Interview with Katie Finnegan-Clarke from Countering Colston, Colston Collective Liberation and The Collective Liberation Project

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Katie Coutering is one of the driving forces behind the Countering Colston campaign in the English city Bristol. Edward Colston was one of the most powerful and  prominent slave traders of the 17th century, yet his person and legacy are still being celebrated publicly, as he brought great wealth to the city. He even has statues all over Bristol and several institutions named after him. Countering Colston pleads to remember the true history related to the man, which is first and foremost one of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and exploitation. And they insist on removing all the names and monuments referring to Colston, because they are constant and often re-traumatising reminders of inhumanity towards people of African origin. The campaign fits in the larger fight for a decolonised, egalitarian society of Colston Collective Liberation and The Collective Liberation Project. In this context, Coutering gives lots of educational workshops and consultancy concerning white privilege and white supremacy.

 

“[W]e managed to get Colston Hall, which is the main music venue in Bristol, to pledge they will change their name when they reopen after their renovation works finish.”

 

“Countering Colston is a collective of academics, activists, a city councilor and there is also someone of the actual board of Colston Hall. A group of radical historians did a lot of research about what slave trader Edward Colston actually did and uncovered the details. The organisation was set up as the latest formation of this campaign. So the fight has been going on for years. The earliest known resistance against him dates back to 1912. Massive Attack, Bristol’s most famous rock band, refused to play in Colston Hall. There have been discussions and debates about this for years, but we managed to come together as a collective. I work for a campaigning organisation, so I have professional campaigning experience. I created a lot of the infrastructure, so we would be able to go more public and we managed to get Colston Hall, which is the main music venue in Bristol, to pledge they will change their name when they reopen after their renovation works finish. They will reopen in 2020 with a new name and that’s a huge thing, because it’s a 150 years old and it’s Bristol’s most prestigious music venue, so that is just great.

 

“[In Bristol] there are lots of ceremonies celebrating Colston and Colston’s life: we went to his grave every year, we wore his favourite flower, there are statues of him all over the school grounds.”

 

In the 17th century Colston ran the Royal African Company, which oversaw most of the triangle trade. He also was governour for five years, but he gained all his wealth and power by being one of the most prominent slave traders back in his time. He was from Bristol and was part of the society of the Merchant Venturers. My connection to all this is that I went to Colston’s Girls’ School. There are lots of ceremonies celebrating Colston and Colston’s life: we went to his grave every year, we wore his favourite flower, there are statues of him all over the school grounds. There’s the Merchant Ventures headquarters where pupils go to sing and they have a box of nails and hair of him, so it feels like more of a ‘cult of Colston’ than a normal school. It’s totally normalised in Bristol as well. We used to do all these ceremonies during all these years and around the age of fourteen or fifteen I found out how he made his money, because they never ever mentioned it. They just said he was a very charitable man. Because of this revelation I had this massive crisis and that was the beginning of my politicisation.

 

“There are these really great posters though, that say “Everything he gave to Bristol, he stole from enslaved Africans.””

 

Colston was important for Bristol because he made so much money and acquired a lot of power: he sat in a lot of school councils, he gave a lot of money to the city, etcetera. Bristol wasn’t a very rich place and they welcomed his money fondly. But then the Merchant Venturers have kept him alive. The statues were erected a hundred years after he died. Now he represents something to the Merchant Venturers and they are still very powerful in the city. George Ferguson, who was the last mayor of Bristol, who’s really right-wing in lots of ways, was a Merchant Venturer. They have a lot of money, influence and power. People are scared of speaking out about Colston, because they are worried about their job prospects, because they are so powerful. They run so many charities, schools… There are these really great posters though, that say “Everything he gave to Bristol, he stole from enslaved Africans.”

