselves on ‘Whiteness Wednesdays’ until they have been part of the group for four weeks, have listened and learnt because as one post puts it: ‘Part of dismantling toxic whiteness is learning that not everything needs your white opinion or white commentary.’ People of Colour are exhorted not to visit the site on Wednesdays in case they find the posts too painful. Personal hurt demands apology and respect rather than structural change.
For those who live in fear of erasure, even PoC is not acceptable. The American term BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) is gaining ground. But the question of which politics infuse which term is not clear cut. Whether or not BLM UK were pushed into denying political blackness, it undoubtedly espouses a radical politics. A change of language does not necessarily involve a jettisoning of the politics, as I found when I spoke at the Bristol Transformed Festival 2020 on political blackness. All my fellow panel members and most of the audience emphasized the commonality of our struggles even if they preferred the term PoC.
I have personally found ‘Black’ to be a useful way of challenging anti-blackness and colourism in Asian communities, where beauty is equated with a light skin colour, using its biological associations to drive home a political point. Colourism exists in many African and Caribbean communities too. Slavery and the rape of black women by slave masters has created a whole hierarchy of colour. In South Africa, the categories of ‘coloured’, ‘black’, and ‘Indian’ under apartheid were a central strategy of divide and rule.
For a long time, black was a pejorative term and the Black is Beautiful movement which started in the 1960s in the US was a conscious attempt to reclaim the word. So, the term ‘black’ offered a progressive challenge to colourism in the wider community. All of us who adopted it were explicitly rejecting the negativity attached to the term. Patel of SBS explains why black matters: ‘We continue to call ourselves black, and we are proud to do so, as a vital stepping stone towards the forging of a politics based on need and not identity in the face of the current climate of division and racism.’
For those of us who remember ‘coloured people’ or ‘coloureds’ as a derogatory term, replaced with the bold and confident ‘black’, the inversion ‘people of colour’ feels like a return to that period. There is a soft fuzzy feel to it, like the United Colours of Benetton advert in the 1990s. According to Ash Sarkar in her podcast interview with Reni Eddo-Lodge and Wail Qasim, It’s Political Blackness Gone Mad, PoC does not have very radical origins either. It was a legal category, part of the French colonial project, to differentiate Algerians from enslaved Africans, a term to divide rather than unite. It’s not a history well-known enough to stand in the way of reclamation.
Although language moves on to reflect changed material realities and new understandings, the point about contested terms is that the politics behind them are constantly foregrounded. The fear of erasure of cultural identity and difference has been tearing Black to shreds. Political blackness had never been about the collapsing of different cultural identities into a singular ‘universal’. It was never about culture or identity per se; it was about a way of doing politics. If the pressure to jettison the term is coming from those who are politically opposed to the unity of racialized others in the fight against racism, then it is important to fight for the continued use of the term.
To jettison the term ‘political blackness’ is to jettison a radical history of activism which discovered the liberatory potential and the complex ways in which Black opened up to secularism, class consciousness and gender inequality. Forging a politics of solidarity was never an easy journey but that’s no reason to give up on it.