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Counterpoints Arts

“Sometimes conversations are difficult because we don’t speak” – Ambrose Musiyiwa

“These safe and civil spaces for conversations are so important, so thank you and it is great when they lead to positive actions!” – Attendee

On 04 March 2021, over 110 people from the Refugee Week community gathered online to explore what Black Lives Matter means in the context of refugee solidarity, asking how we can bring an informed commitment to racial justice into the work we do.

Part of the Refugee Week Slow Conference, the workshop took the form of an open and generous group discussion, guided by the experiences and reflections of attendees.

The session was led by:

Laura Nyahuye, a storyteller, writer, producer, curator, performer, and founder of  arts organisation Maokwo, that seeks to create platforms for minoritised artists and communities and uses art to create positive change and build bridges.

Ambrose Musiyiwa, a Leicester-based PhD candidate at the University of Manchester where he is looking into refugee artists and performing arts practices in the UK. He is editor of ‘Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World’ and ‘Leicester 2084 AD: New Poems about The City’ and author of ‘The Gospel According to Bobba’.

The workshop opened with a powerful piece of spoken word by artist Chrissie Okorie, a spoken word artist and young producer at Maokwo.

Below is an edited version of the contributions made by attendees, which represent a range of views on the questions posed. The terms used (e.g. BIPOC) reflect the language used in the conversation.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts and continuing this conversation as we approach Refugee Week 2021.

Context: The connection between racial justice and refugee solidarity  

Both are rooted in the movement of people, whether due to enslavement, home not being safe politically, the environment changing, lack of employment opportunities or war.

It’s important to ask how contemporary and historical racism affects the experience of refugees and asylum seekers, including in the journeys people are forced to make, how they are treated by the asylum system, whether or not they are offered resettlement, and how they are portrayed by the media. For example, how much do we know about Eritrean and Sudanese refugee experiences, compared to other refugee groups? We need to address this without losing sight of fact that we must show solidarity and support for all refugees.

There is a commonality between negative views of refugees and people of colour. The Hostile Environment policy strikes me as being inherently racist. Not only does it make life difficult for refugees, it is also responsible for the Windrush scandal.

What does BLM mean for Refugee Week?

We Cannot Walk Alone, the theme of Refugee Week 2021, is taken from Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, referring to the White people who had joined the civil rights movement. We can draw inspiration from people from different backgrounds coming together for Black Lives Matter in the same way.

Refugee Week’s Shared Values and Principles state that celebrating our commonality and togetherness must go hand in hand with an understanding of the fact that we do not have equal access to opportunities, power and resources. Part of this is recognising that refugees are not a single group and have different experiences, including because of race.

Alongside celebrating what refugees bring to the society, acknowledging the experience of racism that people face.

Bringing these issues and discussions into our Refugee Week celebrations.

Black Lives Matter and Refugee Week can go hand in hand because of all the refugees who come from African countries which have suffered because of western intervention.  When we speak about Black Lives Matter, we need to remember the Black refugees who do not yet have this platform.

What questions should we ask of our own activism and organisations?

 1. Recognising our own racism/ complicity

Recognising that you can be racist without intending to be: that each of our backgrounds comes with baggage that affects how we think and the assumptions we make. We need to be self-aware so we recognise racist thoughts and reactions when they pop up.

We need to look at ourselves and ask hard questions. How might our behaviours be ‘oppressive’ – what do we unintentionally embed? We need to think about this in the context of racial justice and solidarity and ensure we hold ourselves and others to account.

What are we doing when we have to meet donor requirements as NGOs through recreating ideas about race, e.g. presenting people as victims?

2. Inclusivity and handing over power

Asking who who holds the power within movements/organisations/groups and whose voices are heard. The Black Lives Matter movement provides inspiration as a rising of a minoritised voice.

Listening to and sharing more stories from storytellers who have experienced displacement rather than only voices of politicians, representatives and reporters.

Being aware of ‘accidental gatekeeping’ by charities, which may limit refugees’ ability to use their agency and control their own narratives. Working directly with people using services to understand what they need and how power can be handed over to them.

How do we approach self-reflection in looking internally, as organisations, at our own contributions to diversity and equity? Are the actions we propose practical and long-term, or tokenistic? Are we acting for people or with people?

Creating a route for participants to become trustees and asking how can support people from diverse backgrounds into jobs.

Working with Black and Brown artists and cultural workers both at board and operational level to design strategies with people who have been marginalised. Walking step by step with humility to provide long-lasting art opportunities for racialised artists.

Addressing barriers to inclusivity, such as language.

3. Holding others to account

Considering how Whiteness is embedded in all the systems within which we work – from charities and funders to immigration controls, and understanding how we challenge White supremacy and racism at all levels to impart meaningful change which isn’t superficial/performative.

Through our events, finding ways to open up these questions about race and immigration, asking who hears that message, and where does it land? For example, if you are in a room with different organisations, how do we keep things positive but also be bold to ask certain questions.

4. Recognising how racism impacts refugee groups differently

Some people we work with have experienced overt racism because of their appearance, while White members of the group have been met with hostility when they speak (due to accents or speaking in broken English).

5. Changing policy

Grassroots organisations should build relationships with local MPs and influence policy. It shouldn’t be up to grassroots groups to find solutions and ‘funding’ – this should come from the state. We didn’t create the problems so it’s not up to us to solve them.

Need to increase awareness locally as well as campaigning at government level.

Recognising that racism won’t be eliminated under the current status quo; being impatient and insistent on the changes to policy that need to be made.

Campaigning for decolonisation/ change within the education system: for a curriculum that better reflects all our backgrounds and histories; for more BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) characters in children’s books (including characters doing normal things, not just overcoming trauma and pain); to encourage diverse characters in creative writing; for more space in the curriculum for creativity and enquiry. Support from Black teachers is also important in helping Black/ BIPOC young people to succeed.

6. We all have a role to play

All need our voices to be heard both personally and in the public arena, and then the power will be held communally.

Injustice needs to be tackled in so many different areas: our education systems, media, politics, workplaces and laws.  We all have a part to play, at every level.

We need to uplift and listen to BIPOC voices, but White people need to be doing the grunt work: pushing the conversations with people they know, contacting their politicians, etc. White people tell themselves that it’s the role of people of colour to work in anti-racism, but we’re the ones who created racism and we need to dismantle it.

It can feel like nothing is changing but things do shift slowly. Actions create the space that makes further change is possible.

The status quo isn’t ok and everybody needs to do something. We can’t change policy overnight, but we can all do what we can within our own organisations and lives.

There is so much we can do when we put our heads together as communities.