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What is racism?

I have decided to write this post in response to the barrage of abuse I received on Facebook last month after publishing an ad where I allowed FB to set the audience criteria.

It left me shaken and disturbed as I knew that the people commenting believed what they were saying and were probably ‘good’ people in their everyday lives. They of course unwittingly proved the point about why learning about diverse British History is important, and in addition exposed their lack of knowledge and implicit bias. One person even went as far as to say that because we didn’t have official segregation like in South Africa or the USA, racism in the UK didn’t exist. Most were more subtle in expressing this belief and in light of the recent surge in online racist abuse against footballers, many White people continue to express their surprise about racists, which in turn has left many People of Colour being surprised at their surprise. The reality is that the toxic debates on the run up to Brexit that played on the fears of people, opened the door to open xenophobia and racism dressed in the garb of nationalism. This in turn led to increases in violent attacks on people of other nationalities, religions and colours.

For the past year we have had arguments about whether footballers should take the knee and constant condemnation of this form of protest from those in high positions like the Home Secretary Priti Patel. We have heard politicians condone booing and even one minister compare taking the knee with a Nazi salute, all in the attempt to discredit a decades old practice signifying the fight against racism. We have heard continuous denial and disbelief about the reasons for why players are taking the knee, and much less discussion about the impact of racism on people’s lives and what White people can do to stop racism in their own homes, families and communities. All of this begs the question of why people are more upset about peaceful protests like the Diversity dance and taking the knee than they are about racism itself.

I believe that some of the answers to this question can be answered by looking closely into the views of some of those who commented on my page. I was called a racist by several people which received many likes and is one of the reasons I have titled my blog ‘What is racism?’. Several television discussions have also revealed people’s lack of understanding of what racism is, meaning that it again needs analysis. There are also a number of historical themes that come up in the comments which have also been pointed out to me by others online, that lead me to ask even more questions about the apparent contradictions in what is being expressed. For example, some are adamant that we should be focusing on British History but then point to other areas of History unrelated to Britain as areas I should be focusing on, why?

Let us look at this in more detail. Several people mentioned White people being enslaved by Romans and Arab slavers as well as Africans involved in the Slave Trade. Firstly, there is a presumption that the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade would be my focus, I made no mention of this in my ad, and in reality this, if mentioned is a tiny part of my courses as most people are well versed in this part of History. I taught a unit on the Arab slave trade on my last children’s course and in no way shy away from the role of African Kingdoms selling prisoners of war and criminals to Europeans. Secondly, what I do teach about is the economic impact of this trade on Britain and how the profits grew the British economy and provided the capital for the Industrial Revolution. I also explain the role of Britain in exploiting labour and resources from its colonies, deindustrialisation of places like India, the legacies of which exist today in the division of wealth between the global south and the western nations. Why do I focus on Britain's colonial and imperialist past? One because I am British and live in Britain, two because so much of this part of British History and the contributions of Black and Brown people has been missed out of the English curriculum, something that over 10 years of teaching in Secondary schools has taught me. For those who keep saying ‘why are we focusing on the past?’, the answer is because that is how we understand the present and how we learn to do better. As a Geography teacher I cannot begin to explain the unfair world trading system without reference to Colonialism, teaching Development or Fair Trade in a vacuum makes no sense. And in that vacuum stereotypes and falsehoods thrive about countries and groups of people. The most important reason for teaching the missing parts of British History for me is about understanding the legacy for People of Colour in the UK today. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot understand the Windrush Scandal for example and the contributions West Indians and others from abroad made to this country, as well as their legal right to be in this country. The legacy of racism lives in the inequalities we see now and is not simply theory that comes out of a book.

