Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had and still have a racism pandemic. In the last few weeks, we are seeing the contestation over the value of black lives unfold in a theatre of protests in major cities all over the world. The current wave of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis has reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and indeed protests against racism and racist policing, which dates back over a 100 years. But to say that the current events have reinvigorated the BLM movement is to suggest that the movement lost momentum. But did it? And the very demand for black lives to matter suggests black lives may not have mattered as other lives. And this is the very issue that has set my big head reeling. (Why) Did black lives (not) always matter?
Black People Have an Image Problem
Let’s “face” it, black people have an image problem. Images are powerful in their ability to shape beliefs, imagination, attitudes and reality; seeing is believing. Unfortunately, for hundreds of years, the image of the black body has been terribly negative. Colonialism depicted black people in Africa as brutes who needed to be civilized, and post-colonialism, the image associated with black people in Africa is that of poverty, hunger, corruption, civil wars and disease. In Australia, white settlers from Europe killed and decimated the societies of the darker skinned aboriginals because they deemed the aboriginals to be less civilized and unequal. The images of aboriginals remain largely negative in Australia, regardless of reconciliatory efforts in the national and political discourse.
In America, black people were brought in as slaves, sold and bought as properties of white people, and considered less human than white people. Since the abolishment of slavery, through segregation and Jim Crowe laws, the image of black people in America has been marked as low literate, low-status, deviant, violent and criminal. The global reach of American cinema and news means that these images are broadcast beyond the American continent into the minds and hearts of many people around the world. Recent media narratives in Australia about “African gangs” simply reified these “gangster” images of black people in American cinema and media. These stories are so powerful that even some black people believe these images about black people. Some Africans even agreed with Trump that indeed the continent is full of shit-hole countries. The image problem also translates into economic representations for black people. If you ever go to the United States, you will notice that black (and other coloured) bodies mostly occupy low-paying and low-status jobs.
Nobody is born with racism encoded into their DNA; people learn racism. When they learn about black people, these are the images that they learn; these are the realities that they encode into their memory, knowingly and unwittingly. How many people have we heard say and do something racist and yet insist that they are not racist? I am not discounting other serious systemic factors that are culpable; I have noted some of them above. Rather, I want to point out that these historical and systemic events and practices have institutionalized a bad brand image of deviance of the black body that is easily consumed and internalized by people who were born long after these systemic events like colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crowe ended. And this makes it easier for some people to treat black bodies with suspicion, fear and violence. To really make black lives matter, we must seriously make images of black lives better.
Changing the Narrative
There are potentially many ways to reposition the black body away from negative associations. I will highlight only one here—representation. About 2 years ago, I went to have a roundtable discussion with participants of the African Leadership program in Melbourne about problems African entrepreneurs in Australia face. A participant noted that many black and white customers alike don’t usually trust African entrepreneurs as capable of delivering on certain services simply because they may not know any black people in such roles. Another who agreed blatantly confessed that even when they were told that a university lecturer would be coming to speak with them that day, they assumed that I would be white. I took no offence; I understood. I cannot tell you the number of times I have walked into my own lecture and been asked if I am a student and been met with surprise when they find out I am the lecturer. I know that many of my students have never been taught by a black person before. So, whenever I walk into any classroom at the start of the semester, I know that I will represent a new image of the black body they have not seen before. This is the repositioning of the black body that I am campaigning for here.
It is progressive to talk the talk of supporting BLM by posting a message, joining a protest or taking a knee. But are we willing to walk the walk of contributing to a better representation of the black body? In a recent article for Marketing Week, Mark Ritson unapologetically pointed out the “hypocrisies” of brands like Nike, Adidas, Apple, L’Oréal and Spotify who loudly proclaimed their support for the BLM movement all over social media and yet do not have a single black person on their executive boards. But this is a rather common omission in the executive teams of many Australian workplaces including major brands like NAB, Rio Tinto and Qantas. This omission in places of status and power is a missed opportunity to rewrite images of black bodies over the long term.
Each black body we can locate in a position of high status contributes a page to a better image of black lives. For example, if all news media, advertising, television and film industries put more black bodies on their executive boards, then it is more likely than not that these institutions will be more responsible in the images they present about black people. If more white people are managed by or work in the same roles of high status as black people, they will have a better image of black people. If customers see that the businesses and institutions that they receive services from are partly run by and managed by black people, they will have a better image about black people. If black children see that black bodies occupy important roles in society, they will grow up aspiring to a better image of the black person. If young white children grow up seeing black bodies occupying important roles in society, they will grow up with a better image of black people.
We have seen the number of young white people who have joined these recent protests in America. I speculate here that these are young people who grew up during the Obama presidency and growing up with the image of a black body leading the nation had an important effect on their perception of black people. They don’t just believe; they know that black lives matter. Obama’s presidency—for better or worse—was indeed significant for all black lives all over the world. More of such representation is needed because one image, no matter how powerful, is not enough to rewrite centuries-long negative stories of black lives.
If there is anything to learn from the past, it is this: protests and movements come and go; they may lead to some immediate changes to calm sentiments, but they do not usually succeed in rooting out the problem. The Akan proverb, “we do not prune a dangerous tree; we uproot it” is salient here. Police reforms and legislations may reduce some forms of police brutality, but it won’t really remove negative images of black people from the minds of people; people make the police.
Real change that will be sustainable for generations unborn is a change in the narrative around the black body. If we can treat black people as people, report crimes by black people as crimes and not as black deviance just as we report white crime as crime, if we can positively discriminate for black people by putting black bodies in positions of high status and visibility, then we will be making black lives truly matter in a way that all lives matter. This is true for black lives as much as it is for all people of colour. But if we limit this to grand speeches and PC social media posts, then we are simply pruning the tree of racial discrimination until it grows again to painfully claim more black lives and dignities, and then we will hit the streets again to repeat this theatre of protests. But to what end?