Two weeks ago I wrote a piece for our college newsletter at Brunel, urging our academic communities to shift focus from the operational dimensions of covid-19 crisis management to start to centre issues, experiences and concerns pertaining to in/equalities in the university’s handling of the pandemic. Those local-level concerns have since been amplified as the world around us burns.
On 20 May Bangladesh and my home state of West Bengal in India are destroyed by Cyclone Amphan. Lives and homes, already endangered by and vulnerable from the virus, are devastated. Sundarbans, a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO world heritage site of mangrove forestations, is obliterated. The aftermath of this disaster has exposed the region’s socio-economic and health inequalities in uncompromising ways, and has been overwhelming to stomach from thousands of miles away. I witness with sheer admiration the incredible efforts and relentless rescue operations and fundraising that are being mobilised by friends and colleagues at local and transnational levels. I speak to my family who is safe but left speechless by the scale of the destruction around their own homes, let alone in distant rural areas in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh. I look at haunting images of Kolkata’s College Street, boi para (the book neighbourhood), flooded for miles and scattered with millions of floating pages of now decimated books; these small businesses ruined beyond recognition.
My heart aches. But there is more to come.
On 25 May social media witnesses the horrific footage of the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white Minneapolis policeman. In response to this white supremacist act, #BlackLivesMatter protests erupt across the US and are met with state sanctioned violence and horrifying police brutality against civilians demanding racial justice and against journalists trying to do their jobs. Similar protests are now happening across the UK, Europe and indeed the world; and here it is important to note that the UK is protesting not just George Floyd’s death, but also this country’s own track record of institutional racism against Black British people. And in its most recent manifestation, the night of 30 May marks the violent arrest of Kamyimsola Olatunjoye, an unarmed 28-year-old Black woman, in Lewisham by six police officers.
I recall in this moment the words of Warsan Shire, the Black British poet and winner of the inaugural 2013 Brunel University African Poetry Prize:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Warsan Shire, What They Did Yesterday Afternoon (2015)
Yes. The world is hurting everywhere. But some people in this world are hurting more than others right now. And they always were. And they will continue to until we take a stand.
What does it mean for us to take on the enormous task of educating future generations in this very particular moment? Why is it important to reflect on the relationship between global capitalism, white supremacy and its combined devastating impacts on climate change in the global South? What does it mean to work alongside our students and colleagues whose lives, families and communities are terrorised and dehumanised by racial violence? What can anti-racist and anti-oppressive solidarity and commitment look like in the academy in real actionable terms? How can we re-emerge from this catastrophic state of affairs if we don’t acknowledge that the current systems, driven by neoliberal market logics, are not only not working but in fact, they are fundamentally unjust? What are our individual and collective responsibilities right now as people and as educators to engage with this moment we find ourselves in, and all the challenges it presents to us? Despite all our personal and institutional precarities in this moment, how can we rise to bear the responsibilities of working with empathy, ethics and justice at the very core of everything we do? How can arts organisations and higher education institutions move beyond their performed commitment to ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ by admitting how they are responsible for upholding and benefitting from white supremacist structures? When will universities and, specific to this research project website, UK’s contemporary dance industry acknowledge that anti-Blackness is foundational to their operations? What will it take for the empty gestures of solidarity statements to turn into commitment to anti-racist actions through redistribution of power and resources? What will it take for white people in positions of power in arts organisations and institutions to own up to the inequalities they perpetrate on a daily basis in their policies, practices and communications, and the violence of their actions on Black and brown people?
Some of us may have been considering these questions for a long time; for others they might be particularly heightened right now. I am continuing to learn, unlearn, witness and listen hard during conversations with students, friends and colleagues, and through my social media networks right now. My friend and digital rights activist Padmini Ray Murray alerts me to the need to exercise caution when acting in solidarity: to support, donate to and amplify the voices of local rescue operations who have dedicated their lives to regional activisms in the Sundarbans and are working tirelessly in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, over initiatives that have been generated by individuals who are travelling to the region to fundraise, without links to it. I watch as WhatsApp threads erupt on my phone with white parents, suddenly awakened into a state of hopefully irrevocable awareness, acknowledging that race and racism education must start at home. They are seeking resources on how to get started. What will it take for these parents to realise that it is their complicity in white supremacist silence over racism in their children’s upbringings that is responsible for the violence Black and brown people face daily? I weep watching videos of Black parents in the US speaking to their eight, nine, ten, eleven-year olds for the first time about how to behave in the presence of police officers. I am overwhelmed by the footage of a young white woman at a protest in the US, protectively standing in front of her Black companion, refusing to budge as the police in riot gear try to separate them. I witness rightful anger aimed at tweets of performed anti-racist solidarity put out by countless universities, corporate and arts organisations, whose founding principles are fundamentally white supremacist. I witness South Asian Twitter explode defensively at a powerful thread by the wonderful spoken-word poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, where she asks our communities to own up to our own anti-Black prejudices. She follows up with an incisive article titled Why disinvesting from White Supremacy and ending our complicity in structures that dehumanise Black people is the only way to freedom for ANY person of colour. I process its powerful call, and I think, there is so, so much more work to do.
