#StopTheWhiteWash and start recognising our NHS heroes of colour

On Thursday the 26th of March at 8pm, the stillness of the evening and eeriness of national lockdown was suspended by a soundtrack of claps, cheers, fireworks, and car horns. It was the sound of Britons across the country taking to their doorsteps, balconies and rooftops to participate in a mass ‘thank you’ to the NHS heroes that are currently on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic. Can’t lie – the atmosphere was electric.

While we’re all doing our bit by staying indoors and exceeding our daily dose of Netflix, NHS workers – on reception desks, paramedic teams, intensive care units and more – are working tirelessly to keep us and our loved ones safe. The applause we took part in allowed for a moment of solidarity and gratitude for those workers – but since that night I’ve come to acknowledge that our theatrical efforts are nothing more than symbolic. Real support for those workers would be adequate equipment to treat patients and protect themselves and for us to all take heed and practice social distancing. The claps from the Tory corner felt particularly disingenuous. It wasn’t that long ago that post-Brexit trade deals between Boris and Trump came with the possibility of the NHS being ‘on the table,’ adding a shortcut toward the privatisation of the NHS. And let’s not forget Jeremy Hunts battle with junior doctors over pay cuts to their wages.

The truth is international migration is essential for the workforce

British debate over the last four or five years has focussed on the NHS’ strain on the economy and the need to deport low-skilled immigrants. This pandemic has shown us the complete fallacy of that debate. The truth is international migration is essential for the workforce. According to ethnicity stats on .gov every 1 in 5 healthcare workers (20.7%) are from mixed ethnic groups. In June 2019, 13.3% of NHS staff in hospitals and community services in England reported a non-British nationality. Among doctors, the proportion is 28.4%. I find it funny that people like Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage or the people from Norwich who wrote to residents telling them to “return to that place (country)”, are now clapping for those workers. Do they know that they’re clapping for an ethnically rich workforce?

If they don’t, then the national media should be telling them so, right? Wrong. The picture below, seen in newspaper publications and on www.thanksamillionnhs.co.uk/, is so off the mark there isn’t even a mark. We should be seeing at least one person of colour, at the very least.

This unrealistic portrayal of the NHS workforce was brought to my attention by Gina Yashere, an award-winning comedian from London. Her video makes the point that the images used in mainstream media coverage showed a workforce that didn’t include ANY people of colour. Exclusively white. Excluding colour. “I’m sick of the contributions of all people of colour being erased from history,” she says, exasperated. It feels all too familiar to when Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist was cropped out of a picture with Greta Thunberg, or when radio host Danny Baker was fired over a racist tweet that he then attempted to excuse by claiming he had forgotten Meghan Markle was mixed-race.  The video of Yashere ends with a call to action: as well as making the effort to #clapforourcarers, the nation should also be screaming #stopthewhitewash. Over on Twitter, that’s what a lot of people are waking up to.

It’s crazy that we still have to have these conversations. It’s just another reminder of the mileage that we still need to cover to achieve an equal and inclusive society.

what impact does that have on the self-perception and aspirations of young black men?

We are saturated by media and its messages are subconsciously imprinted onto our psyche. It leads discourse, keeps us informed and forms public opinion. Done with integrity, it can strengthen ties and encourage understanding between different communities. Done badly – and let’s be honest with racism, xenophobia and sexism at its core – the effects are insidious, polarising people and fuelling prejudice. There are studies that expose a double standard in media representation of young black men and boys. Extensive analysis shows that coverage of black young men and boys in British news and current affairs are often associated with negative news values. White young men and boys are reported in relation to negative stories with four in ten stories being crime related whereas a much higher seven in ten stories of black young men and boys were related to crime. If this is the dominant narrative, what impact does that have on the self-perception and aspirations of young black men? Media coverage is never as quick to celebrate the many positive acts as they are to spotlight the fewer negative ones. The first four British health workers that died were all Muslim men: Adil El Tayar, Alfa Sa’adu, Habib Zaidi and Amged el-Hawrani, from Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria. At the time of writing this I couldn’t find any national frontpages so I thought it only right to edit one for The Sun – who by the way published a ‘Sack the Docs’ article in 2016 when Junior doctors took action against pay cuts, who we now depend on – but since then the Daily Mirror have also published one.

