We live in times of great distraction, and that distraction, per Toni Morrison, is racism.
Racism is indeed an immense and unrelenting distraction, especially right now, for Black people who continue to do what we can, by all means, to stay alive and imagine a better future. Say “Black Lives Matter” and in some places you could elicit epistemic and physical violence, sometimes even from those you once called friends. This reactive instinct, which has been nurtured since the 16th century, is so embedded in our system that it’s gaslighting techniques are on a global scale.
Because rather than deal with how we move toward reparations and creating a truly just society, many instead choose to fall back into “subtle” or glaring anti-Black racism — via words and actions, believing there will be no consequence.
And, as a Black person, it’s truly painful to witness the way people will go out of their way to defend the value of inanimate objects over Black lives. All while stoking the flames that threaten Black existence.
This happened last week in Bristol, a port city in the United Kingdom with a highly significant history in slave trading. It used to have the statue of Edward Colston, a merchant who was a generous benefactor of Bristol charities and part of the Royal African Company — a fancy name which was branded on the chest of slaves they traded.
I say “used to” because you might have seen what happened recently when anti-racism marchers, in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement, pulled down Colston’s statue and threw it into the harbor. In videos, you can hear the crowd cheer and celebrate. Vanessa Kisuule, the official Bristol city poet, captured so many of our emotions in a poem titled “hollow,” which wishes Colston to rust in shame.
But in response, different groups and local police have swarmed to protect the statues. Some statues were boarded up for protection while several politicians tried to play “both sides.” Sajid Javid, a Parliament member, acknowledged Colston’s involvement in slave trade but argued that removing his statue “is not OK.” Days later, Central London was swarmed by a crowd — including far-right activists — who were on a mission to “protect statues.”
This case study of the slave trader Colston and the rush to defend his statue is really not a solitary one. Across the globe, statues of people who committed atrocities against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are being taken down: from Leopold in Belgium, Columbus across North America, and Rhodes in Oxford.
But some are also getting protection. In the United States, a protestor attempting to help pull down a conquistador statue in New Mexico was shot by volunteer militia, who were guarding the statue. In New York City, the famous representation of capitalism, The Wall Street Bull, received protection.
By arguing for the statues of virulent racists to remain standing, people have passed the message across that they would rather invest time, energy, resources, and capital into protecting literal symbols of racism than dismantling societal injustice and anti-Black racism.
“Looting should be the least of your concerns,” says cultural critic, Kimberley Foster. And in this moment, in a time where the United States government has failed to protect communities of color during COVID-19, it’s especially true.
Foster challenges people to actively consider the rallying cry behind every protest and how we can intentionally develop compassion for protestors. Even the designer Marc Jacobs, who has displayed his own fair share of problematic behaviour, was able to hear the message behind Black Lives Matter. After his L.A. store was trashed, Jacobs, on his own Instagram page shared that “property can be replaced, human lives cannot.”
The underlying issue being fought for is human life.
Which in turn, reveals the underlying problem with asking “what about the buildings?” and “what about the history the statue represents?” and “what about the looting?” These questions, which distract from the main issue at hand, are usually bad faith arguments without any consideration for the factors that have led to the very justified anger of Black people globally.
Using all our energy in this moment to answer these types of questions, is to make space for a conversation where Black lives do not hold the same value to buildings, or statues, or even animals. It ignores the humanity and dignity of Black people who have to walk past the statues every day and be reminded of their painful history. And ultimately, it is another distraction tactic.
Whether Black protest is peaceful or not (to be clear, many recent protests have been peaceful), on either side of the Atlantic, our demands to basic humanity are always selectively framed to be controversial and entitled. The ways mostly white newsrooms tell these stories feeds into the devaluing of Black lives. We see it and read it every day, from newspapers, to television screens, to social media. And if we don’t question it, they become subliminal messages that uphold systemic racism.
Take how the media highlights looting without covering the many crowdfunds set up to rebuild affected Black businesses. Why are Black protestors regularly demonized while white rioters get infantilised? For the very same reason after hurricane Katrina two Black people were framed as “looting” while two white people, committing the very same justifiable act of gathering things they needed, were framed as “finding.”
When London’s Natural History Museum acknowledged, on June 1, that their collections are “rooted in colonialism and racism,” I experienced a sense of personal vindication. Just days prior, in response to the bad faith arguments over looting, I tweeted that museums are “loot depots.” This assertion, which shouldn’t be controversial, is rooted in fact. But many tend to get defensive and refuse to engage with the idea of returning artifacts to their homelands — and those people responded to my tweet.
Overwhelmed by racists, I had to lock my Twitter account. I only unlocked it days later with hopes I had been forgotten. However, it gives me another case study which demonstrates how many care less about the facts and more about silencing the voices of BIPOC who dare to say “These are our things and we want them back.” Attempting to silence well-known facts does not invalidate the ugly history.
Black people have been aware of the societal value and judgement on our lives for centuries. Blackness and Black people have been dehumanised to the level where non-Black people often want our art and our “things” but don’t want us and don’t care about our lives and livelihood.
Even when slavery was abolished in Britain, Black people continued to get brutalized and colonized and even eventually had to pay taxes that went to reimbursing the pockets of slave owners. The large sum of 20 million pounds, determined in 1833, was only recently paid off in 2015, with no reparations to the victims of said slave trade.
And this is the context non-Black people, especially white people, need to consider when listening to the rallying cry. It is very possible to invest in dismantling systemic racism while still doing the necessary internal work on ourselves. But it won’t be done if we argue about buildings instead of asking why distraction tactics about buildings and other inanimate objects are more compelling than reflecting on our value judgements on Black lives.
Because Black lives matter. All Black lives — trans, disabled, poor, queer, undocumented, nonbinary, women — matter. Black people have exhausted many means in trying to communicate this message across, but together with our accomplices, we will find ways to keep turning the volume up.
Furaha Asani is a postdoctoral researcher, teacher, mental health advocate, and writer. She can be found being unprofessional on Twitter.