Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
I grew up knowing every other black person living in my hometown: Bangor near Belfast, population 13 thousand. Including me, my dad and two brothers, at peak we reached sixteen. Looking around in a sea of white I always knew I didn’t look like my friends, my dolls or the people on TV. My first memorable experience of feeling truly uncomfortable in my own skin was aged eight. My teacher had just informed the class that despite the images plastered around the school that would suggest otherwise, Jesus was in fact not white.
The kids all rubber necked curious to see my reaction. Some sniggered. All eyes were on me. Palms sweating, I lowered my head and waited eagerly for the moment to pass. Using this opportunity for a crash course on racism, Mrs S hushed the class and said “Sheridan, how did it make you feel to have the class all stare at you like that?” The class stared again. It’s strange to think that this was the model for the power and privilege education I would experience into my twenties, even in social movements: using the oppressed to heal the oppressors.
My first memorable experience of racism was again in school: “eeny meeny miny mo,” my teacher rhymed, “catch a nigger by the toe”. My classmates again turned to see what would come next. Even from a young age I had been taught that the best way to deal with racism was to ignore it. So I shrugged, like I didn’t care, even though my insides were churning.
The first in my family to go to university, I was more than excited by the prospect of evading my tiny bubble and moving to London, where I could have black friends who ‘got it’, find black role models beyond Beyoncé and could be more than just my skin and hair. I moved to Islington, and soon realised it wasn’t the black paradise I had dreamed of. One of two black people in my halls and class, and in another circle of white friends, I found myself in a place where race jokes were banter and I had no choice but to laugh along or subject myself to being told I was ‘overreacting.’ After eighteen years, you start to believe them and before you know you become the oppressor, oppressing yourself.
My introduction to activist circles was my first experience of ‘safe spaces’. An idea that was born in the LGBTQ movement, it has now been extended for women, BME people or any marginalised group of individuals to come together and communicate about their experiences of oppression.
In this environment racism was not accepted, people listened when I told them stories of racism; no one told me it was my fault or my ego. But I soon realised that even these bubbles are not perfect.
At first, seeing men or white people being openly asked to refrain from speaking first to make space for women or black and minority people was absolutely bizarre. “But they’ve got so many clever things to say,” I thought. At this point I had little political knowledge so everything anyone said impressed me. I listened with awe at their big words and their ability to recite dates and names with ease.
I would later learn that the people who deserve your admiration are the ones who take the time and effort to speak to you in a way you can understand, never just assume you know what they’re talking about and, as Orwell apparently said, ‘never use a long word where a short one will do.’ I would also learn that just because a space is calling itself self, doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way if you ever find the courage to disagree. Suddenly certain voices start to dominate again, almost as if by accident.
And of course it’s not by accident – for the individual it might be, but this stuff is structural and deeply rooted. Many people don’t see the link between overt racism and structural oppression. Your parents probably taught you we’re all the same on the inside and gave you a list of racist names it’s not polite to use. But did they teach you how much power you have, just by virtue of your skin colour, to inflict pain and bring up trauma without even realising it? We even have a word for it: microaggressions. Did they teach you that words that just slip out of your mouth or behaviour you’re barely aware of, can tap into and reinforce a system of structural racism and white supremacy that dates back centuries?
Probably not. And no, that’s not your fault. We can only know what we’re taught, or experience ourselves. I don’t need to read a book or sit a course on oppression; I’ve lived it every day of my life. But if you haven’t, then you do. Every time someone turns away from that responsibility, as a parent, colleague, student – in any area of life, really – it pushes the world we want to see just a little bit further away. If we can’t find a way to get this stuff right in the movement – in our unions, on campuses, in campaigns and with no exceptions – we’re in no fit state to change the world. Our movement culture will never truly challenge power; only copy it.
Read the second instalment of #AndABlackWomanAtThat here.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead