It seemed inevitable that when the world changed in 2007 the world would change.
Working as an artist soon after that time, I made a piece in response to what appeared to be the implosion of capitalism and the welcome prospect of change in the structures of global power. The piece was called Refugee: End of Empire. It consisted of mass-produced Regency figurines in their gilded pomp, their faux bucolic innocence and pure whiteness in a refugee camp. I imagined them as both ends of the British and European Empire/capitalist order: the colonisers themselves, and cheaply churned out, whimsical representations of those colonisers populating windowsills and mantlepieces all over the home land, not a bullwhip or manacle in sight. With the financial crash I imagined their time was over and they were going to find themselves homeless, ejected, powerless.
But of course, a powerful system has many resources and the death-grips of that system are frightening and harsh.
Yesterday I listened to the last in the Undisclosed series of podcasts on the Freddie Gray killing. It is such a heartbreaking story. It is not a story, it is a reality. It is a heartbreaking reality. A boy was killed by the police. An appalling death, in a long list of such dreadful killings of black men and women, for which no one has been held to account. The podcast has an addendum hosted by D. Watkins in which the wider issues, the circumstances that made this boy’s death possible are pulled apart and investigated. There is invaluable historical insight from Dr Marcia Chatelain, demonstrating that the circumstances of America’s birth and rise to world power cannot be disentangled from its benefitting from slavery and that this context shapes all the arcs in Freddie Gray’s short and terrible story. D. Watkins, with eloquent anger, hones the contemporary context; the perfidious inability of so many white people to accept the current reality and take responsibility, beyond an occasional bit of privilege-checking, for the vastly, disgustingly unfair system that we live in. It isn’t enough to say you are not racist, if you are daily profiting from a system that is.
These are hard words to hear. Hard but fair. I know they are fair because I know I am the inheritor, however inclusive and broad minded and unbiased I may try to be, of empire. I may reject the regency figurine view of my past, may feel ashamed of the colonial history of the country in which I was born. But that is not enough. I know it when as a young traveller, hanging out in Amsterdam for a year, a feckless blow-in, I was considered less of a foreigner where I worked than the Turkish women who had lived there for years, whose children were born there and attended schools in the city. I know it when I read that my application for anything will be treated more favourably because I don’t have a foreign name. I know it when I think with sorrow, then relief, that also in England, my daughters will have to work harder than their black friends to get arrested and criminalised. I know it when I read about Freddie Gray.
A few days ago there was a programme on Radio Four called A Split in the Sisterhood. It was interesting and frustrating. It is easy to bemoan the constant levels of inter-factional warring that goes on within the feminist movement. I am an instinctive feminist. Not an academic or particularly learned one. I have read lots of the books and missed many others. So, often the differences are lost on me. There is one enemy, so why can’t there be one army? That has been the question that rises from my frustration. And yet, in the light of understanding gleaned from people like D. Watkins and in talks such as The Art of Trespass by Kit De Waal, and many others, I must understand that of course, there needs to be a reassessment of internal structures, that if women of colour feel that they have been sidelined, steamrollered by the white hegemony of the feminist movement, that is untenable; it is a huge failure. But many white women will reject this claim. As I said, it is uncomfortable.
And it is, practically, difficult to negotiate. We may find ourselves uncertain of how to operate alongside people who may expect allies to speak out on their behalf because ones own relative freedoms should be used to amplify the plight of those subject to greater restrictions. Others may want us to stop presuming our right to speak for all women in a way that, often historically, has meant only white, usually middle-class women. It is not easy.
But that is ok. Suck it up and learn.
One army is better, against such an entrenched and ruthless enemy as the status quo. One army. So I wonder if we could engage, with differences and faults accepted but subject to further honing, in an imperfect allegiance. Our paths through life may only give us limited ability to understand the complexities of other lives. But our hearts should be big enough, wide enough, to make an imperfect allegiance and learn from each other on the way. We may not get it right, but we can all respectfully act on the assumption that if we accept a view we haven’t experienced, stay open, it will be got right. We can accept the imperfections, make the allegiance and be open enough that in walking side by side, we will learn. Then maybe, we will make a world that has changed.