It has always fascinated me that a moment of seismic change is not the moment the difference is felt or known. When George Floyd’s heart stopped beating as he was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the world was consumed by a global pandemic. Many of us were staying indoors, trying not to see or touch other people and get sick. There was nothing much to do except look at the newspapers, TV and social media in our spare time.
So when the horrific video footage began to flood social media, then TV and then the newspapers, we had nowhere else to look. We couldn’t watch the news and then move on to dinner with friends – we all had to face it. We were caught up in a moment that brought to a head the pain and anger of many injustices with no consequence for the perpetrator. This time felt different. But could there be change and would it last?
In the protests, online conversations and commentary in the media, it was clear that the time for change had come. Finally, it seemed like everyone was talking profoundly and meaningfully about police brutality, white privilege, wokeness, culture and the disparity in outcomes due to ethnicity, allyship, anti-Blackness and racism.
We saw people posting black squares on social media in solidarity, the government setting up reviews, debates in parliament and organisations of all sizes committing to being anti-racist. But, of course, not everyone was engaged. We also saw the visceral pushback from those who didn’t see the need for change because the world was working just fine for them.
It’s undeniable that we were seeing global engagement on a massive scale. But, like when time seems to move fast and stand still simultaneously, that moment changed everything and nothing.
As a Black British woman, my observation is that socio-economic status has played a determining role in whether or not people experienced change themselves. For many Black professionals in the public and private sector, there have been more career opportunities. Whether there is additional equity in these organisations is debatable and varies between different sectors.
One could argue that this change was already coming, albeit slowly. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK has sped up the pace of change. For some Black people, they now find themselves more valuable to employers and in greater demand. This doesn’t grant immunity from poor workplace experiences, however, and attitudes and prejudices don’t just change overnight.
Many Black professionals like myself understand that this “progress” could stall if there isn’t a commitment to creating collaborative environments where culture is co-created rather than where assimilation is expected, alongside the newfound passion for change and anti-racism.
But, on the other end of the scale, we see the recent widening of stop and search powers. This blunt instrument allows inequality to thrive because it disproportionately disadvantages over-policed, young Black men, in particular. It enables tension to remain constantly on the surface, never getting the chance to dissipate.
Black women are still four times more likely to die during childbirth and twice as likely to have a stillbirth than white women. Recently in education, a report stated that white working-class boys’ attainment was being held back by terms such as “white privilege”. When the conversation focuses on who deserves help more, we don’t see specific issues being addressed, especially in education, where the senior leadership roles in Ofsted are all filled by white people.
Simply talking about racial injustice can have you labelled as “woke”. We hear government ministers talk of culture wars and not “photoshopping history” when people ask for a fuller telling of history that speaks to its entirety. In fact, because Britannia ruled, there were people they were ruling over, and if we still can’t talk about that, are we not actually photoshopping out the inconvenient parts? If we don’t honestly reflect on our shared past, how can we all move forward together?
So, what has changed for Black people in Britain? The answer to this question depends on which Black people in a complex, nuanced and sprawling group you’re referring to. There is no singular Black experience. Location, gender, class, physical ability, level of education and sexuality adds intersectional differences. We are definitely not a monolith.
In a general way, however, more Black people at the top of organisations and government means more economic wealth and intergenerational wealth. We know that with this comes more power, more people listening and a more significant say in how society works. But for those being over-policed, having unequal healthcare outcomes and a lack of equality in education and the systems surrounding it, a change that impacts lived experience can’t come quickly enough.
Yes, things have changed for some, and we must keep pressing for more until change comes for Black people who haven’t felt the effects yet. We cannot be satisfied.
Genelle Aldred is the author of ‘Communicate for Change: Creating Justice in a World of Bias’