Black is a political colour, not the colour of our skins

Sivanandan, despite his adherence to the combusting power of nationalism in the anti-colonial struggle, was emphatic about its negative potential when it became inward looking, naval-gazing – exclusive as opposed to inclusive – and preoccupied with personal identity as opposed to social transformation. In that sense he stressed the importance of the way that New Commonwealth immigrants, had a shared experience of colonial rule, and, from the 1950s onwards, had a shared experience of British racism which led to unity in action. They came together to fight laws and structures that discriminated. Thus Black, uniquely in the UK, came to denote not just people of African and West Indian descent but also Asians and in fact everyone who was treated by a racist society as non-white, second-class. It was and is still a term that people choose to describe themselves since it denotes far more than a human topography.

As struggles became more ethnicised and exclusivist and specific during the 1970s and 1980s, Sivanandan repeatedly pointed out, especially in talks to community groups, the need for black unity in the fight against racism. And during the 1980s, as a small black middle class began to form within professions, he was often asked by radicals to provide organisations with a ‘black perspective’ in education, health, social work, the media, housing, the arts, librarianship etc. He was adamant about the need to retain a link to black traditions of rebellion and self-help in the UK and to tie blackness and the fight for racial justice to the experiences of the most marginalised in society.

Black as a political colour as used by Sivanandan described the actual reality on the ground in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a unity across working-class ‘immigrant’ communities to fight a common racism. But for him it belonged to a particular period of struggle and not something that as a mantra held good for all time.  As he saw racism impact differentially on communities and classes, he expressed the need to distinguish between ‘the racism that discriminates’ (that affected a middle class) and ‘the racism that kills’ (which affected a working or workless class).