This leads me to the other popular viewpoints in the comments that portray me as being racist. ‘Can you imagine the fallout if there was a ‘white British studies’ one person said. As another person pointed out, British history is already about White History it’s just called British instead. As the Historian, author and TV producer, David Olusoga said ‘Black history is a series of missing chapters from British history’. The number of objections to teaching these missing parts of British History leads me to believe that those objecting do not believe that People of Colour are truly British, therefore not deserving of a mention in British History. Britain has always been connected to other States but has been intimately connected with overseas Colonies since the Tudor era, but many adults know little of this History. Over 400 years of British Colonial History is glossed over in a matter of weeks if taught at all, even Britain’s History with Ireland is avoided. If taught it includes an insensitive debate about how responsible Britain was for the Famine and omissions about other human rights violations. The British Empire is the foundation of the Britain you see today which has always involved People of Colour from both overseas and born in Britain, so is an integral part of British History that needs to be taught. Are we now saying that to teach these missing components is racist? Why are some people so defensive about learning these missing parts of History? Could it be because they do not want to find out about the less savoury parts of their History? Is it because the identity that some have of British exceptionalism will be challenged? Is it because the legacy of inequality will have to be acknowledged, something some are unwilling to do? And finally, if this is the case why are so many so bent on proving racism does not exist?

Comments like I’m ‘playing the race card’ and this is ‘woke crap’, tells me that people do not believe racism exists or that it is not a significant problem. In addition it also tells me that people don’t believe that people’s experiences are racism, which tells me that many still do not understand what racism is. This kind of racial gaslighting whether deliberate or not shuts down conversation that attempts to tackle racism. Comments also included ‘acting the victim’, again suggesting that anyone who calls out discrimination or prejudice is lying and so is the problem. One of the biggest gaslighting statements that kept coming up was that talking about race is the cause of division. ‘This constant talk about race is driving the races a part not bringing us together’. This suggests that if we stopped talking about racism it would magically disappear. Racism has always been there, but many people just kept quiet about it and suffered in silence as the consequences for speaking out often resulted in workplace bullying and being labelled a trouble maker, with eventual dismissal from a job or leaving. One person even said ‘these are the cause of racial resentment’. My question would be wasn’t there already resentment from those suffering in silence? Now that White people are being asked to play a role in stamping out racism within the White community, some feel offended or uncomfortable. People need to ask themselves why. My observation over the past year is that no matter how people try to raise awareness or protest there are some who will always criticise, which leads me to believe they would really prefer people just ‘put up and shut up’.

The idea of bias seemed to make people especially upset with one person saying there was a presumption that she is racist. To this person and others who say this, I would say that we all have bias as a product of the society we live in and what we have been taught growing up. This could be bias about anything from religion, colour to disability or gender. Just this week my family again had to build up the self-esteem of one of my granddaughters who said her hair is ‘impossible and not beautiful’. This has come from a 3 year old child, something her twin sister, my 5 year old granddaughter and my own daughter also said at that age. As someone who does not have Afro hair, this is not something I ever dealt with growing up, however I have seen this played out continuously through my life, with Black girls in particular conditioned to hate their own hair by social messaging, Disney princess movies and the like. The following clip demonstrates how early we are conditioned by social messaging. This doll experiment has been done over many decades and in several countries and always reveals the same result.

There is no shame in admitting bias, this is the first process in changing it. We cannot change what we do not know or acknowledge. Hence the reason why self-reflection and exposure to new information is necessary. The brain is designed to protect us so filters out the flood of information we get daily in order to make it simpler for us to process. When we are confronted with a situation where we have to make an instant decision, we go to what is most familiar to us and the brain fills in the blanks with our conditionings which can include our stereotypes and bias. Knowledge and exposure to different experiences and people can help to short circuit this process, but it is still a constant process of self-awareness and reflection to ensure we are not acting on our bias. This talk discusses this in more detail.

My own exposure to different situations have forced me to become aware of stereotypes and bias I didn’t even realise I had, but had I not taken the time to engage in conversation about this and further my own knowledge I would have perhaps continued to play out those stereotypes and bias. It is also important to recognise that regular negative portrayals of groups of people or negative experiences and even omissions of positive portrayals can help to create bias. John Barnes explains this well in the following clip

I am happy to keep on re-evaluating what I think I know about other groups of people. How can I possibly know more about what everyday life is like than a person who is wheel chair bound for example or a person who is part of the LBGTQ community? What assumptions have I made that have been offensive or not inclusive? I was recently told for the second time by a follower that she couldn’t access a video I sent to her because it had no captions and she is hearing impaired. It is now on me to make sure I cater to her needs. She shouldn’t have to keep telling me.