The vacuum of ignorance caused by a whitewashed media keeps “minorities” “in their place” – that is to say to keep their public perception within the confines of their stereotypes – when in actuality, the contributions made by people from the generations that migrated to Britain are abundant. I shouldn’t have to justify an immigrant’s existence, but as the history books tend to focus through a white lens, let’s take a quick look at a tiny handful of immigrants’ historic contributions to Britain:

  • 15,600 men from the West Indies volunteered for service to fight alongside allied forces during WW1.
  • 16,000 more took up arms to fight alongside the British during the second world war, serving in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Navy, Royal engineers.
  • 3 million Indian soldiers served in WW1.
  • After the destruction of WW2 people migrating from the Caribbean, known as the Windrush Generation of 1948, kept Britain moving by playing an essential role in Britain’s transport, domestic, health and hospitality industries.
  • Indian and Pakistani immigrants also rebuilt post-war Britain, mostly working in manufacturing, textile and service sectors.
  • For those still adamant that immigrants leech from the economy, the economic benefits from immigration has been calculated to £6 billion by the Treasury.
  • In 2012 Britain bagged a record of 29 gold medals. This wouldn’t have been possible without athletes like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis and the great athletes of colour that preceded them.
  • John Archer was a black politician who was elected as a councillor in Battersea. He had emancipatory left-wing influence and in 1913 he became the he first black Mayor of London.
  • Britain has seen a record number of MPs from ethnic minorities with every one in ten of the overall 650 MPs elected this year being a person of colour. A decade ago, those figures were more like one in 40. The majority being Labour MPs.
  • And most notable for this article, our national health service. One of the biggest areas in which people of colour have contributed to in the UK. Let me explain…

Like a record on repeat, this was Britain flexing its imperialism and growing its wealth through the use of low paid immigrant workers

The knowledge of how our public welfare state was founded should cure any amnesia induced by right wing rhetoric. Led by Labour’s Minister for Health, Aneurin Bevan, and following the destruction caused by the Second World War, staff shortages meant Britain called on its commonwealth countries to recruit staff. Medical personnel were imported from sixteen British colonies ranging from Ireland, Malaysia, and Mauritius, but the majority were from the Caribbean, including a high percentage of women. Like a record on repeat, this was Britain flexing its imperialism and growing its wealth through the use of low paid immigrant workers – nothing like the socialist narrative that it’s often dressed up as today. It was Caribbean women that cared for the young British men suffering with post-war trauma in psychiatric hospitals, becoming the foundation to an adolescent NHS. You would expect a welcoming reception, but a large part of British society, spearheaded by far-right groups like the British National Party or the notorious National Front, were extremely hostile and launched many xenophobic and racist campaigns against west Indian and south Asian communities. Fast forward to today and members of that same generation, that we’ve named the Windrush generation, were receiving letters from the Home Office branding them as illegal immigrants and wrongfully deporting, detaining and defaming them. Stripped of their citizenship, longstanding contributions to this country have been defaced due to institutional racism. Parliamentary charades will disguise it as discrepancies in policy spanning successive British governments, but I think that Britain’s true imperial nature was again unveiled. Record on repeat… Record on repeat.

Is this call for #stopthewhitewash a divisive tactic triggered at a time when our nation needs solidarity? Well, if you are someone that has never experienced the effects of racial discrimination then I can see why that might be your opinion. To survive this pandemic we must act collectively, but that starts with the respect and recognition necessary for any type of cooperative endeavour. Division was caused by policy makers a long time ago. We have an individual and collective responsibility to hold institutions to account so there is equal treatment for all. Race wouldn’t be a point of adversity if the adversities weren’t always pointed at race.

This virus has illuminated the instability of our healthcare system and the need to better support it and its workers – especially its workers of colour. Especially now that the NHS is calling on the nation for volunteers to help in the fight against Covid-19, let’s hope next time ALL their efforts are applauded.

Gina Yashere has called shame on British media and galvanised a national response, and recently, thanksamillionnhs.co.uk has picked the cotton from in front of their eyes and edited the picture to better represent the workforce. #clapfortheeditor well done mate…

…still no black women though.

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