This post extends discussion from a presentation I did at the Privilege Cafe on the 25th of June, 2020, in response to the provocation of ‘How conscious is unconscious bias?’ Joined by some brilliant fellow speakers from a range of perspectives and sectors, it was wonderful to be part of this challenging and safe space facilitated by the brilliant Mymuna Soleman.
My presentation argued that sub conscious bias amongst melanated communities can be argued as a representation of the colonisers ‘divide and rule’ tactic. I asked, whether ‘we’ are too busy making assumptions about each other to mobilise and fight against a commonly felt issue of racism experienced in various degrees by our communities? – and whether this is what whiteness wants? For us to be infighting?
When first alerted to this provocation I naturally began reflecting on recent race orientated social narratives to the backdrop of a pandemic. In recent months, there has been a marked shift in the mainstream media to recognise and challenge racism. A shift that has straddled a strange mix of, a welcome awakening, performative allyship, and the commodification of anti racism. These reflections have brought me to consider the key issues affecting us as melanated communities in terms of perception, assumption, and social interaction. This post organises its focus into these three categories to extend discussion into colonisation and cultural hegemony.
Our perceptions are shaped by a range of external and internal factors such as our upbringing, family environments, schooling, relationships, professional and personal experiences, media consumption, and our identities. In instances where there are ‘othered’ factors to our identity, this inevitably shapes our social perceptions of the word and our place within it.
Examining this point through the lens of unconscious bias, it could be argued that this focus in a race context usually extends to the Black and White binary – with limited emphasis on the biases held within melanated communities in relation to each other. This is perhaps most aptly captured in a very strong culture of colourism that exists within our communities.
I have gone on record a number of times on the forthcoming point, and will do so again. Race dynamics in the UK are complexed and nuanced. There is a racial hierarchy that often operates within these communities, partly compounded by a toxic professional culture, and partly because of anti black sentiments that often exist and are left unchallenged amongst certain communities. The Black experience that comes out of salvery carries a trauma that is immense, and other racialised communities must acknowledge and respect this difference. While they may be a common experience of racism in the UK context, if you are Brown, you can never understand the pain of an ancestry seeped in approximately 400 years of genocide and identity theft that manifests as a constant reminder in a surname.
However, there is a commonality of some experience of racism amongst Black and Brown communities in a contemporised UK context. This commonality is perhaps strengthened even more in the face of blatant Islamoaphobia which impacts both Black and Brown muslims – but what of our perceptions of each other?
Well, to begin unpacking this we must engage with the difficult and necessary process of reflexivity and ask, where have our assumptions come from? Are we guilty of feeding negative perceptions of each other, that we would otherwise challenge if they were extended to us? If so, why?
This section connects to the assumptions that we form towards each other within our melananted communities. This point links to to the complexities of mass media coverage, which although we have a tendency to challenge if it represents us, we do not appear to extend the same level of cynicism to, in relation to representational coverage of other communities. In fact, it can be argued that our assumptions are perhaps rooted in the colonial practices of our ancestors, and now enforced through the media. Nothing perhaps represents this point more aptly than the fact that the nuance in Black and Brown identities is often overlooked when we eferencing these identities beyond our own comfortable frames of reference. This could in part be blamed on the ongoing decontextualising of ourselves as people of colour and in turn, our communities. For example, how much difference is really established between say a Bangladeshi community, a Ugandan Indian community, Gujrati Indian Muslim Shias, or Mir Puri Pakistanis? – I would be so bold to generalise and say, none! Instead, the representation is of one homogenous Brown, broadly assumed as ‘Indian’, sometimes if very lucky, grouped as ‘Asian’ in that rather pointless and offensive acronym ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic). The same goes for the Black community. How much of the identity nuance is really acknowledged? The different parts of Africa? The significant differences between East and North Africa, compared to the South and the West for example? The social narratives and migration timeframe contexts?
For example, there is a very specific migrational history shared between the Jamaican Windrush generations of the 50s and Pakistani (mostly Mir Puri due to the little known Mangla Dam arrangement) settlers of the 60s. A shared experience of post colonial British racism (i.e. famously horrific exclusionary bed and board signs were put up, and by the same sentiment the P word (playing off “Pakistani”) got established and used to aid ‘bashings’ back in the day). It is this shared experience between the Jamaican and Pakistani communities that frames differently in terms of history, to later Black and Brown migrations and divisions within the UK – i.e. the 70s Ugandan Indian and Bangladeshi, 90s/early 2000s Somali, 2000s Nigerian arrivals, and so forth – and while each community will have its own unique racism and oppression narrative, I raise the point to amplify that even the experiences of being oppressed have been homogenised like the acronyms. Worse still, we homogenise ourselves and each other, to accomodate the white lens and its positioning as the universal normative.
Broadly speaking, social interaction within melanated communities can be divided into two main categories:
Category 1: Subconscious Colonial Enactment
As post colonial ‘subjects’, our ancestors will have experienced or been party to the colonisers ‘divide and rule’ tactic. Clear divisions on the premise of not only skin colour, but skin tone, class, disability, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on. It can be argued that these behaviours or mistrusts of each other have perhaps inherently entered our subconscious. That we still play out the roles the colonised as our ancestors did. From a racial perspective, it can be argued that this manifests in the complexed dynamics of Black mistrust of Brown communities, or anti-black attitudes amongst brown folk.
Category 2: Buying into the Media Narrative
This point argues that the majority of us are in fact steered by the mass media narativisation of each others communities. That we don’t award each other the same level of nuance, humanisation, and are led by the representations that we see?
Bringing all of the stands together …
This section of the post draws on all of the points raised to argue that broadly speaking, we continue to self define and self validate ourselves with the aid of the white (colonial) lens – that this often involves a performing whiteness to ‘fit in’ or ‘assimilate’.
That many of these behaviours are held and enacted subconsciously and are a representation of a physical colonisation, which now manifests as an ideological one. That our ideological colonisation is reinforced through the cultural hegemonies communicated through mainstream media that we consume. That we do not extend humanisation and nuance towards each other (or even at points to ourselves). That we continue to understand each other and ourselves through the colonisers lens. That, we operate in a decontextualised states of existence, and are accepting of this. We never question en mass the absurdities of certain social narratives such as ‘black history’ … we never ask why ‘it’s not called history’ … or whether this dynamic is another example of the normalisation of the whitewashing of history? We don’t ask questions and we don’t try to know ourselves or each other.
Perhaps the first move towards removing bias, is for us to begin decolonising our minds and engaging with a shift away from subconscious colonial compliance, and a move towards establishing trust and mutual unity? – because in a landscape where we are constantly trying to justify our occupation of spaces, our humanity, and our very existence … the least we can do is treat each other humanely.