This brings me to another comment that whilst well-meaning, again closes down discussion about equality and inclusion. ‘Everyone should be treated the same’. Well as you can see from the previous point about disability, this isn’t the way to be inclusive. As a teacher of Humanities, I normally teach mixed ability classes that I must differentiate resources and teaching for. How can I treat them all the same when they have different strengths, weaknesses and needs? Even in a class of the same ability some will have different learning styles, so it is my job to provide a lesson with a variety of teaching methods that gives everyone the opportunity to work to their strengths. If a British Christian person worked in a country where Christmas was a normal working day, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to request a day off on that day, just as people of various faiths do so here in the UK. A woman is not treated the same as a man when she is pregnant and has a baby. Seeing everyone the same also means you don’t recognise the variety of perspectives and skills different people bring to a work/social community which ultimately enriches us. There are a number of studies that show that diversity increases the performance and profitability of a company. Click on the link to see one of the studies. , however, to make sure this really works and that everyone is valued, the environment needs to be equitable and inclusive. Similarly, society at large and its institutions needs to have these qualities in order to tackle racism.

Finally there is one more comment that again tells me that people do not really understand what racism is. ‘Why does racial discrimination seem to be dependent on skin colour?’ Racial discrimination and prejudice per se can of course be perpetuated by any individual from any background, however racism based on skin colour was an ideology specifically developed in the 18th C to support Colonial exploitation of the ‘Other’. Crude Plantocracy Racism of the 17th C based on Bible references was refined by pre Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and John Locke. Empiricists like David Hume continued to develop theories about the so called inferiority of Africans and other indigenous people into the 18th C, whilst Social Darwinism in the 19th C provided 'scientific' theories about the hierarchy of ‘race’. This all served to support enslaving indigenous peoples around the world, justifying murder and sexual violence as they were seen as subhuman. These human rights abuses continued into the 20th C under theories of Eugenics resulting in continuing genocides, torture and economic exploitation. All this was supported by a populist propaganda machine that infiltrated every aspect of public life with racist messages, from nursery rhymes and music halls to washing powder ads and newspapers. Racist stereotyping is something that continues to subtly dominate individuals and our institutions today. Racial discrimination is still predominately perpetuated by the White population both individually and systemically. People of Colour do not have the power structure in institutions to perpetuate systemic racism in the UK and other White majority countries. The most prevalent type of racism here is covert not overt which is something that makes it easy to dismiss.

In all areas of society People of Colour face disparities of inequity whether it be health, employment, education, criminal justice or housing which also often intersects with class. Covid19 has shown us that the disproportionate numbers of dead Black and Brown people also live in areas of high deprivation, higher pollution and with health problems associated with poverty. Decades of studies for example still show that people who do not have English sounding names have to send 80% more CVs than those with English names, even when their experience and qualifications exceed the other CVs being sent. Some people upon changing their names have secured interviews almost immediately, but for many other People of Colour despite gaining degrees, they still end up working in jobs below their skill set, earning less money than their White English peers.

This is the racism that is most prevalent today and affects people’s life chances, but until there is a will to acknowledge it exists and the will to change it the silent majority will continue to be the foundation that allows it to survive. As one of my White sisters on Instagram said ‘I’m not convinced much has changed myself other than there being a little more representation, but it is minimal. Maybe small steps but no where near enough is being done. There needs to be equity before there can be equality and white people struggle with that because it means relinquishing control and white power which we have stolen…As white people we need to accept that we benefit from a racist society. One that continues to seek to push down other communities in order to protect what we have created…Britain is racist but we like to pretend we aren't. We need to give up the space we have taken. It is sad and angering…’

I leave you with the words of another White sister who said I’ve often described it as when an ostrich puts its head in the sand the problem doesn’t go away, the problem gets bigger. By not addressing damaging views, by not acknowledging history and being held accountable for it, racism won’t go away, it’ll just get bigger and more prevalent. That’s what I believe is happening now, we are seeing it bubble over to a tipping point of things being left unaddressed etc and now look where we are..’

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