I wanted to capture this collision with reality in my recent project Ain’t Shit Changed; a visual commentary on the parallels between the experience of the overt racism of yesteryears and the othering of today. How better to convey this than through the cyclical nature of fashion, where the identities, cultures, and struggles of oppressed peoples are passively digested and then regurgitated for the masses to consume with little recognition or regard afforded to them. Our story follows two heroes as they travel through time, starting in the 1980s Brixton and ending today in 2020. It is a tale of isolation, pain, and poverty.
Although, some contemporaries would contend otherwise, the truth remains, Great Britain is not great for all. But we Black folk have nothing to complain about, right? We are living in ‘post-racial’ Britain, we have enforced change, become a salient part of Britain's cultural tapestry, occupy space within the British media, and hold positions in public office. Yes, progress has been made since the 1980s, and yet there is an unsettling feeling that nothing has changed.
Time and time again, we find ourselves in the perpetual cycle of struggle, grief, and protest; the country faces hardships through recessions, animosity and racial tension builds, civil unrest ensues. The Black community, a large portion of the working class, is hardest hit by economic downturns. While the political establishment strategically redirects the anger of the masses to those least able to defend themselves. We struggle. The Black community mourns the deaths of its members, either murdered in racially motivated attacks or killed under the heavy hand of the metropolitan police. We grieve. The British media and the political establishment show a complete disregard for the pain and anguish of the Black community. Deciding to remain silent on the political and judicial violence acted out against the Black community, yet all too willing to scrutinise the victims, their families and the community at large, almost validating the injustices and inequalities we face, including our deaths. We protest.
Despite an improving economic situation between 1983/85, the UK’s Black community continued to endure high levels of unemployment and overt political hostility, google Enoch Powell. In 1985, underserved, overpoliced, and politically undermined, the Black community also saw the maiming of Cherry Groce and the unlawful killing of Cynthia Jarrett. In both cases, the two mothers were innocent bystanders struck down within their respective homes by the Metropolitan police. The two incidents led to the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots. We struggled, we grieved and vehemently protested.
A quick look at more recent history suggests otherwise. In the 90s the public witnessed the true extent of indifference that the media and Metropolitan police took towards the Black community. You only need to say one name, Stephen Lawrence. A teenager cut down by five white youths in Eltham, South London. His only fault was being a young Black man. The police failed to make an arrest and 5 continued to walk the streets of London for a further 12 days, despite receiving both anonymous and signed statements from residents who named the 5 as Stephen's killers. All of whom had been linked to 4 prior racially motivated attacks within the Eltham area. Adding insult to injury, the police actively led a media backed smear campaign against the Lawrence family, as a means of quashing their resilience and search for justice. We struggled, we grieved, and we protested for justice.
“Things are different now, time has changed.”
2011, still in the grips of the 2008/09 recession, the metropolitan police gunned down Mark Duggan. With the support of the British media, the police then sought to smear Duggan’s name in a stomach-churning bid to validate his murder. We grieved, we protested, and we rioted.
2017, the year of the Grenfell Fire, an undeniable example of class warfare and the complete disregard for Black and brown lives. In that same year, Rashan Charles and Edir ‘Edson’ De Costa, two young fathers, met their demise after contact with the police. Again, the media showed more concern with vindicating the officers involved by presenting these young men as criminals first, instead of the victims of racial profiling and discrimination. Again and again and again we struggle, we grieve, and we protest.
It is this disturbingly ignorant stance that does it for me, the ability to make such a sweeping remark in the face of all that is happening baffles me. Because time has changed but things are still very much the same. Over time the only thing that has changed is the intelligence with which racism is presented. Britain has gone from ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, to ‘Keep Britain White’ to ‘Vote Leave’. Public opinions and political positions steeped in an assumed insult to British values and let's face it, whiteness, that we immigrants pose. The rhetoric remains largely the same, just put more eloquently, no longer the spotty faced apartheid sympathising prick that called you a ‘wog’ on the climbing frame. Racism today has matured a little, it now says ‘Black male’ instead of ‘Athletic’ or ‘Urban’ on a casting sheet, but the character plot remains largely the same. Diversity and inclusion top the strategic agenda across workspaces, but Hassan in IT and Temi in accounting are the only other Black and brown people in the office. Equality and tolerance is the go-to slogan of today, yet Black people remain disproportionately expelled, unemployed, and imprisoned.
This year, we saw countless murders, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor. The outcry for justice spread like wildfire, first hitting the web, then the streets of America and subsequently the world. Sadly, standing in opposition to racism soon became fashionable; a photo op, a new outfit to don and strut around in until the next set of societal issues were rolled out.
Within the U.K. the Black community was disproportionately affected by the pandemic both in terms of health and employment. Amid the height of the pandemic Belly Mujinga, like many of our mothers and fathers, was sent out on the frontline to serve London without the necessary PPE. Mrs Mujinga subsequently contracted COVID-19 and died, after being coughed on and spat at by a man who openly claimed to test positive for COVID. Now there is some contention regarding the causal link between Belly Mujinga’s death and the incident. The fact remains, Mrs Mujinga death stemmed from an indifference to the safety and welfare of a proportion of frontline staff, who had been statistically proven to be at greater risk of contracting the virus.
At a national level, Belly Mujinga’s death was but a blip, not only on the radars of the ‘protectors of whiteness’ but sadly on our own, myself included. Our call for justice was largely digital until the murder of George Floyd in June. In the same month, we also decided to participate in the VOGUE challenge. A presentation of our beauty and brilliance, which has long been underrepresented and undermined, sure. But also, our acceptance of a system that commodifies our pain and strife, a system of exploitation that we fuel through our desire to be recognised as worthy. Now, I am not trying to put anyone on blast for their method of protest or for their decision to participate in the challenge. I would have too, the only thing is, I do not take many fashion portraits. I am only trying to point out that our collective decisions and actions inform how whiteness operates to some degree. Deep it, look at what happened when we consistently applied pressure.
That is not to say that some of those individuals and companies were not acting in genuine solidarity with Black people, it's just that a lot of the support seemed performative and would not have occurred but for our collective action. Non-Black protest seemed to be a temporary stance, taken by some people to boost their social standing amongst like-minded progressive peers. Peers who fail to see the verdict of ‘fatal accident’ in the case of Shukri Abdi or the leniency shown to Joshua Molnar & Lavinia Woodward as clear examples of white privilege. The same peers who look down on the rhetoric of Farage but see no issue with an all-white boardroom, creative team, and campaign.
I started this piece with a single intention; to highlight the parallels between the overt racism of yesteryears and the somewhat imperceptible but equally violent racism of today. The language may have changed,yet, the rhetoric and the adverse conditions we endure have not. But the future is not bleak, as we have seen across time, with each loss we return stronger, better prepared to challenge the agents and the structures that perpetuate our oppression.
Creative direction and Photography: @deandumare_
Talent: @georgieporgiepuddinpie & @tha_flairest
Lead Stylist: @amelilindgren
Onset Stylist: @anaissaintcharles
Assisted by @okaytolu & @childofahipster