By Nikki Achilleous
I have never sincerely felt a victim of racism; I have never fully been personally exposed to hatred. Whilst looking around the Black Diaspora in London exhibition in Tate Britain, I absorbed the trajectories of the intersecting generations of black immigrant lives. I attempted to mentally place myself amongst this community that was characterized by resistance yet filled with celebration and hope. I tried to imagine the kind of atmosphere and struggle that they would have been exposed to. In doing so, two photos grabbed my attention and, despite all I had learnt about black experience this semester, I could not help but to be shocked by them. These two photos caught my attention for polar opposite, yet also intertwined reasons. Both captured politicized acts of graffiti on the streets of London, the first was explicitly racist, the second explicitly opposed racism.
The initial photo (Kenlock, 1972), captured a smartly dressed black lady pointing to a vandalised door at the International Personnel training centre in Balham. The graffiti slogan “Keep Britain White,” was tarnished with black paint onto the contrasting white door. My own shock reaction to the photo reminded me of how unnatural it is to think that this kind of act would be acceptable today. Yet when reflecting on our own political situation, it occurred to me how the reality of the current far right-wing rhetoric is displaying this same kind of anti-racist message, however does not use such exploitation of public space, nor use such explicitly racist language. Donald Trump’s rhetoric of Make America Great Again, and UKIP’s Brexit argument of Make Britain “Great Again” somewhat characterize an extension to the “Keep Britain White” slogan, yet this time they use blurred and confusing, non-explicitly colour based concepts to spread their message. “Great Again” is not a tangible concept, unless there exists a category of people who are defined as “not Great” for the country, and who must be expelled. It revealed how wrenching it must be for either current political or economic migrants, or anyone depicted as ‘foreign’, such as Muslims, to be placed into the ‘Other’ category of those “ not so Great for Britain.” Moreover, it exposed how unsettling it must be to hear the constant discourse on how unwelcome they are as a category, whether in the 1970’s or in 2017. The main difference is that today, society does not generally visualize this hatred through the same kind of freely expressed political acts carried out by local citizens in public spaces, as depicted at the time of the picture.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s immigration bans were being implemented for the first time thus, as it were more politically and socially acceptable, the discourse surrounding anti-immigration was overtly racist (Small and Solomos 2006). In this way, right-wing politicians capitalized on the notions of White preference and purity to gain votes, however gradually, as anti-racist movements gained leverage, explicitly racist language became less commonplace and started to be socially challenged. Immigration, citizenship access and national security were previously problematized and controlled through the notion of ‘biological race’, yet the new rhetoric shifted to a more colour-blind approach which problematized the notion of culture, however distinctively related culture back to a specific skin-colour (Fanon, 1967).
Kenlock’s (1972) photo also reminded me of how the notion of skin-colour, and consequently ‘white purity,’ have been central to the concept of British nationalism since colonial times, and how for some citizens, ‘Whiteness’, and White culture remains one of the key characteristics of their formation of “Britishness” and national identity (Garner, 2012). The slogan in the photo also demonstrates Miles’ (1993:78) extension on Anderson’s argument of the interrelationship between the ideologies of race and nation and how the idea of ‘race’ can be used to “sustain a positive evaluation of a “supraclass population”. According to Miles (1993:79), “the parameters of an imagined community of ‘nation’ can be specified and legitimated by racism…[and] the boundary of the imagined ‘nation’ is equally a boundary of ‘race’.” Through such fascist ideology, members of the non-White race are therefore seen as an ‘eternal contamination’ to the ‘imagined community,’ which is exactly the philosophy that this photo captures. Interestingly, the use of coloured graffiti is also central in relaying this message. The fact that black paint is symbolically used to tarnish a white door, signifying the darkening and discolouration of white purity mentioned above.
