Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Why Black History Month (still) Matters

October is Black History Month: the foremost opportunity – for all communities – to remember and celebrate the place of Black people in the annals of Britain's past.

Before we proceed, it's worth dwelling briefly on the term Black, as used in UNISON parlance. Black, is a broad political term, spelt with a capital 'B' to distinguish it from the colour black. It describes those non-white communities in Britain that suffered colonialism and enslavement in the past, and, today often face racism and diminished opportunities. Africans and Asians used the term routinely during the UK antiracist campaigns, which became pronounced from the seventies onwards. The west London women's rights and advocacy group Southall Black Sisters – with its primary focus on vulnerable Asian and African-Caribbean women – is a perfect illustration of the term's usage.

While debates over the suitability of the term Black are almost perennial – after all, for example, many reasonably ask, what about the cultural distinctions between Africans and Asians? Or, what of marginalised non-Black ethnic minorities, such as the Irish? – a satisfactory new vocabulary has yet to be created. And, for the time being at least, the prevailing sentiment at UNISON Black Members' conferences is to remain, solidly and straightforwardly, Black.

So then, in our multicultural era, why do we continue to hold a Black History Month? In short, because Black history has (still) yet to become fully mainstream. For example, not so long ago, I – surely like many others – was never taught at school that the Indian contribution to Britain's forces in both World Wars outstripped that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. In World War II, India supplied a massive 2.5 million personnel. The curriculum also failed to cover African regiments which fought across continents for Britain.

Black History Month then, is an attempt to get our story known. And, to some extent, it would be fair to say that such aims are being realised. Our experience is slowly becoming better, and, more widely appreciated. We must not be naïve however; Black history still plays second fiddle to a traditional interpretation, which has Europe as its locus.

Perhaps ironically, Black History Month is not only a period for reflection on the past; simultaneously, during this time, we are prompted to consider the status and vitality of Black communities in the present. When the Commission for Racial Equality was replaced by the Equality & Human Rights Commission three years ago its final report was entitled: "A Lot Done, A Lot To Do, Our Vision for an Integrated Britain". Here is an excerpt:
Only a few decades ago, it was acceptable to put up a sign in a boarding house or B&B saying 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'. We don't see those signs anymore, thanks to the race relations legislation that made them illegal, as well as thirty years of hard work by the Commission for Racial Equality and others in changing the national mindset to make them morally inconceivable.

But let's not kid ourselves. Britain, despite its status as the fifth largest economy in the world, is still a place of inequality, exclusion and isolation. An ethnic minority British baby born today is sadly still more likely to go on to receive poor quality education, be paid less, live in sub-standard housing, be in poor health and be discriminated against in other ways than his or her white contemporaries. This persistent, longstanding inequality is quite simply unfair and unacceptable.
As the above being the sum of our immediate prospects, and with the government's savage budget cuts predicted to disproportionately hurt Black communities, initiatives like Black History Month – with its ability to help lift spirits and facilitate debate – clearly remain crucial in the continuing struggle for the economic and cultural progress of Black communities throughout Britain.

Let us all have an enjoyable autumn and stimulating Black History Month.


Eren Panesar (Black Members Officer)

UNISON in combination with the wider trade union movement - has long campaigned with, and for, the interests of Black people. Typically, Black trade unionists receive better pay & conditions and are less likely to face discrimination at work than non-unionised Black workers. As a means of tackling the marginalisation Black people often face in society, UNISON Black members ‘self-organise’;
as do women, disabled and LGBT members. ‘Self-organising’ brings members with common experiences together and helps them to effectively consider, raise and resolve issues of concern arising at the workplace and beyond. All Black members (and interested nonmembers) wishing to receive UNISON’s informative quarterly publication ‘Black Action’ or discuss relevant issues should get in touch with the Senate House Black Members Officer eren_panesar@yahoo.co.uk.

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