Privilege is a powerful thing. If you possess it, you do not see it. If someone points it out to you, your fragility and the unequal systems in your favour ensure you continue to not see it. Nothing changes. The system remains in place.
What will it take for us to acknowledge that the system is broken? That the system is deeply unjust? That the system kills?
Because #BlackLivesMatter and as the Black British dance-artist Alexandrina Hemsley writes:
With rage, fury and heart,
We pull on deep, tidal pleas to be
heard; to have whtie supremacy’s
systemic oppression halted.
Scared, within this double virus
-white supremacy as sickness-
The world is burning up, while we
are burning out
post by Royona Mitra, 5 June 2020
If you would like to donate to local initiatives and rescue operations in the Sunderbans in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, please see this thread.
Resources for anti-racist action during rebellion and pandemic
(compiled by Arabella Stanger)
In her piece above, Royona asks: ‘What will it take for the empty gestures of solidarity statements to turn into commitment to anti-racist actions through redistribution of power and resources?’ The resources below are designed as starting places for responding to that call.
This short list draws on work others have already done in bringing together resources for antiracism and anti-criminalisation in and beyond the arts. It is focussed on UK and US initiatives and analysis, and is for this reason and others, selective and partial. If you’re reading this and want to share other useful resources, please provide them by comment to this blog post. And to any white people reading (including myself as I write this): let us not waste time making statements, chastising each other, or connecting to ourselves, and let’s instead find concrete ways to take collective action.
First, take a look at Migrants in Culture’s excellent quick resource list: https://linktr.ee/migrantsinculture
and their invitation to contribute to a ‘cultural new deal’: “What could a Culture New Deal centring communities of colour, migrants, disabled, queer folx and the working class look like?”
Fund Racial Justice: Where to Donate (six anti-racist, community-led funds)
And anti-criminalisation and anti-hostile environment funds through the pandemic
SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement)
Black Lives Matter UK twitter feed for info on: protest dates; safety, training, and advice on arrest.
Black Lives Matter Allyship resources, including advice for protestors
Resource list on how to support Black lives in the UK
Melz for gal-dem, ‘What To Do if you Can’t Protest on the Streets for Black Lives Matter’ (2 June 2020)
Zoé Samudzi on prison and police abolition (4 June 2020): “The idea that any one or any group of people need to die in order for a system to be sustained, which is the nature of racial capitalism in the United States and around the world.”
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Geographies of Racial Capitalism (1 June 2020): “We can’t undo racism without undoing capitalism”
Cornell West on CNN (29 May 2020): “We are witnessing America as a failed experiment”
Dance Town Hall for Collective Action (USA, 1 June 2020): “This Town Hall’s intention is to hold a space for our dance community to express our righteous anger, to witness our grief in our community, and to synthesise this information into action.”
With, For About (UK online ‘slow conference’, ongoing through June 2020): “We wilfully ask in facing this crisis, another ten years of austerity, ecological collapse, harsher borders, more racism and deeper ableism within deeply divided societies – how can artists, activists and organisations make vital change within our communities and beyond?”
This reading list on racism and anti-blackness
Priyamvada Gopal, ‘Britain’s Record on Racism is No Less Bloody Than America’s’ (1 June 2020): “state violence and civic racism are endemic in contemporary Britain too.”
Janine Francois, ‘When White Women Get Caught: Victimhood as Racialised Violence’ (3 June 2020): “This history runs deep from Audre Lorde critiquing second wave white feminists right back to Sojourner Truths “Ain’t I a Woman” speech to the white suffragettes. There has never been any “sisterhood” between Black and white women”
Nana Chinara, ‘Open Letter to Arts Organisations Rampant with White Supremacy’: “It is this ocean of everyday unchecked white violence that actively drowns Black life, from microaggressions to modern day lynchings.”
And on collective action during and after the pandemic:
Collective authors: ‘“The state will not save us, only we can save us,” a collective response to covid-19’ : “The causes of the current crisis lie deeper than the outbreak of disease itself: it is rooted in the very way our economy is organised, how our society is gendered and racialised. See our open letter, which details what we must do in the face of this crisis.”
Finally, on the perils of resource lists like this one: https://www.vulture.com/2020/06/anti-racist-reading-lists-what-are-they-for.html