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Illustration: Ngadi Smart, photograph courtesy of June Sarpong

June Sarpong: ‘We need to look back to leap forward’

Author and broadcaster June Sarpong says engaging with Black history and supporting Black-owned businesses are essential to a fairer future

Written by
Time Out London contributor

As we learn to deal with the devastation and uncertainty of a global pandemic and the racial reckoning we see unfolding on the streets of the US, UK and beyond, it feels like the world is at a crossroads. And that includes London.

The noughties definitely felt like an upward trajectory for the city, characterised by opportunity and aspiration. London was quickly becoming the international capital of the world, where people from all different backgrounds were able to feel at home. Difference was not something to hide. It was exciting, vibrant and valuable – something that our Olympic bid team found out in 2005. Winning the right to host the Games, not just in London but in Newham, the borough of my birth, was a moment that, to me, felt comparable with the election of Barack Obama – something that would previously have been thought of as impossible. It was a moment of personal and communal pride. To be part of The Legacy List, the official charity for the redevelopment of the Stratford area after the Olympic Games, was an incredible privilege and an honour.

We need to teach Black history properly

However, in just over a decade, my city and my country started to feel very different. That burning optimism and resilience symbolised in the Olympic flame had seemingly burned out or even been extinguished. Where the spectre of terrorism had failed to divide us, it seemed that inequality and identity would prove a far more potent force. Difference had become divisive.

So, where does London go from here? What needs to happen for it to remain an ethnically diverse, progressive city that strives to be inclusive of both difference and tradition? What do we as Londoners need to do to heal our city and get back on course, to move forward towards a better future for everyone, regardless of racial origin? I believe that we all need a greater understanding and awareness. And to achieve that, we need to do something that may seem paradoxical. We need to look back to leap forward. Quite simply, we need to teach Black history properly.

black history illustration
Illustration: Ngadi Smart

For those of us working within the inclusion and equity sector, it can be confusing and frustrating when a drive for greater fairness and justice for marginalised groups becomes a point of controversy. This will continue to be confusing and frustrating until we take on the uncomfortable task of looking back and doing a proper analysis of our story. The full story. And when we do that, the movement against teaching Black history – which is essentially part of our shared story – and the ban on teaching critical race theory and diversity makes a lot more sense.

To be white and actively anti-racist is to acknowledge and overcome the consequences of the historical pursuit of power by those who have shared your identity but not your values. It’s imperative to understand and accept the reality of the impact this legacy has had on ‘others’ who do not share all of your elevated characteristics. This is not about the victimhood of one group or blaming another. It means educating yourself on the contextual journey of individuals who are not operating on a level playing field and asking yourself why they’re not.

London already has the diversity and creativity for you to patronise should you choose to

One of the fastest ways to level the playing field is through the economic empowerment of minority communities. So here’s a new habit for allies to consider: committing to actively supporting Black-owned businesses. Of course there is much more that needs to be done to create real systemic change. However, this one simple act – carefully considering how and where you deploy your resources – can go a long way to making a real difference in our city. London already has the diversity and creativity for you to patronise should you choose to. I’ve even made a few suggestions to get you started:

Kelechnekoff Fitness
Founded by 'fitness badass' Kelechi Okafor, this Peckham studio is all about inclusivity and fun in fitness.

Charlotte Mensah
An award-winning salon on Portobello Road, run by the pioneering British Ghanaian hairstylist. 

Sika Designs
Clothes designed in London and made in Africa. Positive change is at the heart of the company’s ethos. 

Spinach and Agushi
Starting off at Broadway Market in Hackney, this supper club now brings the flavours of Ghana to your door.

Find more ways to support Black-owned businesses in London.

Tottenham MP David Lammy explains how to support Black-owned businesses – and why purchasing is political.

Time Out guest editor Ashley Walters talks Black British representation

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