Consciousness about racism has grown over the past year, but we’re still being silenced for speaking out.
A few days ago, approximately one hour before I was due to give a keynote speech to a large public sector organisation, I received some last-minute instructions. Please refrain from using controversial or politicised language, the network of black staff who had invited me in asked. They were genuinely scared that I would get them into trouble and draw “unwanted negative attention to the detriment of our members”. The offending phrases they feared I might use included “white privilege”, “critical race theory” and – the absolute killer – “Black Lives Matter”.
Welcome to Black History Month, a time when black people who work in predominantly white spaces invite people such as me into their organisations, to say things to their white bosses that they themselves dare not speak. And theirs is a legitimate fear. Up and down the country, these lone black employees tread a delicate, precarious line. On the one hand, they want to capitalise on the opportunity offered by October to create conversations that would otherwise be unthinkable at work, school or in government.
On the other hand, theirs is an organisation that is run by white people (it always is), which then engages me as a speaker on questions of authenticity, scholarship and the lived experience of blackness in Britain – and then tells me what to say. Every October, I find that the content of my talks – the erasure of black history, the demand that black people assimilate into whiteness, the fragility of people unused to hearing a black perspective, tone policing – are being performed in real time by the organisers and audience of those talks.
As the level of consciousness about how racism can be inflicted upon black people grows – and I think in the past year it has – I find myself noticing more and more that we have internalised a system of racism in our anticipation of how white people will respond to our blackness. I began rejecting that internalised self-censorship in earnest in 2018, when my book Brit(ish) was published – stories from my life and an analysis of our society that I had never before had the confidence to share.
That experience of sharing has only made me increasingly unapologetic about rejecting it further. So has the chorus of other writers, creatives and leaders taking up space in their delivery of the same message. This week, for example, a black art curator I follow on Instagram posted that, in all instances where she is the only black person at the table, she must be paid more than her counterparts.
“I consider this to be a tax for the violence of isolation, and the additional educational labour that I have to do,” she explained. I could almost hear the sound of thousands of black hands immediately tapping this note into their own memos. I know I was. If the violence of isolation sounds like an exaggeration, you need only examine the case studies of high-profile figures who have found themselves unprotected from such violence, despite the resources they have that might otherwise shield them.
Celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton, for example, who has used his platform to demand justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In response to Hamilton wearing a T-shirt demanding justice for Taylor, the governing body of Formula One issued new guidance banning drivers from wearing T-shirts when taking the podium after races. Or the England football team, which found itself lacking the support of not just its own fans but its own government for taking the knee. This amounted to nothing less than a threat to the legacy of the team, for the crime of asserting the humanity of black people.
Or take the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge, who claimed her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was accused of supporting segregation. Or Marcus Ryder, who founded the Centre for Media Diversity and found himself barred from a senior position at the BBC, seemingly as a direct result of his work on race and injustice.
When we attempt to constructively engage with government, we are penalised further. This month I was targeted in the rightwing press for having the audacity to accept an invitation to speak with the Home Office. Since this government department has by its own admission failed monumentally in its treatment of black British people, I thought speaking about anti-racism might be helpful. Apparently it was in fact “a hostile tirade”. Earlier this year I had a speaking engagement with another government department cancelled at short notice as retribution for having a piece in the New York Times about racism in Britain, which it felt painted Britain in a bad light.
There is a name for this, of course – “cancel culture”. Cancel culture is the Windrush campaigners who paid for accreditation to the Conservative party conference, being humiliated when they tried to assert their right to attend. It’s the National Trust facing cancellation of its government funding if it dares to investigate how the history of colonial exploitation manifests in its properties.
Cancel culture is the obliteration of the memory of enslaved Africans in this country. Those whose watery graves off the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, some of the most significant sites in the 400 years of transatlantic slave trading, have never been acknowledged. It’s the deafening silence where government dialogue around the creation of a Museum of Empire – a place where this history could be studied in all its cruel complexity – should be.
I wish black history were so mainstream throughout the year that Black History Month became redundant. While we need it – and sadly we still do – it’s an opportunity not just to relate these stories of oppression, but also to centre our joy. One of the best things that happened to me this October was a party held by a friend, entitled “Joy Is My Birthright”. It should be so obvious. But as black people who move in white spaces, it can feel like a radical concept. Our narrative – controlled for so long by white oppressors, or white saviours, or the draining task of communicating to both groups that that’s what they were – was never reflective of who we are.
When I look back at many of my earlier interventions against racism, it’s so obvious to me that I was still someone who was seeking to convince, impress or gain approval from people who didn’t get it. The greatest progress for me – on a personal level – has been that I no longer care. “Truth,” the great ancient Egyptian proverb says, “is light as a feather. But lies require many layers to hold them down.” Lightness and joy are our birthright. That’s a Black History Month message I can get behind.
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist