Heroes and Villains

I am disturbed by my white skin

I am disturbed by the privilege and weight that it carries

I am utterly disturbed by the systems that brought me up, the information I was fed and the superiority that was bred into me

I am disturbed to my ignorance to others experience, disturbed to the thinking I was liberal, conscious, and aware of the experience of the ‘ethnic minority’ community in England.

The narrative and environment I currently sit in forces me to recognise and feel my race every single day. I hate that, yet know that is how many have to live their lives each day and so I cannot complain for the small discomfort I feel.

My environment shows me that my skin colour alone drives people to hate me, to love me, to be jealous of me, to want to be me, to want to know me for the opportunity I bring. My skin makes some people believe I am intelligent, highly qualified, able to bring saviour and the ‘right’ opinion and answers.  I also know my skin colour makes people think I am stupid, lost, ungodly, misinformed, that I should be on my knees repenting, that I am undeserving of my privilege.  My own immediate treatment of people of my skin colour is that of loathing and distain. I don’t want to waste my time with people who are so entrenched in the western mirage of brilliance and so I avoid them.

My ‘own people’ when gathered in crowds here in Uganda make me feel uncomfortable. Can you believe that? The mzungu bars here where the NGO and tourist crowd gather make my skin crawl as I look eyeingly for a local person to save me from the shit conversation I may have to sit within if any of these people decide to talk to me. Yet my African brothers and sisters that also reside in the bar I wonder why are you here? Why do you choose this spot where you are the minority.  Are you to stupid in thinking that somehow white people are better, more fun, more worldly, that your happiness is here with them?

The rain is pouring heavily outside. Rainy season is here in Uganda and I am sipping on my coffee and eating left over chocolate as I wait for the rain to subside. I cannot move in this weather. No one here moves in this weather. The whole city will be stopped in this moment, some sleeping, some having gentle conversations with their loved ones. Many will have lost electricity as the rain floods the city causing havoc to many systems whilst also cleaning that rich orange earth that manages to get into, and onto, every surface of my life.

I sit here in bed writing as I have just been moved by the words, images and stories of ’I am not your Negro’ (2016). Of course the American experience of race is a unique one, in that it’s characters; the heroes and villains, the tragedies that play out, and the tales of utter bravery, sadness, love, fear and hate, are told so often now and echo strongly, as the country tries to make sense of the current mess they sit in. But we should know full well that these stories have been played out, and still play out all over the world.

I come from a town called Oldham, which is very often voted one of the worst places to live in the UK for many reasons, but partly for the lack of investment/care for the place, and partly due to the race conflict and disturbances over the years.  My experience of race and racism during my young growth years were within the tensions that existed within the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and white European communities, that lived together in this one district. I do not have strong memories of this time, but I do remember the segregation that existed within how the housing estates were set up, the segregation that existed in schools (my school was predominantly white, whereas the neighbouring school was at least 40/60 white – asian), and the segregation that was visible on the streets and in businesses. People didn’t mix I know that much.

Thinking about how I grew up, I recognise now how I could have been totally oblivious to the racism and discrimination felt by my non-white brother or sister there, as I was never faced with any part of their life and day to day experiences. In addition to the the systems I was surrounded by – in work , education and media – all being led by white people, or being led by people of colour, who were trying so hard to make a success of their lives and felt unable to speak up about the discrimination and oppression that they faced each day.

My months in Ugandan village in 2015 broke down multiple walls inside my brain.  I tell many people I meet now about the moments of awakening I felt within my time in the Ugandan village; how I became aware of my whiteness, my western mind, and my feelings of superiority built from my years of conditioning.

Being brought up by a brilliant woman who through her own worldly and spiritual explorations, I guess overall amongst many things. taught me about empathy, love, to break social boundaries, and to live a life of brilliance. From this upbringing I felt utterly shocked when I realised that my inner voice was telling me that I was better than the African brothers and sisters I was working with here in Uganda. I believed inside myself that I was superior in my intelligence and understanding of the world, that these people needed ‘helping’ through access to our western ideas and education in order to live fulfilling lives. These thoughts, which seeped through into my actions, my communication, my relationships and my work there, really sickened me.

I found that the years of learning I had done at University, studying Global Development and Sustainability, were actually a detriment to the impact I wanted to be involved in creating here. In that hot room in the village, with the goats bleating outside and the mosquitos singing their tunes past my ears, I felt anger and despair for the lies I have been told, not just in university but from birth, that had now today made me into a complete arsehole, set on a neo-colonial mission to finish off what the worst of my ancestors had started last century.  To the distress of my family, who all thought I was mad, I refused to return to University to finish my degree, and set the course of my life over the next few years to one routed here on the continent where I continue to discover and learn so much along the way.

