Have People of Colour Been Isolated from the COVID Narrative?

Have People of Colour Been Isolated from the COVID Narrative?

By Shazmeen Khalid

Shazmeen Khalid is a writer and blogger from Birmingham, currently based in London. Shazmeen publishes non-fiction work on the experiences of People of Colour, along with her own poetry, via her blog Misrepresented.

Isolation. For many of us, a word all too familiarly associated with the year 2020, but has it meant the same thing for everyone in the UK? 

Throughout the UK’s first lockdown, some minoritised communities felt that they were often deliberately dismissed from the COVID narrative and misrepresented by headlines and figures. Isolated, you could say, in an unfair and damaging way in a time when the world is relying on togetherness. 

From the dismissal of religious events and holidays to pejorative language shifting blame onto densely ‘ethnic’ populations in the North of England – there have been amasses of divisive and othering actions during the UK Lockdowns that have left some POC communities feeling ostracised and questioning whether they are truly represented in the decisions, rules and narratives in the UK throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Isolation or Discrimination?

Earlier in the year, Muslim communities across the world experienced a very different holy month of Ramadan – one without communal prayers, no family and friend Iftars and no community events. It was an Eid-Ul-Fitr like no other, I remember sitting on my front drive with some chairs on the pavement – creating a rota with my cousins to stand and chat outside at different times. Eid Al-Adha seemed more promising, with eased lockdown measures in the summer. However, simultaneously, SAGE reported that Eid could be seen as ‘potentially problematic,’ and noted further (July 9) that they were identifying Covid hotspots as ‘the Midlands and North of England…in areas with deprivation, high-density living conditions and significant BAME (particularly South Asian) communities.’ 

To add to the narrative surrounding Eid already being divisive – Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, announced ‘from midnight tonight [incidentally the night of Eid] we are banning households from meeting up indoors’ in Manchester, and parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. 

Many pointed out the snap decision announced by Hancock dismissed the significance of religious events and deliberately targeted harsh lockdown measures at BAME communities. This was further amplified by a statement made by Conservative MP Craig Whittaker who said ‘It is the BAME communities not taking this seriously enough,’ and has since come to light again after PM Boris Johnson gave the green light for households to meet during the Christmas holidays at a time where cases are exceptionally higher than in June. Are exceptions and go-aheads only reserved for occasions that are considered quintessentially  British – and if that’s the case, are Eid, Diwali, Navratri and the human rights of Black people not British enough to be held in the same light as VE Day, remembrance day and Christmas?

Language has a big role to play in inclusivity and exclusion, and it has been evident that such pejorative language was often reserved for events and occasions involving people of colour. During VE Day celebrations, news outlets showed images and live broadcasts of gatherings and street parties – which were praised as good spirit. 

However, the sentiment was not shared for Black Lives Matter protests in June, which were brandished with ‘hooliganism and thuggery’ by home secretary, Priti Patel. 92.7% of surveyed young people in National Youth Trends agreed strongly that they care about the problems that the world is facing today, and 88.9% stated that their reason for wanting to take action on an issue was wanting to make change. Despite there being many social issues, young people today try to do as much as they can to have their voices heard and to effect change. 

92.7% of surveyed young people in National Youth Trends agreed strongly that they care about the problems that the world is facing today

However, it is questionable whether these values upheld by young people in the UK are equally esteemed by the governing bodies that make key decisions and rules on our behalf. 

It seems that throughout the pandemic, the values of young people and people of colour have been isolated from public decisions. It begs the question as to whether those of us referred to as ‘minorities’ are often intentionally minoritised. It’s difficult to phrase representation at times when the people in charge are arguably more diverse but are still failing to hear the voices of the people in need of genuine and authentic representation. Simply having people of colour in the cabinet does not equate to meeting the needs of the people who are allegedly represented and considered. It’s all fits of giggles hearing PM Boris Johnson saying ‘Gulab Jamun’ in his Diwali message, but a bitter sweet message for those unable to observe Diwali celebrations with family, only to be told that within the space of a month, restrictions will be eased for Christmas. This feeling of unfairness stems from a blame-shifting culture that positions decision makers as important while simultaneously othering young people and people of colour. 

Blame-shifting onto those who aren’t usually involved at all in decisions, campaigns and narratives automatically reduces their capacity to put forward their ideas, knowledge and suggestions – or to have their values represented in an authentic and non-tokenistic manner. 

Earlier in the year, the UK government released a campaign encouraging those in the arts to ‘retrain’ to learn a new trade. The campaign poster focalising a young, female, black ballet dancer was quick to cause uproar after many pointed out the numerous hypocrisies of the poster. The caption boldly read ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet),’ an image taken by a photographer, a headline and font likely engineered by a graphic designer and the poster circulated – likely through a visual communications and marketing team. Again, this output diminished the voices of the people it depicted and isolated their sense of personal agency to impose a campaign. One which encouraged natively creative Gen Z to abandon what they are good at for the perceived benefit of the economy. You can read more about Gen Z and the importance of creativity here

This ‘isolation’ from public campaigns hasn’t just occurred during the pandemic. A similar incident occurred when an anti-knife-crime campaign was launched by the government in summer 2019. The #KnifeFree campaign launched across chicken shops in the UK, branding chicken boxes with the campaign. Not only did this target knife crime to a demographic, the Policing Minister specifically referred to ‘young people’ and their behaviour in need of correction, without addressing the pressing social concerns such as austerity that are closely associated to knife related crime. Once again the language used to identify a group had completely overlooked those actually in it. 

Fatima became an untold story of an aspiring and talented ballet dancer (who wasn’t even called Fatima!), the #KnifeFree chicken boxes became a telling tale of young people and their behaviour  – and it was up to the people who felt ostracised to once again re-tell and correct narratives rather than inherently having their voices heard, valued and respected.

We care about our identities, their inclusion and involvement, and we also care about social issues and what’s going on in the world – but seldom get the chance to communicate these all together outside of online platforms. 32.78% of all surveyed young people felt they didn’t have any form of authentic representation. Nearly half of all the people of colour who were surveyed, said the same. 37.8% of those surveyed felt it important to see more representation in government. Young people have to get more than a mere mention, as do people of colour – in workplaces, in government and in a global pandemic, we can’t always be expected to challenge decisions that should have inherently and inclusively represented us in the first place. Better yet, to allow space for us to influence decisions rather than have them made for us. It’s incredibly difficult to empower the values, skills and ideas that UK youth hold without handing them the mic at any point. When making decisions on behalf of young people and people of colour, it’s not just important to include them – it’s essential.

This article was written by Shazmeen Khalid for Beatfreeks. It draws on data collected by National Youth Trends from 2000 young people across the UK. You can read more about their thoughts, feelings and innovations by clicking here, and having a mooch about.

Image by Alex Motoc

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