This post, by Josh McLennon from Kilburn & Strode, takes a look at the meaning behind Black History Month (held in October each year), the notions of political and ethnic Blackness, and their particular relevance in 2020. The post first appeared on Josh’s LinkedIn page here; we are grateful to him for sharing it with the wider IP Inclusive community. We hope soon to publish further instalments from his series of Black History Month pieces.
As a member of Kilburn & Strode’s Diversity Forum, I will be writing five articles that will launch throughout October to celebrate Black History Month. The articles form part of the educational sharing series we will be running, with the aim of insight and education.
For this first week, I think that it’s worthwhile to take a step back and reflect on Black History Month as an idea, and what it is we mean by “Black history”.
Why is amplifying Black history important?
If a firm of 200 people, roughly the size of K&S, were to reflect the ethnic diversity of Greater London (according to the 2011 census), around 120 people would be White, 37 people would be Asian, 27 people would be Black, 10 people would be Mixed-Race, and 7 people would be from other minority ethnic groups.
To the best of my knowledge, no law firms based in London are anywhere close to reflecting this level of ethnic diversity. I also think it’s unlikely that our social circles reflect this diversity either, mine included.
It’s my view that Black history has been chronically undersold to the British public, and it’s not always easy to appreciate how Black history has been omitted from our common notion of British history unless it directly affects you or someone close to you. I welcome you in joining me to begin filling some of these gaps in our shared knowledge and in challenging some of the unspoken assumptions we may have about Black history. If you have none, then hats off to you – I think it says something that even as a Black man I do not think that I escaped them all.
Who is Black History Month for?
Historically in the UK, Black people were those who were politically Black, and not just people of African heritage. The “Black” in the UK’s Black History Month stands for this idea of politically Black people.
So, who exactly is politically Black?
Political Blackness is a broad idea which includes “all people who are likely to experience racial discrimination based on their skin colour,” according to The Anti-Racist Educator collective in this article here. This means that Black History Month is a celebration of all non-white Britons, from Anish Kapoor to Benjamin Zephaniah.
If you have never heard of political Blackness before, you are absolutely not alone. In recent years, the idea of political Blackness has been replaced with a term you may be more familiar with: “BAME”, referring to Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people. They mean essentially the same thing. It is also worth noting that in the United States, the word Black in the context of people always refers to Blackness in the ethnic sense, ie people of African heritage.
As you might imagine, it is not always clear when groups or individuals in the UK mean Black in the political or ethnic sense. I think it is likely that most of the British public do not know the difference, with media coverage favouring the American definition of the term. Kwaku, writing for the Black History Month organisation here, details the different ways in which British organisations use the term “Black” ambiguously, even when asked to clarify exactly what they mean. When it comes to funding and initiatives such as media programming and diversity targets, these definitions matter.
For the record, whenever I use Black in the context of people I mean ethnically Black people. Any references to political Blackness will be earmarked as such.
Is political Blackness still relevant in 2020?
Linda Bellos OBE, credited with launching the UK’s Black History Month in 1987, explains on her blog here that the idea of political Blackness is a unifying concept, representing solidarity between minority ethnic groups. She believes that using specific terms to refer to ethnicity, such as Black and Asian, ultimately obscures and undermines the common goals that these groups may have, such as ending racial discrimination in our society.
For some, however, political Blackness is an outdated label. Melissa Owusu, voted as one of the top Black students in the UK and now recognised as a rising star in British business, writes on the subject for the popular publication gal-dem here. She largely agrees with Linda Bellos’ view but goes one step further. Her understanding is that the racism experienced by non-White people in post-war Britain was similar, focussing on their “otherness” rather than their specific ethnic background. This made political Blackness a useful term, as it united a collection of people in their shared struggle to be recognised as equals, amplifying their voices. Owusu believes that in the intervening decades racism in the UK has become highly targeted, with people of different ethnicities experiencing distinct types of racism with distinct consequences. This means that such broad terms to categorise people are now less relevant, and less useful.
For what it’s worth, I believe a combination of broad and specific terminology is necessary for both simple accuracy and appreciating the way in which racial discrimination operates in the UK. The most important consideration is for language to reflect exactly what is meant. For example, if I mean Black people then it is important to say Black people, not BAME people. Gena-Mour Barrett writes here that the BAME label is a sort of double-edged sword for minority ethnic people in the UK: useful in some cases but simultaneously “othering” and meaningless in her day-to-day life.
It is often counter-productive to treat people of all minority ethnicities as one homogenous group as it prevents us from being able to spot discrimination effectively. For example, recent Government figures show that there are only 140 black professors in the UK (see The Guardian article here). If ethnically Black Britons were to be professors at the same rate as ethnically Asian and White Britons, there would be almost five times as many.
From a personal point of view, if you are not sure about what terminology to use when talking about any group of people, it is important to remember that there are countless fantastic resources on the internet answering the exact questions you may have. I would recommend taking a look at a few of these in advance of talking to anyone who may be part of the group you are wanting to write, or talk, about.
- Black History Month = BAME History Month.
- Be more aware of language used to identify groups which you might not be a part of.
- Take responsibility for researching and understanding gaps in your own knowledge.
Tune in to our 21 October “How to be a better ally” event, where representatives from our IP & ME community will be answering some of those questions you’ve always wanted to ask about supporting colleagues with ethnicities other than your own.
Page published on 15th October 2020
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Hi Julie, thank you for your comment - it is great to hear from you. I think it raises a really interesting point. The question of 'how diverse an organisation should be' has been somewhat complicated by COVID-19 which has shown that we no longer need to be situated where our organisations are based. Clearly, this makes the pool of 'potential employees' much larger, notwithstanding issues such as the diversity of those appropriately qualified. One compromise could be for employees of each brick-and-mortar office to aim at reflecting the diversity of local areas within an hour's commute, likely leading to different offices of the same organisation having different levels of diversity. There is no simple answer (that I'm aware of, at least!), but lots of food for thought. Best, Josh
Thank you, Josh, for so clearly explaining the difference between political blackness (BAME) and black in the ethnic sense. This is a great article and I look forward to more! Just one thing you mentioned is unclear to me and touches on an issue I have been grappling with for a while: (Josh's opening statistics) an implied assumption that any organisation that operates nationally or even internationally, just by being London-based, should reflect London's demographic (as opposed, say, to the national or even international demographic). One of the political issues affecting the UK is its apparent London-centricity and the feeling that other areas have of being left behind. I personally struggle with this dichotomy: I presently live/work in London and love and, when possible, encourage its diversity, but am due to return 'home' to the countryside in the next few weeks, where a firm representative of the local demographic would probably have only 1 or 2 black BAME people per 200 staff, which feels strange to me. How do we reconcile local area v national v international diversity? I would welcome anyone's ideas and thoughts.