Shamima Begum: why being British is a question of race

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGAxm6KJTWE

Let me make my position clear from the outset.

I am not going to defend Shamima Begum‘s action in going to Syria to join ISIS. I am not going to use her age as a defence nor am I going to use the possibility that she was groomed as a defence. I am not going to use the fragility of new mothers to defend her interview remarks and nor will I mount any other defence for her. That is for others to do should they wish to.

I do not know if Shamima Begum’s return to the UK will put the country at risk. I do not know if she intends to come back and start wreaking havoc about the place. I do not know if there are sufficient resources to monitor her if she did return to the UK. I do not know if she should be in jail or if she has committed serious crimes. I do not know if she was brainwashed or if she truly holds the views she espouses. That is for others to decide.

What I do believe is that the Home Secretary’s decision to ‘strip’ her of her British citizenship is downright dangerous, a threat to the rule of law and a threat to all non-whites (in particular) in the UK.

The Home Secretary’s decision is not surprising

Last year, I spent a couple of days in Croatia. What a beautiful country it is. In Dubrovnik, I was approached by a white American man in his late 70s/early 80s who asked me where I was from. I said that I was from London, UK. His reply to me was the following ‘you don’t look like someone who would be from the UK.’ His assumption that I was not from the UK could not have been based on anything other than my race. My accent is British, I was not wearing any garms which could be said to be particularly non-British and nor was I speaking in any other language but English. He later added to his question by asking me where my parents were from. When he told me he was American, I did not ask him whether his parents were actually Italians, Greeks or Scots. I did not make any other assumption. I was not able to and nor did I choose to.

And whilst I consider myself to be both British and Nigerian, truth is, I have spent most of my life in the UK and was born in the UK and am pleased to say, I consider it my home. Nigeria is in my heart and in my blood and if anyone dares to put down Nigerian jollof* or tells me that traditional attire is not beautiful and that the Yoruba language is not full of wonder, I will mount a strong defence. I may not do the same when it comes to Nollywood though. Jokes aside, the UK is the place I call home.

The Home Secretary’s position on Shamima Begum reflects something that many Blacks and non-whites experience in day to day life.

  1. We are asked where we come from as though the default thought of the person asking is that we are not British because we are not white.
  2. Our race is one of the first things highlighted about us when we are ‘losing’ in life but when we are ‘winning’ in life our Britishness is the first thing that the glory hunters set upon. We are claimed as one of them, a Brit.
  3. We are expected to be grateful for being in the UK as though it is only by grace not right that we are British.
  4. It sometimes feels as though non-whites are tolerated in the UK rather than accepted as being just as British as those who are white.

 

Why the Shamima Begum decision threatens the security of non-whites and second generation Brits in the UK

The decision of the Home Secretary is dangerous for the following reasons:

  1. It means that anyone who has a parent born in another country outside of the UK,  can be deemed not British if they are deemed a threat to national security.
  2. It means that irrespective of how long you have lived in the UK and irrespective of whether or not you were born or brought up in the UK, your right to be called British is not a given.
  3. It means that a white British girl in the same position as Shamima Begum would be allowed back in the UK whilst non-whites and those who are second-generation Brits (plastic Brits- let’s say) would not be accorded the same right.
  4. It means that there will be one rule for White British folk and another for non-White British folk and whites whose parents were not born in the UK.
  5. It means that we as non-whites are simply here by the grace of the UK government. We cannot assume that our British citizenship will always be guaranteed to us.

 

Why the Home Secretary’s decision is a threat to the rule of law

Shamima Begum was born in the UK and is a British citizen. No-one disputes that. But, the Home Secretary has decided that since Shamima Begum’s mum is Bangladeshi, Shamima will have claims to Bangladeshi citizenship through that, meaning that she can be stripped of her British citizenship.

The UK Immigration rules, Part 14, 401 states that:

401. For the purposes of this Part a stateless person is a person who:

  1. (a) satisfies the requirements of Article 1(1) of the 1954 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, as a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law;
  2. (b) is in the United Kingdom; and
  3. (c) is not excluded from recognition as a Stateless person under paragraph 402.

