As the Black Lives Matter conversation continues to unfold the world over (BLM crowds stormed London City Airport as Wonderland went to press), we asked Emma Dabari, a teaching fellow at School of African Studies, to organise a debate between a few of London’s most independently-minded young creatives.
Taken from the Autumn Issue of Wonderland.
Mischa Nottcutt “Brexit proves that we’re not as forward thinking a country as we think we are.” Shirt CELINE.
Emma Dabiri “Under capitalism black bodies are merely labour or commodity, how can we ever be free in such a system? I think of Black Panthers like Fred Hampton. ‘We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism’.” Dress DSQUARED2
Ronan McKenzie “it’s not really diversity, if you only like your black girls light skinned.” Jacket CALVIN KLEIN COLLECTION
Emma Dabiri, Fellow, SOAS: What are all of your experiences with Black Lives Matter and the differences between the UK and the US? Capres, you organised the recent London protest [which was meant to be for 30 people, and closer to 3,000 turned up].
Capres Willow, protester, Black Lives Matter: The reason I organised the protest was because I was online and I came across one of the killings. I was like: “This isn’t the first one, this isn’t the last one. It seems like all people are doing is typing about it online.” Okay, that’s great, show your opinion, but we need some real action. So I just organised a protest, not expecting much from it and then 3,000 people turned up. After that I thought: “Okay, now I’ve got responsibilities.” I’m not an activist and I’ve never been to a protest before, but from that I was like: “Alright, what’s next?” Do you go about it in a political way? Do you approach the government and say: “This needs to change”? Then you look at the fact that it’s an institutional problem within the police. I’m not saying a policeman is racist, but the police as an institution is a racist institution…
E: Do you think that police brutality is one of the main issues affecting black British people? We know it’s not to the same extent that it is in the US…
Mischa Notcutt, a stylist who runs the clubnight PDA: That’s because they have guns! That’s the only reason we’re different from America. Brexit proves that we’re not as forward as a country as people think.
E: I’m not in any way trying to suggest that the UK is better than the US, that’s not what I think. But what do you think some of the differences might be between how racism manifests itself here and there? I actually think British people are a lot more sophisticated in the way racism operates. I think there are issues that are specific to the UK, that are maybe harder to unpick.
Ronan McKenzie, fashion photographer: Exactly, it’s more undercover.
M: It’s a lot more insidious here. People are more scared about being called racist.
E: Precisely. In Brazil they had a policy called “The Whitening”. Unlike in England where there was generally a fear of so-called “race mixing”, in Brazil they had this huge African descent population in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It was this actual policy where they thought if they could just dilute the black population enough, through mixing with the white, they could eventually rid Brazil of the “Negro problem”… Obviously the whole forbidding mixing thing didn’t work here, but we’ve said racism is more insidious here. Have you read those articles that say that the African Caribbean group will be the first group to disappear in the UK? It’s regularly reported and the articles always finish in, I think, a quite gleeful tone. I just feel like: “Oh, is that what you want to happen?” I wonder if the more softly integrative, assimilate approach in the UK is maybe a low-key whitening thing.
R: You can see that in fashion, for example, where people will be talking about diversity but they won’t cast any dark-skinned girls. That’s not really diversity, if really you only like your black girls light-skinned.
Mischa: That’s interesting, because when I was younger, me and my sister would aways be like: “But we’re the future! Everyone’s going to be like us eventually!’ The Jamaican side [of my family] always see us as the white cousins, and the white side always sees us as the black cousins. So we always felt in the middle. We always thought: “The more mixed-race people, the better”, because that would give us more things to identify with being mixed race and dual heritage.
R: I think it depends on where you are, as well. I’m from north east London and if you’re mixed race you’re like, the gods. Everybody wanted to be mixed race, everybody wanted to have lighter skin, curly hair and look mixed race, and all the mixed race boys in my area were so sought after.
Munroe Bergdorf, model: It’s almost fetishised.
R: But it wasn’t a celebratory thing… It was more like: “I don’t want to be dark-skinned. I want to be more beautiful. I want to have lightskinned babies, so they look better and be respected more.” It’s not because you thought it would be great mixing… I remember, when I was younger — maybe even up until a few years ago — when I didn’t want to tan, I’d put factor 50 sunscreen on because I didn’t want darker skin. I never looked at my dad thinking: “I don’t like his colour.” I just didn’t want to be darker skinned myself.
E: I think that’s a difference I’ve experience between white environments and black environments. In addition to the racism that often occurs in white environments, there’s the more liberal, celebratory, “Oh, one day everybody will be brown like you! This is the future!” If you put that in black context, and you see the way colourism operates, and the way there’s all this pressure, and desire to be lighter, and to have more mixed, European features, then that kind of celebratory narrative seems quite perverse! In that context, it gets really gross… What do you see as the role of non-black people?
