Today
Sun 17 January 2021

Hannah Charlton reflects on her personal exploration of understanding racism today and the individual and collective legacy of our Empire past

The last time I was a full time M.A. student was well before the internet changed the world: we felt the weight of books, we had finite reading lists and made notes on photocopied sheets. I think we just about had highlighters.

I decided to go back to university in the year of the Coronavirus pandemic, in a Summer that saw the largest anti-racist protests since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and during the gruelling US Presidential Election that saw armed men outside polling booths and Kamala Harris become the first female, African-Asian American Vice President.

My unexpected return to studying was the result of my visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in late February, as the pandemic was encroaching and when George Floyd was still alive.

Bryan Stevenson’s memorial to the victims of lynching and racial terror was a profoundly disturbing and challenging experience, enhanced by a visit to the adjacent Legacy Museum, which stands on the site of one of the country’s biggest slave auctions and puts the spotlight on America’s continuing inequality – most visible in the mass incarceration of black people in prisons in the US who are denied rights such as voting.

I found myself wondering what truths a British Empire legacy museum in the UK would reveal and felt compelled to learn more about our imperialism. A subject which had never been part of my early education, I was keen to be part of conversations on how to represent the greater truth about the legacy of Empire to a public which has very little engagement with the issue.

These thoughts set me on a path of exploration, including taking up a place on the M.A. course in Culture, Diaspora and Ethnicity at Birkbeck, University of London.

The course stretches across the social sciences, arts and humanities and its psychosocial approach aims to “link discussions of our precarious and increasingly interconnected collective histories with our ordinary, everyday, intimate and psychic life”. It was this personal aspect that pulled me in – the idea that academia could incorporate individual psychological perspectives, lived experiences and collective trauma into our understanding of how we have got to where we are now.


Learning to Talk About Racism

I entered into this journey with my eyes and ears open – or so I thought.

Through the M.A., I am exploring the complex, disputed and above all deeply personal subject of race, racialism, racism, colourism, identity and how we have arrived at this moment in in 2020 with its divisiveness, its openly expressed aggressions, and its democratic crisis. 

I had little real understanding of how exploring this vast and painful subject would impact on me as a white woman in her 70s, listening to my fellow students taking the same path but from a very different perspective.

As I was introduced to the 43 other students online, I registered several things. People were often doing this course for personal rather than just professional reasons; they wanted to understand more about our current reality. The majority of students were women and very few were white. I also noted the range of professions from law to social work, education and the cultural sector. There was a wide range of ages, heritage backgrounds, languages. Add to this a recognition of us as individuals with our own educational backgrounds, experiences and our preferred learning styles and it was clear that this course would bring together the ‘different’ and the ‘separate’.

From day one, we seemed to have a sense of being on this journey as a group. By the second day, we had formed a WhatsApp group, where we share and support each other in a way that would not have been so vital if we had been meeting face-to-face. The emotional burden of discussing slavery, genocide, the foundations of race science, eugenics and the deliberate structuring of white superiority is harsh.

Throughout this journey, I have understood that I am a minority: a much older, white woman. I need to work out on my own how, as a white person, I can have conversations about racism and race; how I can tread delicately across the minefield of terminology and potential offense.

I need to find ways to talk about my whiteness in the context of racial injustice and white privilege without requiring help from people of colour to smooth the way. Part of this process is how I can find a space where I can make mistakes but recover and reflect. I have signed up to a Race Resilience course run by a fellow student on my course to help with this.


Remaining Awake

As we dive into an ocean of information and navigate our way through hundreds of years of theories, evidence, commentary, opinions we are like archaeologists dusting aside layers of interpretation to find a different kind of truth and understanding.

As Ijeoma Oluo observes in her book So You Want to Talk About Race: “Almost every article I wrote was born of the frustration of watching people discuss issues – real issues that were impacting real lives – without actually saying anything.” It is the ‘something’ that we have to learn how to say.

When the academic texts become impenetrable and arcane, I turn to a book by Sven Lindqvist, who, obsessed with a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, travelled across Africa with an old computer and investigated the impact of two centuries of Europe’s colonial brutality on the people there. His book, Exterminate All the Brutes, completely integrates the personal and researched rigour into an alternative form of ‘experiential history’ – not by denying our responsibilities but addressing the emotional consequences. 

With the historian David Olusoga talking about the necessity for public history initiatives, to make stories accessible to everyone; and the educationalist and activist Stella Dadzie pleading for everyday language to be used when talking about our colonial history rather than obfuscating it in argument and refutations, I listen to my fellow students and learn from their lived experiences.

I also turn to the writer Rebecca Solnit’s reflection: “I’ve often contemplated how we are fired up by threat and opposition and how often we check out when the danger is no longer immediate and even go back to the old ways that allowed the catastrophe to happen.

“It’s one of the conundrums of human nature: how do we remain awake, engaged, committed not just to prevent the worst but pursue the best? The answer as best as I’ve been able to figure it out is partly about discipline, and not just individual but collective discipline: a culture of commitment.”

In this year of 2020, she is so right. But this is more than a conundrum – it is a tangible and urgent necessity to figure out how we want to go forward this century as a human species.


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