402. states that:

A person is excluded from recognition as a stateless person if there are serious reasons for considering that they:

  1. (a) are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations, other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, protection or assistance, so long as they are receiving such protection or assistance;
  2. (b) are recognised by the competent authorities of the country of their former habitual residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the possession of the nationality of that country;
  3. (c) have committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provisions in respect of such crimes;
  4. (d) have committed a serious non-political crime outside the UK prior to their arrival in the UK;
  5. (e) have been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

My reading of 401 means that even if Shamima’s mum is from Bangladesh, at present, Shamima herself could not be considered to be Bangladeshi because she has not made an application to be considered as such. So at this particular moment, she cannot be considered a Bangladeshi national. It seems to me that the government have taken advantage of the fact that she is not in the UK to make her, in fact, stateless.

But, if I skip to 402, it seems to me that if she has committed a crime against peace or a war crime etc,  the British government may well be within their rights to exclude her from recognition as a stateless person. 

To my knowledge, Shamima Begum has not been tried in a court of law so it has not been proven that she has in fact committed any of the crimes which may mean that she is excluded from the rules about statelessness. That said, she has been tried in the court of public opinion and deemed a threat. Yet, I firmly believe that the rule of law must never give way to the court of public opinion.

Finally……

The Home Secretary made it clear after the first Shamima Begum interview was aired, that he would do everything in his power to make sure that she was not able to return to this country. He has made good on his word. Well done. A round of applause to you fine sir.

Unfortunately, what he has also done is threaten the rights of all British non-whites in this country and made the ground we walk on feel just a little more unstable today.

On the myth of colour-blindness: why I want to talk to White people and all peoples about race

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I’m late to the game. I have only started reading Reni Eddo Lodge’s book: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I’m almost halfway into the book but I could no longer contain myself.*

I came to this country at the age of nine from Nigeria. Although I was born in the UK, as a nine year old, I had no ‘memories’ of any encounters with white folk. My first inkling that the topic of race might be a ‘hot potato’ came when I went on a camping trip whilst in primary school. I made a comment about someone being white and I was told by another white person that I was racist. The mere mention of race became racism.

We were kids back then and this was obviously a misinterpretation of what it means to be ‘racist’. Essentially what I was doing back then was using an identifier. I still do it unapologetically as an adult even though I am sometimes reprimanded for it. I do it because I SEE RACE. There, I said it. I see it. That’s no crime. What matters is what I do with that information.

Is it even possible to be colour blind?

When police officers speak about an individual, the first thing they often do is refer to an IC code. IC1 being White, IC3 being Black. They may then go on to talk about height, build, hair colour, clothes etc. These are all identifiers. There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying someone by the colour of their skin. What is wrong is attributing a trait to someone based on the colour of their skin. Here’s an example. I remember working for the Met in my early 20s as an analyst. I remember a White police officer talking to an Asian police officer about someone he had stopped. The White officer was annoyed with the ‘attitude’ of the young man an in describing this attitude to the Asian officer he said: you know, giving it typical IC3 behaviour. So, I will return to what I said. There was nothing wrong with identifying the young man by his race in my opinion. But I did have a problem with this idea that there was a behaviour that could be deemed ‘typical IC3 behaviour’. It is exactly this stereotype of the behaviour of Black folk that can land our behinds or heads on the wrong end of a truncheon.

It is impossible to be colour blind just as it is impossible to be blind to buck teeth when an individual is speaking or stank breath when someone comes close to you. We all have assumptions that we make about people based on their race. Sometimes those assumptions seem justified and at other times, they are not based on reality. Even kids notice race and they are pretty honest about it. It’s we adults who pretend that we cannot see race. The only difference between adults and kids in my opinion is that kids don’t allow race to stop them from having a new play partner whereas adults do allow race to stop them from interactions with other races. Adults may do this consciously or subconsciously.

Another example: I went to a fantastic secondary school. It was predominantly white and perhaps about 10% black. This is a guesstimate. I remember being in a year 8 history class when a teacher started separating students. She said that she didn’t think all the Black folk should sit together. Now I didn’t actually take note of the fact that this is what had been happening. It seemed the Black students naturally gravitated towards each other and perhaps the White folk did the same (I cannot be sure). But perhaps as Black kids, we veered together subconsciously simply because ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. Some may disagree with the actions of the teacher who was White but I think she was onto something. When I look back on it, I can’t be sure whether we as Blacks or Whites ‘chose’ to sit with their own. Whatever the cause, the outcome was still the same – a segregated class – until the teacher’s intervention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with noticing race. I say it again. But there is something wrong when people consciously or unconsciously ‘ignore’ ‘the other’ based solely on their race. When I say ignore I mean choose not to mix with someone based on their race.

