it's been 100 years since the british race riots. what's changed?
Updated: Feb 28
The short answer: not much.
It’s clear that centennial events are only discussed (and remembered) in the United Kingdom when they relate to whiteness. 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice which ended World War I; I remember my school conducted a huge ceremony in remembrance of the event. History lessons for lower school students primarily focused on learning about WWI, and the BBC-produced documentary on the subject; after the documentary, time was devoted to remembering the lives lost during WWI. And while British racism can be blatant- just like American racism- British racism is also covert, disguised, and subtle. Britain loves to hide its racist past and current racist thought even today; through this elusiveness, this is how the country attempts to claim progressiveness over America. British racism is hidden- and history is ignored, or not spoken about, if it has the potential to tarnish the British image.
The 1919 Race Riots occurred between January 1st and August 1st, primarily situated in seaports like Liverpool, Salford and Cardiff. Tension began to rise as white workers blamed Arabs, Asians, black people, and other ethnic minority communities for the labour shortages and diminishing industries in said ports. White union workers blamed and targeted ethnic minorities; they also believed men of colour threatened the British national identity based on whiteness, as they were having romantic relations with white women and producing biracial children.
Liverpool was one of the worst places to be during the riots. Charles Wootton, an Afro - Caribbean man, was lynched by white rioters; moreover, people of colour were temporarily removed from their homes and placed under police protection as 10,000 white people were supposedly involved in the riots. The word protection is used lightly in this context, as many families were racially abused while under police protection. Black people were also fired from their jobs and white rioters set black, Arab and Chinese homes and businesses on fire. When this occurred, the government did not reimburse victims for their damaged property; instead, after the riots, the government began to remove people of colour from Britain, fearing that they would retaliate. It was estimated that 3,000 black and Arab people between 1919 and 1921 were removed from Britain and sent back to their country of origin.
This is a significant part of British history that many people are not aware of; there should have been documentaries upon documentaries about this topic on the BBC, students in lower school should have been forced to focus on this period in their history classes, and we should have mourned the lives lost to violence and white supremacy, as we do on any other centennial events in this country- but we didn't. Instances like these are ignored, hidden, and never examined,, because Britain brands itself as the land of progress and tolerance; I mean, after all, we now have a black princess.
One hundred years after the race riots: Britain has their first black (or first biracial) royal in British history. There is still debate amongst historians on whether Megan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, is the first, or whether Queen Charlotte (who married King George III in 1761) was the first black or biracial royal in British history. Historian Mario de Valdes argues that Charlotte’s features in royal portraits are similar to African facial features. Charlotte’s own physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, reportedly described the queen as, “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.” Valdes claims that Charlotte directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to 15th- century noblewoman Margarita de Castro e Souza. Her ancestry can be traced to the 13th century ruler Alfonso III and his romantic lover Madragana, who Valdes believes to have been a black African.
Nonetheless, the Duchess of Sussex’s marriage to Prince Harry has been seen as a change in British perception, including those in the royal family; their wedding was a shock to everyone, and I even welled up as black culture was front and center in the ceremony. There was an all-black choir, a black priest and violinist; it was unapologetically black and beautiful. The media branded the event as a representation of what Britain is now: multicultural, proud, and- yes- progressive.
But British progressiveness is merely performative when the eyes of the world are upon it. Racist comments were made towards Megan during her engagement to Prince Harry, after her wedding, during her pregnancy, and still today. In November 2016, Kensington Palace released a statement telling the media to stop articles with “racist undertones." In February 2017, the couple was sent a strange package with a racist note, and in March 2018, the palace increased social media monitoring to fight racist comments made about the Duchess. As the racist and sexist comments ensued, the pair decided to keep the birth of their baby private. When they did finally decided to debut their son, Archie Mountbatten Windsor, the first half-American biracial royal baby, he was immediately racially attacked. BBC radio host Danny Baker tweeted a photo of a chimpanzee in a suit holding hands with a woman and a man. Baker captioned the photo, “Royal baby leaves the hospital.” Even though Barker was fired over the racist tweet, many people went to his defense, stating that he was merely joking. Barker even received a standing ovation in the first show he did after being fired from the BBC.
This easily explains why the Royals wanted a media-free private christening for their son. However, rather than viewing their requests for privacy in a more nuanced way- and trying to understand that the racist and sexist attacks made towards the Duchess and her son have influenced what they want as public and private- the British media continues to criticise the Duchess. Piers Morgan has a history of attacking the Duchess on Good Morning Britain; he recently declared that “If you (Meghan) want to be private, go back to America and live privately, it's pretty straightforward.” He made this particular comment in response to royal protection officers, asking photographers at Wimbledon not to take pictures of the Duchess’ as she was “here in a private capacity." Morgan is just one of many white daytime TV hosts who have this opinion of the Duchess; Anne Diamond, Anthea Turner, Carole Malone and Jemma Forte were the celebrity panelists on Jeremy Vine in March 2019. They attacked the couple's decision to be secretive about their pregnancy and directed all of their frustration upon Megan; their main argument was that Megan, now lives off the British tax dollar, cannot demand privacy anymore. Diamond said of the couple that “they belong to us” and that she feels “affronted” by Markle's demand for privacy.
Megan’s marriage to Prince Harry was branded as the solution to racism by the British media; yet, at the same time, individuals in British media were racially abusing and ridiculing her (the British are fantastic multitaskers). When the British media call the Duchess “bossy," “demanding,” or “difficult," they don’t view those words as racist; they render her as being angry and difficult when she is outwardly friendly or cordial. This is not to say that Meghan’s lighter skin, straighter hair, and freckles doesn't give her a privilege that darker-skinned individuals don’t have, but she is definitely still regarded as black, particularly to white people.
It’s true that one hundred years after the race riots in the United Kingdom, we have our first black Princess. But it's also true that one hundred years after the race riots, black children are still being compared to monkeys. One hundred years after the race riots, black women are still being sent racist letters. One hundred years after the race riots, black women are still stereotyped as aggressive and demanding. One hundred years after the race riots, there is still the existence of a fascist political organisation, Britain First. One hundred years after the race riots, racism and classism killed the residents of Grenfell Tower, and many are still unhoused. One hundred years after the race riots, even though people of colour live amongst white people, go to school, and work with them, not much has changed- and nothing will change if Britain continues to ignore their racist past and racist present. ◇
Halima is a 19-year-old, studying History. She is currently the President of the Feminist Society and BAME Officer at her University. She loves fashion, words that make you cry, and Omar Apollo. You can find them on Instagram @h.alimaa and Twitter @ughalima.