 

This campaign involves both white and black people, they’re about 50/50. The older white men see the whole issue more as something around class, and they hate the Merchant Venturers and they are focused on history being presented correctly when we talk about the Merchant Ventures and Colston. Other people involved are female artists of colour, who talk a lot about their ancestors and about being re-traumatised seeing Colston’s statue everywhere. We managed to form our group as a loose collective of autonomous people. So people do what they want to do and but we also manage to make things happen as a group.

 

The discussion about the name change of Colston Hall had been going on for years. I think the real reason they changed it now is because they want to sell the name. They are spending ten million pounds or something on redoing the hall, making it more fancy. And I think they have a gap in their budget, so they want to sell the name. So it will probably be ‘Virgin Megastores Hall’ or ‘Vodaphone Hall’ or something. But I think that the win is that they said that the reason why they are changing the name is because of Edward Colston and because of what he did and it’s about rectifying history. That’s the big win. There is someone of Countering Colston who has put herself on the board of the hall. She’s an amazing black woman, and she joined the board to push the agenda. She’s been a huge influence on their decision-making. Also, I set up a petition, we did a lot of social media stuff, created a website, put a lot of things together.

 

“We elected our first black mayor and after a while he came out and said: “Yes my ancestors were enslaved and I find it really offensive that Colston is part of that narrative,” that had a big impact.”

 

Here in Bristol, we also have a Colston primary school and we have teachers coming to teachers’ conferences and talking about it. Suddenly the whole idea had its momentum, there was like a big rush and all things were aligned at the right time. It’s difficult to know how much we influenced the momentum. I wrote out a strategy, and we started doing protests outside of Colston Hall, started doing peaceful demonstrations, handing out flyers, the face of the statue has been painted white and there is a plaque that has been added that tells the story about what he did in the slave trade. The conversation was already there, it was just about creating just a bit extra, pushing it over the edge a little bit. Also, we elected our first black mayor and after a while he came out and said: “Yes, my ancestors were enslaved and I find it really offensive that Colston is part of that narrative,” that had a big impact.

 

“[T]here are many Colston things around here: Colston street, Colston tower, Colston schools. I want the renaming of them to be part of a healing process and recognition.”

 

In the future there are several things we want to see changed and renamed because there are many Colston things around here: Colston street, Colston tower, Colston schools. I also want the renaming of them to be part of a healing process and recognition. Also one of my main targets as well is the ceremonies schools do to celebrate his life because these schoolchildren are being brainwashed, clear and simple. So we went down to the main ceremony last year and we handed out flyers to the children that said the truth about Colston and some of them refused to do it, for example a group of Muslim girls, so that was really cool. That is my objective: to correct history and to see the conversation going. But other people’s goals are reparations: they want to start a conversation about this, which I totally support.

 

“For me, the main outcome is the conversation […] where Bristol’s wealth came from and how that continues to impact race relations within the city. Because Bristol is also the most race segregated city of the UK.”

 

Some people of colour are actually saying that they don’t agree with renaming things or taking things away, they just want them reframed. So they don’t want Colston Hall to be stopped being called Colston Hall, they just want for example a huge exhibition about the slave trade in the Colston Hall. Some people want to keep it as a reminder, but for me, that is whitewashing. For a lot of people it is triggering and re-traumatising. For me, the main outcome is the conversation, building momentum, having this conversation where Bristol’s wealth came from and how that continues to impact race relations within the city. Because Bristol is also the most race segregated city of the UK and there are very poor areas, like Saint Paul’s for example, a famous area where lots of people of colour live, even though it’s right next to Stokes Croft, which is a very yuppy white area, literally a street away, but with a very different tradition.