There is a kind of colour blindness that I as a Black woman have experienced. On one level, it’s the kind of invisibility that sees me waiting to get served at a bar whilst others around me who look nothing like me get served ahead of me. It’s the kind of invisibility which makes me wonder why Prince Charles rather than the mother of the bride, Doria Ragland, will be the one to walk Meghan down the aisle.** It’s the double invisibility of being a 1) Black 2) woman. It means that in environments in which I am in an absolute minority (firstly because of my race) it can be hard to be seen unless I am seen. I call it ‘being invisible until you become visible‘. This visibility is often a negative kind of visibility (you’re late, you’re aggressive, you’ve done something wrong). It is very rarely a ‘that was a brilliant idea’, ‘let’s promote you’, ‘what are your thoughts on the matter?’ kind of visibility.

There are at least 2 forms of colour blindness (I suspect there are a few more when we talk about race):

* I don’t see race at all (I don’t believe this really does exist in our day and age)

* I don’t see you because of your race (this is more prevalent in our society in my opinion. It may mean that you find someone of a different race unattractive so you ‘cannot’ see them or don’t care to see them or it may mean that you have beliefs about a person of a certain race and don’t see the value in them because of their race)

Being blind to colour is in my opinion impossible: If we think we are truly colour blind then why don’t white folk walk into Black hairdressers and vice versa?

What is more likely is that as human beings, we see race just as we see the massive spot on someone’s forehead and we are left to choose one of the following options:

* I see your race but you are a human being first and foremost so I look forward to getting to know you more…..

* I see your race so consciously or unconsciously, I will stay away because we have nothing in common, because I don’t know how to interact with you…..

* I see your race but I don’t care because there are much more important things for me to focus on such as your ideas and opinions, how we can help each other etc…..

* I see your race so I can’t see you…..This happened to me and a friend of mine when we were studying abroad in France. We were the only 2 non-White students from our university. The university in France decided to enter us for a lower level exam than the others students. After scoring high marks, we were told by one of the university staff members that they thought we would not be able to cope with the higher level exam hence the reason we were entered for the lower level one. What they really meant was that ‘we saw your race not your brilliance’.

I am sure there are other variations on the ‘I see your race’ theme. What matters to me firstly is not that there are a multiplicity of perspectives but what matters is that we talk about these perspectives and the impact it has on individuals and groups. 

My teacher did me a favour in school. She didn’t pretend that she couldn’t see race. She spoke about it openly and gave me something to think about. She forced me to interact with others that I would not naturally interact with. I see race. Without a shadow of a doubt. But most of the time, what I care more about is the humanity of the individual and our interaction. My friendship group is full of people of different races and I love it. I love learning about culture, I love the different perspectives this brings. I love that I can joke with them about our differences. But I also love the fact that I can talk openly about race with most of them. We may not always agree (different lenses) but at least we can have a conversation and surely that is the starting spot.

Just because we say or pretend that we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist. The only way to truly make oneself blind to race is to tie a piece of cloth around one’s eyes and use some earplugs too. Race is not going anywhere so we might as well confront the issue of its impact on individuals and groups.

*Whether people agree or not with the author’s sentiments, I still believe it to be a fantastic read in our day and age and I hope it will continue to provoke discussions without accusations.

**This is pure speculation on my part and I acknowledge it as just that. Double invisibility for me is not just about how Black women are perceived and treated by others. It’s also about how we feel about ourselves and how we treat ourselves based on our experiences as Black women.

Wakanda Forever? An honest but late review

 

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Gone are the days when you had to stay up till some ungodly hour ( 11pm, 12am) to catch a glimpse of a Black person on TV. Gone are the days when I suffered near enough third-degree burns to make my hair as straight as a ruler. Gone are the days when I suffered shame and bullying at the hands of other Black kids because of my strong Nigeria accent after arriving in good ol’ Blighty. These are new times. These are the days of Wakanda Forever. But this review is two-fold. It is about what it does for Black people and what it is as a film. As a film, I was pretty disappointed. I gave it a 5 or 6 out of 10. But as a celebration of Black people and Africa and our uniqueness and varied culture, I would probably give it a 7 or 8 out of 10.

