Is Britain still racist?
Updated: Jul 26
Today I was fortunate to be granted a place on the BBC Sunday morning programme, The Big Questions. The programme typically consists of a debate-like forum in which the host, panelists, and audience discuss sociopolitical issues that have caught the attention of the British public within recent weeks. The host, Nicky Campbell, typically introduces two questions which the selected panel and audience will address throughout the course of the show. Today’s topics included ‘Is Britain still racist?’ and ‘Is further education fit for purpose?’
Despite the two being of great importance to me, this piece will focus on the former. Although some of the points I will make simultaneously shed light on the latter.
The debate began with author, barrister, and human rights activist, Afua Hirsch, through highlighting the thesis of her newly released book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. It is interesting to note that Hirsch begins her preamble by acknowledging from the outset that her experience is unique from the typical black person in Britain. Hirsch claims that her coming from a middle-class background, receiving private education, and having a successful career as a journalist, has in many ways prevented her from experiencing racism.
The author claimed ‘I’m not a victim, I have had so many opportunities’. Hirsch then went on to list the numerous ways in which institutional racism pervades British society and finally concluded her preamble with ‘I have seen unfairness against people of colour everywhere,’ and expressed her need to use her platform to fight racial injustice.
Whilst Hirsch does well to acknowledge that her experience is atypical in comparison to many of her black counterparts, I found it telling that she believes that her middle-class upbringing and private education relinquishes her from the overarching effects of racism. Her language in her opening line is reminiscent of an anthropologist studying the behaviours and habits of that of an unknown species. Her tone did not in any way suggest that defeating racism was ‘her fight’.
I also found it interesting to note that whilst acknowledging how she perceives her identity - she failed to take into account that perhaps her bi-racial heritage, light-skinned features, and surname could have contributed to her privileged experience. Especially as research has shown that women of a darker skin complexion are treated differently to women with a lighter complexion. I found her phrasing and the self-identification within her understanding of racism was playing on her white privilege and therefore, to a large extent, counter-productive.
A particularly sad moment in the debate for me was following a point about victimhood within discussions of race. A lady in the audience who appeared to be in her late 40’s or early 50’s made a striking statement about her understanding of the French Constitution’s position on race. The lady claimed that when she had learnt that the French Parliament had outlawed the term from their constitution - because ‘there is no such thing as race’ - she had ‘felt a rush of relief’; because ‘I too had been carrying that [burden of victimhood]’. The lady then went onto describe France’s decision to do so as ‘a stroke of genius’.
The lady’s comments were then greeted with laughs, shaking of the head, and claims of France’s abhorrent and racist nature. Despite personally finding the lady’s comments hurtful and destructive not only to her own well-being but to other ‘people of colour’; I was, first and foremost, disappointed with the panelists’ response to her, owing to the fact that they claimed to understand how racism works.
Whilst of course it is important to understand that racism is indeed institutional, racism also affects the psyche of every individual (both the oppressor and the oppressed). The panellists’ inability to acknowledge and seek to educate their ‘sister’ was very disheartening and disappointing.
From my understanding, it appears that her ‘sense of relief’ - came as a result of her experiences, understanding, navigation and negotiation as a black woman within such societies - that made her feel as though her skin colour was a disability at worst, and a crutch at best. It appeared she felt as though her black skin was a curse she struggled to bear.
I found this particularly sad because, due to her age, she would be deemed in the black community as an elder. Someone’s whose life choices and experiences could act as a source of knowledge for the younger generations to draw wisdom and perhaps affirmation from.
However, what was most disconcerting was that all she could take from this life so far, is that the refusal to acknowledge, accept, understand, or even tolerate an important essence of her being - was experienced as liberating. What message does this send to our younger generation? Especially young black women.
It appears that this woman failed to realise, that by no longer speaking about race or acknowledging race, the problem of racism has neither been solved or ended. The very removal of the term ‘race’ from the constitution is racist and oppressive in and of itself. The removal of such an essential term is a form neutralisation. You are still a victim of racism but you no longer have the tools or linguistics to articulate your situation and oppression.
What American novelist, social critic, and prophetic voice within the Black experience, James Baldwin, claimed rings ever more true: that someone who is able to articulate his oppression is no longer a victim, they have become a threat. France’s constitutional change very much fits into the notion of a ‘colour-blind’ society that is gaining popularity.
We must ask ourselves the pivotal question: What must I transform myself into, for you to no longer see my difference?
The theme of victim-hood arose again. The argument mainly presented itself in the form of a sparring session between Generating Genius CEO, Tony Sewell, and Lecturer of Sociology and Black Studies at Birmingham City University, Kehinde Andrews. Throughout the course of their dialogue, Andrew’s rhetoric focused greatly on ‘racism being in the DNA of this country.’ He pointed to the following to support his claim: statistically black people had not made much progress since the 1948 Windrush generation.This, he claimed, was due to the structural racism of the country, originating in the genocide, enslavement, and colonialism of mainly Black people.
