Black History Month series: How can we learn lessons when we only hear a fraction of the story?


29 October 2019

Global Justice Now challenges the structures that put, and keep, people in poverty and increase inequality around the world. For me Black History Month can help address why some of these structures exist to begin with and how our movements for change can, and must, connect the dots. 

Some of the structures I speak of are often seen in everyday reality. We see it at an international level in unfair conditions attached to International Monetary Fund loans to countries in the global south which have pushed for more deregulated and privatised markets globally, pushing countries in deeper poverty and inequality. And at a national level we have seen the UK government demonise migrants with the deliberate hostile environment policy, stripping them of rights and sympathies usually afforded to the majority of the population. These structures decide who belongs and who doesn’t; who is allowed to become rich and who must stay poor, they are about us vs them, they are about power. And they have a base in colonial understanding of ‘Othering’.

Othering in history and today

Othering – a set of rules, conscious or unconscious, that say it’s alright for one group of people to have opportunities and dreams, but not another. It says, for example, I can travel around the world and settle where I would like to but border regimes won’t allow you to travel for a better quality of life, to flee instability and war, to save your life or the lives of your family. Othering accords humanity to one group of people but not another. Because the ‘other’ are different, they are not part of our group. They are not like us.

Many point to the root of othering as centred around colonialism the European imperial system. Edward Said who has written extensively on The Other and Orientalism says that it was normalised that “our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange”.

And for centuries this normalisation, at its furthest extreme, stripped certain groups of their humanity and allowed inhumane treatment to be meted out– whether we’re talking about the slave trade, colonialism, or apartheid. Othering, through the long history of imperialism, has shaped black experiences today.

Specifically, I am reminded of the Edward Said’s words and the impact of the normalisation of othering when I see structural racism rise its ugly head in the form of police brutality and far right anti-migrant sentiments or see countries in the global south at the sharp end of unfair trade deals and climate breakdown at the hands of corporate elites in the global north.  In this way the impact of othering also comes down to something more personal. Whose stories are told and whose are side-lined?

 “How can we learn lessons when we only hear a fraction of the story?”

The history of people who looked like me at school never focussed on their stories and afforded them the humanity of showcases their stories of active resistance. I am reminded of Edward Said’s words when I question why we are seeing more and more backlash from black activists to exclusionary movements today as well as the incredible show of strength and solidarity in movements pushing to decolonise our curricula, our economy, our politics. Listening to these stories from those at the forefront of activism matters more than ever. Because if we are to see the full picture of our activism and movements, a fraction of the story is not enough.

Large global movements for change rarely mention the contribution of black activists. When we think of the abolitionist movement we all know the name of William Wilberforce but not so many have heard of Mary Prince, the first black woman to publish her life story; Ottobah Cugoano, the first African to publically demand total abolition; Olaudah Equiano: campaigner, writer and explorer. Yet they all played a crucial role in the ending of slavery.

Similarly today, with a global focus on climate,  we recognise the name of the incredibly inspirational Greta Thunberg but even climate activists haven’t generally heard of others - Ridhima Pandey, who, aged 9, filed a lawsuit against the Indian government because of their failure to tackle climate change or Nina Gualinga, an indigenous activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon, won the WWF’s top youth conservation award.

And yet, as Nigerian author Chika Unigwe points out “there are many more whose names we rarely, if ever, hear. Yet, frustratingly, these other activists are often referred to in the media as the “Greta Thunberg” of their country, or are said to be following in her footsteps...their own identities and work almost completely erased by a western media that rarely recognises progress [of others] outside its own part of the world”. This, Unigwe says, “invalidates the impact of locals working in their communities, and perpetuates the stereotype of “the native with no agency” who cannot help themselves.

Othering is something we all have to consciously guard against and actively work to dismantle in our everyday life and our movements. This can be difficult as generally we don’t know we are doing it. As activists we have to be particularly careful that we do not miss important lessons from the past. Nor do we want to miss opportunities in the future; opportunities to celebrate black achievements, to support the work of black activists and groups and make our movements welcoming and inclusive. A space where black activists don’t feel they only have one month of the year when they can talk about their history, their experiences and their future hopes and dreams.

If we are to fight for a world of justice and solidarity, it is vital for us to acknowledge and understand the history of othering and how it has shaped, and continues to shape, our global political landscape. Challenging this starts with ourselves. Through the stories we are told, those we actively seek out those that we listen to we can help transform our movements.


Image: Cover of Orientalism by Edward Said/ wikicommons

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