White man, listen

Written in response to happening such as the New Cross fire an the Black People’s Day of Action


Listen, white man – listen to what black people are saying to you – listen before it’s too late – listen for the sake of your own decency, the salvation of your own society. That march that Monday – the march of the black 10,000. To the best of you it spoke of black frustration, white insensitivity to ‘black problems’, the break down in police/black relations; to the rest of you it spoke of mob violence, blacks on the rampage, the invasion of your privacy, the damage to your property. But it is not to these or to the yellow press that I address myself.


You mistake the mood. The mood is not of the moment – of momentary outrage at the burning of our children in a fire in Deptford. There have been too many fires and too many deaths for that. Do you remember how a hapless old Asian woman was tied to a chair in her own home and burnt alive in Leamington Spa? Black people do. Do you remember the fires at the Moonshot Club and the Unity Bookshop, in Forest Gate and Camden and Rotherham and Aldershot and the bomb attacks in Sunderland Road and in Hackney, in Leeds and in Liverpool, and on a school in Birmingham? Black people do. Do you remember the murders of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, of little Kenneth Singh, Michael Ferreira, Altab Ali and so many more – all on the high streets of your cities? Black people do. For that is all their memory, their history, in this country. They remember Oluwale, the tramp, hounded to death by your friendly bobbies, George Lindo railroaded to prison, Steve Thompson committed to Rampton for daring to be Ra Errol Madden arrested for being in stolen possession of his own property. They remember virginity tests and the deportations, the stop and search and the sudden arrest, the blanket raids of the Illegal Immigration Intelligence Unit into their homes and workplaces, the thuggery of the SPG and the unexplained deaths in custody. And lest they forget these things, they are pricked into memory by everyday racism – in the schools, in housing in the workplace and in the search for work, in the media, in the courts – in the constant call to prove their right to be here.


You protest that this is not the whole truth – that there are laws that mitigate our condition, judgements that have redounded to our benefit, even a policeman or two who is fair-minded. But you have a saying for that: one swallow does not make a summer.  And it is no good telling us that the Deptford fire was self inflicted or an accident or a prank that went wrong: you are as quick to disassociate crimes on blacks from racism as you are to associate blacks with crime – no good pointing to the infallibility of forensic evidence or the impartiality of police investigation. They are your facts, not ours. They do not add up to our truths, they do not speak to our history.


It was to bear witness to that history – as lived by us, not told by you – that we marched that Monday. The fire was its instigation, your indifference its occasion. Thirteen young people are killed in a fire and the whole white nation averts its eyes. From what? From its own shameful complicity in the racism that ignited the fire? And even when thousands marched to bring home that shame to you, you still did not want to see. You chose instead to believe that it was your indifference to us we were pointing to, not your indifference to the profound racism of your society. For in so doing you were able once again to reclaim your self-esteem, re-assert your paternal care. Father White-Law was going to put things right, with a ban here and a ban there, and nationality laws everywhere. One columnist even managed to personalise the issue: it was all because she had no black friends and the black friend she once had had left her for black power.

Or you panicked – recalling, perhaps, the rebellions of the 60’s. And recalling them, you recalled the old ‘black’ pundits you nominate on these occasions to explain black ways to whites, or you found new ones – either from the discredited race relations industry (discredited among blacks that is) or from the ranks of articulate blacks articulating their path to Parliament. And you fell back on old ploys, old themes – the two sides of the question approach; the numbers game, the fertility count and the ‘legitima te’ fears of the British public; the threat to the British way of life. You have come full circle. This is where you first began – pandering to prejudice, sanctioning fears, legitimating racism and, in creating the moral morass that fascism breeds in, creating the monsters of your own destruction. Listen, white man, for it is of your destruction, and ours, I speak.


March 1981