The oil painting from Kenya.

Do you just want brownie points for being an ally, or are you willing to look deeper within yourself?

Before I heard this line, by Abdullah Adekola at the Outspoken Black History Month Special, I thought I was OK. You know what I mean by OK, don’t you?

  1. Accepting of everyone regardless of their background.

That’s what I mean by “OK”.

Do you just want brownie points for being an ally, or are you willing to look deeper within yourself?

Three years ago I travelled to Kenya.

I sang, I danced and I celebrated with the most extraordinary souls I’d ever met. I hoped, I prayed and I dreamed like I never have before. I saw dignity in devastation and magic in mayhem.

It was such an adventure — all the more fulfilling because I felt completely accepted by local people (in spite of all the reasons I might not be). I felt more connected — on a fundamental level — with Kenyan artists, teachers, and matatu drivers, than I did with some of my own family.

I returned from Kenya with an unstoppable sense of possibility, humanity, and understanding.

Along with a scarf for my mum, a banana I’d accidentally packed, and some incense sticks, I’d brought home an oil painting of Masai tribesmen — drawn by a street-side artist in Nairobi. In the painting, the red dresses of the Masai figures blur into the tree trunks and long grasses of a landscape owned by lions, elephants, and hippopotamus.

I’d bought the painting on my last day in Kenya as a reminder of one of the most memorable experiences I’d had on the trip. In the Masai Mara, I’d taken part in a tribal ceremony. They’d dressed me in a red dress — like the ones in the painting — and invited me to join in a tradition which involved jumping up and down. It was fun and freeing.

I moved house in the first spring of COVID. I was unpacking some boxes of pictures and found the oil painting from Kenya. I thought about hanging it up, as a pleasant memory of my trip of a lifetime. But I hesitated.

Do you just want brownie points for being an ally, or are you willing to look deeper within yourself?

Buying this painting had given me joy. A naïve joy. Today, it could be a vulgar metaphor of what I represent: a white British man furnishing his property with a painting of an African tribe which his country helped to decimate during its (oh, be honest, say ‘our’) OUR colonisation of Kenya, and countless other countries.

Through this prism I’m another lazy white woke guy who reduces tribal cultures into items to decorate a home with, and thinks he is doing enough because he believes everyone to be equal and, well, look how bad some guys are.

The historian David Olusoga, who was born in Nigeria, grew up in the north-east of England. A pack of white thugs smashed their windows and, one night the following winter, tauntingly shook the boards which replaced them — terrorising him, his parents and siblings. It makes me upset to even only attempt to imagine how damaging that must be to a child — to be hated for something you cannot change, hated for what you are, by people you fear.

As David and his family were leaving the neighbourhood, they noticed some graffiti on the side of their house. It read: National Front 1, Blacks 0.

Do you just want brownie points for being an ally, or are you willing to look deeper within yourself?

I don’t need reassurance about being a nice guy. Instead I want to reassure you that I am doing everything I can to: 1) see the barriers which people of colour face, and 2) help break them down. Wanting to understand something more isn’t enough to make you a nice guy. And what I understand is this: most of the obstacles people of colour face will always be invisible to me — no matter how hard I squint to identify even just the outlines of them.

We all play a part in history — and I am determined to make mine a positive one. I aim to do this by learning what urgently needs to be done (structurally and otherwise) and helping that happen — not simply by mixing with people with backgrounds different to mine, and vice-versa, and thinking that’s the best I can do.

The only evidence of racism I used to see was the active, defiant, frothing-at-the-mouth kind. Now I know the picture is much bigger, more complex, and forever evolving. Given the perspective-enhancing events of 2020, I’ll no longer be stupid enough to believe that racial harmony is the end game. The struggle for peace, justice, and equality is eternal. Even at the best of times there will be history, undertones, and collective memory standing firmly in the way. Context is king — and it’s growing all the time.

But I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t want to see the world as one of boundaries in which cultures can’t interact and be mutually celebrated within a honest, respectful, empathetic context. That’s why the oil painting is still important to me.

At the end of the day, what ultimately powers me in this life is the belief that we really do live in a beautiful world.

A complicated world, but a beautiful one.

Do you just want brownie points for being an ally, or are you willing to look.

Deeper. Within. Yourself?

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