   

‘I am not your Negro’ got me thinking to my experiences as a Fellow for the 2017 African Union European Union Youth Plug-In Initiative (YPII), where I was chosen to take part in this initiate with 36 other fellows across African, Europe and the Diaspora, to write a youth agenda for the AU EU Summit in Abidjan. I have been struggling, even 4 months later, to truly come to terms with my learning and understanding of what I experienced during those 7 weeks.  My mind and heart always returns to this one theme that takes such prominence now in my life; my white skin. And actually not just my white skin, but my Britishness. I come from a country, which in one narrative, has succeeded through their devilry in conquering the best part of a quarter of this earth, and now profits from its riches

In this global interconnected planet, Western Europeans, and Northern Americans, are squeezing the last droplets of blood from the imperially slaughtered carcass that is remaining. During YPII I saw into the belly of such a system, which is a privilege in itself, to see the gentle buzz of a dying fly, small In its body but still managing to savagely feast, and spread its diseases to anywhere it is choosing to land its tiny feet. This economic, social and political paradigm we exist in, we know is at the detriment to most people on this planet. And in my eyes the European Union play their part in holding tight, resource and power, which keep the few elite people rich, and maintain an unhealthy forward motion of the systems which sustain the chosen white populations with their shallow hungry purchasing, and consuming lives.

 

 

‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings’ Ben Orki, A Way of Being Free

My point of reflection and advice, towards my experience of YPII, particularly to those that sit in power within the European Union, Commission and Investment Bank; is a need to firstly stop, acknowledge and speak some truth about what has happened and is still happening within these global systems. In opposition to what Arnould Maud, a member of Cabinet from the European Commission, had to say; Colonialism and Neo-colonialism has existed and still exists to maintain a racist and oppressive system which is keeping the majority of people misinformed, disempowered and in poverty. Looking at this system, and the desire to tell the truth, I think we really ought to question many of the things that surround us, for example;

-Why do we mourn the deaths and evils of the holocaust in Europe each year, yet don’t recognise the imperialist terror Europe planted on millions of people across the planet, recognising how European countries have, and still, benefit from it?

-How do we allow individuals to be immortalised and celebrated in the form of statues in London and across Europe, without any recognition of their involvement in the slave-trade?

-Why are our children not being educated by balanced stories of how we find ourselves rich in this present day, and what impact this has had and still has globally. Lets be honest, Europe is raising their kids to believe that European people, and European systems; our thinking, knowledge and culture – is superior to those around the world. Lets stop that shit.

-Where are the strong movements of people forcing our governments and institutions to give back the many artefacts, art works, precious metals, money and more, that were stolen from the places that we conquered over the years?

I know colonialism is not the full story of my people and my ancestors, and I do feel inside me the struggle and triumph of the amazing women and men before me, especially the working class.  I also know that the majority of those people in those mzungu bars in Uganda, are good-willing, interesting people trying their best to create some positive impact on this planet.   But the racism and the white supremacist systems that exists today cannot be ignored. I am angry that I was misinformed through my whole life and I wish for future generations to be fully aware of our shared history, and not just those stories told by a select few white men. It requires each one of us, especially those that are in power and hold privilege, to break down these oppressive systems, and we will all be better for it.

 

 

 

I want to finish with a poem by Kate Tempest, which has continued to give me strength and perspective over these months. However this story we are in plays out, I know in myself that it is magical, epic and is paving the way for the new narratives and amazing journeys to be created for the generations to come.

 

In the old days,

the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves

but how can we explain

the way we hate ourselves?

The things we’ve made ourselves into,

the way we break ourselves in two,

the way we overcomplicate ourselves?

But we are still mythical.

We are still permanently trapped

somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.

We are still Godly,

that’s what’s made us so monstrous.

It just feels like we’ve forgotten

that we’re much more

than the sum of the things that belong to us.

Every single person has a purpose in them burning.

Look again.

Allow yourself to see them.

Millions of characters

Each with their own epic narratives

Singing, ‘it’s hard to be an angel

Until you’ve been a demon’.

We are perfect because of our imperfections,

We must stay hopeful,

We must be patient;

When they excavate the modern day

They’ll find us,

The Brand New Ancients.

All that we have here

Is all that we’ve always had.

We have jealousy,

tenderness,

curses and gifts.

But the plight of a people who have forgotten their myths

and imagine that somehow

now is all that there is –

is a sorry plight

all isolation and worry

but the life in your veins

it is Godly, heroic.

You were born for greatness.

Believe it,

know it –

take it from the tears of the poets.

there’s always been heroes,

there’s always been villains,

the stakes may have changed

but really there’s no difference.

there’s always been greed

and heartbreak and ambition.

jealousy, love,

trespass and contrition,

we’re the same beings that began,

still living,

in all of our fury and foulness and friction.

Everyday odysseys.

Dreams vs decisions.

The stories are there if you listen.

The stories are here.

The stories are you

and your fear and your hope is as old

as the language of smoke,

the language of blood,

the language of languishing love,

the Gods are all here.

Because the Gods are in us.