By Ola Dirisu
Tate Britain Millbank, London: Exhibition Title: “Stan Firm Inna Inglan’: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-70s & Goldsmiths, University of London: Exhibition Title: “Vron Ware: 13 Dead and Nothing Said”
Unsure of what to expect or how I would learn something new before going on the field trip to these exhibitions, I started the day feeling apprehensive, as race and ethnicity is something that affects my everyday life. However, after visiting both the Tate Britain and the Goldsmiths College exhibition, my perception changed. The pictures gave a creative look at Black British history, which is something that is often not spoken about, and definitely not taught in schools. It was therefore very interesting to actually see some of the racial history of this country, and not just revisit African American history. It was also important to see and reflect on what I didn’t know about black British history, such as the New Cross Fire, killing 13 black teenagers, but not spoken about in the media, reminding me of how victim sympathy, especially in the media, can be based on racial identity (Christie, 1986).
The exhibition at Goldsmiths in particular left me pondering on many questions, such as; whether or not this would this still have been the case if the victims were of another ‘race’ or background? Would the media still have reported (or not) the incident in the same way? I think it was important to draw on knowledge I already had based on how incidences are depicted in today’s media, it reminded me that although times may have changed, the feelings and institutional powers, still have a powerful effect on perception.
The exhibitions further reminded me that the social construction of race is not about the fact that there are no differences biological or otherwise (Andreasen, 2000: S653), between different ‘races’, but everything to do with the ability to dominate control and power over other people (Olson, 2005: 118; Barth 1969: 15) which was shown in this photo where the black woman and white man in the are virtually identical looking expect skin colour, sitting with each other. Maybe separation and/or discrimination are not inherent feelings, but rather socialised into us? As if we were not taught to see difference, there would be less hate and exclusion, in 2013-2014 there were over 45,000 racially motivated attacks (IRR Website: 2017).
The saying ‘A picture speaks a thousand words’ was very much so the case when visiting the exhibitions, as many pictures grasped my attention, however, three very striking images really made me think and one in particular changed my outlook.
‘Keep Britain White.’ actually made me quite sad when thinking about it. Often we see, in this day and age, covert forms of racism, where it is not so often easily noticeable, however in the past, it seemed that people were more brazen with their dislike. It initially struck me how sad it is that hate can stem purely from reactions to skin colour and how much energy seemed to go into expressing it. However, what really made me take notice of this picture was that there was somewhat an air of defiance. In this picture she is standing next to the door and taking a photograph with it and although she may really have been terrified about what had actually transpired, the fact that she stays strong and doesn’t allow that emotion to show, is somewhat inspiring.
Secondly, in the same Tate Britain exhibition as the previous picture, I was reminded about community. The picture displayed reminds me of Hackney where I grew up visiting family as a younger child. There used to be a square area in the middle of the houses, where everyone outside would often congregate and do many different things together, not because we were related, but because there was a common experience and environment shared amongst all of those that lived there, living in less privileged working class areas.
Similarly, in this picture, there is a feel of community, where they are sitting down together and talking. What were they talking about? The need for a community to discuss life and issues together could be a way that they got through this time and survived. They could probably relate to each other because they were likely to be in similar wage brackets and situations, and going through similar experiences, living in the same area, just like in Hackney, This shows how poverty, class, race and ethnicity are intertwined, as primarily black working class families dominated Hackney, as is what can be assumed from this picture. Smith (1986: 192) stated that ethnicity was sharing common heritage, traditions and descent and seeing this picture, it made me wonder whether our identity/ethnicity is constructed around our race and/or our shared lived experiences, or actually, whether our shared experiences are only because of race, which has been used to shape and define who we are as people.
Finally, looking at this photograph, the white man is the focus, in and amidst a group of black people, who seem to be joyous and happy, dancing and possibly singing, as well as being quite smartly dressed – almost like at a church or a function. There is a noticeable difference between how they are acting or being perceived and how he is acting. Where they are smiling and happy, he has a straight face and no real emotion. Also, as can be seen, he has a shaved head, which stereotypically at that time, was associated with skinheads and racism (having been adopted by neo-Nazi groups, who, when the picture was taken in 1976 were at the height of their terror) and had very negative connotations. Looking from the outside in at this picture, he looks out of place, which suggests to me, that after this picture was taken, something violent could or might have occurred. Syd Shelton, the photographer, and at the time was taking pictures of the rise of the National Front (a fascist hate-speech organisation) and given the context, and this picture, it would appear that there would have been extreme racial tensions at this time, which is why it is very easy to anticipate violence.
Of everyone in this photograph, it is natural that we would automatically see him as a potential suspect, if anything did actually occur after this. The problem I saw with this, is that it is ‘human nature’ to look at the physical differences between people (Du Bois, 1970: 75) and then question their motives (often pointing them out and cause separation) (Barth 1969: 15). At this event shown in the picture, there is a high chance, that had they been searching people, he would probably have been one of the first to be searched.
Questions such as: Is he there to cause trouble or is he there because he wants to be in support of whatever is happening? Is it simply a case of ‘wrong time, wrong place’? Initially made me stop and think, and I realised that this is the daily reality of many from the black community, who may look ‘out of place’ or look suspicious, singled out and questioned, even though their actions and intentions may not be bad. As there is a hyper vigilance of black people in society (Cohen 2002), when thinking or reflecting on this picture, his demeanour might not actually have been that of violence, but rather out of awkwardness. We assume or create an idea of who we think the person may be and maintain it (Haney-Lopez, 2006:78). This, linked with the racial tensions at the time, his presence at this event and this picture is something that would have sparked controversy and stood out for me.
I thought this could also somewhat link with the idea of the criminalisation of minority people. Due to the racial tensions that have been occurring throughout history, black people are stopped and searched five times more than the white counterpart (Data.Police: 2017), and this is mainly to do with how people perceive them. On closer reflection, I found that just as it was easy for me to believe or assume that he might have done, be doing or about to do something wrong, based on prejudicial thoughts and stereotypes (stereotyping the skinhead or the look), can be how black people are viewed by other races, especially those with power such as the police. The same way I believed they would check or search him at the door of the event is quite possibly the same way others may view the need to stop and search ‘out of place’ ethnic minorities.
Overall, as a black Briton, these pictures and this trip resonated with me because this is the history of the UK black diaspora. So often black British history is eradicated and brushed aside in schools so to see it highlighted and focused on, made me quite happy, as it shows a move towards inclusion of excluded groups such as black community.
Andreasen, R. (2000). Race: Biological Reality or Social Construct?. Philosophy of Science, 67, pp.S653-S666.
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Cohen, S. (2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Christie, N. (1986). Ideal Victim. In: E. Fattah, ed., From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, 1st ed. New York: St Martin’s Press, pp.17-30.
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Haney-López, I. (2006). White by law. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press.
Irr.org.uk. (2017). Racial violence statistics | Institute of Race Relations. [online] Available at: http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/racial-violence/ [Accessed 16 May 2017].
Olson, J. (2005). W.E.B. Du Bois and the Race Concept. Souls, 7(3-4), pp.118-128.
Smith, A. (1988). The Ethnic Origins of Nations. 1st ed. Oxford: Blackwell.