Britain: a place where accusations of racism spark more outrage than hate crimes and systemic prejudice
Throughout the last few weeks of discourse surrounding anti-Black racism, Britain has refused to own up to its role in white supremacy – a brief look at the comments of any news outlet will tell you all you need to know about the denial this country still clings to. When Dawn Butler appeared on the BBC to discuss discrimination within the Conservative party, she was told that her accusations were “outrageous” and “deeply offensive”. Why is it that so much of the UK is more offended by being labelled as racist than it is by the blatant prejudice that still exists in every aspect of society? There is an overwhelming consensus, amongst the older generations in particular, that bigotry does not exist until activists point it out; in the words of Worcester councillor Mr Amos “this left wing obsession with labelling people on the basis of the colour of their skin” is “divisive and pernicious” and only leads to “social unrest”. To put it simply, the consensus seems to be that the way to deal with our systemic prejudice against POC is to pretend it does not exist.
On Saturday, I and a few of my friends organised a Black Lives Matter rally at the Worcester racecourse. It was a huge success, and we listened to the lived experiences of local POC for several hours. Not only was it a great act of solidarity and support for marginalised voices, but a vital learning opportunity for those less aware of the struggles of Black people in this country. It was infuriating to hear of the vile abuse that the speakers had endured in this supposedly tolerant city: “being called a slave”, “being asked why I wasn’t picking cotton or wearing chains”, “receiving death threats and being followed home from school being called a monkey”. Perhaps the most enlightening segment came from 15-year-old Latisha Chantelle, who read her poem ‘When I heard’ about the racist bullying that began when she was only 8. She interrogated the issue of racial slurs, summarising the problem in the line “I always failed to understand why such a big deal was made, to be able to say a word that was invented to degrade people – people like me. Would that really make them happy?” The 2000 passionate attendees proved that there is hope for the UK, and the protest was more moving than we could ever have imagined.
I, like many activists and left-leaning people, exist in a bubble of tolerance and progress. The friends we talk to and the media we consume are united in the view that racism is prevalent, and that each of us needs to unlearn our biases and actively fight for change. It is easy to convince oneself that this is the dominant view of society – it seems so simple, so unarguable, so blatant and palpable, but the response of the UK has been far worse than I anticipated.
The ‘anti-anti-fascist’ riots around the country have begun to destroy my optimism. It is difficult to fathom what is so infuriating about a call for equality and an end to a society in which innocent black people are murdered and profiled on a daily basis. The constant return to the “All Lives Matter” sentiment explains well why these furious reactions are so common from white people: when you exist in a position of privilege, you assume that everyone’s experiences are equal to your own. You believe that, just like in your life, nobody is discriminated against for their skin colour, their class, or their sex – we’re over all that now, aren’t we? If you exist as a white man in a world run by and for other white men, you assume that this order is the default, the norm, the way things are supposed to be. If you truly believe that the world treats everyone the same, the elevation of marginalised voices can seem like a threat to your own. Again, council member Amos urged that “people should be judged for who they are, on their personal qualities, their abilities”. Those who repeat this sentiment when they encounter procedures of equity like diversity quotas and group-specific movements like BLM fail to see that current reality does not allow for fair treatment. They do not recognise the objective existence of unconscious bias and profiling, and are in denial about the way they benefit from a system built on colonialism and white patriarchal supremacy. For some, the defensive and personal responses to these revolutionary times are purely ignorant, and educational opportunities like our rally are key to correcting this attitude.
The less generous and more likely explanation for the rage-fuelled backlash of the last two weeks is that these people are racist. They are bigoted, violent, and do not deserve the excuse of obliviousness. The information is out there – a simple history of Britain would do the trick. Statistics, the love for our current Prime Minister, and the detailed anecdotes of activists like Akala, prove that the country we live in is inherently anti-Black; it is not the job of POC to relive their trauma until they are believed. The men who turned out in the hundreds last week with Nazi salutes know exactly what racism is because they are the ones inflicting it. The monkey-impressions, alt-right gestures, and calls to “pour some petrol on the black c*nt” tell us all we need to know about the motives of these bigots.
This Monday in our own city, Nazir Amir nearly died at the hands of one of these men. She told the Worcester News that a man “grabbed her hijab and pulled it” whilst shouting extremely abusive racist language, kicking her dog and “try(ing) to force” her “into the canal”. This abhorrent attack comes just days after leaflets were left on the cars of our rally’s attendees, detailing facts that supposedly confirmed that racism does not exist in 2020.
Extremism like this does not develop in an isolated sphere – most of the UK’s prejudice does not present itself violently, but is cloaked beneath a falsehood of Britishness and subtlety. Sometimes it looks like a Parliamentary landslide lead by a man who referred to Black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles”. Sometimes it looks like a eugenicist being awarded the role of a senior SPAD, who believes that POC are born with inferior minds and have naturally lower IQs. Sometimes it looks like the backhanded compliment “you’re pretty for a Black girl”, or “being passionate but being seen as aggressive and argumentative”. When we allow these things to slide, we enable violent racists to attack our friends and family – if we do not call bigotry out every single time we encounter it, nothing can ever change. It is the job of white allies to elevate the voices of Black people and challenge hatred even when it comes from our loved ones. There can be no more George Floyds, no more Joy Gardners, and no more Nazir Amirs, and we must all be involved in the fight for justice.