The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25 May, 2020, has justifiably sparked outrage across the world and has sparked protests in many countries as a part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Our idea for the Displaced Voices journal developed in late 2019 as a response to the work we were undertaking with the Living Refuge Archive project, part of wider activities documenting refugee and migration experiences with the Refugee Archive collections at the University of East London. Little did we realise that our plan to launch the Journal during Refugee Week 2020, would coincide with Mr. Floyd’s tragic killing (BBC News, 2020a) and ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important for me to acknowledge my own white privilege at the start of this article. Whilst I have been active for over 17 years promoting refugee rights and rights of minority voices to be heard both within the archive and also wider society, it is important to acknowledge the privilege associated with the colour of my own skin, and the opportunities this presents me and the need to continually re-assess and to self-educate to help inform my own awareness of anti-racist issues and to inform my own practice within the archival space.
COVID-19 has naturally been at the forefront of many people’s thoughts across the world, with the impact of the virus itself combined with the lockdown; economic and job uncertainties and the closing of borders across the world. One of the major factors linking COVID-19 with the events in Minneapolis has been the apparent disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Minority Ethnic communities locally, nationally and internationally. A recent report by Public Health England (Jones and Wilson, 2020b) highlighted how ethnic minority communities within the United Kingdom had between a ten and fifty percent more likely to die from COVID-19 when compared to the white British population, This is reflected in our own home London Borough of Newham, where the University of East London is based, where recent statistics show that Newham has the highest recorded death rate associated with COVID-19 within England and Wales. Newham just happens to have the most diverse recorded population in the country. Quoted in the Newham Recorder, ONS Head of Health Analysis Nick Stripe was quoted as saying, “General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.” (King, 2020)
However, there is a danger to reading these kind of statistics at face value, and a risk that we potentially overlook the wider implications of these reports. Another of our academic colleagues here at the University of East London, Winston Morgan, in an article for The Guardian Newspaper, has succinctly argued that the arguments and “data” linking higher death rates from COVID-19 to genetic differences between host and ethnic groups, is misleading. Morgan argues that whilst the death rates are apparently higher for ethnic minority groupings, this is not due to any genetic susceptibility. “The reality is there is no evidence that the genes used to divide people into races are linked to how are immune system responds to viral infections.”(Morgan, 2020) As with the case of George Floyd, the more insidious undertone to these numbers is the reality that the root causes are due to “how our societies our organised.” (Morgan, 2020) The result, Morgan suggests, lies at the door or structural racism (BBC News, 2020c) towards the disadvantaged communities within our society. The evidence, Morgan argues, indicates that whilst the coronavirus may not discriminate between races, our own in-built structural racisms within society may help focus the virus towards the more disadvantaged within our communities.
“The continued prevalence of ideas about race today … shows how these ideas can mutate to provide justification for the power structures that have ordered our society since the 18th century.” (Morgan, 2020)
The impact and legacy of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota for the #BlackLivesMatter movement has given us all time to reflect both as a society and also in terms of our own practice in relation to racism and how we can make our own work more inclusive. Cultural heritage has an important role to play within this wider debates and discussions, as we have seen with the dismantling of a number of statutes both locally and nationally associated historically with the slave trade. Here in the United Kingdom, examples are clear with the dismantling of the statute of Edward Colston, a merchant involved in the Atlantic slave trade, in Bristol (Cook, 2020) or the statue of Robert Milligan, ironically located outside of the Museum of London Docklands in West India Docks. In regard to the later, the Museum of London Docklands is quoted as saying: “the monument is part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity.” (BBC News, 2020b)
This has us impacted us on locally, with the University of East London where the Refugee Council Archives are based, taking down the statue of the philanthropist Sir John Cass, who established the Sir John Cass’s Foundation in 1748 with proceeds from his engagement with the slave trade and agreeing to re-name our `Sir John Cass School of Education and Communities.’ (University of East London, 2020) This is a reminder to all of us, how much do we really know about the context of our own institutions, or the financial endowments that support them? How many statues or other cultural icons do we walk past on a regular basis, never thinking to stop and ask who does the statute represent and why is it here? We all need to reflect on our own personal journeys, and consider how we can respond to and challenge the inequalities around us, or call out our own white privilege? How can encourage and support communities to empower themselves and enable their voices to be told, and heard, in their own ways. As two UEL academics eloquently argue, “Most universities have done very little to acknowledge and dismantle the institutional and structural racism. (Jones and Wilson, 2020b)
UK heritage membership bodies have to come together to co-write a Joint Statement of Intent or the Heritage Sector with the aim of taking “responsibility for ending racism in the heritage sector.” (Archives and Records Association, 2020) Whilst for many this has been a long time in coming and only scratches the surface in terms of wider issues of diversity and inclusion within the heritage sector, at this represents an albeit belated step in the right direction, challenging what many see as entrenchment of racism within our nation’s historical discourse. The UK National Archives has also been swift in publishing its own message in relation to racial equality and the challenges faced by the archival sector in making sure that archives act as a tool for empowerment for all the communities we represent. The National Archives highlight the need for an “inclusive archive [that] builds trust and tears down barriers to access, participation and understanding.” (James, 2020)
The Archives sector, in the United Kingdom at least, has long been challenged by its own lack of diversity in terms of its membership, not helped by traditionally requiring a postgraduate Master’s degree to enter the profession and the associated notions of white privilege that go with that. Lurraine Jones and Marcia Wilson (2020) highlight the challenges that still face university students from a BAME background in achieving parity of attainment at University and the need for the Universities to be more responsive and engage effectively in methods that will enable these students to reach their potential within the University environment.
