Racism: what lessons can be learned from the history of racial oppression?
Illustration Credit: Emily Tan

The recent acts of racial injustice perpetrated against black people, the most prominent one being that of George Floyd, have led to more outpouring of sorrow and sadness from the public all around the world regarding racism. His case led to an outbreak of protests across the US and the UK promoting and demanding justice for the black community, in other words producing a more consolidated Black Lives Matter movement. I look at Floyd’s case and I can’t help but notice similarities between these cases and the racial injustices that occurred nearly a century ago.

The Mau Mau Uprising is particularly reminiscent of these injustices. Having taken place in Kenya in 1952, the uprising consisted of indigenous Kenyans who fought against the British colonists to gain their independence. A lot of the torture and abuse that was inflicted throughout this conflict, was largely based on racism.[1] The case of Nderi Kagombe, a prisoner of one of the many detention camps established by the British to detain indigenous Kenyans during the conflict, particularly stood out to me on the case of racism.[2] In an interview with historian, Caroline Elkins, Nderi spoke of the abuse he experienced from the one of the camps’ guards, Waguthindia, who got other detainees to hold Nderi down, and would then start jumping on his stomach, until he screamed with pain or died.[3] The world would have you believe that physical oppression on this scale was a thing of the past, but clearly it’s still a problem in 2020, as evident in the case of Floyd.

 However, the Mau Mau Uprising isn’t the only event that resonates with today’s racial injustices. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States also hold many similarities and essentially lay the foundation for today’s revolution against racism.[4] Similar to the responses towards the Floyd case, the injustices of racial segregation, lack of voting and civil rights created by American society during the mid 20th century, led to an outbreak of protests carried out by black people all over the country. The March on Washington of 1963 is the most notable of these protests.[5] Held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the purpose of the march was to advocate for an end to racism.[6] Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic, “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the memorial essentially summed up the purpose and intentions behind the march, as well as the entire Civil Rights Movement. This sentence from King’s speech stood out to me the most; “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” [7].

But what angers and saddens me more than anything is that many people today also have this exact dream and are quick to talk about racism amongst themselves but can’t bring themselves to do anything about it. This has remained an issue for centuries.

But what angers me even more is that people who share posts on social media related to the Black Lives Matter movement, are often quick to criticise those who don’t do the same. It seems to contradict the intentions behind sharing those posts, as well as the intentions and ideologies behind the movement itself. The underlying ideas and message behind the movement is to support and stand with one another regardless of race or religious or political beliefs, and to support and unite with those who are deemed as “not normal” or as people who don’t follow the crowd. Not sharing posts on social media related to the movement doesn’t mean that they don’t support it; you can also support a movement from afar.

However, whilst Floyd’s case holds many similarities to both the Mau Mau Uprising and the Civil Rights Movement , its current trajectory is due to be bigger than those two historical events. Both events were based on and advocated for political change and social equality for black people. Whereas, today on paper, the rights of black people are enshrined within constitutional laws and therefore one would think that the black community would receive equal treatment.[8] However, the battles the black community are having to fight today are in many ways more frustrating  and more largescale than the ones they had to fight in the past.

An end to racism has and continues to remain deeply rooted in many people’s thoughts, but often never manages to manifest into actions. Instead, they wait for incidents like those of Floyd, to reignite awareness and advocate for change. But why do we wait for these kinds of incidents to promote awareness and advocate for change? Why can’t this happen all year round? These are questions most of us will undoubtedly have, especially today. It is those who have these questions and who dare to actually learn from history, who will figure out how to live together differently in this new world.

[1] Ophir Barak, ‘The Mau Mau Revolt’ < https://capechameleon.co.za/mau-mau-revolt/> [Accessed 6/6/2020]

[2] Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London: Pimlico Publishing, 2005) p. 153

[3] Elkins, ‘Britain’s Gulag’, pp. 154-155

[4] Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 142

[5] Patrick Henry Bass, Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, August 28th, 1963 (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002), 95

[6] Bass, Like a Mighty Stream, 95

[7] Stanford University, Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” Speech, 28th August, 1963, (Accessed 6/6/2020) < https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom>

[8] Gary Orfield, ‘The 1964 Civil Rights Act and American Education’, in Legacies of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ed. Bernard Grofman (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 2000), 89