Sewell on the other hand emphasised and spoke proudly of the progress black people had made since Windrush. Sewell, whose company focuses greatly on the educational attainment of Black British students, spoke confidently and proudly of the shift in educational attainment; in particular, West African girls. Throughout the show, Sewell was adamant that people such as Andrews were doing more harm than good due to his unflinching focus on the bleakness of racism. Sewell further claimed ‘we are in danger of creating a discourse of ‘Britain is racist therefore we can’t’. Sewell then claimed that ‘this gives the impression we can’t progress and that, itself, takes away power and agency’.
I found the exchange between both men to be ironic as they were unable to see that they were effectively two sides of the same coin. Andrews sought to emphasise realisation and resistance to racism; whereas Sewell focused on overcoming and liberation from racism. All of which are essential for the survival of ethnic minorities in Britain. Both men’s arguments in my opinion complemented and gave life to each other.
How can one be liberated if they are unaware of the restrictions and the extent to which their oppression occupies their space?
What is the use and sense in comprehending one’s oppression and not having the tools and aspiration to liberate oneself?
Despite the irony and interplay, both men sought to mock and diminish each other’s viewpoint. They were unable (or unwilling) to find a common ground in the understanding that they are ultimately working toward the same goal.
From a personal perspective, I am under no illusion that my experience within Britain will not be heavily influenced by my being a Black woman. Acknowledging and accepting that is crucial for my own understanding and growth. This is not to say that I can never achieve my dreams.
On the contrary, this is to say I must not be fooled, or be naïve enough to fall into a false sense of security, that my gender or ethnicity will not act as an obstacle. The key thing is to acknowledge and understand this reality and act accordingly, not to internalise it.
Due to their inability to share ideas and exchange in critical dialogue, a crucial point Sewell raised was immediately disregarded. Sewell spoke about subcultures affecting the Black community and Black families, implying their wider reaching repercussions, such as educational attainment. It could be argued that race and subculture do intertwine and are not necessarily separate entities, especially with regards to Black educational underachievement and incarceration rates.
But Andrews refuted any merit in Sewell’s argument and dismissed it as nothing more than ‘right wing ideology’. ‘The problem isn’t the family, it’s the schools and the Universities’, Andrews responded.
… racism does not simply dwell within the public but penetrates and pervades the private sphere as well
What Sewell and Andrews both failed to comprehend is that it is actually a combination of both. Both suggested they have a sophisticated grasp of racism. Yet the two failed to realise that although racism is indeed structural it has devastating effects on the individual, and as a result, racism does not simply dwell within the public - but penetrates and pervades the private sphere as well.
Single parent households, educational underachievement, incarceration rates, Black Inferiority Complex, and more: these fragment the Black Community, overlapping and interchanging constantly. Yes, the education system like many other British institutions creates and perpetuates racism, but to say that the private sphere (the home) plays no role is simply not true. Single parent households with low income, young Black boys who lack paternal role models, and the negative influence of gang culture are also factors which we cannot ignore.
Another facet of the victim-hood discussion, unfortunately not touched upon, is how slavery, colonialism, and imperialism not only affected the psyche of the victims but also the psyche of the perpetrators.
If Black people are to have inherited and internalised a victim-hood mentality as a result of that history then what did White people inherit and internalise as a result?
How did, and how do - white people explain and understand the behaviour of their ancestors and their descendants?
Racism has two victims.
The host Campbell espoused the popular argument that ‘slavery happened ages ago, why are white people today being picked on for something that happened hundreds of years ago? And why is it that these crimes aren’t compared to empires such as the ‘Soviet, Arab, Ottoman, and the Pre-colonial Nigerian and Zimbabwean?’. Campbell then added ‘This is what humans do, they subjugate each other’.
Firstly, precolonial Nigeria and Zimbabwe’s empire did not reach the depths or the heights, nor create the same lasting impact that the British Empire did, so there is not truly a justified comparison. Secondly, you do not justify or alleviate yourself of the responsibility of any wrong doing by highlighting the wrongdoing of others.
We live in a society where, throughout the years, many White people have tried to ignore, downplay, and indeed pacify - not only the extent but even the very occurrence of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism.
This can be understood by using a frequently used diagnosis from the critical theorist, Peter McLaren, of ‘oppressive amnesia’. It is a point summed up eloquently by James Baldwin’s claim that, ‘Because they think they are white they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history’.
The British education system seeks to indoctrinate inhabitants with the myth of White Supremacy (whiteness). White features are the standard of beauty, ony White European history is worth engaging, and anything other than a White British culture is deemed the ‘Other’ and inferior.
Meanwhile, Britain is one of the very few places where democracy and freedom of speech exist, reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ . These are all taught explicitly and covertly through the socialisation of this society, namely through education.
Within Campbell’s questions was the problem which psychologists such as Joy Degruy refer to as ‘cognitive dissonance’ regarding racism. This occurs when White people are confronted with truths and realities that are so powerful and disruptive to the ideologies and beliefs that they hold and have been socialised into, that they are left in a state of flux.
