Bristol is a place I’ve only visited once, but that trip left a lasting impression on me. It was in 2008, and I was going through a period of transition in my life because I had just finished college and was looking for the best university to begin my academic career. While the University of Bristol was not initially a top choice, I included it on my list as an excuse to reunite with an old childhood friend who had made the Southwestern city her new home years ago.
Unknown to me, while anxiously awaiting the arrival of my friend Sam at the bus terminal, I was standing on sacred ground that had witnessed a pivotal moment in the fight for equality and justice.
Little did I realise that a mere five years after its opening in 1958, the bus station became the epicentre of national and international attention. In a time when racial discrimination was still lawful in the UK, the unofficial “colour bar” imposed by the Bristol Omnibus Company perpetuated systemic exclusion and oppression. Afro-Caribbean and Asian individuals were routinely refused employment opportunities, barred from accessing certain goods and services, and even denied entry into various establishments.
Inspired by the civil rights movement across the Atlantic, the local Black community, supported by their White neighbours, initiated a city-wide boycott of the bus network. They vowed to end the protest only when the company abolished its segregation policies.
And this happened on 28th August 1963. While Martin Luther King Jr gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Black Bristolians were making their own strides. The general manager, Ian Patey, announced an immediate policy change that would allow for the complete integration of Bristol’s bus crews. The campaigners triumphed, much like marathon runners crossing the finish line after an exhausting race. Two years later, the British Parliament enacted the Race Relations Act, rendering “racial discrimination in public places unlawful”, and in 1968, the Race Relations Act expanded its provisions to include housing and employment.
It is, therefore, disheartening to see discrimination persist in modern times, despite arduous struggles and hard-won victories. Even more troubling, however, is the apparent casualness with which segregation is reappearing in our society, frequently under the guise of safety and comfort.
On 5th July, a play called “Tambo & Bones”, which is said to cover 300 years of African-American history, will be performed for an audience of only Black people. It’s been described as a daring and explosive rags-to-riches roast of America’s past, present, and future at the intersection of racism and capitalism. According to the Theatre Royal’s website, the “Black Out” performance will foster an environment in which an all-Black-identifying audience can experience and discuss the event – “free from the White gaze.”
Numerous events cater to specific individuals and communities based on their ethnoreligious affiliation. Events such as the London Muslim Professionals Gathering, the Eastern European Fashion Politics Evening, and even Chinese Speed Dating all aim to bring people together who share common interests, cultures, and goals. The issue is not that such places exist; the problem arises when these spaces go a step further by explicitly excluding other groups on the grounds that their presence is a source of discomfort, unease, or perceived threat.
Such defences not only betray moral principles but also reflect a cowardly attempt to mask one’s own bigotry. Exclusion based on racial identity is unequivocally wrong and constitutes racism, regardless of the existence of perceived or actual power imbalances within society. Moreover, the persistence of disparities between groups, often interpreted as benefiting the “hegemonic culture”, again does not diminish the reprehensibility or ethical impropriety of these exclusionary actions.
As Black people, it is imperative that we stop viewing historical victimhood as a central aspect of our collective identity. Holding on to this mindset provides a perpetual justification for vilifying an entire demographic and acting as if their very existence poses a serious threat to our physical, psychological, and mental well-being.
Throughout history, similar tactics have been used to fragment and destabilise entire societies, always with catastrophic consequences. We cannot continue to play the same games and expect different results in the long run. Associating with those who share your interests and culture is normal and commonplace. But the line is crossed when such association evolves into a conscious choice to single out and demonise a particular group solely based on their inherent or socially imposed characteristics. At this crucial point, it becomes necessary for us to pause and undertake a thorough and critical analysis of the motivations driving these behaviours, irrespective of the ostensibly noble justifications presented.