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Elijah Lawal interview: ‘The Clapback: Your Guide to Calling out Racist Stereotypes.’

The Clapback

Fisayo Eniolorunda, BA Politics and African Studies 

Elijah Lawal is an author and diversity activist who works for Google as PR Manager by day. His book is a definitive guide to combating racist stereotypes against the black community. A friendly and knowledgeable individual.

How would you summarise the contents of this book to someone that has not yet read it?

I would position it as a look into the origins of stereotypes aimed at the black community, understanding why they exist, if there’s any truth to them and what can we do to debunk that.

One of the things that I ask people is, have you heard the stereotype that black people love chicken, particularly fried chicken? They’re like yes, or that black people are bad swimmers and are good runners. I sort of challenge them and say, where do you think that came from? Or even in a very practical way, why would the colour of my skin have anything to do with how fast I can run or high I can jump or what food I prefer to eat?

What made you decide to write this type of book?

It was an education for myself as well. I didn’t know where a lot of these stereotypes came from. I was fairly confident that racism had something to do with it, but I didn’t know for sure where they came from and also, I didn’t really understand the impact of these stereotypes. So, I think for me, I wanted a little bit more of an education and then also wanted to educate people within the black community so that they can clapback on these stereotypes, but then also people from other communities in particular the white community to also understand why these stereotypes are hurtful and also the fact that they are they just simply not true.

How do you define race? 

Race is a social and political construct. 

But, it has been made real by people who want to manipulate that for a negative impact. A real life example- remember when you were a  kid and you know, I don’t know if you ever played this game but, my mum when I was younger would say you’ve got to go to bed and you’ve got to switch off the lights so the monsters can’t get you. The monsters aren’t  real but, as a kid you’re freaking out- I’m like, I don’t want the monsters to get me so I better switch off my light right?

Some things don’t have to be real in order to have an impact on your life. For me, race has been made real by the people who choose to use it to oppress us. It’s a social construct. You know there is no black and white DNA, no Indian or Scottish DNA, there is just human DNA. But, people who want to use that narrative in a negative way have made race real. So, we have to acknowledge that even though it’s a social and political construct its real because the effects of impact all of us.

So you know, I know that race is a social construct but, I know the world sees me as black and I am black. And I’m proud of that and so, I will embrace my blackness till the day I die because that’s a part of who I am. But for me, that’s not a reason to think that I am better or worse than anybody else.

Please outline the source of a few stereotypes that affect black people today. I know that in your book you spoke on the stereotype that all black people love fried chicken.

That stereotype originated from the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. They produced the birth of a nation and basically, they wanted to portray black people as unworthy and animalistic, with no manners and no sense of humanity. So, they had a white person eating their meal with a knife and fork, but they had a white person in blackface eating chicken with their hands and being very messy about it. They wanted to show people their belief system, which was, if you’re white you’re civilised and responsible contributing members of society. Whereas, when you’re black you were irresponsible with no manners and animalistic. That kind of stereotype just grew and grew from there. So, you see how harmful a stereotype like that is? There was a school in the US where for black history month they just served everyone chicken because they thought that black people all loved fried chicken…

Another one is the swimming. The idea that black people are really terrible at swimming. What a lot of people don’t realise is in the 1940s through the 1960s, swimming as a leisure activity became very popular, but, black people were actively prevented from swimming. Black people weren’t allowed in swimming pools particularly swimming pools where white people swim. There is actually one occurrence, and there’s a picture of it in the book, of a man pouring acid into a swimming pool where there were black children playing.

Then there became a sort of societal effect from that, because if you couldn’t go to the swimming pool, how are you going to learn how to swim? 

The other thing that was a major impact at that time as well is there was just a massive social inequality. White people earned significantly more money than black people and again that was on purpose, white people were seen to be more established, more responsible,  more smart and so, they got all the good jobs and black people didn’t. As a result, black people just decided to use their income for things like trying to send their kids to school, food and clothes. Swimming is a leisure activity, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to swim to live, it was a bonus that only people who had disposable income could do.