 

I helped organising this feminist music festival in 2015 and we invited a black feminist punk band to come and play in London. They had a horrendous time, because we invited them to play in this really white punk pub, and there were lots of white people with dreadlocks and there were some of them wearing this stupid T-shirt, saying “I’d never be a slave.” It was really a hostile environment for them and they had a really shit time, so they publicly called us out on Facebook, saying “Before inviting us to play, make sure you create a safe environment for us,” they were really shocked by the general level of ignorance. They were surprised about people just haven’t explored the white privilege theory, that they didn’t know about white supremacy culture. So because of that, we started a Facebook group called ‘The white privileged learning group‘ and started exchanging articles, tried to create a space where people could ask questions, having a place where you could learn. Another thing that this band said is that they didn’t want to go through the process of educating white people, they were like “you all go off and just learn, teach yourselves.” Back in Bristol I started to organise these meet-up groups, so like sixteen people came by to my house and we had different sessions. It was based on ‘feminist sharing circles’ that we used to go to in Brighton. So it was basic the same idea: you have articles and you prepare the session and in the session you explore it through different exercises, have discussions. I do co-counselling, what’s a lot like spaces for active listing, space to talk, but also to ‘shake it off’, crying, laughing, whatever, it’s called ’emotional discharge’, which is not a very nice word, but we integrated that as well.

 

[W]e are asked by a local charity to come in and write a report about the whiteness of their organisation and about what the barriers of diversity are, because they are ‘stuck’ in their white bubble and don’t know how to get out of it.”

 

The meeting groups went really well, were really intense, but there was a lot of interest! And then I met Camille Barton, who’s a woman of colour from London, who moved to Bristol. She’s a dancer and a facilitator, she’s amazing. So we started to work together and now, this autumn, we are going to do workshops all over the country and it’s been crazy, lots of people have been in contact, wanting workshops on white supremacy and white privilege. So we do workshops, we do consultancy, we are asked by a local charity to come in and write a report about the whiteness of their organisation and about what the barriers of diversity are, because they are ‘stuck’ in their white bubble and don’t know how to get out of it.

 

This weekend we did a ‘train-the-trainers’ and people came from all over the country. We trained them and they are going to deliver the materials that we’ve developed. They are trained on delivering these ‘meet-up groups’. We did four sessions in a cycle and the first is ‘Introduction to white privilege‘, the second is about whiteness and how it functions, like white fragility, white silence, white gays and strategies for resilience. The third session is white supremacy in institutions and climate change. The fourth one is about authentic white alliance. The name ‘Collective Liberation’ links into stuff that’s happening in America, so we are also being mentored by Paul Kivel and we really recommend his book Uprooting racism.

 

“[R]ace is a social construct, but it’s a very real and important social construct and it stopped you form being able to interact with everyone in a human way like we’ve been taught. We’ve absorbed racism […].”

 

I suppose that a lot of what we talk about is ‘whiteness’, in the same way that patriarchy oppresses men, is the same way that race is a social construct, but it’s a very real and important social construct and it stopped you from being able to interact with everyone in a human way like we’ve been taught. We’ve absorbed racism, which teaches us that some people are less human than others and it’s just like that in itself, stops us from being able to exist and interact in an authentic way with people.

 

One of our exercises is that we get people to say “I am white” three times and then people like ‘crumble’. Then we talk about why that is and we do a lot of emotional support. But it says “whiteness is everywhere and it is so influential, but white people are taught not to see it.” Basically, it makes white people a bit stupid, but is all about being able to observe your thoughts. The other day I was walking down the street and a young black guy came towards me and I immediately put my phone in my pocket and I was immediately thinking “Oh my god, that was such a racist reflex!”, but it’s also about self-compassion and being like “Wow, I have been so brainwashed into this white supremacist way of thinking.” And that’s not so surprising because the school system, the government, the media, your family, everything has been teaching you that basically white people are successful and safe. That will not necessarily go away, but we want you to observe it and proactively unlearn it, it’s a lifelong learning process I think.

 

“All white people benefit from white supremacy culture and therefore we are responsible and we are actively picking in ourselves, in our workplaces, families, everywhere we have influence.”