Some acknowledge the painful realisation that perhaps what they have been taught is not true. Others, unable or perhaps unwilling to accept this begin to justify and normalise their ideologies, and to rationalise the actions and mentality of their ancestors and descendants. They themselves embody this mentality and persona to this day, continuing to rationalise, justify, and draw to the sins of others, without never truly confronting the darkness within their history and present reality.
Racism has two victims.
Throughout the conversation, the inability to understand, empathise, or truly hear one another meant the arguments and perspectives put forward seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Prior to following with my own personal reflections, a point made by the panelist, Swaran Singh, of Warwick Medical School, struck me as interesting. During his response to the initial question, ‘Is Britain still racist?’ Dr Singh responded: ‘In comparison to what?’
The panelists who were for the motion that Britain is still racist were understandably shocked and astounded at the notion that one should 'measure racism' in a comparison, as opposed to its inherent nature. Dr Singh then went onto claim that ‘if it is in comparison to this Utopian mythical society where nothing bad happens then Britain is probably racist’. However, when comparing it to other ‘human societies’ Dr Singh claimed ‘Britain is one of the most fair and tolerant [nations]’. Dr Singh stated that he would not judge Britain by a few bad experiences but, rather, by the ‘millions of everyday interactions [with] White people’.
There are many things that troubled me and some of the other panelists about Dr Singh’s comments: His repetition of the fact that on his third day in Britain he had been attacked due to being mistaken by an Iraqi, as though if only these misguided fools had known of his true South Asian origins, the attack may not have been as devastating.
Then, his inability to move away from the personal of racism. Yes, perhaps everyday social interactions are an indicator to an increase of some extent of social cohesion, but not that racism no longer exists. Racism is deeply rooted in the very foundation, structure and institutions of this country.
Racism doesn’t see individuals, racism only sees colour.
Singh also found the term ‘Whiteness’ problematic, as he believed it suggested ‘we are stuck in 400 years of history [and this inevitably acts as a] counsel of despair and is juvenile’ Singh then followed with the following rhetorical questions
What can white people do about their whiteness?
If I blame them for their whiteness what can I expect from them?
What can white people do to get rid of their whiteness?
Ironically the nature, framing and the rhetorical tone suggested that Singh had himself internalised this great sense of despair about the inevitable nature of White people. And his approach seemed to be that Whiteness is a permanent construct and reality that cannot be dismantled or overcome. Rather, that Whiteness is something that must be tolerated and reconciled, as opposed to being constantly resisted, struggled against, and dismantled.
His three comments for me underpinned the difference in approach from both sides. Reconcile or Resist?
Upon deeper reflection, the debate was more provoking and insightful than I had initially perceived it to be. Neither side/ panelist for me possessed all the answers/ persuading argument. Rather, it was mostly in their non-verbal exchanges, the undertones of their claims, and the similarities which they themselves were unable to draw upon - that the truth lay.
Britain is unquestionably still a racist society, both in its nature and in its conduct. Perhaps shedding light on and exploring Britain’s international affairs – in the Middle East and Africa in particular – would have given greater context and wider depth to Britain’s domestic affairs. This would have also made the discussion more fruitful and the answer to the question more apparent. I also despair at the panelists undermining each other, and think personal perceptions – narratives and anecdotes – of course have a lot to do with one’s understanding of the question. Despite both sides failing to reach an understanding, they all want the best for the BAME community.
It was also interesting to note the generational divide. The older generation looking back retrospectively was adamant that progression had been made; and the younger generation of panelists who are currently living in the midst of it feel as though not much has changed. I think that multi-generational dialogue is something that must be explored. Of course Nicky Campbell would not be the person to chair that discussion, and ‘The Big Questions’ would not be the forum to hold that discussion. It is most definitely an in-house conversation that must be had.
The older generation appeared to have forgotten the words of their parents: that when they arrived in Britain they should take advantage of the ‘good opportunities and education’ which was seen as superior to that back home. Regardless of whether or not this was indeed true, their parents were not fully aware of the gross injustice, racism and hardship they faced within the spaces such as the classroom. Their parents were not there. It seems as though the older generation have forgotten this in many respects.
Overall, yes, there has been many steps towards progress made since 1948 but in many ways little has changed. Britain’s racism has become more subtle, despite occasional overt outbursts (consider the rhetoric surrounding Brexit).
What was most evident from the debate and indeed my own observations, is that there is still much confusion surrounding what racism truly is. As a result of this, calling someone a racist can provoke more outrage than overt or covert racism itself. In this climate, to not outwardly hate or possess prejudice is seen as equivalent to being anti-racist.
Until Britain’s White and non-White inhabitants, both truly seek to understand that racism is institutional and systematic - a product of slavery, colonialism and imperialism; which works alongside/intertwines with other forms of oppression such as sexism and classism; as well as understand they we are all in some way affected by it - Britain will forever remain racist.
Alexandra Brown is a secondary school RE teacher, freelance writer, poet and academic. She had presented a number of papers on esteemed platforms including the University of Oxford. She is British born with African-Caribbean (Ghanaian and Jamaican) heritage. This article first appeared on the Conversations With website. Reproduced with tha author's permission.