In Conversation: Matilda MacAttram (Part II)
Matilda MacAttram is one of the leading figures addressing the issue of mental health within the African-Caribbean community. She is the founder and director of Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK.) Launched in 2006, BMH UK campaigns to raise awareness about the inequality of mental health treatment provided to black communities. In part II of our in conversation series, MacAttram talks about the DNA database and why it is an issue which needs urgent action.
Belinda: And what does that say about what it means to be black in the UK as of 2010?
Matilda: It is unnatural for you to be defined by your skin colour when there is so much more to a human being than their skin pigmentation. Politically, the reason the definition is there is because its part of the experience and it goes back to slavery and colonialism and I think the civil rights movement is a key indicator of what that definition exits because it defines the way the power structure not only perceives but will treat people who come from certain backgrounds. So, what is it like to be black in Britain today? Personally, I think it is one of the most wonderful things ever and that is my own personal experience. This is my answer on this, there has never been a greater time that offers more opportunity for us to fulfil destiny, ensure the changes that need to be made, ensure our communities have equity of treatment in all areas of life is assured. There has never been a better time to set out and ensure that those who might be treated badly because of the colour of their skin get what they are entitled to.
Belinda: Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, has it improved or it going down the drain and how much more work is needed to make that change you are fighting for or have people relaxed?
Matilda: Well I think the DNA database makes it clear that no one can ever afford to keep their eye off the ball. The DNA database is now something that also poses a very serious threat to this group and only this group like it does to other. It is a serious threat to black Britain like nothing else. We cannot afford to keep our eyes off the ball. It is a very serious time where rights are under assault and if steps are not taken now to address it, the consequences are unthinkable.
Belinda: Are there more people on that database who are innocent or people who have served their time and their names are still on it? How does it work against the black British community?
Matilda: Over the last 10 years, the DNA of people from African-Caribbean communities have been constantly harvested and we are now at a stage where every single black family, living in Britain can be traced through the national criminal database. Anyone with profile on the database has the status of a criminal even though Black Britons are not aware of it, because of the way the database works, every single person from our community in this country now has the status of a criminal. Black Mental Health concern is this is happened without our community knowing about it. We are concerned that just before the last election; a new bill was passed by the previous government to maintain that status. The opposition party (who are now in power) say they will change it. What we want to do is get the information out there, to make sure this change happens because if it doesn’t, there will be serious consequences for all. It is more than your details on there; it is your genetic heritage. Everything about you, DNA, personal information about medical history, eye colour, hair colour, about yours siblings, children, parents, it is on a whole other scale.
Belinda: Based on everything you have said, in your honest opinion, a former government minister earlier this year said, ‘race was no longer a determining factor in the treatment black people got but it was now their economic ability.’ Is this true?
Matilda: Well if you look at all the indexes, whether it be housing, education, income, the Equality Commission, produced a report a few months ago which showed that rates of unemployment amongst the African-Caribbean community far outstrips that of any other group. I think it’s worse than it was than in the 60s. The government has more data and statistics and if any minister wants to say anything that sounds good for the camera, that is fine and that is one of the reasons why we need to be informed about the facts because the only people who are going to take care of our interest are us.
Belinda: How disturbing is it that black men are still six times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, even though this group have lower lifetime offending rates?
Matilda: These are all symptoms of a problem and something that is systemic and what is needed is for the community to be fully informed, so that when ministers speak out about issues, when leaders from any political parties come to our community, we are informed with the facts, so that we can then ask them, if you are really concerned about our interest, then, what actions are you going to take to address the inequalities and what assurances are going to be made? So that they are monitored and we have the outcome to show that this is being addressed. It is time for us to get informed and its time we understand what the critical issues are, so that when they come to us, we can speak…they are our elected officials. It is now time to make them accountable.
Belinda: In addition to that, how well does the government consult the black British community when making its decisions abut how it uses information about them or even store them in the nation’s database?
Matilda: Consultation is an interesting thing. The way parliament and politics works is that people who put the most pressure will get their concerns taken onboard. It’s just understanding, the nature of how it works and I think as a community, we are evolving. Nobody when they first came to these shores went on to engage in public life but the time has come now when we can’t afford not to because too many decisions are being made about us, that we are never at the table and when you are not at the table, they won’t be in your best interest and that is why the outcome we see, on the DNA database, stop and search, mental health is the way it is because at the heart of power, the people that need to be there are not there yet. But I believe that things are changing and cannot go as they are.
Belinda: Considering there is apathy towards politics, how can the black community influence issues like this with their vote and voice?
Matilda: There needs to be a greater understanding of the nature of politics because apathy is not opting out of the system. Apathy is the status quo. People are not engaging because they are not interested. What that means is that they are supporting what’s happening. Now people don’t like to be stopped and searched and unless it becomes an issue that all three parties take onboard, it won’t change. So, you might want and like to engage with it but being doing that, you are maintaining the status quo. The way any system works, we live in a system where you cannot opt out. If you want to spend money, where are you going to get it from? It comes from the system. It is in our best interest to understand how it works and make it serve us. It is our society and we need to engage with it in every area and engage key leaders in our community and once, people see that they will follow.
Note: Matilda MacAttram was interviewed in April 2010 before the general election in May. To read full article, flow this link: UK Elections