Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a lawyer, activist, political commentator and founder of the publication Women in Leadership.
She’s also a mother-of-three (“my kids can’t wait to get back to school because they now prefer their teachers to me”, she tells me down the phone from her lockdowned South London home). And, naturally, a fervent Remainer.
We’re chatting about the issue vexing many New European readers at the moment – that is, what Remainers do next. Mos-Shogbamimu was a fervent campaigner, an attendee at rallies, but thinks the next move will be a long game.
“Unfortunately for Remainers, the negative impact that’s going to come from Brexit – this is not going to be like, you know, the plagues that hit Biblical Egypt,” says the 45-year-old.
“We know everyone’s going to be affected by the negative impact. What we have to do is not be silent, not fold our arms. We still have to bring our expertise to the table, we still have to hold the government accountable. We have to do better in voting in the right kind of politicians who have the political will to really bring this country together.”
Mos-Shogbamimu is also, as of this month, an author. ‘This is Why I Resist’ – subtitled ‘Don’t Define My Black Identity’ – is a deep dive into the roots of racism in the UK and US, delving into little-explored areas. It’s a powerful, challenging polemic: David Lammy describes it as “recalibrat[ing] the conversation of race to ignite transformational change”.
Its genesis came two years ago – before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests forced the world to sit up and take notice. But, as Mos-Shogbamimu says, in 2020 “all of the elements went together”.
The six weeks writing it were, she says, “emotionally exhausting and exhilarating at the same time”.
“Definitely therapeutic, because I think I did not realise until I was writing it how much I had internalised a lot of things that I had seen, I had witnessed, what is going on in our country and in countries around and, you know, putting all that together in order to connect the dots… so what I did, for me, in terms of the format of the book, I wrote a book that I would want to read,” she says.
What emerges is a challenging, sometimes difficult read – indeed, she warns in the introduction, it is not a book looking for a dispassionate, “sugar-coated” piece of writing.
“For me, ultimately, the book is to say: don’t expect conversations about race, racism and race inclusion to be comfortable,” she says.
“It cannot possibly be comfortable, because it’s not comfortable. It’s saying that in fighting the good fight to eradicate racial inequality and racial injustice, it does need stepping outside your comfort zone. And that’s why I address critical ongoing conversations around reverse racism, deconstructing white privilege, engaging on the tactics used to silence and stigmatise black people and ethnic minorities like, you know, ‘playing the race card’. All of that, what that means to us, the impact and the effect of it.
“This is not about people pointing fingers and going ‘all white people are racist’, ‘cause that’s not true. All white people are not racist and I point out in the book that we have white allies who for the longest time, you know, over centuries, who have fought the good fight to end racial inequality and racial injustice, and some of them even lost their life and liberty in this good fight.
“The difference, though, is that they were lone voices. Their voices were not enough to break down a system that profits off denying an equal value of life and liberty to black people and ethnic minorities. That profit is economical, it’s political, it’s social.”
We talk about last year, one in which, had it not also been combined by the worst pandemic in a century – although this has also highlighted extreme racial inequalities – would be remembered primarily for protests over race, the tumbling of statues, footballers taking the knee. In 2020, says Mos-Shogbamimu, “what people saw was that the lid was blown off the repressed and internalised suppression of speaking out”.
She adds: “Not that we don’t have vocal voices. A lot of people have been vocal about a lot of the issues that were protested about last year. The point is, last year we even had staff, employees, saying to their employers, ‘this must change’. That’s a difference. You have organisations responding to ongoing social movements because they understood that their bank balance is tied to that. And I think that was the difference.
“Think about it: we are saying the same things today that the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin were saying. Why is that? Why is it that jack all has changed? So that for me is part of the reason why any expectation that conversations about progress need to be done in a way that makes somebody else feel comfortable makes no sense.”
Her message is not confined to her book. With a little help from her 11-year-old she has, as they say, taken to TikTok to help spread her messages to an audience used to a more transient medium.
