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Why is Britain scared of humanising black people?

03 May 2017

It’s a Friday evening. Me and my best friend have decided to attend a vegan meet-up for the first time. At this point we’d recently joined the “VGang” movement and wanted to see what Birmingham had to offer to keep us on track. We walked into a room of white faces, some necks stayed stuck in our direction a little longer than was comfortable, the headscarf and blackness clearly working it’s magic.

We sat down in the corner and started talking with those around us. It was almost fun. We were cutting vegan cupcakes and debating vegan cheese’s lack of flavour – JME confirms my feelings towards it in Taking Over, if you’d like a legitimate source for the notion of its tastelessness.

“These 25p cheap MCs acting like wealthy celebrities
If you buy into any of these mans’ lifestyles – keep your receipts
Flexing like an evil beast, but really underneath he’s a chief
I came from the school of Leth-to-the-B, I came from the school of D Double E
If you don’t like G-R-I-M-E, then you’ve got no taste like vegan cheese”

Legit. Anyway, we’re chilling in this room free from any other PoC (people of colour), making the most out of it, when two older women approach us with bundles of merch asking us to buy a rubber band for their vegan cause, dashing a card at us.

It’s a hard pass from both me and my best friend on the bracelet front, not just because rubber arm bands need to stay in 2007, also because as we picked up the cards from the table in front of us, we began reading a Martin Luther King quote, followed on the flip side by a graphic depiction of a pig hanging from a noose with some vegan statistic badly edited over the corpse. Hmmm, cute.

We look at each other with “Are they taking the piss?” facial expressions. Nope, turns out they weren’t. White veganism – much like its evil liberal twin sister white feminism – had indeed struck again. We haven’t entered another vegan meetup since.

“This example of an everyday microaggression is merely a manifestation of a deeper rooted issue”

What does this have to do with the title you just clicked on? I’d love to say absolutely nothing, that it was just a cute story to explain the trauma of vegan cheese and the type of snobbery I’ve adopted from my sister, but sadly it isn’t. This example of an everyday microaggression is merely a manifestation of a deeper rooted issue. The dehumanisation of black people means that you can apply MLK’s words on the civil rights of black people to animals, and white people (the institution) won’t flinch.

Yes, animals should of course have rights. But comparing them to black people’s struggle in past tense is extremely problematic. There’s a long racist history of dehumanisation and comparison to animals at work to justify the genocide and systematic killing of black people up to this day. The school of “slavery was a long time ago and what about black on black crime?” cannot continue as legitimate responses to structural inequality. Especially if the impact of historic propaganda and bias are not considered influential towards the society we live in today.

This is typical of the subconscious and internalised racism that is only the tip of the iceberg in Babylon Britain. After all, science, technology, banking and many more British institutions were built on the backs of people of colour and the ideas of dead, upper-class, racist white men who dared to call their thinking “Enlightenment. More like “enwhitenment”.

“If we only associate negatives with a group of people, what happens? If this rhetoric was dissolved who would it harm?”

The dictionary definition of the act of dehumanisation says to dehumanise is “to deprive of positive human qualities”. How would stripping away the positive qualities of a people (who have been defined and confined by the social construct of race as one homogeneous group, even though the ethnic diversity of the African diaspora is a lot more complex than that, but k den, institutional racism you do you) be a problem? If we only associate negatives with a group of people, what happens? If this rhetoric was dissolved who would it harm? Why would the humanisation of humans harm someone? Would it harm people or egos and ideas? What if the institutions built on these ideas were criticised and their founding principles interrogated? Would they crumble? Is that why one dimensional black characters are portrayed at every turn? Does it make us easier to manage? What do you mean when you say we need to decolonise?

In my opinion, the reason Britain is so scared of humanising black people is because this notion seeks to challenge all that this little island was built on and has ever known. We talk about the overt racism in the US but it’s just as overt here. After all, the UK gave America their ideas when they colonised them, so why do we think we’re more progressive? UK institutions have just had longer to shape shift. For example our media chooses when to hide the deportations and unlawful killings of black people in the UK, and they’re good at it.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom, things are being done and there seems to be a real artistic, cultural and even slightly political renaissance emerging amongst the UK’s black millennials and people of colour. A spirit of reclamation, documentation and celebration of multi-faceted narratives and building of our own seats at our own custom made tables. It’s contagious and it’s festering across the country and globe. We are no longer asking to be humanised by the white gaze. We’ve always been human and if you fail to recognise that, it speaks more about your humanity than ours.

So don’t try throwing any more white veganism cards in my face. Place it in my hand, so I can rip it up right in front of you.