 

The word ‘diversity’ is a really tricky word. It is so vague, it doesn’t necessarily means ‘anti-racist’, it means like ‘a diverse group of people’, like there is someone in a wheelchair, there are some women. So I really struggle with that word. I’m trying to become less racist and we are talking with organisations about whiteness, and trying to make them fight white supremacy, rather than to support it. Because you either do one of the other. And you cannot start to do that work in the outer world or let bring people in until you have done a lot of work internally as a group.

 

White supremacy culture is also a word that surfaces several times, concretely it is a historically based institution that perpetrated the system of exploitation and oppression of continent nations and people of colour by white and nations of the European continent. So basically it’s historically based and kept alive by the institutions (schools, labour market…) that we live in, in the UK and probably across Europe. So we are kind of moving away from the idea that ‘that person who is a racist, we have to stop him from being racist and therefor we have to beat them up’ or like ‘that person is racist because they said this thing to that person in the street’. But that’s a distraction. What we want to talk about is the kind of overarching institutions that we live in.

 

That’s why we talk about the white supremacy culture, but not like we are not a part of it. All white people benefit from white supremacy culture and therefor we are responsible and we are actively picking in ourselves, in our workplaces, families, everywhere we have influence. We also take the compassionate activism model, it is not people’s fault that they have been indoctrinated into white supremacy culture. We are brainwashed into it and there’s a lot of self-compassion around that. But it is our responsibility to unlearn it and to unpick it around us. So it’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.

One of the people always say “But what about class?”, “You don’t understand my whiteness, because…” Basically, we just try to keep things on track. It is really important for people to talk about other oppressions and it is really important to bring them into conversations and be aware of how these oppressions are playing out in the group specifically. But we don’t talk about other oppressions, because we just want to focus on this one, because this one doesn’t get any space. Like I have been accused a lot: “She’s just a middle class posh girl, who talks about race and she doesn’t understand the class system.” That’s important feedback, but it also often feels a way of shutting down the conversation. The thing about this work is that people really get emotionally distressed. White people are really fragile. When we are training people to run these groups, a lot of it is around how are we going to support the facilitators. Because people get really upset and lash out and have this guilt and try to dump it on the messengers basically, which is really hard, but it’s also supported by a lot of amazing people, a lot of people of colour messaged me over, saying “thank you.” I never had a person of colour complaining to me about the work, but only lots and lots of white people complaining about the work.

 

“[I]t is quite emotionally intensive work to facilitate spaces with white people becoming aware of their own whiteness and becoming aware of how racist they are basically.”

 

I really strongly believe that white people need to teach other white people about this stuff and it still needs to be accountable and it still needs to be not just be completely separated off in this own little bubble. There needs to be contact with people of colour and different groups that are lead by people of colour, but it is quite emotionally intensive work to facilitate spaces with white people becoming aware of their own whiteness and becoming aware of how racist they are basically. It’s really full on. And to leave that responsibility with people of colour who are already triggered in a lot of different ways, is really unfair. That’s why I do this organising with primary white people. But it is exhausting and I have lost loads of friends. People tend to come around and then get back in contact saying “Sorry for having a massive go at you six months ago.” That’s the way it is.

 

Our participants tend to be around the same age, tend to be activists, but maybe they are nurses in their day jobs, some environmentalists, some feminists. People tend to come via the Facebook group. Also musicians, because there is a whole debate around hip-hop music, whether white people can make hip-hop sounds or not. It’s quite a mixture and that can be a problem sometimes. That’s where the intersectionality element comes in: we need to create a space there where everyone can feel safe.

 

What gives me hope, I think, is the process that I can see happening in my own life and identity. I always have been interested in therapy and to combine that with activism, delving to the truth of things, that keeps me going. But I also lost a lot of friends because of this work. But then working with Camille is amazing, she is very special and we have a really good working relationship. The work is so hard, you have to do self-care. We have been approached by so many different groups that want to come and do the work. And that in itself feels very exciting and feels like we are on a bit of a way.”

Interview and photo by Labo vzw

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