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  • Writer's pictureJaz

Whitewashing is washed: a recap

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my praxis during lockdown. It's wild to think that this is history in the making. There are so many things taking place right now - from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter to NASA confirming the existence of UFOs and parallel universes. It feels like almost anything can happen - and that's not necessarily the most reassuring thing to acknowledge right now.

Since my last post, I have finished my essay into the cause of the 1981 Handsworth Riots. Here is my introduction:

'In 1981, riots led by Black people broke out all over Britain. The Scarman Report that followed acknowledged ‘deprivation’, ‘idleness because of unemployment’, and the ‘hostility’ of young people to the police as commonalities amongst the areas that revolted (Scarman, 1981; Cashmore, 1985). However, regarding the Handsworth Riots, there was a perceived insignificance. Dismissed as a ‘copycat’, there is very little information available to contextualise such an uprising (Field & Southgate, 1982; Black Cultural Archive). I believe this dismissal is a symptom of white supremacy in Britain. To believe that Black people would behave in such a way out of mimicry is to take legitimacy away from their plight (Reiner, 1985: 148; Sessolo, 2014: 742). Thus, in this essay, I will be analysing Black British art using the frameworks of space and hegemony. Using a hermeneutic content analysis, I will posit that there were many factors contributing to the Riots, ultimately all serving the system of white supremacy (Hetherington, 1998: 39).

Fundamentally I look at the relationship between Britishness and space. I ask who is allowed to access space, and who is infinitely questioned for doing so. And I argue that Blackness and resistance go hand-in-hand in a nation that was built on an ideology that positions Blackness as the antithesis of itself. If successful, this essay would have taken steps towards justifying rioters as victims of an oppressive environment. I conclude with a call to Black creatives and academics to document their stories to avoid future whitewashing.'

Everything I explored felt timely anyway, but with how world events have progressed, it feels somehow even timlier. There is even more of an emphasis on Black people needing to organise, document, and respond to what is going on. If we don't take control of our narratives, our stories will be (mis)told by others.

Now looking at what is going on, and what histories and legacies we're beginning to acknowledge in political discourse, it is clear that there is a reason I had to prove the humanity of the Handsworth Rioters. Their plight was minimalised to the point that the Scarman Report deemed it a 'copycat', because Black people are supposed to be unendingly grateful, and steadfast in their subordinate position - a position borne out of white supremacy.

Black people are positioned to be living sacrifices. Whether it is the UK or the States, Black people are born to give everything - their resources, their energy, their labour, their money, their forgiveness, their lives. Notice the response whenever Black folk aren't behaving in this way.

As a result, though I started this exploration, asking why there was so little public information on the 1981 Handsworth Riots, and wanting to find out what makes people protest, rebel, and resist. I found that Black people resist for the same reasons most demographics resist - to improve their lived experience. I found that what happened in Handsworth in 1981 is viewed differently to how the Suffragettes' efforts were viewed, or how British Trade Unions' activism were viewed.

I found that Black people never get to be children, until it comes to the things we revere. Our religions and faiths are seen as archaic and naive. Our music is "urbanised" and associated with youth. Our scholarship is seen as virtue signalling clickbait, or buzzwords on buzzwords. Our aesthetics and style is gaudy and ghetto until white people steal it, and then it is high fashion. Our dialects - from AAVE to our Patoises and Creoles/Krios and Pidgins - are reduced to trends and slang. Our futures aren't even seen as important enough to discuss.

Our activism and resistance is seen as anger issues, or animalistic senselessness, or a mere excuse to steal and destroy the things around us. That's what is implied in the Scarman Report. Looking at our current government, it's hardly surprising to hear that a forty-year-old government report claimed that a community rioted because they saw Brixton do it. What a farce!

I found myself going back to my early research into Chaos Theory, and the idea that in the midst of chaos are fractals - patterns. What happened in Handsworth (and Brixton, Moss Side, Toxteth, etc.) almost forty years ago was a fractal. Just one recurring example of what Black people face in this country. Sometimes it looks like a riot. Sometimes it looks like school exclusions. Sometimes it looks like the rejection of an application for a job or house. Sometimes its being stopped by police. Either way, once you sit down and look at these fractals, you start realising that the chaos isn't so chaotic. In fact, everything within it makes sense - there's a reason why 'all hell has broken loose'.

Moving forward, I want to be able to articulate this much better. What fractals can be identified right in the here and now? What is happening in 2020 that falls in line with the legacy of white supremacy? Some of the protests and activism I have seen are absolutely amazing, from Black Texans protesting on horses, to D.C natives defacing Mayor Bowser's slacktivist 'BLACK LIVES MATTER' mural near the white house with 'DEFUND THE POLICE', to the Minneapolis City Council announcing their inentions to disband their police department, to Bristolians tearing down the statue of Slave Trader Edward Colston. What is this - this "chaos" - a response to?

In the following couple of posts, I want to summarise what I gained from my 'Ceilings' project, as well as to document some of my responses to what is going on with Black Activism at the moment. Things are pretty heavy right now, especially because what I'm exploring is now happening in real time, so bear with me please. We'll get there.

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