‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ is a five-part series of articles that I’ve written relating to racial discrimination in the UK, particularly regarding the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent discussion it has sparked in Britain.
In Year 8, I got into a heated discussion with my history teacher after asking her what year slavery was abolished in the UK. She confidently responded by saying that it was never abolished because the UK never had slavery. This response alarmed me. My teacher was very well educated, and yet she was trying to deny a known fact of history. Being far too confident for an 11-year-old, I began to argue with her. This led to things becoming more and more tense, before she finally pulled rank and threatened to send me out. It was at this point that I became quiet.
A quick Google search after class was all it took to reveal that The Slavery Abolition Act was instated across the British Empire in 1833 (3,000 British slave-owners received £20 million in ‘compensation’, a figure equivalent to over £1.8 billion today). This included the UK, which had undeniably used slaves as well.
It seems that much of England’s education regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade seems to shift the blame onto America. But, as with the opium trade in China, it was Britain that got America addicted to slavery in the first place. It then sought great profits in supplying the states with their fix.
The capture and subsequent subjection of black people to inhumane conditions is covered by English schools, but the narrative seems to change once teachers reach the point of British sailors arriving in Africa. This is the point at which capturers are no longer referred to as ‘British’. Instead, they’re usually referred to as just being white. This is likely done to avoid addressing the direct ancestral connection that they have to many British people in the present day — some of whom may be in the very classroom that these events are being recounted in.
For more information on the UK’s involvement in the slave trade, I’d highly recommend the book Liverpool & Slavery, which I picked up from a school trip we took to the Liverpool Slavery Museum (a few months after my history teacher claimed that British people never had slaves). It documents the buying and selling of slaves in Liverpool, and the unease felt by the white British people who watched on and did nothing.
The reason that I mentioned my classroom story is because it seems all too relevant at this moment in time. Following the murder of George Floyd in America, a discussion regarding people of colour and their treatment in the UK has arisen. This article focuses mainly on the black community in our country, and how its all-too-overlooked struggle is different to the one in America.
The main difference between Britain and America in their treatment of black people is the way in which each country expresses its prejudice.
In true American fashion, the states are sadly well known for their violent mistreatment of black people, with the murder of George Floyd being preceded by those of Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, and countless others. These are often very public murders, and they are echoed through social media via video footage and the circulation of information. The key reason that these killings are more prominent in America is because gun control laws are laxer, and many more police officers are armed than in the UK.
Americans are also known for lacking British subtlety, and this especially applies to their racism. From what I can gather, the N-word is much more commonly used as a slur in the US, with very open verbal and physical abuse against African-Americans being strikingly commonplace.
To a British person, the treatment of black Americans can seem like something out of a nightmarish dystopia.
But, as highlighted in the first article of this series, Britain’s systematic mistreatment of minorities, and specifically black people, is something that can yield frighteningly similar day-to-day results.
The worst part about racism in the UK is probably the overwhelming denial that it exists. A side-by-side comparison of Britain and America would certainly suggest this, but this way of thinking reflects more poorly upon Britain’s perception of equality than anything else.
Now is probably a good time in the article to mention that I am not black. I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s really like to be black in Britain.
I wouldn’t normally mention my own race in a non-related piece but, for those interested, I’m British-Pakistani. I believe that the discrimination British-Pakistanis face is comparable to that of black Britons, with many similarities in terms of stereotypes and mistreatment (which I’ll be covering in the fourth article), but there are distinct differences between us.
The reason I’m bringing up my own race is to call attention to the fact that everything I’m saying is based on things that I’ve heard, learned from other people, or have researched independently. A lot of the emotional language used here is an extrapolation of the feelings I myself have had in relation to discrimination and, as such, I’m aware that my opinions might not be an accurate representation of how black people feel in Britain. I would advise the reader to bear this in mind going forward.
According to Government-published statistics, between April 2018 and March 2019 there were 38 stop and searches in the UK per 1,000 black people. This is compared to only 4 stop and searches per 1,000 white people in the same time frame.
Figures for 2017/2018 show that black people were over 3 times as likely to be arrested as white people.
According to the BBC, of the deaths in police custody (which includes those who died being detained) over the past 10 years in the UK, 140 were white and 13 were black. Matching these proportions up with the 2011’s population census tells us that black people are twice as likely to die in police custody than white people in the UK.
If your first thought when hearing these statistics is ‘Maybe black people just commit more crimes’, then your focus is way off.
Being arrested does not mean that you are guilty of anything.
Like in America, it is highly probable that many of these black Britons had not committed a crime other than ‘acting suspicious’ — a shorthand for ‘not being white’.
And if you believe that England wouldn’t have similar numbers of black people killed if our police were armed, I have some very bad news for you. Mark Duggan, Dalian Atkinson, Rasharn Charles, Sheku Bayoh, and many more black people in the UK have already met this fate even with our strict gun policies.
But, despite these alarming statistics, most black people in Britain won’t live through chilling events like this. Instead, they’ll face smaller things. Someone crossing the street to avoid walking next to them. People clutching their bags closer to them as they pass. A constant need to justify their authority in situations where their white peers never would.
This is what makes the hypocrisy of England all the more infuriating. Unlike in America, black people rarely come forward with stories of discrimination because, despite the narrative that ‘political correctness has gone mad’, they are very unlikely to be believed.
Unless black people are being killed, white Britons don’t seem to see a problem.
Race against Race
This is likely the reason why many British people of colour as a whole have stopped coming forward with their stories. There’s a gaslighting tendency in the UK in relation to race, where people constantly have to question whether someone is being racist, or if they are just being rude. If there’s even a slight chance that it could be the latter, a BAME person will probably feel uncomfortable defending themselves.
This is because the perpetrators are more likely to see themselves as the victims of false accusations than they are to reflect on their behaviour.
It’s also important to mention that racism is a more complex issue than ‘white vs non-white’. Black people also face discrimination from other minorities, often in ways that are related to cultural caste systems that shame those of darker complexion. Similarly, there are black people who will hold the same prejudices that white people have against other minorities. To think that racism is in any way clear-cut or simple would be ignorant and counterproductive.
So, before British people question the legitimacy of the protests occurring in London, Manchester, and various other places in the UK in relation to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, perhaps they should consider why these people feel a need to stand and be heard. Why they feel a need to justify their existence in a nation that has consistently undermined them for centuries.
And why so many white people now feel a need to support them in their struggle for justice.
If you found this article interesting, feel free to take a look at the other four in my ‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ series. The next instalment focuses on British Asians and their history with the UK and each other.