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We Are No Better: Racism in the UK

November 12, 2018

There is a tendency in the UK for white commentators on racism to look to the United States and think “thank goodness we aren’t that bad”; a self-congratulatory smugness which I too have been guilty of.  I was wrong and was reminded of my wrongness whilst watching the recent documentary series “Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us”; if you’ve not seen it, do so before it disappears.

We white people MUST stop thinking and acting in this way.  It is dangerous, pervasive and allows for the continuation and perpetuation of systemic racism, and of the micro-aggressions in everyday life which are suffered by those not identified as white.  We have a habit of looking to the United States and seeing a history of slavery, shareholding akin to feudal serfdom, oppression through Jim Crow laws, the criminalisation of miscegenation, segregation and even now widespread voter suppression of non-white voters in States such as Georgia, Florida and Arizona, and the disenfranchisement of Native Americans in North Dakota, and congratulating ourselves that we are better than they are.  We like to think that it could not, did not, and does not happen in the United Kingdom.  We are not better.

Our institutions and our people benefited from slavery.  Our northern mills were run on cotton from slave plantations.  Our sweet tooth was destroyed by sugar cane harvested by slavery.  We were a part of the slave triangle; we transported slaves to the Americas, we transported the goods taken from the work of enslaved people, and we paid money to those kidnapping and transporting African people to the plantations.  Our economy boomed on the backs of those tortured and treated as cattle, dehumanised and destroyed for the sake of white prosperity.  There were 46,000 slave owners in Britain throughout the period in which slavery was legal.

We may have ended slavery in 1838, but we moved to an Empire which still oppressed and oppresses people of colour.  When independence was achieved by myriad colonies over the next 150 years, we moved to a Commonwealth through which to perpetuate the oppressive racist society we had come to rely upon.

no blacks no dogs no irish

A common sign in private rental accommodation before the Race Relations Act 1965 banned this.

Those who came to what was known as the ‘Motherland’ from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971, known now as the Windrush Generation, arriving by our invitation to take up the jobs we already resident in the UK did not want to do, were met on arrival with overt racism in the forms of signs stating “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” when seeking accommodation and outright racism in political campaigns for elections, and are now met with a denial of their right to be in this country by

Tory campaign poster

Campaign poster for the Tory party from the 1960s

our current government.

We white people are seeing a renaissance of racist expression at the moment; there are more overt acts of racism being recognised and publicised than ever before.  Note however, that this is being recognised and publicised by the media, which is in itself a perpetuator of systemic racism.  What white people are seeing is not new.  What white people are seeing is the lived experience of people of colour, and it is still denied by so many.

Testimonies are denied by white people.  We demand proof, as if it is possible to give proof of words said, micro-aggressions given, looks sent and attitudes expressed.  We demand a level of verification akin to a criminal court or ‘it didn’t happen’.  This in itself perpetuates the very racism being testified about.  It is a Catch 22.  We white people do not suffer racism, we are privileged by it, and we therefore either do not see it or choose not to see it.

Overt racism is easier to fight because it is obvious, in our faces and white people can separate ourselves from it.  Covert racism is far harder to fight, because we must face the fact that we benefit from it and may (probably do) enact micro-racisms ourselves.  I used to say I was ‘colour-blind’ until I was awoken to the fact this is a racist thought process denying the experiences of those who do not have the privilege of being white and never experiencing racism.

If you are struggling for what you can do, try these for a start:

  • Acknowledge your white privilege and open your eyes to see how it is enacted every day. This will be hard at first, but once you start, it will, sadly, get easier.
  • If a colleague, friend or family member makes a racist joke – don’t let it slide. Ask them what it is they find funny about it, or pretend you don’t understand it and get them to explain the meaning.  Then simply say you don’t find racism funny.  No-one should get a pass on being racist.
  • If you witness a racist incident, don’t be a passive onlooker. Support the person being abused and confront the racist person.  Do it on your own volition, not on behalf of the person being abused.  Redirect the ire; be the change you want to see.
  • Sign petitions, go on marches, be public and loud in your opposition to racism at every opportunity. You may get tired of it, but people suffering racist oppression don’t get a day off so nor should we.
  • If someone tells you of a racist incident they suffered, don’t demand proof, offer empathy.
  • Speak openly with your children about oppression and make an effort to open them up to the history and achievements of people of colour. Watch movies, TV programmes and books with people of colour as protagonists.  Representation matters to everyone.
  • Don’t expect a person of colour to educate you. Do it yourself.  Google, go to a library, ask for recommendations from friends if you feel they will be receptive.
  • If someone calls you out on something you have said, stop and listen and take time to think about what they are saying. White privilege blinds us; don’t get upset by someone who is trying to help you to see.  If it is in an angry tone, just put yourself in the shoes of the person calling out – how many racist comments or incidents would it take to be aimed at you before you got angry at every one? They are doing you a favour in trying to help you to see, don’t tone police, just listen.
  • You might suffer from bigotry for other reasons, such as sexuality, ability or gender. That doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from racism.  Privileges and oppressions intersect.  Don’t be the person who says “what white privilege? I’m *insert intersecting identity here*, I’m not privileged”.  It’s not a competition, it’s not an either/or situation.
  • Don’t claim to be ‘colour-blind’ or ‘not to see race’; that simply denies and silences the experiences of people of colour and denies your white privilege which you benefit from without having a choice in the matter. It’s offensive, so don’t do it.  That’s something I was called out on long ago, and I am very grateful for it.

confronting privilege

Confronting white privilege is an ongoing process which we white people must do every single day, no matter how ‘woke’ we may think we are.  If we don’t, we are the worst part of the problem.


From → Ideology, political

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