There are wider issues to for the role of archives within society, as has been discussed heavily in recent days within the archival sector. Elizabeth Oxborrow-Curran (2020) has argued I think fairly that as a profession, we have failed to shift the paradigm away from our traditional user groups being white and middle class, whilst also failing to effectively engage with BAME communities. One of Elizabeth’s points which resonated with the civic engagement and outreach that we have attempted to undertake on behalf of our refugee archive collections, and more widely with community-based projects in East London, is that much of this work is dependent on project funding for implementation, and once the funding runs out, the engagement stops. As Elizabeth eloquently reflects in her email, “many archive services find it hard to engage with their own CEO, let alone diverse communities outside their normal ecosystem.” (Oxborrow-Cowan, 2020)
Oxborrow-Curran argues that archival repositories have generally failed to attract substantive collections from BAME communities, and as mentioned already, our user-base remains predominantly white and middle-class, thereby not encouraging BAME communities to visit our collections or to donate their materials (2020). This has been an area of concern for us in terms of the Refugee Archives that we hold, how we document community-based voices and the challenges of enabling these communities to document and preserve their own narratives and testimonies. One notable success has been the opportunity to support The Wai Yin Society in Manchester in a successful Heritage Lottery Fund project entitled Crossing the Borders which documented the history of the Chinese community in Manchester. Equally, we have been faced with challenges. At the time the Coronavirus struck, we were working with Hackney Archives to support the Hackney Chinese Community Services in attempting to rescue and preserve the An Viet Foundation Archive, which had been heavily water-damaged after the building it was located in was taken over by squatters and the Archive dumped outside on the roof of the building. At the current time, we are in limbo awaiting a time when we can resume this work and undertake a conservation survey on the materials. We were also hoping to do some work with the Archive of the Society of Ukrainian Women, which is currently based in Leicester, but again this project is now in limbo until such time as we can get back to Campus and start operating a semblance of a normal service.
At the recent History Acts 22 online event on Archiving A Crisis (Beckett, 2020), I spoke about our activist work with the Living Refugee Archive and the importance of making an space that communities could feel comfortable in making their voices and community histories available in. One of the core reasons for establishing the Living Refugee Archive was to help begin the process of making our collections more accessible beyond the traditional archival space, to help democratise the archival service that we offer and to support and help communities to engage with our collections.
Our ongoing work with archives of displacement and the need to give agency and voice to the under-documented narratives of migration, has reinforced an understanding that displaced communities continue de be de-historicised in wider historical discourse, which is increasingly in danger from more nationalistic interpretations of our past. The impact of the Hostile Environment, Brexit and now Covid-19 threaten to heighten already negative discourses on displacement issues, engendering further potential barriers for under-documented communities to engage with their past and to reflect upon their own collective memory. It is important therefore they we continue to offer independent and participatory spaces for engagement on these issues. We want to be Displaced Voices to be an open accessible participatory space for multi-modal approaches to storytelling and for the documenting of experiences, in a way that is accessible for both the writer and the reader, whilst attempting to avoid the scenario of displaced voices being written and stylised for a particular audience.
We want to challenge the nations that the only displaced voice that is acceptable, is the one that focuses on a story of trauma and dispossession to engender a sense of sympathy from the reader. We want both our journal and are archival collections to represent a site of agency and empowerment, where communities feel comfortable engaging with the materials that we hold in an open and accessible fashion, where there story will be listened too and where it can act as a source of inspiration and empowerment for others. In the words of the Manchester Refugee Support Network archive: “you might think there is something contradictory about a refugee archive: archives are the permanent repositories of physical history, whilst refugees are transitory and homeless – those who have lost their history.” (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, 2016) A decolonial space that facilities communities p curate and tell/re-tell their stories in their own words and to facilitate the preservation of, and access to, their own heritage. There has been “much talk about “decolonising” collections; not delating old tellings of stories, but enabling communities to produce and curate their own narratives.” (Islam, 2019)
We need to explore the complex interplay of refugee stories and wider historical narratives, which often seem to de-historicise refugee movements, thereby relegating refugees to the mere flotsam of history. Do refugees always “present as victims, marginalised and erased from history, or as deliberate agents? How do refugees become historians (or indeed archivists) of their own displacement, seeking to gain the recognition of each other and of posterity.” (‘About the Project’, 2018) Our civic engagement and outreach work to date with the Refugee Council Archive at UEL and the Living Refugee Archive in conjunction with wider external activism has been rewarded with external networking and partnerships helping to facilitate the preservation of community heritage and new participatory approaches to accessing cultural heritage. Collaborative projects like Crossing the Border (Steel, 2018), a Heritage Lottery Funded project developed and run by the Wai Yin Society in Manchester to document the history of the Chinese community in Manchester shows the potential for collaboration between archival repositories and BAME communities. Displaced communities have a right to history and for their cultural heritage to be documented and made accessible. Our own oral history work with refugees in East London has highlighted the importance of documenting displaced voices in terms of empowerment and agency and as a “project of human rights.” (Hashem and Dudman, 2016). We hope that our work will continue to act as a conduit for further discussions and engagement on these issues, and consider how archival collections can better represent the voices of the displaced and under-documented groups within our communities.