“I think it’s important on the issue of race inclusion that we use every medium possible because every medium is already being used against race inclusion. So why not use the same medium to educate, to break down nuances, to make these subjects much more approachable by being yourself and saying ‘look, this is what this means’? What I’m doing there is deconstructing some very nuanced points in 60 seconds.”
It’s important, she says, to use whatever social media platforms are available, especially in the light of Facebook and Twitter’s often lax regulation of the content they publish, highlighted by the latter’s closing-the-stable-door ban on Donald Trump.
“Look, the conversation around white supremacy and the way white supremacists’ rhetoric is cloaked with an aura of respectability – it wears suits today, it wears nice dresses today, it’s on TV today.
“It’s not just about using the N-word or, you know, carrying burning crosses. The reality is that every single language or rhetoric we hear today existed 50 years ago, 500 years ago, so what we have to do is not shy away from fighting the good fight.”
One question I wrestle with after reading it is: what does Mos-Shogbamimu want white readers to take from the book? I ask because, on several occasions she states it’s not for her to educate a white audience or explain racism, but simultaneously she’s written a powerful resource which many will feel does just that. Is there a tension here?
“There is a balance here,” she responds.
“There has for the longest time been an expectation on black people to unpick the learning of some white people. And I’m saying: heck, no. That’s not my responsibility, that’s your responsibility.
“And on the same balance, I’m saying: here is what is happening. I would love to have a conversation with you. My book is that conversation. Perhaps some things you already agree with, some things you were not aware of, some things you totally disagree with: here is my conversation with you.
“What I want white siblings to take away from this book is, one, yes, you should feel uncomfortable. Two, this conversation has to be had. Three, you can do this. Because many white siblings did it before, too, and are doing it today. Four, the ethos of Black Live Matters, which is to break down white supremacy is the same ethos which existed to bring about the abolition of slavery, to bring an end to apartheid, that drove the civil rights movement.
“It is not a hotel that you can check in and check out of.”
We speak the day after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration (“Yesterday’s inauguration put a smile on many people’s faces, including mine,” says Mos-Shogbamimu). But we also speak in the week where, this side of the Atlantic, housing secretary Robert Jenrick used the high point of a pandemic to announce plans to protect historic statues in the wake of last year’s protests.
“This government has learned jack-all from last year,” says Mos-Shogbamimu. “I mean, look at how they used negative stereotypes to address Black Lives Matters protestors, calling them thugs, you know, deliberately mixing them up with the white supremacists and neo-Nazis.”
At last year’s virtual Conservative Party conference, home secretary Priti Patel condemned the tactics of BLM and Extinction Rebellion protesters, as she criticised the “hooliganism and thuggery” seen on the country’s streets.
Mos-Shogbamimu adds: “I am not surprised that they are talking about protecting certain statues without any sensitivity or understanding about the representation of these statues in the legacy of slavery and the legacy that continues systemic racism in our country today. I am not surprised. What is there to expect?”
● This is Why I Resist is published by Headline, priced £20
One of the most controversial elements in Mos-Shogbamimu’s book – and one of its fiercest targets are what she dubs ‘racial gatekeepers’ – in her description, “the self-serving token black or ethnic minority who is ready to sell out their race for self-preservation”.
“Don’t get me started,” she says. “I need people to understand this. People come up with this whole thing about, ‘well, you can’t just say, because she’s Asian, she’s black, that they can’t have their own mind’. Understand that racial gatekeeping is not about difference of opinion – I mean look, after all, we are not a monolith of, you know, singular thought, that’s not the point.
“A racial gatekeeper is one who uses their influence, their position, their power, their voice, to pull up the ladder behind them. What they do is legitimise the divisive rhetoric, the oppression, the system of oppression used against people from their own ethnicity. And they do this for self-preservation. They do this for the benefits they get from their proximity to white supremacy.
“I’m not saying ‘don’t get promoted’. By all means, you know, fly. I have no issue with that. But you have to fly at the expense of denying people who are from your ethnicity the opportunity to fly like you.
“It’s unacceptable. So, as far as I’m concerned, by all means do what you have to do, but I will exercise my right to call them out.”