Black History Month – why do I care?

11 October 2021

Celebrating this year’s Black History Month (BHM) with is powerful campaign, “Proud to Be”, is an apt time for us all to consider why we (should) care about Black history and culture.

For me, BHM provides an opportunity to immerse myself in and learn more about a history and culture I know too little about, despite my love of world cultures, languages, histories and identities.  The more I learn, the more I am struck by my own ignorance and am determined to address it. 

It was only recently while reading the brilliant novel, The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett), for Kingsley Napley’s Race Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (REACH) group book club that I learned about the concept of “passing”, how far people could/would go in engaging in it and the trauma of doing so.  It seems so obvious now (how did I not know this?!), but I had no idea and, needless to say, that realisation sparked a lot of googling and research! 

The concept of code-switching, as explored in the novel The Other Black Girl (Zakiya Delila Harris) is also important and one which, although I can relate to, did not realise was a recognised “thing” with a name, until recently.  In that novel, the author makes the point that everyone has a different persona that they bring to the office (code-switching) but that code-switching is more pervasive and damaging to the individual who constantly has to switch.  That is why it is so important for workplaces to be inclusive.  So that people feel comfortable to bring their whole, authentic selves to work.

Another revelation occurred when I read a very powerful article by Shourya Agarwal entitled “There are no Black people in Africa” (I bet that got your attention!).  In it, Agarwal quotes a Nigerian co-passenger he got chatting to as saying “Africans are not black.…They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele….They are just themselves.  They are humans on the land…They don’t become black until they go to America or come to Europe.  They become black when they first land into the Western world that chooses to see them that way”.  He then goes on to highlight the insensitivity of some of the language we use in the West, such as the term “sub-Saharan Africa” which essentially clumps together a massive region of roughly 50 very different nations under a single term (similar to how the term “Black” effectively mischaracterises over a billion people into a single identity).  He gives the example of Somalia and Ivory Coast.  Two nations which are roughly as far away from each other as London and Tehran and as different as London and Tehran in terms their economy, yet both fall under the description “sub-Saharan Africa”.  We wouldn’t claim that the UK and Iran are the same, yet we have no issue doing something similar when it comes to Africa.  Reading that got me thinking about how little I know about the African continent.  Sure, I know where it is on the map and I know the names of, for example, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Somalia, etc, but can I tell you anything about those countries or their people beyond (broadly) where they are on the continent and, perhaps (at a real stretch) their capital cities?  No, I can’t.  Again, I was left frustrated at my ignorance, but hungry to learn more.

It is of note that Black history was not a topic that was spoken about in the mainstream until fairly recently (though BHM was apparently first celebrated in the UK in 1987).  BHM was not taught/celebrated in schools when I was growing up, nor was it given any real air time in the media or attention by big organisations as it is now and, at the risk of revealing my age, there was no such thing as social media or the internet back then, so that source of information simply did not exist. 

The fact that my seven-year-old daughter came home from school shouting “it’s Black History Month!” the other day because it was talked about in her school assembly, provides me with some comfort that progress has been made and that, as a society, we are heading in the right direction.  I was even happier when I saw that, out of a pile of various (mainly fiction) children’s books recently given to us by a family friend, the first one she chose to read was a book about Martin Luther King (that’s my girl!).  However, my generation (and earlier ones) need to do more to educate ourselves and to encourage the younger generations to soak up as much information as possible.

Why should we learn about Black history?

First, because Black history and culture has played a fundamental part in shaping the country in which we live.  But even if that was not the case, I believe it is important to learn about cultures and histories different to our own in order to better understand our world and fellow human beings.  I cannot see a downside to learning about and celebrating each other’s cultures. 

Also, to apply this to a work/business context (I am an employment lawyer after all), that new knowledge and understanding of other cultures breeds “cognitive diversity” (the ability to think differently about the world around us), helping us become more creative when considering solutions to complex problems.  As Matthew Syed explains in his brilliant book, Rebel Ideas, diverse thinking and diversity within teams can be incredibly powerful (this is something we feel very strongly about at Kingsley Napley).  Just as an example, he makes reference to a study which found that an increase in racial diversity of just one standard deviation within a team increased productivity by more than 25 per cent in legal services, health services and finance.

Second, knowledge and understanding are necessary to overcome the prejudice and racism that, sadly, still exist in our society.  There is no inquiry or report (yet) that can convince me that racism is not an issue in the UK, particularly when we see continued reports and findings that, even now, two in three UK finance workers from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds say they have suffered discrimination in the workplace.    

One of my favourite quotes which wonderfully sums up my own view is from the great Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Some may say this is naïve, but I do believe that hate (racism) is best fought with love and, I would add, knowledge.  It is knowledge and understanding of those who are different (unfamiliar) to us that allows us to find common ground and to be compassionate to one another, as opposed to dehumanising each other and using that to justify abhorrent treatment (as happened in history and the trauma and effects of which continue today).  To understand that our differences – our “layers of identity” - do not create a hierarchy between us, but the beautiful mosaic of colours, languages and cultures that make up our world.  Black history is an important part of that mosaic and, understanding that history and culture is what, I believe, will eventually root out the hidden prejudices that still prevail. 

For my part, I need more knowledge not only to educate myself because I am genuinely interested, but also to be better equipped to tackle prejudice effectively and to be the active anti-racist I have always claimed and wish to be. 

So, why do I care? 

I care because I love learning about cultures, histories and experiences and am very conscious of the fact that I still have so much to learn about Black history and culture.  I care because I believe knowledge is power and I want as much knowledge as possible so that I can tackle and call out prejudice with force whenever and wherever I see it (including my own prejudices).  I care because I cannot, for the life of me, understand why one would not. 

Happy Black History Month!


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Özlem Mehmet is a Professional Support Lawyer in our Employment Team. Before joining Kingsley Napley, Özlem was a Tutor and Team Leader at BPP University’s Law School, teaching on the Legal Practice Course.  She taught the Employment Law, Business Law & Practice, Corporate Finance and Equity Finance modules of the course, as well as the skills modules of Interviewing & Advising and Professional Conduct & Regulation.  She also supervised a number of Masters level projects on employment law related topics.


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