In this frustrating book, Tomiwa Owolade sets out to establish that American attempts to identify and deal with issues of race are irrelevant to those of Britain. His basic case is that even if it might exist in America, structural racism based on colour is not found in Britain, and he criticises a significant number of people of colour, on both sides of the Atlantic, who’ve argued that it is. He believes that looking at the lived experience of people should be the starting point; and that the lived experience of black Britons is determined by nationality (and class) more than it is by race. That’s fair.
Owolade asks us to accept that the experience of a significant percentage of blacks in Britain as descendants from immigrants and not from enslaved people is radically different. Differentiating us from America makes our national origins readily accessible, and we should rejoice in that. Owolade is right that people of colour should celebrate the country that is now home as much as they might that of their ancestral origin. But it’s an oversight to fail to understand the traumatic legacy of living perpetually with anticipated slurs, suspicion or blatant dislike if you seek to explain some of the underlying tension between blacks and whites in any nation, or to create improvement. No, Britain is not America. It isn’t France, either; yet frustrations from the black shared experience are undoubtedly similar, even if responses across nations are quite distinct.
As Owolade says, context is all. He rightly suggests that we in Britain have our own pivotal moments – such as the Grenfell fire, the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation and their relatives, and the killing of Stephen Lawrence. Was it necessary to import the additional trauma of George Floyd’s murder to get us to deal with the issues we face? Well, women worldwide benefited to some extent from the death of Emily Wilding Davidson under the king’s horse at Epsom: it accelerated the recognition that women in any democracy ought to be given the vote.