When people from Düsseldorf to Jakarta poured on to the streets this month in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, Igoni Barrett found himself in Amsterdam.
A Nigerian novelist of Jamaican descent, Mr Barrett had been stranded in his wife’s home country since the beginning of lockdown. He was amazed to see how many people marched against racial injustice in cities across the Netherlands, in far greater numbers than in his home country of Nigeria.
In Europe, with its history of colonialism and sizeable black minority populations, the issue of racial inequality is paradoxically more pressing, he says, than in Nigeria, with its overwhelmingly black-majority population.
“Even in a small city like Tilburg [in the southern Netherlands] there were thousands of demonstrators,” he says. “A lot of white kids — who listen to hip-hop or rap — see the injustice of the police or prison system and say: ‘This does not represent us.’”
The asphyxiation of Floyd in Minneapolis by a white policeman, excruciatingly captured on video, has prompted people around the world to examine their own national and personal histories of prejudice and racial injustice. Just as the #MeToo movement sparked a global upheaval in attitudes towards violence against women and women’s rights, Black Lives Matter has triggered an international clamour for racial equality.
“The death of George Floyd and the manner in which he was dehumanised has swept beyond the US to the world and has forced a self-recognition of everyone’s collective past,” says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She says that protests in Liberia and elsewhere are “an expression of solidarity with our diaspora in the US and recognition of what we went through after the slave trade, colonisation and the extraction of our resources.”
Like the #MeToo movement, which began with revelations about the predatory sexual behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood film producer, the call for racial justice has been ignited by the story of a single person. And like #MeToo, the global nature of the conversation demonstrates that, despite its evident traumas and failings, the US continues to act as a moral and political touchstone for much of the world. In a month when the US Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to sack someone for being gay or transgender, American culture still wields an influence that matters greatly to billions of people worldwide.
“Right now everybody has their eyes on America,” says Ayesha Harruna Attah, a Ghanaian author who has written about slavery in west Africa. “I think it will wake people up and I don’t mind that it started in America. It was a conversation that needed to start.”
Yet what people have seen in the mirror held up by the Black Lives Matter movement has varied greatly, depending on which side of the history of slavery, police brutality and racial intolerance they are on.
In Australia, where the hashtag #aboriginallivesmatter has been trending, the focus of protests has been on the treatment of an indigenous population that has been subjected to mass killings, eviction and incarceration since the arrival of white settlers in the 18th century.
Poland has seen discussions about the use of Murzyn, a term for black people that has its roots in the same word as the English “moor”, which many Poles consider neutral but others regard as offensive. In one Warsaw protest, a young black girl walked with a placard proclaiming: “Stop calling me Murzyn.”
In Britain, with its scarred history of colonialism, the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into a river in Bristol. His watery end divided opinion between those who abhorred “mob justice” and those who saw it as a fitting end for a man who participated in a trade in which many Africans were deliberately drowned so that owners could collect insurance. Oxford’s Oriel College bowed to longstanding pressure by agreeing to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist accused by activists of laying the foundations of apartheid in South Africa. And at the restart of England’s football Premier League on Wednesday, every player took the knee before kick-off.
For Sudan, with its recent history of genocide by an Arab-dominated elite against darker-skinned people, including those in the western region of Darfur, Floyd’s killing has a unique resonance. Muzan Alneel, an engineer who participated in months of street protests that toppled the dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, says the call for racial equality and the curbing of police and military power resonates strongly in Sudan.
In just one incident in Khartoum last June, security forces killed more than 100 protesters in cold blood, throwing the bodies of many into the Nile. “For us, ‘the police’ and ‘brutality’ is a synonym,” she says, adding that the Bashir regime devoted as much as 70 per cent of spending to the repressive military apparatus — a statistic that brings fresh meaning to the slogan “defund the police”, which has become a rallying cry across US cities.
For Ms Alneel, the gap between the ideals expressed in the US constitution and their reality has long been the most compelling feature of the American story. “Not many people would still call America a first-world country considering its health system, its policing methods and the state of its democracy,” she says, adding that Hollywood has helped spread American myths around the world. “This is not an ugly story of the American dream falling apart. It’s a beautiful story of the propaganda machine falling apart and the true stories of the people’s struggles coming out.”
Held to a higher standard
Dele Olojode, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who splits his time between South Africa and the US, agrees that Floyd’s killing marks what is merely the latest deracination of America’s image. “What you see is a thoroughly humiliated US whose reputation is in shreds,” he says. “Large numbers of people outside the US — and perhaps inside — are beginning to think that maybe the empire is over. I think Covid has done this,” he says, referring to the haphazard US response to the pandemic. “Suddenly everybody knows the emperor has no clothes.”
But Mr Olojode, a Nigerian, argues that, despite this, the US continues to exert an irresistible pull on the world’s imagination. “The reason it has suffered this terrible blow to its reputation is because it holds itself to a higher standard and the world holds it to a higher standard,” he says, adding that America is always trying to correct course and recapture the ideals expressed in its founding documents. “The world is not protesting that Xi Jinping is locking up 1m Uighurs,” he says of the re-education camps that sprang up in western China in 2017. “Nobody holds China to that kind of standard.”
Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and dissident now living in Germany, has used his art to highlight state brutalities — from Chinese schoolchildren crushed to death in shoddy classrooms, to African and Syrian migrants left to drown in the Mediterranean. He supports the movement for black social justice, but argues that identity politics — whether around the rights of women or African-Americans — can be too narrowly focused.
