I first encountered the activist sense of the word woke on Twitter – used by a young gay man whose partnership with an ally has quite simply revolutionised LGBT-inclusive education in Scotland (and provided the followers of the campaign with a rather touching bromance). I don’t feel qualified to judge whether he’s woke or not, but he’s certainly not asleep! My next encounter with this usage was on watching the Netflix series Dear White People – which if not its origin has certainly popularised the usage. The series follows on from the 2014 film of the same name and it was, I must admit, at first a disappointment. The film was so punchy and I didn’t mind the very obvious lectures in Black American history scripted as conversation because I was learning things I didn’t know in an enjoyable way – and that’s good education in my book. The series continued with this style but it seemed at first to rather run out of steam plotwise and instead to spend a lot of screentime on the beautiful body of the patrician Black character Troy – with accompanying gasps of pleasure from his female entourage.
Then everything changed. In a horrible scene, when all the previous action (two men pushing each other around, in the middle of a lively mixed-race party, in an argument over who can use ‘the N-word’) stops; all that can be heard is the terrified breath of a Black man as he slowly reaches for his student ID, pleading with the two White Campus Police to keep their fingers off the trigger of their guns pointed at him. I’ve described this character simply as ‘a Black man’ because that is all that these trigger-happy cops see. In a push-about between US and THEM, the White cops totally ignore the combatant whose skin colour they share, other and ostracise and are prepared to execute this beautiful young man whose intelligence is already established on campus, whose activism is unselfishly motivated by knightly service to his lady love (currently attached to a White guy) and whose only crime was to insist that an insult re-appropriated by his community should not be repeated by those outside it.
This series, this film, and these kinds of killings only happen in the US of course. And everyone knows that Americans are crazy. So here in Britain, and especially in Scotland, we don’t need to think about it. Because it doesn’t happen here.
I wish that were true, rather than being something that I tell myself because the truth is so inconvenient. As inconvenient as the thought that Cressida Dick was promoted to head the Metropolitan Police after (denying) ordering the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and that the unnamed officer who shot this unarmed man five times in the head (only following orders) in a tube train in front of terrified passengers – did so not because he had run in terror, nor because he was wearing a bulky jacket, or texting, or changing buses in a rush to get to work, or even because he was a person of colour but because the head of the Metropolitan Police and the unnamed officer and many of the White cops in the UK and UK Borders officers are violently, murderously, racist.
But in Scotland we know that these kinds of killings only happen in London where everyone is crazy. Or Birmingham perhaps. Or Leeds. Not in Glasgow. I know that we’re not racist in Glasgow. Especially not in Glasgow’s West End where I work with international students and used to live. And not even in Royston, East End, fondly known by my father’s generation (growing up there) as ‘the Garngad’. Home of the displaced Irish, they famously raided the local dump and rained down blocks and bedsteads on the Orange Walk when they dared to change their route – and didn’t do again. I laughed at that story. I didn’t think what it would be like to be at the receiving end.
I didn’t think because it’s inconvenient. Scotland needs self-confidence, self-determination. We don’t need contrary voices. Like that of my Iranian friend who lives in Royston and tells me that it’s ‘the Irish’ who are the worst racists. Because I can hide my ethnicity in several envelopes. When it suits me, I’m European, then British (rarely does that suit me!) then Scottish, then Irish. My surname isn’t Scots and neither is most of my ancestry a generation or so back. Scots Catholics feel about Ireland the way Tolkien’s elves feel about the lands beyond the Sundering Seas. We treasure the Emerald Isle. Just don’t ask us to live there.
So when my Nigerian boyfriend told me he’d narrowly escaped being beaten up by 15 White youths, in Royston, I was annoyed. He’s 6 foot 1, plays mid-field defence in football (soccer), as well as being an intelligent College student devoted to helping asylum-seekers, he’s currently the most handsome and the fittest man on the face of the Earth (I’ve checked). What business has he to go around Glasgow almost getting himself beaten up?
And when he told me that his friend, on another occasion, had not escaped. That he’d dragged himself, bleeding, into his highrise flat. And lain there for three days. Because he was an asylum-seeker. And didn’t have free access to medical care. In the UK. Where everyone, supposedly, has free access to medical care. I started arguing.
And then I looked it up. It’s true. People seeking asylum in the UK are being refused free access to medical care. Even though this is illegal.
Somehow his friends got to him and somehow got him into A & E.
Where he died.
Racist people who look like me and my racist country governed by people who look like me contrived to kill a man who looked like my boyfriend.
People die. Black people die. All the time. We, dear White people, are killing them.
My friend Kelvin, who runs a church where everyone is welcome, preached a sermon on Sunday (6th August 2017) about the Transfiguration. You can watch the video clip under Latest Sermons. Kelvin mentioned many things: Moses as liberator of slaves; Elijah as prophet of the oppressed; anti-Semitism in the Labour Party; our image of God; Jesus not as enthroned King but revealed in love. And I recalled the reading, from Matthew 17: 1-9. The disciples are afraid at what they see…“but Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and do not be afraid.’ And when they opened their eyes, they saw no-one but Jesus.”
I once asked a Black Caribbean friend what White people could do to help Black people best. Her answer was simple: “Love us”. At the time, I thought it a rather impractical answer. I don’t now.
When we are touched by love, when we are woke from our fear and open our eyes to behold our fellow human beings in truth. What shining glory is before us, transfigured?