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We need deep change not quick fixes

‘I have, like many Black people at the moment, what feels like a permanent knot in the pit of my stomach’, says trade union leader Roger McKenzie

11 June, 2020

Statue of slave trader and merchant Edward Colston thrown into Bristol Harbour

IT seems that wherever we go and whatever we do we are nowhere near being judged collectively by the content of our character and not by the colour of our skin as Dr Martin Luther King Jr hoped for.

If we are not being physically attacked or even killed, like Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd, we are being ignored or treated like something that’s been scraped off the bottom of someone’s shoe.

Even when we die in greater proportionate numbers from the Covid-19 virus, as government bodies have confirmed, this is somehow reduced in importance because, we are told, everyone else is facing big challenges from this virus.

When we call out racist behaviour it’s often turned on us. We’re told that we are playing the race card or we get aggressively asked if we are calling the perpetrator a racist because they are apparently part of that massive group of White people who don’t have a racist­ bone in their bodies and have best friends that are Black.

These same people also all love West Indies cricket and Bob Marley.

Roger McKenzie taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests

I chose to call myself Black many years ago out of solidarity with other people of African, Caribbean or Asian descent. This is a peculiarly British definition that comes from a particular history of colonialism and then immigration that makes our use of the term different in the UK than it is elsewhere.

It’s not compulsory to use. Some people don’t want to use the term. Their choice!

As I attach a certain liberation and socialist politics to my definition I’m not foolish enough to think that everyone shares my views.

Black is very much the colour of my politics rather than the colour of my skin. Although, I have had enough racist epithets thrown at me which have included the term Black that there are clearly enough White people who have no problem recognising my Blackness.

I have, like many Black people at the moment, what feels like a permanent knot in the pit of my stomach. It’s not, as the actor Will Smith said that racism is getting worse, it’s just now being filmed.

So many times before the advent of the camera-phone I’ve been subjected to some sort of racist incident and wished someone else saw it or that I should have filmed it.

Nowadays, when anything happens, I’m just too shocked to remember to pull out my phone while it’s happening. Although actually doing that might make matters considerably worse.

All of this has come more sharply into focus with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

These have sparked protests in the US and across the globe not just because they are the latest in a long line of similar tragic events but also because of the continued and ingrained racism that many of us have experienced across the diaspora for years and to which little or nothing has been done about.

Organisations typically fall into quick-fix mode at such times to bring a halt to any uprisings or the possibility that they are complicit. We need deep change and not quick fixes and everyone, including leading public figures, need to be held accountable for their actions.

I will not waste a nano second concerning myself with the predictable outcry about the pulling down of a statue to memorialise a person who was one of the key slavers in British history. Someone who was a murderer and almost certainly responsible for the enslavement of my ancestors.

So when I assert that Black lives matter, there should be no misunderstanding. It’s because we, as Black people, have plenty of evidence to prove to us that for far too many people our lives actually don’t matter. So don’t scold me with all lives matter! The evidence is clear and has often cost us our lives.

So if you call me a BAME and reduce my life to an acronym be sure to realise that I find it insulting. I am also not a person of colour, which reduces the importance of my political outlook. I am Black and my life and the lives of all Black people really do matter.

• Roger McKenzie is an assistant general secretary of Unison.


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