The answer to this question is a big loud YES. Not all racism is the lynching type. Believe it or not, the majority of racism people of colour experience is very much subtle and hidden in nice gestures. It is also important to point out that a lot of our understanding of racism and race relations comes from our cousin across the seas, the United States. The US have major problems when it comes to police brutality, but this seems to have influenced how we perceive what racism in action looks like. We seem to have adopted an American understanding which, even looking at the culture, is very different to racism in Britain. For example, Americans tend to be more outspoken and say what they think more than British people; we have this tendency to tut loudly and look away whenever we have a problem with something. It follows, then, that our racism will be a lot more polite and well-mannered than seeing people being shot in the back every other day.
Interestingly, even though many people would assume that America’s criminal justice system is worse in terms of treatment of black people than the UK’s; when actually we have a higher rate of incarcerated black people (41% to America’s 39%) compared to the population make up of the countries. The National Union of Students has pointed out that racist incidents at UK universities have risen by more than 60% from 2015-2017, and figures are likely to be much higher as a result of underreporting. These figures are shocking and this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg! The evidence hints at the systematic and very well hidden racism; that behind the curtains type that shows up when your work colleagues will smile and laugh with you, and then comment on how much they want your dark skin because you look so exotic! Or when you’re with friends and they jokingly make fun of some accents or imitate them, and all you can really think about is the fact that you have to take care of any council issues at university because when your mum who has an Ethiopian/Eritrean accent calls up the council she gets treated like dirt and there won’t be an electrician in for at least 3 weeks.
The point that I’m trying to make is that because racism, racial biases and tendencies are deep in the fabric of our society, woven into the very foundation that the United Kingdom was built on, even well-intentioned, ‘nice’, friendly people can help to perpetuate these without knowing. Most of the time they won’t know that touching your hair without asking is offensive; they won’t know that in the 19th and 20th centuries, African slaves were placed in human petting zoos all over Europe, including London, because Europeans thought that Africans were subhuman because they looked different. Although their ignorance is a reason for their behaviour, it is not a justification and it becomes the personal responsibility of said white person to deconstruct and unlearn stereotypes taught to them by society, and instead try and understand how people of colour are disadvantaged, and use their privilege to become an ally.
Racism is structured into our society through the school to prison pipeline, the Gangs Matrix, through employment wages, grades at university and every other aspect of life; the EDL, Britain First and outright racism/fascism are just the tip (and the most seen) aspects of a system designed to keep people of colour at a constant disadvantage. This process of unlearning what has been taught is not an easy journey, but it is one well worth taking, not only for the sake of other people, but to also develop and understand yourself better. Surprisingly, it is not only the oppressed that are affected by ideals of white supremacy and privilege for a skin colour. In fact, there seems to be a disconnect between what white people are taught and reality. Asking anyone to consider whether their achievements were truly their own, or whether it was handed to them is going to bring up uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Asking them to consider if they have and maintain racial biases will almost certainly bring up an inner resistance, because they believe that they are ‘good’, moral people who give money to the homeless and volunteer at the elderly home every weekend. There seems to be this idea that people cannot be good and racist; one does not cancel out the other. Becoming actively anti-racist is the only way to tackle your own racial biases and contribute to the tearing down of a vindictive system. Those who aren’t really too bothered about it, and aren’t outright racists but won’t call one out, or would prefer to change the subject, are complicit in the upholding of an unjust structure. Edmund Burke said ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ So, go forth and use empathy, compassion and the privilege you may have to call out racism whenever and wherever you see it. Attending the Bystander Intervention training that the University does is a small step in the right direction. In my opinion, that gets you closer to the definition of a good person anyway.
Piece written by Roma Fiseha, SU BAME Community Organiser