Last month, campaign group Black Lives Matter UK published a list of “Black-led” organisations they’ll be sharing an initial £100,000 with. Beneficiaries ranged from domestic abuse support service Sistah Space to All Black Lives, a group of Black activists who organised protests throughout summer 2020. But there was anger from some sections of the internet at the inclusion of the workers union United Voices of the World, and United Family and Friends Campaign, a coalition of people directly impacted by deaths in police custody. Why? Critics said that those organisations were not “exclusively Black” and some were led by South Asian individuals.
At one point, the argument got so fierce that some people began sending abuse to a mixed-race Black man with South Asian heritage who had commented on the furore, telling him to “stay out of Black peoples [sic] business smelli [sic] p**i”. Another social media post condemned all “one droppers [aka mixed-race Black people], white liberals and [non-Black] poc” as “racist” for “invading” Black spaces and defending BLM UK’s donation list.
For a small faction, it seemed that organisations serving other minority groups – even if their primary focus was challenging inequalities that particularly affect Black individuals – was not enough. Separation and Black-only spaces were the only acceptable answer. But when Britain has such a rich history of anti-racist unity it’s an ahistorical and counterproductive position to take.
As long as Black and Asian people have been in Britain, there has been some form of united anti-racist activism. During the majority of the 20th century people of colour were explicitly treated like an underclass, in housing, leisure, and in the workplace. This was a common shared experience. By the 1960s, Black and Asian workers’ and service provisions organisations forged networks of solidarity. The Black People’s Alliance (BPA), for example, was a politically Black coalition of South Asian and Caribbean migrant organisations, spearheaded by an Indian migrant, Jagmohan Joshi. BPA came together at a time when “Black” meant all non-white migrants to Britain from newly independent states or those that were still colonised. They protested against racist immigration laws, and forged solidarities in the face of racist trade unions.
Since then, there have been many more anti-racist activists who have organised as politically Black, such as Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and the Asian Youth Movements. In the 1970s and 1980s these young South Asian women and men organised with Black young people, under the Black political banner, fighting against racism in the police, as well as continuing the work of their predecessors. SBS evolved into a domestic violence support charity and, like Sistah Space, it continues to support domestic violence victims who are unable to seek state or local authority provisions due to structural racism (although in recent years have allied with transphobic organisations like Woman’s Place UK).
Campaigns led politically Black organisations, like the Afro-Asian Conference, combined with the collective efforts of groups such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Standing Conference of Pakistan. Alongside action by striking groups of Asian and Black workers in places like Preston and Bristol, this work helped usher in the 1965 Race Relations Act.
These South Asian activists engaged with Black political theorists, like Franz Fanon and Audre Lorde, and used this literature to shape their activism. Political Blackness has always been a signifier of socialist and anti-racist political ideologies, and a shared socialist and anti-racist goal. As Avtar Brah, a founding member of SBS wrote in the organisation’s collective memoir Against the Grain, at the time, shared experience was the priority for organising under an umbrella. “In the late 1970s when I moved to London to work in Southall I met other Asian and Afro-Caribbean [sic] women with similar experiences,” Brah remembered.
“As long as Black and Asian people have been in Britain, there has been some form of united anti-racist activism”
“We had all been involved in anti-racist work and through that we had learnt of our shared experiences of colonialism and racism […] Our aim was to devise effective strategies for working within our own communities – for challenging the specific configuration of patriarchal relations of these communities as well as in the society at large – while actively opposing the racism to which all Black people, men and women, are subjected.
“We had to make connections between our oppression in Britain and that of women in the Third World.”
Black activists too recognised the commonalities between the communities. In 1978 documentary Black Britannia (banned upon release for being “too dangerous”), sociologist Colin Prescod commented on the shared fight of ethnic minority workers at the time, saying: “We’ve seen politicians stepping up the use of racism to break up that resistance.
“The crudest extension of this policy is seen in the rise of the fascist party The National Front which spreads racist ideas, suggesting that the two million Asians and Afro-Caribbeans that have worked and settled here are responsible for the deepening crisis of the economy.
“In fact, Blacks are under attack as not only the very bottom layer of the working class […] but we’re also attacked in our communities […] So it’s not surprising that Blacks are among the leading elements mobilising in the working class against the state itself.”
Eventually the idea of political Blackness made it into the official organised left, as Labour and some trade unions developed Black sections. This is why some unions still use Black as an umbrella to describe all people of colour today.
At the same time, political Blackness has always been contested both by activists and the broader communities it claims to speak for. Critics of political Blackness have always problematised its inability to recognise differences in experience, but this is not representative of the experiences of the South Asian activists that have organised as Black since the 1960s and 1970s. Some, such as SBS, still find this terminology useful and important today, to unite against a racist British state and to fight oppression within their communities, including anti-Blackness and colourism.
For a lot of people, particularly in younger generations, who have grown up within a context of more developed understandings of intersectionality, political Blackness as a term, and as a tool for organisation, no longer feels relevant. South Asian people calling themselves Black feels especially jarring when we look at the politics (and policies) of middle class and overtly racist Tories like Priti Patel. But rejecting political Blackness isn’t an excuse to erase solidarity between South Asian and Black communities.
There are also valid concerns about other demographics taking away from Black struggles, and fears about the anti-racist movement being led by communities that have big problems with anti-Blackness (particularly the South Asian community). But discussions of adopting a blanket separatist approach also misapply US models of organisation to the UK, where we have very different population numbers – here, I would argue, minorities must organise together.
It’s not that identity-based groups shouldn’t exist in the anti-racism movement; it’s that being told we should exclusively operate using that model weakens us. Successful anti-racism is about building solidarity between communities, and Black political identity has always been about celebrating diversity and acknowledging difference at the same time as working together. Organisations that challenge structural racism, like police brutality or workplace inequality, are not ‘only’ for Black people, but they fight against the racism that affects Black communities the most. In this way, even unions can do important anti-racist work, despite their historical (and continued) racism.
For South Asian and other non-Black racialised communities, we can be united in anti-racism without calling ourselves Black and therefore laying claim to histories and legacies that do not belong to us, namely slavery. We need unity in anti-racist activism, while acknowledging the differences in experiences of racism that Black, South Asian and other groups face.
When we look back and learn from the rich history of anti-racism in Britain, we see that anti-racist victories come from united movements – not divided ones.