What is your take on the home office trying to combat knife crime by putting stories on the back of fried chicken boxes? 

It shows to me: a) a fundamental lack of understanding of a violent crime and b) a lack of understanding of the black culture that they’re trying to address.

It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of violent crime because, I don’t know anybody who has their heart set on committing crime and their mind is changed by reading something on a chicken box.That’s just not how violent crime occurs. 

Studies show that people who tend to engage in violent crime tend to have several things in common. One of them is lack of education or they’ve been expelled from school very early on. A lot of them come from what is termed as broken homes, a lot of them don’t see any prospects in their future and that’s why they turned to crime. They just don’t have any options. People with options often don’t commit in violent crimes.

I’m fortunate enough to work here. I don’t have the need to go out and rob people because you know, I work here.

They should be trying to address education and looking at what type of people get expelled. What type of people does the education system give up on and how can we address that? How can we address people who come from broken homes? How can we address people who have been abandoned by their parents? and I don’t mean broken homes as in terms of like either of your parents are divorced, I mean like your family has essentially given up on you. How do we address that? How do we address people who grew up with an alcoholic parent or violent parent? Like, how can we help society there? and that’s how you sort of target and address the problem of violent crime.

There is the other aspect of not understanding the culture of black society. I am 100% sure that the way that this would have been pitched would have been like, oh we see a significant amount of black people committing a crime, oh a lot of black people love chicken…Let’s go to the chicken store?!

I saw on Twitter that the agency that advised the home office on this only had one black person on the team, everyone else was white. A friend of mine made a joke because they have two dogs in that office, he said that they literally have more dogs than they have black people…

It’s a lack of understanding about culture and I want to make this very clear as well, just because you’re black doesn’t mean you’re more likely to commit knife crime because if that were the case, I would be out committing knife crime, you would be out committing knife crime, my 90 year old grandmother would be out committing knife crime, BARACK OBAMA would be out committing knife crime…

So, it has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. We know it’s not a colour thing. It’s a lack of understanding of both culture, and also how you address violent crime in general.

On the topic of young people shying away from creative industries because of perceived lack of security-

I think that can sometimes be a challenge for our parents to understand because their priority was all about making money.

When my parents just moved here, there were certain jobs that guaranteed that you would make money for you know, this is a generalisation, but I would argue that for my parents generation particularly immigrants, that job satisfaction wasn’t high on their priority. Pay-check, like MON-EY, was the priority. Enjoy your job?! They just wanted to provide for their family. 

So, I would argue that to a certain extent for first generation Black British, this is probably the first if not second generation, where we can choose what we want to do and make money.

One of the things that i’ve made my priority, is to try and see how we can increase our diversity and inclusion efforts and  how we can get more people of colour into creative industries. I’d love to try and open the doors for people to understand that there are roles for them here and places for them here that they can grow and thrive. 

Toni Morrison said when you get these amazing jobs, these jobs that you’ve worked so hard for, your next mission should be to make it easier for other people. The sentiment is, you’ve worked so hard to get here, make it easier for the next person and they’ll make it easier for the next person and that’s definitely something I want to see. My mother definitely worked harder than I did to get the job that she did and I am privileged to have an education and work in a place like this. I want to make it easier for the next person.

Any final words?

It’s black history month. I just want people who read this article to celebrate black history. Just love your community.

I feel like we need to come together as a community to just say you know what your black and I’m black that’s a bond that we share you know and let’s never call other people’s blackness into question. Everyone’s allowed to make their own choices if there are black people who wanna like go and listen to Mozart instead of, you know, hip hop, that’s fine. It doesn’t make them any less black, so I think we just need to start to heal our own community from the inside.

Seeing other black people around, just stay reminded of our culture and our beliefs and our values which to me is just so strong. I think sometimes, particularly people who have grown up here, some of it can be a little bit difficult because there’s always a part of you that still feels that this isn’t like ‘home’. We should celebrate our culture celebrate our community and just know it can be hard but, we should find strength in each other and I think that’s certainly how I go through the day in a relatively good mood.

Fisayo and Sasha with Elijah Lawal

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