“One man’s life was badly violated, but on that same day — and every day — refugees lose their lives in the sea. Nobody rescues them; some even push them into the water,” he says. “In the west, there is little sympathy towards the plight of those in Asia. It might be that the west doesn’t see Asian lives as mattering,” he adds. “More than 150 Tibetans, one of the most violently oppressed and vulnerable groups, have self-immolated in protest against China, but who cares?
“It’s not simply about police brutality, or whether black lives matter, or #MeToo,” says Mr Ai. “We cannot break up into factions with separate grievances, but [we must] have solidarity with one another and recognise that, when one group’s rights are attacked, it affects us all.”
Aparna Gopalan, an Indian teaching fellow at Harvard, has criticised people in her own country for virtue signalling by wielding the #BlackLivesMatter cause as a fashion accessory. She warns them not to use the hashtag unless they are prepared to face up to India’s own violent discrimination where extrajudicial police killings, known euphemistically as “encounters”, are common, and where Dalits, a caste of mostly darker-skinned Indians once known as “untouchables”, are regularly killed.
Before being too quick to excoriate the US for its racial prejudice, Ms Gopalan says, Indians should look to their own majoritarian Hindutva nationalism. She highlights the violence meted out against Muslims such as Faizan, a 23-year-old man who in February was savagely beaten by police and forced to sing the national anthem — an incident that led to his death and one also captured on video. “For Faizan and the many other Muslims thus murdered, there have been no protests, no arrests, no charges, no dismissals, and no outrage,” she writes.
Eddin Khoo, an author and historian of Indian-Chinese descent, has long championed the culture and rights of minorities in his native Malaysia. Like Ms Gopalan and Mr Ai, he is wary of appropriating what he sees as the narrow sloganeering of identity politics in America where, he says, the experiences and aspirations of other marginalised communities are often missing.
“I look at the civil rights movement, which was a great inspiration all over the world, and I find the reductiveness of the language and the rhetoric today quite depressing,” he says. “Of course, things like racial profiling and police brutality need to be addressed. But instead of Muhammad Ali, who was funny, beautiful and articulate, and instead of the long letters from Martin Luther King from prison, we get social media slogans.”
Mr Khoo worries that the views of other peoples will get trampled underfoot and the experiences of oppressed communities or nationalities will be refracted through a purely American prism. “They want to take down a statue of [Mahatma] Gandhi,” he says of calls in Africa and elsewhere to remove statues of India’s liberation hero because of pejorative remarks he made about black people. “That’s absolutely mad. The problem with a figure like Gandhi is that he’s been made a saint. So when he is humanised, he becomes a criminal.”
Culture becomes poorer, argues Mr Khoo, when books such as Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, both widely acknowledged to be anti-racist, are pulled from the school curriculum because they contain characters using racist language. Malaysia, he says, has hundreds of years of progressive attitudes towards sexuality, including of bisexual and transgender people. Yet instead of learning from its own past, Malaysians and others in south-east Asia take their cue from the US. “This is my great quarrel with identity politics, which pushes you into corners. You begin to guard your turf and there is very little intellectual interrogation.”
‘Fighting for 400 years’
In Brazil, whose plantation economy was built on African slavery, Luiz Felipe Alencastro, a historian and member of the Arns Commission for Human Rights, says the US experience of police brutality resonates more directly. “Every time there is a killing of someone in the favelas, there are demonstrations, but the police are very brutal and harsh,” he says, referring to the informal settlements where a disproportionate number of Afro-Brazilians live. After the Floyd killing, people marched in a dozen cities to protest against recent police brutality in a country whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, ran on a campaign of giving officers immunity to kill criminal “cockroaches”.
Although Brazilians of African descent represent a large proportion of the population in Brazil — which imported 4m African slaves, some 10 times the number shipped to the US — like their American counterparts they too are socially and economically disadvantaged. Mr Alencastro says Brazilians have been inspired by the struggles of African-Americans and have won certain victories, such as quotas in universities that have also been granted to the much smaller indigenous population. “Even Bolsonaro can’t take this away,” he says.
The story is different again in Nigeria, where Mr Barrett — the novelist now stranded in Amsterdam — grew up mostly unaware of racial prejudice, something he first encountered when, as a 32-year-old, he retraced his father’s roots to Jamaica. While he was there, he says, lighter-skinned Jamaicans continually alluded to the darkness of his skin. “People say, ‘I didn’t understand I was black until I went to a white country,’” he says.
Back in Nigeria, he started to explore the nature of racial prejudice in his novel Blackass, in which the main protagonist, in a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, wakes up one day to find he has turned white. Though he remains exactly the same person, down to his Nigerian accent, life suddenly takes a different turn, with both his job and romantic prospects markedly improved.
The protagonist starts to think of himself as superior. In a send-up of the skin-whitening treatments used by millions of people in Africa and elsewhere, he even attempts to bleach his bottom — which has unaccountably remained black — because it keeps giving him away.
Mr Barrett says racism is a complex and deep-rooted phenomenon. He points to well-educated Nigerians who mock the slang of African-Americans and a minority of Jamaicans who have criticised black Americans, saying: “Well actually you guys have it pretty good and many Jamaicans would do anything to migrate to the US.”
But Mr Barrett is having none of it. “Those Africans would not have gotten into the Harvards and the Yales and become doctors if those people had not fought,” he says. “The fact that it is possible for a Jamaican or a Nigerian to go to the US and hold their head up high is because black Americans have been fighting the battle for 400 years.”