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News.

My Reflection on Representation, Recognition and Belonging by Ben Musgrave

 

Now that a few weeks have passed, the football season is in full flow again, and the immediate rawness has been accompanied by a degree of curiosity; I wanted to reflect on the events surrounding the end of the Euros with a cooler head.

When three Black England players missed penalties in the Euro 2020 Final penalty shoot-out against Italy, the subsequent racist abuse sent their way via social media felt all-the-more shocking because of the seeming inevitability that it would occur. The real shock was that it was not a shock; very much expected not just by me but by many racially diverse people watching in real time. Likewise, the hooliganism that accompanied the “March to Wembley”, in which predominantly white men made the surrounding area resemble a warzone, is the latest chapter in a longer tradition of structural and actual violence associated with a segment of England “fans”. Eleven people have since been arrested but the racist abuse continues[1].

The resulting outcome is that I have a complicated relationship not just with the national team but also with the St George’s flag itself. Rather than resignation, I am curious to understand what makes people like me see the World differently to such people and indeed what can be done to change mindsets.

 

Who am I?

Starting from the beginning, I consider my heritage. The executive summary is that my Dad: David William Musgrave (a white English man) and Mum: Nnomo Madeleine Assembe (a black Cameroonian woman), fell in love whilst Dad worked as a translator in Cameroon in the 1970’s. Fast-forward to 1978, they marry and move to rural England in 1980. 

As an adult, our Mum told us about some of the harsh realities that she faced in those formative years in North Yorkshire and Shropshire. Before we moved to London in 1983, she was literally the “only black person in the village” and her neighbours would regularly aim monkey-noises at her through the wall until the early hours of the morning. Our parents sheltered us from this; choosing instead to imbrue in us a sense of pride in our dual heritage, with Dad playing an active ally role in the process.

We grew up knowing of medieval kingdoms such as Great Zimbabwe or Kilwa Kisiwani that had traded with China 500 years before Europeans arrived; Universities centuries older than Oxbridge in West Africa (Sankore, Timbuktu); and rock-carved churches of Lalibela which symbolised Ethiopia’s ancient Judeo-Christian heritage. We were even reminded that it snowed in Africa despite what Bob Geldof had us believe.

 

Family influence vs External institutions

My familial education contrasted sharply with what I was being told externally. At school, for example, the only thing I learned about Africa and Black people was the slave trade, and this was told largely through the narrative of “White-saviours” such as William Wilberforce. The media was more imaginative, highlighting famine, poverty, and genocide as being inherently associated with the African Continent. When it came to black people in Europe there was also a notion of recency with the popular image of Windrush’s arrival symbolising the narrative that these were the first black immigrants.

 

Contrast with depictions of White Britishness/ White Europeanness”

Digging deeper down the rabbit-hole, I was curious to see how these depictions of Africa and Black people contrasted with those of Britain and Europe. A few things sprung to mind:

Firstly, the notion of European progress, ranging from idealised depictions of Ancient Advanced Civilisations (e.g. Greece and Rome), through to the 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment. Given the Enlightenment’s widely held place as the bastion of Western advancement, the not-so enlightened theories of supposed inferiority of non-Europeans, could be seen as sowing the seeds for future views on racial hierarchy and thus racism.[2] Alongside the writings are also accompanied paintings of European advancement in philosophy, science and the arts that neglects to mention, for example, the rich contribution that Islam made to these some 600 years earlier[3].

Secondly, fast-forwarding 300 years to the Age of Cinema, I have grown up watching World War films in which heroes are nearly always white. Neither art nor cinema are “facts” but if I didn’t know differently then I perhaps would presume that racially diverse people were absent.

 

Reality vs Rhetoric

In truth, black people not only existed in Europe Centuries before Windrush docked but also played a significant role. Some 1,800 years earlier, Emperor Septimus Severus lay on his deathbed in Eboracum (York), far away from his birthplace in modern day Libya[4]. Time-jump to 16th Century Britain and black people are not treated as anomalies or worse in Tudor Britain, playing roles as mundane as paid musicians, merchants, and explorers[5]. Continuing our journey to the 19th Century, Alexandre Dumas and Alexander Pushkin are not only 2 of the greatest European writers; both also have African heritage (Cameroonian royalty in Pushkin’s case through his grandfather Abram Petrovitch Gannibal). Moving into the periphery of European influence; at a time when Napoleon was conquering Europe, France was being defeated in the Americas as Toussaint Louverture leads a successful slave uprising to establish Haiti as the World’s first black-led republic [6]. Closer to home and the present, the reality that should accompany the images of white heroes in cinema is the 74,000 Indian soldiers [7]and 250,000 Africans[8] who died fighting for the Empire in World War I alone. [9]

 

Why does it all Matter?

I ask myself as I encounter pushback from people annoyed at my scratching at the scab of history. The reality is that the scab has not healed and only by coming to terms with what the past represents can we march forward. 

Denying the historical contribution that racially diverse people have made helps to enforce a construction of “otherness”, distinguishing between white and non-white people in Europe. This is perhaps best epitomised by the fact that non-British white people in the UK are not defined as ethnic minorities, no matter how recently they have arrived (Essed, 1995). Contextualising this to my own case, I may be able to trace my British heritage on my Dad’s side to the 1066 Norman invasion but because I am “not-white” I am an ethnic minority. This in turn has repercussions for how my claim to British national identity and belonging are perceived by others and especially by those who hold the predominant narrative. A question for example that I occasionally encounter at various points in the UK (often seemingly without ill intent) is: “Where are you really from?”.  This misrecognition, merged with the misrepresentation of fact, can in turn have detrimental effects on senses of belonging.  As Charles Taylor writes: “Our Identity is shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirrors back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves”. [10]

To return to the beginning and my catalyst for writing this; On the 11th July, England lost a penalty shoot-out, three Black England players missed, three Black England players were racially abused on social media and hooligans rampaged through London before and afterwards causing structural and actual violence. Both subjects and objects were overwhelmingly male, recalling the notion of hegemonic masculinity,[11]in which the predominant white, heterosexual masculinity requires the existence of other forms of masculinity to reinforce its position of dominance.  If the players had scored and England had won; their Englishness would undoubtedly have been celebrated. The reality is that they missed, and their “blackness” was held against them. This is how tolerance works; denoting a notion of power, in which the tolerating agent can choose who is and who is not tolerable, and how this process of toleration should occur[12].  As societies we need to move beyond such a limiting notion and reframe our perspectives to think in terms of acceptance, inclusion and belonging. 

This requires us to first uncover the layers of history and recognise what really happened and not what predominant narratives are telling us. To quote James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced”.[13]

 

 

[4] African European: An Untold History. By Olivette Otele. London: C. Hurst & Co, 2020

[5] Black Tudors: The Untold Story. By Miranda Kaufmann. London: One World Publications, 2017

[6] Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. By Sudhir Hazareesingh. London: Penguin 2021

[9] Credit to 1917 and The English Patient for being 2 of the very few mainstream blockbusters that recognises this involvement. 

[10] Charles Taylor – Politics of Recognition

[11] Connell, 1995 

[12] Golberg, 2006

[13] Remember this House,. James Baldiwn, 1987

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