What you need to know about me:

  • I am not a comic book connoisseur and nor am I am film buff.
  • I love great stories (plots) and great characters (personalities).
  • I don’t ‘do’ sci-fi as a genre but if a film is driven by a strong storyline and/or strong characters, I’ll pretty much watch anything.
  • I struggle to connect with worlds that are not real and that is perhaps why fantasy and sci-fi are not particularly my thing. I mean I love a good Superman film and even Lord of the Rings but for me, these were firstly character driven and then secondly or equally story driven films.

What I liked about Black Panther as a film:

  1. I loved Okoye, the female warrior. We get a strong sense of her loyalty to the throne (no matter who sits on it) and also of her ability to exercise her sense of right and wrong which leads to her eventually going against the king. We witness her emotional growth and we feel the strength of her emotions.
  2. I laughed when Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) is shot clean out of her car with nothing but the steering wheel and her seat for company.
  3. I loved the film visually. The waterfall was beautiful and the plains outside of the technologically enhanced Wakanda were also captivating.
  4. We saw that villains are made, not born. Or at least this is what I saw. Killmonger, T’Challa’s cousin has a backstory which means we have some connection with him even though he is in essence a tyrant. But this is born of anger it seems, not pure evil.

What I liked about Black Panther as a Black woman:

  1. I loved the Okoye’s attitude towards her wig. In an age in which black women are feeling increasingly empowered to wear their hair as God and nature intended, it is a thing of beauty seeing this love for our own hair displayed on screen.
  2. I quite liked Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) because here was a confident Black woman who was technologically mature but who was still essentially a child at heart (playful, self-assured, ready for action).
  3. I loved the idea that on the outside Wakanda (like media portrayals of Africa) is considered a ‘third world nation’ but that essentially its richness lies beneath. How wonderful it is for Africans and Blacks to celebrate their inherent richness. Only those who take an interest will ever know this. I’d always viewed Nigeria as a country of cities until my cousins showed me around and took me to Erin Ijesha waterfalls, and Abeokuta.
  4. Wakandas just like Black folk come in all shapes and shades. No ‘colourism’ here. Light, dark, mid-tones, we are all beautiful. And the colours in those outfits. Damn. My last trip to Nigeria was when I received a baptism in colour.  Wakanda reminded me of this glorious array of colour.

There were things I felt let the film down:

  1. The lead character was supposedly a superhero with not much super about him except for his suit. I couldn’t see the evidence of his power when he was away from his suit but yet I am told he has the power of a panther.
  2. I believe a great story needs a great character and for me, T’Challa was not that. He lacked the passion of Okoye (a great female warrior), he lacked the good humour of his sister and he lacked the quiet yet passionate emotion displayed by Daniel Kumuya’s character.
  3. Am I the only one who thought that Killmonger’s death was unnecessarily strung out? I mean at one point I wanted to shout “just die brother, die”.

There were things I wasn’t sure about as a Black woman:

  1. I wasn’t too keen on the barking thing. Just me personally. It plays too much on the idea of ‘African savages’ for me. This was however tempered by the vegetarian joke made by the ‘chief barker’.
  2. I personally didn’t feel empowered as a Black woman by watching this film but after speaking to some Wakanda admirers, I understood that maybe that is simply because I am in a different place. I love my hair, I love the richness of my culture, my language (Yoruba) and I am also comfortable with my ‘Britishness’. I am now used to seeing black people on TV. But I understand that just as Africa is a continent rich with diversity, so are Black people diverse in thought, experience, identities etc. So some Black folk may have felt able to puff out their chest more after watching Black Panther.
  3. There were references to colonialism (Shuri’s greeting: hello coloniser) which I felt slightly uncomfortable with. Was I uncomfortable because I thought that White people in the audience would be uncomfortable or was I uncomfortable because I thought it was ‘old’. I am not sure. I may have to ponder that one for a little longer………..Okay, I’ve pondered. I’ve got it!!! I felt as though certain bits of dialogue were put in specifically for the benefit of Black folk and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that but for me, that is like an actor looking directly into the camera rather than pretending that the camera is not there. It is as though there is a conflation of the real (the oppression and enslavement of Blacks) and the unreal (a place called Wakanda) and this for me is the equivalent of musical dissonance.

I would recommend the film to comic lovers but as I was told beforehand, ditch all expectations.

Next step: Black films set in the real world which tell the story of ordinary rather than extraordinary Black folk. Like not about the world of criminality or drugs or how great we can sing or how well we can run because Lord knows I have seen some slow Black folk out there just like I have heard some awful voices on a Sunday morning. No. I just want stories of great Black people overcoming adversity in whatever walk of live they happen to inhabit.