The stigma of being ‘Black’ in Britain

Cross posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and PowerBlog post by Iyiola Solanke, University of Leeds, UK

The recent Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests offer a juncture for Britain to have a broad and sensible conversation on race and racism, similar to that headed by the Clinton administration in America 20 years ago. The recent re-appearance of the debate on terminology – the question of how to refer to racialised groups in Britain – may be the beginning of this. It is not a new question but is being posed by a new generation of Black Britons, who having been born in the UK should be unfamiliar with Hall’s sense of living ‘on the hinge between the colonial and post-colonial worlds’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 11).

In my Identities article, ‘The stigma of being Black in Britain’, I argued that despite more than 50 years since Britain adopted its first Race Relations Act (1965), colour remains a ‘visible feature of the urban landscape’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 184) in the UK. I described Brexit as an indication that, as Stuart Hall wrote many years ago, many of the ‘white underprivileged…believe that what they experienced was not because they were poor and exploited but ‘because the blacks are here’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 185).

In Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, Hall explains how ‘West Indians’ were made in England (Hall & Schwarz, 165) and that when migration to Britain increased ‘black’ became politicised (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 14). Politicisation was a reaction to the stigmatisation of all brown skinned peoples of whatever hue in British society. Music was used to affirm and celebrate blackness – one song proudly asserted:

Black is the colour of my skin, and Black is the life that I live in.
I’m so proud to be the colour that God made me. I’ve just got to say
Black is my colour, wouldn’t be any other oh no.

In the face of shared experiences of discrimination, ‘Black’ as a positive identity united and empowered those sharing a post-colonial heritage and a future as Black Britons, who as explained by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins were born and educated in the UK, dressed and spoke like Britons and expected the same opportunities as White Britons (PRO File T227/2535 1967).

Britain’s populations from its colonial territories have gone from official description as ‘coloured’, ‘black migrants’ and ‘Black’ to black and minority ethnic (‘BME’) and most latterly black, Asian and minority ethnic (‘BAME’). Hall, who understood Black identity as a ‘social, political, historical and symbolic event, not just a personal, and certainly not simply a genetic, one’ describes this terminological evolution as ‘long complex and troubled’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 16; 194).

The evolution illustrates the difference between political identity and identity politics: for while Black is a political identity, BME and BAME have their origins in an identity politics that pursues an ever greater fragmentation of the population along racial and ethnic lines. So while the University and College Union (UCU; 2016) uses ‘Black’ in a political sense to foster a sense of solidarity and empowerment amongst visible minorities whose parent/s hail from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia (the middle-East to China) and Latin America, from the perspective of identity politics Black is not a liberatory label but one which is stigmatised.

I was reminded of the stigmatisation of ‘Black’ when I created the Black Female Professors Forum (BFPF) in 2017 – BME/BAME were seen as superior to ‘Black.’ Yet all are constructed to do the same work and each is in its own way exclusive. It could be argued that BME/ BAME are more misleading than ‘Black’ because they suggest a precision that is impossible: ‘Black’ claims clarity of purpose rather than population – who is ‘Asian’ in BAME?

The recent conversations on terminology suggest a re-appearance of the dichotomy between political identity and identity politics. As identity politics has gained momentum, striving to offer clarity to the messiness of racism, ‘Black’ – as a political identity created to empower the first generation of immigrants in the UK and engender solidarity between them – has been turned into a narrow and negative category from which to escape. From the purview of identity politics, to be Black is to be stigmatised on the one hand through hypervisibility (for example of young black men in the criminal justice system), and on the other hand through hyperinvisibility, for example of black women in intellectual and public life (UCU 2016).

Hyperinvisibility is as dangerous as hypervisibility – children live what they see. Both contribute to the social imaginary (Taylor 2003) where ‘Black’ is indeed most commonly associated with criminality and all that goes with it – poverty, low status and marginality – rather than prosperity, achievement and well-being. If Black does not signify aspiration in the public mind, who would want to be Black? It has such a negative emotional economy that skin bleaching creams and lightening procedures remain popular despite their danger to health.

A debate on terminology is a fitting precursor to a wider discussion on race and racism in Britain. However, if the rejection of ‘Black’ contributes to the ongoing stigmatisation of Black people, this will perpetuate rather than alleviate discrimination (Solanke 2017). Terminology must not become a tool to obfuscate racism as the real problem. We should beware the ongoing search for precision in identity politics: if BAME becomes ‘BAAMME’ – Black, African, Asian, Muslim and Minority Ethnic – this may harm rather than help British society rid itself of racial discrimination.

Hall, S. & Schwarz, B. 2017. Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands. London: Allen Lane.

PRO File T227/2535. 1967. Race Relations Legislation: visit to the United States and Canada, 27th June to 8th July 1967, dated 13 July 1967.

Solanke, I. 2017. Discrimination as Stigma: A Theory of Anti-discrimination Law. London: Hart Publishing.

Taylor, C. 2003. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

University and College Union (UCU). 2016. The experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic staff in further and higher education, February 2017.

Read the full article:
Solanke, Iyiola. The stigma of being Black in Britain. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1412143​

Image credit: Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash