Martin Luther King Jr once said,
It is not possible to be in favour of Justice for some people and not in favour of justice for all people.
I thought if I don’t write this article I might remain miserable for the rest of the year. Recently I was having a conversation with somebody and just happened to mention this year‘s Black History Month lecture with entitled racism in the academy.
The response I got was mind boggling. ‘There is no racism in UK unless of course you want people to stop having a life. And what is racism anyway? they asked. For a minute I thought they were joking. As far as they are concerned racism doesn’t exist anymore. They haven’t heard anyone being racist or saying racist stuff to anybody. This means we have done it. Great, no racism anymore! But really?
Mind you, this person was white, how would they know what people of colour experience on day to day basis. I was quick to say ‘excuse me, I have lived the experience what are you talking about?’ and she frowned and I realised I had to stop the argument, it want going anywhere.
Let’s go back to history a little bit. An ideology of white racial and cultural superiority was developed by the British, and other Europeans, to justify colonialism, slavery and empire, and this ideology created a social order for centuries in which whites were at the top and BME people were at the bottom of society. There is a legacy of white superiority from this history, which if you challenge you will be ignored all accused of having ‘chip on shoulder’.
Evidence and research has shown that racism is as strong as ever, even if overt, easily identifiable discrimination is difficult to find- although of course this is manifested from time to time.
Denial is the new phenomenology of racism
For the purposes of this argument, I assume that (1) all societies are racist to some degree (2); racism is ubiquitous at least at the level of attitudes and its presence is not necessarily visible at the level of social behaviour (3); the existence of racism is widely denied across cultures, with varying degrees of disguise (4); acknowledgement of racism is a prerequisite (but not at all a guarantee, or a bridge) to overcoming it.
The concept of racism is meant here in the entirety of its broad scope and polysemy (plurality of meaning). "Racist" can be a description of attitudes (mental states of individuals or groups), ideologies (sets of socially constructed and politically functional ideas of whole societies, classes, cultures, etc.), social practices, institutions, etc. Of these, human rights advocates and international organisations have addressed issues of racism mostly in respect to social practices. This is understandable. While racist beliefs and attitudes can be present in a person's mind with varying degrees of conviction, awareness, scope and intensity, we can define somewhat less vaguely, and prohibit by law, racist acts as acts which contribute to ethnic or racial inequality in society.
Critical race theory, a recent legal philosophy, the inception of which can be traced to a 1989 workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, understands racism broadly. "Racism is viewed not only as a matter of individual prejudice and everyday practice, but as a phenomenon that is deeply embedded in language and perception. Racism is a ubiquitous and inescapable feature of modern society, and despite official rhetoric to the contrary, race is always present even in the most neutral and innocent terms.
Here is a list of a racist denial that I have come across. The list is not exhaustive.
Presenting race/ethnicity problems as only a social and economic problem.
We are not racist, and do not discriminate. We have no problem with the race or ethnicity of BME, but this group is economically and socially weak.
The "equality before the law" argument. Somewhat opposite to denial by presenting race problems as solely socio-economic problems, this one lays a stress on the existing allegedly equal protection by the law. The claim is: "Racial minority members are equal before the law, or are entitled to equal protection by the law, and therefore do not suffer discrimination in my country; anything that would favour them over others is unfair."
The "equal opportunity" (meritocratic) argument. This denial is similar to the "legal equality" argument, but in this case the claim goes like this: "BME members enjoy equal opportunities with everyone else in our society. How they use these opportunities is up to them.
Denial by "the positive example" argument: "Look at those minority members who made it to the top of society, the company, etc." Accordingly, in social practice, a policy of tokenism is often used to fight back allegations of racism and discrimination.
Denial by disclaimer: "Some of my best friends are blacks".
Individualization and self-exclusion from the mainstream: "I love my black neighbour and her friendship is dearer to me than that of others; and such personal links are more important than race relations in the larger society".
The overstatement of historic optimism, the reference to historical progress in race relations: "Compare and consider how much has changed in the last 20 years; see how much the situation of BME has improved.
To become aware of existing denial and to acknowledge the presence of racism may become the beginning of a transformation, at a personal as well as political and cultural level. Acknowledgement may lead to reduction of racist attitudes and to anti-racist action. But it may also lead to acceptance.
I shall not say more but I am sure you get the picture. Racism still exists and the worst part is people hardly call you names now but make so subtle you can go home crying because you can’t report it to anybody. And even if you do they will say ‘you are a bit sensitive’.
All I can say is as Harper Lee said,’’ You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…. until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.I am a Black woman of African descent and I know how it feels to be racially discriminated against. But if one has never left the comfort of their country or continent, never been in any minority situation, how then they can boldly say there is no racism?
Disclaimer: I am not whinging but responding to what was said to me on Wednesday the 27th September.