Racism: is it all black and white?

‘If segregation is taking centre stage in theatre land it’s curtains for equality’ – this is the intriguing heading of an article in the Sunday Times (Rod Liddle, 3.3.24). It seems that a play, written by a radical American, entitled ‘Slave Play’, has two nights set aside for black audiences only, the  purpose being to free them from ‘the white gaze.’ Liddle, like me, queries whether white theatregoers actually sit staring at black people in the audience, instead of focusing on the play? Ridiculous. Of course they don’t. The play, a psychological experiment involving three mixed-race couples, explores the visibility, or otherwise, of race. The two nights of freedom from the white gaze apply apparently to ‘people who identify with being black’. It is a voluntary request, so where does blackness begin and end? 

Is segregation such as this the right way to banish any racial prejudice? Surely not. Liddle makes the ironic point that the next step may be to have differentiated water fountains in West End theatres, drawing attention to the absurdity of this segregational move. But why is this happening in the first place? Did not segregated audiences vanish a long time ago, with the Apartheid of S. Africa? I find this kind of behaviour sad, that after many years of freedom from slavery, racism is still an issue to be debated and highlighted as a social dilemma.

On the news (March 2024) we also hear that the church is paying reparation of a £100m, to help atone for the huge profits reaped by their part in the historical slavery business. This funding is to be used to build a better and fairer future for all, particularly for communities affected by the slave trade. 

The history of this involvement by the Church of England is fascinating, highlighting  as it does, the hypocrisy that existed at the time. Research appears to show that by 1777, the Queen Anne Bounty (name of the church investment fund at the time) had an amount of £406,942, equivalent to around £724m in today’s money, invested in the South Sea company which transported around 34,000 slaves in crowded, unsanitary and inhumane conditions during its 30 years of operations. 

Justin Welby says it is taking too long for memorials and plaques linked to the slave trade to be removed from public buildings. One such plaque, dedicated to Tobias Rustat, prominent in the slave trade, still hangs in Jesus College, Cambridge. Over a period of 35 years, around 20 reports examining racism within the church have made about 160 recommendations.

So, how do we heal forever, the long and haunting legacy of slavery? We cannot undo the past. All we can do is look more closely into the present and identify current issues to be resolved. It is still the case that black families are more likely to live in sub-standard housing, and black parents are more likely to have jobs that pay below average, leading to a situation whereby black children are still less likely to achieve their potential, compared to white.

Interestingly at the current time, only 1 out of 42 bishops, and only 1 in 25 serving clergy, are reported to be from an ethnic minority background. These figures appear to compare with about 6 out of 23 members of the cabinet, who are ethnic minority. 

Back to theatre land and the absurd segregation of black people from the gaze. Does all of this focus on black and white remind us that racism is still alive and kicking in our country, as well as across the world?  

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