Black History Month 2020 Interview with Warren A. Stanislaus for the British Embassy Tokyo (English translation)

Originally Published on the British Embassy Tokyo website in Japanese:

What brought you to Japan?

Originally from South East London, I first came to Japan as a gap year volunteer after finishing secondary school in 2006. I stayed on to complete a full undergraduate degree at International Christian University, Tokyo. I have lived in Japan for over a decade, variously experiencing life as a student and professional. I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford researching modern Japanese cultural and transnational history. I also serve as the President of the Oxford Alumni Club of Japan. As an Associate Lecturer at Rikkyo University, I deliver a course that explores Afro-Japanese encounters.

What has been your experience here?

Japanese people are often excited to guess where I am from when we meet for the first time. They go through a long list of countries and continents: America, Canada, France, Africa, a “hot country” — never the UK. To their visible surprise I respond that I am from England, which is certainly not a hot country! Not much has changed since I first arrived to Japan in 2006. Unfortunately, Japan’s image of the UK does not include Black Britain.

What do you want Japanese people to understand about the UK?

From Harry Potter to Beatrix Potter, Downton Abbey to Abbey Road, Queen to the Queen, Britain’s cultural exports are much loved in Japan. I even personally benefit from being associated with the UK nation brand, as many Japanese people I encounter instantly think that it’s cool to be British. However, my message is that there is more to British culture than images of sipping afternoon tea in grand country houses. Indeed, we must recognize that many of these more familiar aspects of British culture emerged through Britain’s colonial past and historical global connections.

Britain is truly diverse and my family is a perfect embodiment of a global Britain. I was born in England. My paternal side is from the Caribbean and came to Britain during the Windrush Generation from islands such as Trinidad & Tobago and Grenada. On my maternal side I have a mix of Swiss, German and Nigerian. In my body, skin colour and features are woven the story of Britain’s colonial past, wars of the twentieth century, postwar history of immigration and a multicultural future. I eat fried plantain with my full English breakfast, patty and a pasty, rice & peas with a Sunday Roast, jollof rice with jerk chicken and bake a Linzer torte for the family Christmas cake. Japanese people often say that British food isn’t good — they just haven’t yet tasted Britain’s diverse plate.

Black History Month in the UK is more than just a time to reflect on the struggle against racism and biases. It is about acknowledging, celebrating and showcasing the significant contributions of Black and minority ethnic Britons to British culture as a whole.

Black History Month is a chance to learn more about these issues. Do you have recommendations for how we can find out more?

Music is a great starting point. Ever since the Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener arrived to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and sung “London is the place for me,” British music — from punk rock to dance — has been deeply influenced by Black cultural traditions. Today, Black British artists such as Stormzy, Jorja Smith, Raye, Mabel, Skepta, Mahalia and Dave (to name just a few) dominate the UK charts, yet they are not widely known in Japan. This is especially surprising, as Black British musical genres such as grime have drawn inspiration from Japanese pop culture. For example, JME is famously a Pokémon fan while producer Blay Vision samples sounds from Japanese video games and anime.

Sport is one of the best examples of Britain’s strength in diversity. But beyond entertainment, Black British sporting heroes have always bravely used their platforms to shine a light on social justice. As the faces of the 2012 London Olympics, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah championed the UK’s diversity. More recently Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling challenged the British media to tackle issues of racism, and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford influenced a government policy shift on child poverty.

In the 21st century, Black British actors such as Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast), Idris Elba (Luther), John Boyega (Star Wars) are becoming globally celebrated by starring in Hollywood movies. Yet, when it comes to marketing Hollywood films in Asia, the Black stars are marginalized or left out. Black Britons within the entertainment industry are battling to be seen and heard. As a Black British female screenwriter and actress, Michaela Coel is an inspiring entrepreneurial success story of hard work and defeating the odds. Set in London, Coel’s latest hit 2020 TV drama series for the BBC and HBO, I May Destroy You, is a nuanced exploration into issues surrounding sexuality, sexual consent, race and social media.

Black British contributions stretch far beyond the entertainment industry. As an aspiring academic myself, it’s critical to highlight that there is a rich history of Black British intellectualism. The groundbreaking work of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy demonstrate that the Black British perspective has an important role to play in gaining a fuller understanding of politics, society and culture as a whole. Today, a new generation of Black British intellectuals are rising; key names include Afua Hirsch, Reni Eddo-Lodge, David Olusoga, Akala and Kehinde Andrews. Through books, documentaries, journalism and interviews, they are inspiring a new generation to uncover lost aspects of Britain’s diverse global past and imagine a more inclusive future.