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The Need for a Black Perspective

From a plenary by Carlton Howson at "Making a Difference" March 2001.

It is customary that I should first ask permission from an elder amongst us, before I speak to you today. For this purpose, I request permission from Theresa.

This talk, and indeed the whole day, has an aim of making a contribution to the ongoing struggle, and it will be located within the context of that struggle. It is located within the context of a Runnymede Trust report that questions notions of Britishness. This report tried to ascertain what the situation is like across the board for Black people in Britain, and as a result – we need to begin to ask some questions.

If the world came to an end tomorrow, and you were asked to account for all the things you have done, the differences you have made, how would you answer? What difference have you made to the lives of those who suffer? We spend so much time in reflection – if only I had done this, etc. The initiative here today is to make steps towards making a difference.

When we see our brothers and sisters in struggle, we are able to lend assistance to them.

Have a look at the Social Exclusion Unit’s report findings. Black people continue to occupy the worst kind of situations in life. They receive the worst housing; they are educated to a lesser standard.

If we look at healthcare, and begin to look at the levels and statistics in diet, mental health, sexual health; members of our community are disproportionately in mad houses. African Caribbean men are locked away.

Looking now at education. Black children are excluded from schools, and when we begin to ask questions, what we discover is that some of our most brightest children are being excluded. Sure, its easy to have the notion that the disruptive ones are put outside. What some of these people are doing is actually challenging the system to deliver.

In crime, far more black people are in prison systems. Judging on the amount of people in these prisons, you would think that the whole of the black community are in there. This serves in our appreciation of the situation we have today. We all carry baggage, not all experience society in the same way. Some of us are tempted to say, its all fair, its all equal. Others say that there are problems, and when they react to them, they become ‘disaffected’.

We continue to see the same patterns of inequality; some of us continue to be reproduced as the weakest link.

We ask questions about perspective. A definition of perspective could be the particular view or way of understanding the world. Perspectives are based on experience; you have a notion of how society is. That view comes into conflict from time to time. We hear about dominant views, “it is just so”, “this is the way it is”. We know of the white perspective around us, for it is the norm.

When black people are outside of the norm, we have to look again and we have to say, how can we develop a way of seeing the world from a black perspective?  Through the work of ancestors, we can begin to learn and discover ways of dealing with our difficulties. We can begin to move forward.

A Black perspective embraces political and historical consequences:


These views can be either positive or negative. For example, a host population that sees immigration as largely anti-British can regard some people who see themselves as ‘immigrants’, as negative. Yet, the vast majority of Black people are British. How, then, does it feel to be described in such a negative fashion. Of late, we have seen a massive backlash against refugees. Circumstances have led them to seek asylum, but they find themselves with a new racism. The images of boats and banners, of Britain as a ‘soft-touch’ leads us to ask a few questions. What does this do for foreigners? What impact does this have on those who are already settled?

This kind of racism still takes place, sanctioned by the government, with legislation compounding ‘second class citizens’.

When we come to develop our identity, we consider both the internal and external interplay. Neither is far apart and all issues have an external route. It could be based on how others react to you and how you interact in the world around you. From this identity form the external and internal dimensions of a Black perspective:

If we have spoken about Black, what then does that mean for white? There is recognition that some people are routinely positioned at poles in society, when they have centred themselves. How do they find a new central place? We begin, of course, with conflict – not going with the flow. We know about the development of antiracist conflict perspectives aimed at challenge, those have been necessary in order to awaken people. We should not see these things as divisive. It is using a situation to analyse discrimination, in pursuit of something more holistic.

Antiracist is not about cultural awareness, or ‘ethnicity’. It is not seeking to replace one oppression with another. It challenges the system, instead of accommodating it, like the ‘multicultural’ models do. It is a community approach, one that seeks to unite and serves as an analytical tool which can help us to understand ‘us’ in relation to the wider scheme of things. We can begin to understand how white society is, whether we need to engage in a critique of something and we have another way of exploring our experiences.

We operate within a functionalist society – where you are, is where you deserve to be. Even when black people gain higher qualifications, this is not represented in the work force. This is an example of thinking that begins right from childhood – the racism that is part of wider values implicit in the structures of society. Therefore, it can be implied that black people are the cause of social ills. The ideas of who has contributed to civilisation can be used as a justification for control. This kind of mental bondage is continually with us.

Despite it all, we continue to thrive and we continue to survive what is done to us. Instead of operating and accepting fringe or underclass, we must locate ourselves within the centre. Powerful people will not help; powerful people never have to prove anything. By extension, they never apologise. We need to take a giant step forward. After all, if you have the power, the objective is to hold on to it. You have to find the means and ways to make changes.

Identify yourself with your history, colour, culture and this is the first step towards a consciousness. Form the principles you feel are important and those by which you want to live by:

Develop your principles and develop your identity. Remember the ‘five C’s’ of identity – who are you in terms of colour, character, class, context and culture.  


Carlton Howson is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Youth and Community Work, De Montfort University, Leicester.

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