As stated, these boundaries of nation and race that were so openly expressed during the 1970’s, and the need to ‘manage’ immigration continue their presence today. A poll in the recent EU referendum revealed that one of overly exaggerated, yet widely believed issues highlighted by Brexit supports was the lack of national control on immigration (Arnorsson and Zoega, 2016). Their fears expressed that Britain had been ‘invaded’ by too many foreign workers, and the sentiment that essential ‘British’ culture and values had been lost due to the presence of foreign communities. When observing the 1970’s “Keep Britain White” slogan, similar questions and thoughts came to mind to those that arose when hearing the “Make Britain Great Again” campaign. Below is a brief demonstration of the relationship between the questions and thoughts raised:
Through the photo:
- Since when has Britain been ‘White?’
- What does it mean, culturally speaking, to be a ‘White Britain’?
- It highlights how darker skin-colour is not associated with Britishness.
During the campaign:
- Since when is Britain ‘Great?’
- What does it mean to be ‘Great?’ Is this reflected in the skin-tone of the nation?
- Immigrants (of colour or of cultural difference) are not associated with Britishness.
Thus, this comparison between 1972 and today demonstrates how the same type of political rhetoric has been remoulded decade upon decade, and how the coloured migrant or ‘Other’ is consistently illustrated as incompatible with ‘Britishness’. Although the photo captures the explicitly racist nationalist rhetoric that was actively being expressed in the streets, it re-highlighted not only how this racial tension still exists today, but how it is being communicated specifically through more private spaces, and through other mediums such as the news and social media which are accessed and controlled from the comfort of one’s home.
The second photo (Shelton, 1977) taken a few years later, features a white bald man walking through Jubilee Street in London with his eyes focused on the direct path ahead of him. In the background, there is a black wall tarnished with the white slogan of “Smash Racism” which he unnoticingly seem to pass. It was interesting to observe the polarity between the two images and the contrastingly mirrored use of black and white paint. Additionally, it was important to reflect on the way in which the participants in both images interact with equally the camera and their surrounding environment.
The lady in the first photo is actively involved with the racist slogan she confronts; her facial expression can be interpreted as mocking the slogan and she outwardly points to it. She is also looking directly into the camera, and from this we can determine that the viewer is fed a political message. Regardless of the ethnic background of the viewer of the photo, she demands a reaction from the viewer (Kress and Leeuwen, 1996), addressing them to question the graffiti in the place of UK society in the same way that she does. Furthermore, there is a ‘close personal distance’ between both the viewer and the participant, and between the participant and slogan. This helps the viewer to establish a closer connection and awareness with the subject, and also emphasises how the black lady is closely affected by the slogan.
Yet contrastingly in Shelton’s (1977) photo, the participant neither engages with the viewer nor with the anti-racist slogan that is prominent on the wall next to him; instead he un-observingly passes it by on his everyday self-orientated, unaware travels. This represents a wider reflection on race “privilege.” His blind neglect of the slogan re-enforces that he, as a white man, has no strong connection to racism itself, for he cannot be directly affected by it. Both racism and anti-racism efforts then go unnoticed by “privileged” citizens and such citizens do not consciously make an effort to study their surrounding environment. Additionally, the shot is taken from afar, meaning that this ‘far social distance’ that is created does not directly call the viewer for action (Kress and Leeuwen, 1996). In this way, both the first and second images reflect the wider societal reproduction and response to coloured racism, emphasising the role of race privilege and how black communities are consciously and continuously adversely affected. It demonstrates the contrast between both the coloured experience of racism and the fight for anti-racism, which is not just something that the black community can blindly choose to ignore on the street, and the stereotypical white citizen carrying out their daily life without too much disturbance. As the white man in the second image is not consciously involved with anti-racism, it sheds light on the consequential mind-set that could potentially occur: if they do not personally fight for anti-racism, someone else who needs to will.
In short, by studying both photos, it allowed me to more deeply empathize with the black experience in the UK and reflect on the discourse and framing of coloured racism in contemporary society, especially within the context of Brexit. The two photos also shed light on the notions of white purity, privilege and the unheard efforts of anti-racist protests. Overall, the exhibition also highlighted the power of imagery and art as a form of recognition and remembrance of the black struggle and captured how different ethnicities can experience racist and anti-racist graffiti in dissimilar ways depending on their own contexts.