Figures from within Liverpool’s cultural and creative community share their opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement and the potential for change at a local level.
Alok Nayak, CEO and Artistic Director at Milap, the Liverpool-based international Indian Arts & Culture company.
I have not been able to take my eyes of worldwide protests against the murder of George Floyd, mostly because of the anger and frustration I felt. That has quickly given way to feelings of pride and hope, as I see that this time, maybe the BLM movement is carrying momentum around USA and drawing support from around the world. This sustained protesting is unprecedented in recent times, and, sadly, George Floyd’s death may have a long lasting but positive legacy.
I have been really proud in particular of protests in Liverpool. Sadly, I couldn’t take part myself because of our family circumstances (protecting vulnerable relatives from Covid-19) but I felt like the spirit and approach of the movement in Liverpool has been beautiful. I am also proud of the global South Asian community, as we have begun to question ourselves about our own prejudices and discrimination. We are often in the same position as our fellow minorities in the West, but we generally have had a very different experience of racism, so we have had to reflect and question how we behave. I hope that we can sustain the protests and keep spotlighting racism and prejudice, because it feels like we are a pivotal moment in history, and we may have the biggest opportunity in years to change the world for future generations.
The system, and society in general, has always been against calling out racism, and therefore, it has always been easier to accept it and keep working hard. I was born and brought up in Liverpool to parents who moved here from India. They were mostly made to feel really welcome and immediately felt part of the city. Our rejection of racism, fascism and ‘the far-right’ make me proud to be from Liverpool. I have been lucky that I have very rarely experienced direct racism. But systemic racism nationally is so subtle as an undercurrent that it’s almost impossible to notice, and it is difficult to demonstrate, and this is the challenge we face today. How can we shine a light on something that has become so ingrained in society that you either don’t see it, or have become apathetic or immune to it?
From my perspective, Liverpool has work to do on our respect and understanding for diversity. Ethnic minorities represent some of the biggest, oldest and most important cultures in the world. I represent Indian arts and culture in my work, and in England our people and culture are labelled as ‘community interests’ or ‘minority interests’ and we are given platforms that are sometimes on the fringes of the mainstream. We have to work harder to find the economic argument and ‘diversity’ argument for the things we do, rather than being accepted as an integral part of society. The council and Culture Liverpool have been fantastic supporters and advocates for diversity and have worked hard to support us by ensuring festivals, events and education from diverse cultures are part of the city’s programme. But externally, the city still comes across as a western, pop, classical music city, when we represent and advocate nationally and overseas. We need to see a change in mainstream venues, organisations and businesses and their approach; cultural diversity can not only be for ticking boxes, meeting political agendas or embracing the exotic and colourful, just once in a while.
The cosmopolitan nature of the city, and, to generalise, our ability to embrace our diversity, means we are probably better prepared than most cities to have an honest and positive appreciation of slavery and its legacy. The International Slavery Museum is a brilliant example of how we might approach this. The BLM movement has really begun to wake people up to this idea and just today I’m reading that campaigners are calling for a national museum to document Britain’s history in the slave trade – well, we have one to spare! (The Guardian, Sunday 14th June). We have to teach British history better, especially in relation to the Empire, and Colonial history, and make them part of our everyday knowledge and culture.
I’ve always been impressed with the way Germany dealt with its Nazi past, and rather than trying to erase those chapters in their history, they have moved from collective guilt to European integration, virtually guaranteeing peace in Europe and preventing a return to widespread Nazism. Their past has been a history lesson, and we would do well to openly and honestly do the same. I don’t think Britain has truly moved on from the arrogance of our colonial history. Perhaps a more humble, collaborative approach to international relations, nationalism and our history would make our country progress much faster. Liverpool’s independence, openness, rejection of racism and the ‘Scouse before English’ identity suggests this city will really embrace the history of slavery and learn from it.
It is encouraging to see people and organisations declare their support for anti-racism movements and the BLM campaign. But in some cases around the country, it has appeared a political or PR move; racism or discrimination was always there, but they now have no choice but to admit it and do something about it.
Arts Council England, for example, has set an example with clear guidance and support throughout both the Coronavirus pandemic and the BLM movement, and we’re lucky to have them behind us, and I hope their statements can set an example to many others around (Henley ‘Black Lives Matter’, 6 June 2020).
The cultural sector will be one of the last to return to normal. Many artists and organisations are suffering and like others, we are working hard to sustain careers and survive, while building a legacy that survives the post-Covid world. We can use this time to learn and evolve. In the future, I would like to see the erosion of the divide between ‘Western’ classical and mainstream culture and the ‘other’ cultures of the world. Labels are harmful, and there is a challenge in representing diverse culture in Britain. Funders, venues and audiences have been, by and large, supportive of arts and culture from around the world, and this has led to cultural diversity. However, only the arts and culture that is ‘approved’ or supported by mainstream institutions has the fuel to burn brightly. This means that in the West, for instance, you will only see a very small representation of the music from India, or Africa, because it is what works for funders and venues. The old-fashioned orientalist view of the ‘exotic East’ has to give way to a genuine interest in both the traditions and innovations that are going on in arts and culture all over the world.
I have faced venue managers telling me which art, and which members of minority groups belong in their foyers and spaces. I have been the ‘diversity candidate’ in committees, with responsibility for representing the under-represented. And Milap, for instance, has taken part in ‘collaborations’ which quickly reveal a power relationship or the expectation that Indian arts ‘needs promotion and profile’ – ‘We would love to have Indian arts in our project and work with you, but we don’t have any budget to contribute’.
I see this kind of societal behaviour as part of a scale. Systemic racism is at the bottom, ingrained and part of society; racial prejudice or inequalities are the next step in the scale, followed by tokenism, and positive diversity action. At the top of my scale are where I would like to see Liverpool and Britain – systemic diversity, in which cultural diversity in the arts, education, sports, business – across all levels of society and politics – is ingrained, genuine and long-lasting.
When the cultural sector evolves in the future, I would like to see a greater emphasis on risk-taking and the welcoming of diverse voices on production and programming; we have to support it with energy, words and action. This will go a long way to helping us defeat racism, and I am sure Liverpool can lead the way in this fight.
This piece is the third of a series of features on bidolito.co.uk. Read others here.
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