C: Taking it back to Black Lives Matter, there was this group chat for everyone that wanted to get involved in our projects. I actually left it within a week because of the comments. People were coming out with stuff like: “If you’re not black, you’re a guest here!” Or: “All the white people need to leave, because us black people need to keep the ball rolling!” I just felt we have people who want to give support and free resources, but not just that, they actually care about the matter and you’re just going to turn them away?!
Munroe: It’s so important to have an environment to speak freely. To not have to worry about silencing yourself to the feelings and fragility of people who won’t necessarily understand, and who will get in the way of progression. You have to explain a lot of things that really you don’t need to explain, if everybody is of the same oppression.
C: But I don’t think we should turn people away…
E: It’s a tricky one, the labour required to explain things to people who seem committed to derailing conversations — who are determined to centralise themselves, because for the first time in their lives they are experiencing what it feels like not to be central — can be almost debilitating. At the same time, I think about a hero of mine, Fred Hampton, who said: “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’re going to fight [the reactions of racist white institutions] with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.
Munroe: I think allies, definitely. But I think when it comes down to understanding what black people need, you can’t then have white people orchestrating that.
E: We have to think about what it is that we actually want. What is the objective of this different type of organisation? Is it to connect and experience solidarity?
Munroe: To eradicate racism and to get onto a path that identifies racism, and for everybody to get on the same page to know what racism is… It doesn’t seem like everyone knows what it is.
C: But is it about your colour, or your culture? You’ll hear people say: “Fucking Polish people,” for example.
Munroe: I think they don’t even know what it’s about, I think it’s just xenophobia.
C: But they still have the same experiences — well, maybe not the same. But they still experience racism.
Munroe: But that’s not racism, that’s just discrimination isn’t it? It’s not any better, but it’s just discrimination.
C: But that’s why I think white people should be allowed in, because they experience discrimination.
Munroe: But discrimination is different to racism… What I’m talking about, systemic and institutionalised racism, that can never be experienced by white people and that’s what Black Lives Matter is fighting against. So why are we including the kind of thing that has the potential to corrupt it?
E: If the end goal is the eradication of racism, can that be achieved without engagement of white people?
Munroe: Oh no, I’m not saying don’t engage! I’m just saying about the organisation from the top, and the movement needs to be black people. I do think the support network needs to be everybody, because you can’t have equality if it’s not everybody.
E: How can we bring about the end of racism; a non-racist society?
C: This isn’t realistic, but there’s this idea in sociology: to make real change, everything needs to be destroyed and start again. Things need to be rebuilt, start from scratch almost. Like nature does: when winter comes, it’s destroyed and in the spring it’s reborn again. Even though it’s a horrible idea, it’s also a really nice idea, it’s refreshing for everyone to have that fresh start. In my opinion, I don’t mean to sound super-negative, but I do feel like that it could potentially be that we all do need to be destroyed.
E: Yeah, that’s what I often think. Even the idea of egalitarianism and equality is not enough, because exploitation, anti-blackness and patriarchy are coded into the DNA of the neoliberal system. I don’t even know if reform is even a step in the right direction. How can you reform something completely corrupt? These are ideas I’m struggling with myself. Nonetheless, let’s take radical revolution out of the equation for a second and let’s just think about some of those other topics that we’ve generated, and how we can go about influencing and creating change…
Mischa: It’s doing your bit! Helping other people who are in the same situation as you… Even saying on Facebook what you think, instead of not saying anything. Just saying: “No, that’s actually not cool!” I do casting, so I take a stance of always putting black people in packages and I make it uncomfortable for people to say that they just want white people. I ask ask them: “What’s your reasoning?” It’s cool if it’s artistically, like if you’re going for a Russian theme. But what is it you’re actually saying? What are you wanting to say? How do you think it is going to be read? I feel like me just asking those questions to someone, that’s my responsibility for the job that I do. That’s my way of being a protester — what can do in my day-to-day?
Munroe Bergdorf “We need to eradicate racism and to get onto a path that identifies racism and for everybody to get on the same page to know what racism is. It doesn’t seem like everyone knows what it is.” Dress GIVENCHY BY RICCARDO TISCI.
Capres Willow “Things need to be rebuilt, start from scratch almost. Like nature does, when winter comes it’s destroyed and in the spring it’s reborn again. Even though it’s a horrible idea, it’s also a really nice idea, it’s refreshing for everyone to have that fresh start.” Jacket and pearls CHANEL
Edited by SOVREIGN
Fashion: Matthew Josephs
Hair: Hiroshi Matsushita
Make Up: Thom Walker using YSL Beauty
Nails: Ama Quashie at CLM Hair & Make Up using M.A.C Cosmetics
Styling assistance: Toni Blaze Ibekwe.
Special Thanks to Matthew Stone.