“It’s just a flag. The chains aren’t slave chains. The chains represent the industrial heritage of the Black Country. The black is for the coal and the red is for the fire. It was designed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl, for goodness sake. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with racism.”
Sorry folks, but you have completely missed the point.
It doesn’t matter that it was designed by a schoolgirl. It wouldn’t matter if it had been painted by a unicorn to represent the divine conception of her majesty the Queen. At the end of the day, it looks like slave chains. For anyone who is familiar with the slave trade – and granted many people may not be familiar with the horrors of the slave trade because colonial history is so seriously neglected in our schools – the image of those chains immediately triggers an association to slave shackles and manacles.
Were your ancestors shipped, lying in their own faeces, hundreds of miles across the seas to be put to work and die? Were they hunted and captured and sold like animals, their cultures and societies annihilated in the most large-scale atrocity in the last 500 years? Do you now live in a country whose history includes being party to this atrocity that decimated your ancestors? No?
Well then it’s not up to you to decide whether the flag is offensive or not. Your right to use the symbol of a chain for whatever purpose you see fit is less important than honoring the millions killed by slavery and showing sensitivity to their descendants – who still live in a system rigged by those original power structures.
If black people are coming forward to say it looks like slave chains and its offensive, then believe them. As the countless online articles about this “row” demonstrate, anyone suggesting that the flag is anything but a beacon of Black Country pride is met with derision, othering and exclusion. Turning around and saying to all your friends, colleagues, and even constituents, that a flag they all really love is actually really offensive to your ancestors is not easy by any stretch.
The fact that people are dismissing concerns by saying “they’re not slave chains, they represent the industrial heritage of the Black Country” just shows a lack of appreciation for the scale of the horrors of the slave trade. You wouldn’t put something that looked like an Auschwitz symbol on a flag – even if it was supposed to be something else.
Using an image so alike to a symbol of an atrocity tantamount to genocide on a flag is offensive. Using that image on a flag for a region that was complicit in that genocide is even worse.
“So you’re saying just because chains were used in the slave trade we can never use the image of chains again?!”
Yes. And I’m sorry, but is that really such a sacrifice? Given that Western powers have failed to make any kind of reparations to African nations or black people over the horrors of the slave trade, or to even acknowledge the ways that they still enjoy the fruits of past colonialism today, giving up the image of chains is the bloody least they can do. White British people’s right to feel proud about their history does not trump the need to acknowledge the injustices that occurred and understand how they still shape our discourse today.
This all speaks to the wider disregard and selective history on how the UK has exploited other nations through colonialism and still to this day oppresses ethnic minorities within the UK. It is telling that the trauma from these horrors did not even factor into the decision making process when selecting the schoolgirl’s design for the flag. In appropriating these symbols, their true meaning is erased and it makes it easier to pretend that horrors like the slave trade never happened. We see the same being done with the slave spiritual “swing low”, which has been appropriated by Brits as a rugby song.
The absolute cherry on this sour cake, is the fact that there is clear evidence that the Black Country’s chains were indeed used during the slave trade. So actually, the chain that “isn’t racist” and “only represents the industrial heritage of the Black Country”, does represent a heritage that includes making chains to shackle slaves.
People of the Black Country, your ancestors did a really bad thing many years ago, can you just show some respect to the descendants of the victims of that atrocity by not making its symbol your regional flag? Otherwise you demonstrate that racism determines whose experience you deem valid, whose voice you value, and who you choose to respect.
Karissa Singh, Human Rights Campaigner and Founder of Post Ref Racism