Heavy Is The Head That Calls Out Racism
*I wrote this back in December 2019 in response to reactions to Stormzy's comments on racism in the UK but never put it out. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately since we've been on lockdown and realised that life is too short to wait till everything is perfect. Perfect may mean that your work never gets put out there *
This past week Stormzy made a comment about racism in Britain and like clockwork, came misleading headlines and responses filled with racist rhetoric to seemingly disprove the presence of racism in the UK. I honestly believe that we may never be able to have an honest conversation about race in this country. Ethnic minorities will continue to face backlash for bringing to attention racism they face. We still live in a time where an accusation of racism seems to be far more offensive than an actual act of racism.
When asked about whether there is racism in the UK, rapper Stormzy replied “definitely, 100%”. However news outlets (most notably, ITV and BBC) and people who hold particular feelings about Stormzy have reported something different. They claim that he is calling everyone in Britain racist.
Racism is more than racial slurs and monkey noises. It’s the widening of the pay gap as you move across lines of gender, race and class. It’s the wrongful deportation of those who were deemed British when their services were needed but are no longer publicly deemed so. It’s both the criminalisation of black people and the unwillingness to honestly address issues like knife crime (the continual incorrect and irresponsible framing of knife crime as a ‘black’ issue does a disservice to ALL affected regardless of race). The list could go on and on.
Black people achieving success in this country doesn't, by any means, equate to the eradication of racism. Statistcs finding Britain to be the least racist country in Europe does not equate to there being no racism. However, it seems that either people just don’t know or they simply don’t care. I also believe it comes from a lack of truthful education about the British Empire, colonialism and the history of race in the UK. This negative response provides me with further evidence to support my belief that an honest conversation about race may never happen. Until we have that conversation as a society, racism will continue to go under the radar and those who dare to call it out will suffer from backlash and media-fuelled hyper-visibility.
The Good Immigrant Dilemma
Much of backlash faced by celebrities and those in spotlight who call out racism stems from them challenging the Good Immigrant Dilemma. Stormzy is no stranger to this sort of criticism. The Good Immigrant Dilemma applies to anyone who can be easily associated with immigration regardless of their place of birth, those who can be visibly categorised as other. These people find that they must work to avoid the judgement of those in society who question their presence in the country, who constantly remind them to be ‘grateful’ for being ‘allowed’ to be here. The Good Immigrant Dilemma finds that their right to be in the UK is based, not on legal documentation, but their acceptable behaviour and willingness to fully assimilate. This, sadly, means not speaking out on issues surrounding race and discrimination. Amanda Platell, writing for the Daily Mail, condemned Stormzy for not showing gratitude after he called out on Theresa May and her policies that affect black people. We saw Dave’s lyrics on ‘Black’ that spoke on the issue of race and racism in Britain being labelled racist. We saw public opinion on Nadiya Hussein and Naga Munchetty swiftly change and calls for them to lose jobs once they spoke on matters regarding racism. The Dilemma is by no means restricted to the UK. It recently emerged that prior to Gabrielle Union losing her America’s Got Talent judge spot, she had been told that her hairstyles were “too black” and had reported inappropriate behaviour regarding race and gender. The Good Immigrant Dilemma will continue to silence those who experience and choose to take a stand against racism.
The Media and Race
Stormzy responded to backlash by calling out media outlets for “intentionally spinning [his] words for some clickbait.” As mentioned earlier, what outlets chose as their headlines did not match up to Stormzy’s statement. This opened him up to abuse and attack, some of which included racist language and rhetoric. This is not the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that mainstream media outlets have changed the context of black celebrities words. Last year, in response to criticism of a tattoo of a gun, Raheem Sterling posted a statement: “When I was 2 my father died from being gunned down to death, I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime, I shoot with my right foot, so it has a deeper meaning n still unfinished”. Sky News misquoted his response, claiming it to be unintentional, by adding ‘again’ after “never touch a gun.” This, too, invoked similar abuse and played into persistent stereotypes of black men.
The media has a very complex relationship with race. Often hailed as a signifier of the absence of racism, many not privy to how racism manifests fail to see how the media can reproduce racism. The unwillingness to talk honestly about race in the UK means that what is glaringly obvious to ethnic minorities is often met with reactions of denial and dismissal.
I have seen many people invalidate Stormzy and other’s statements when they refer to colonialism. Using the colonial views on Africa, they reinforce the notion of the Good Immigrant Dilemma. 'You should be grateful to be here and not [insert any persistent negative description of Africa here]'. They claim that since it’s been decades since the Empire, it bears no relevance to the world today. This is simply not true. It is easy to argue this as much of this history happened beyond British shores. There are few reminders of the devastating impacts of colonialism to create daily reminders of the atrocities. There is little education on how colonial attitudes continue to be reproduced today. As Afua Hirsch puts it, “discussing race, in contemporary Britain, is still a radical act.” The unwillingness to talk about race means that many will continue to disassociate the colonial era from society today.
There are so many issues at play in this whole situation that it is almost impossible to narrow it down to a single blogpost. Race in the UK is like memories from an old longterm relationship. The relationship shaped who you are today but it was so toxic that you force yourself to forget. You pack up all the memories in a box and hide it in the darkest corner of that basement room that no one can enter. No matter how much you try to bury it, it was still a part of you. A part that needs to be addressed. A part that needs healing. And yes, it may not be as bad as when you were in the relationship but the relationship has left long-lasting effects on you. Effects that still have an impact on you today.
Heavy is the Head (Album) by Stormzy is out now
Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging - Afua Hirsch
The Good Immigrant - edited by Nikesh Shukla
Unpacking the Unspoken: Silence in Collective Memory and Forgetting - Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Chana Teeger
Slay In Your Lane - Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire - Akala
Why I'm No Longer Talking About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge
Black and British: A Forgotten History - David Olusoga