May 2021 marks the passing of one year since George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. It was an event that sparked protest, that motivated action, and which began changes that spread across the globe. The UK has had a year to begin its next, long overdue, journey towards racial equality since The Equality Act of 2010. Many hailed this social mobilisation as the dawn of a time where police reform, moves towards fairer education, and equal justice were all on the table, but now that we are a year on, has that much really changed? To help answer this question, I sat down with the British actor, Alexander Bean. Alexander identifies as Black, British, and of Caribbean descent, but from the moment we started talking it became apparent that finding this identity was not a straightforward process.
Alexander described the process of interacting with his own identity, right back to his introduction with race at the age of about five or six, when he asked his white friend about something and they simply did not understand. At this point, Alexander’s father explained about the culture gap that existed between them, and from then on, Alexander was Black British.
This struggle with identity is one that is felt across the UK, and it is not helped by catch-all phrases like “BAME” and “BME” which stand for “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic” and “Black and Minority Ethnic” respectively. When I asked him about these phrases, his response was clear and candid: they are abhorrent on many a level. The practice of collecting what amounts to non-white people in these categories is not helpful for stemming the flow of racism in this country. The argument as to why was made clear by Alexander: "I have a very good Indian friend who is an actor. I met him when I was about 17, and we have had very different lives. He is Indian. He has things that his family do and that his people do that I have no concept of. And vice versa. Therefore, to be put into a 'box' with him, it makes no sense. The best way I can liken it is, if, for example, you and the Irish are the same. The amount of English people that take offence to that – it’s like ‘no we are very different’. Ok, well, why aren’t we different then?"
Alexander described this process as being ‘politically racist’, in the sense that those in power create these phrases to appear politically correct, but actually magnify the problem with their ill-thought-out approach. In the case of the phrase “BAME”, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the government stop using this phrase – a recommendation that the government has yet to adopt. This practice is not limited to identity, and for Alexander, there are numerous examples which demonstrate how those in power have failed to appreciate the problem that they are claiming to solve. In an address to the public in June 2020, Boris Johnson said that ‘we must do better’ in combatting racism and ‘defeat racism and discrimination wherever we find it’. Alexander recounted to me a conversation which he had with his mother, and her response to this sentiment was simple: ‘When were you Black?’.
The “solutions” that have been seen across the country are simply not what they claim to be. The idea that changing the name of a business school, high-school, or a brand of boiled rice is sufficient to combat racism is appallingly inadequate. Alexander described the feeling of these changes as though you have gone to see the doctor with a broken arm, and they prescribe you antibiotics for a kidney infection. The remedy simply does not match the ailment, and these changes are part of what Alexander referred to as ‘hug a Black person month’. When people came out in support of these social movements, tweeted their solidary, and essentially acted like they cared, the question had to be asked: Why do you suddenly care now? These inequalities are not new, and you are not “woke” because you noticed them.
Alexander recounted to me the situation where his former drama school, Rose Bruford College, undertook such action and tweeted their support for racial equality. According to him, they got ‘shot down so quickly’ because their practices simply did not reflect their message. You can even check out the responses by following these links.
In fact, Alexander completed his dissertation on the topic of racial equality in this industry, and in analysing graduation statistics found that the ratio of Black graduates to white graduates was disparagingly low. In his graduating year, seven out of forty-eight students were from an ethnic minority. When asked about this, the school defended the ratio with the statement that ‘everyone gets to audition’.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Alexander the fundamental question: One year on, after all the protestors have gone home, after the names have been changed, after the statues have come down, has anything really changed? His answer: "Absolutely nothing has changed."
It was around this time, two months into the protests, that Alexander began to wonder if real change was coming. He described the news cycle as "COVID, George Floyd, George Floyd, COVID, COVID, George Floyd" and he wondered how long it would last. Every single day, the unimaginable idea that change was really going to happen became a bit more imaginable. Just a little. Just as Alexander, and a great many others, believed that the turning of a corner was possible, it ended. The reason? The return of the Premier League. The return of football ousted protests on one of the most important issues of our century from the top of the news cycle. Does not that say it all?
Alexander vividly remembers this moment: "Just as we think, are we actually…even I started to think ‘alright, we’re actually, genuinely might be turning a corner here’. Oh no, football’s back…football’s back…I remember it being the first thing on BBC News. And it was like…right ok, we’re done now."
The sad and unfair truth which will be taken away from this story is that the main reason we all known George Floyd’s name is because we were all stuck inside with our eyes glued to social media. In fact, Alexander accounts for the spread of this social movement as being predominantly caused by the current pandemic, when we were all stuck inside buying our subscriptions to Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Lovehoney. The lives of people around the world have been, are now, and will continue to be taken because of racial inequality. Racism is not new, and neither is finding ways to avoid changing it. The efforts made by those in power to paper over the cracks must not be allowed to continue. Any excuse to avoid dealing with this situation will be taken. As a society, we need to think before we act. We must consult before we change. We must care, not just because someone else cares, but because our empathy compels us to. It would be a monumental injustice if the only reason we cared about people dying was because we had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.