Racism isn’t a myth, a figment of the imagination, a chip on the shoulder or over sensitivity. Racism hurts, it damages, it destroys lives, stamps on opportunities, bars progress and blocks equality. It impacts on the welfare and prospects of whole generations of Black people. (I use the term ‘Black’ in this article in the political sense to encompass all those from the African and Asian Diasporas who have the potential to be discriminated against because of race or skin colour).
Those who believe that racism doesn’t exist should try walking in the shoes of those on the receiving end before they make such judgments.
Politicians, government and sections of the media would have us believe that we are living in a post-racial society where there is no longer a need for policies, laws and measures to tackle racism and inequality but the truth is that racism is increasing every day at a horrifying speed.
Here are just some of the things happening that are creating a more racist society:
- Cuts and austerity measures are impacting disproportionately on Black and Migrant communities, service users and workers
- Institutional racism in the police force despite the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and MacPherson Report recommendations – reviews carried out to mark the 10 year anniversary of the report confirmed that the vast majority of the original recommendations had not been implemented
- The racist Immigration Bill being driven through parliament at speed which will see a return of the ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs, forcing service providers and landlords to become immigration police. My organisation are part of a broad coalition campaigning against the Bill, details of the campaign and how to get involved can be accessed here: HYPERLINK “http://movagxen.wordpress.com” http://movagxen.wordpress.com
- ‘Go Home’ racist ad vans and immigration checks at train stations
- The pandering of the 3 main political parties to UKIP, scapegoating migrants
- The increase of racist and fascist groups on our streets attempting to intimidate Muslim and Black communities, which leads to rising Islamophobia and racist attacks
- Stop and search of young black men at a rate of up to 32 times that of their white counterparts. The government has just held a consultation on stop and search powers. Data has revealed that the vast majority of stops do not lead to arrests
- The number of black people killed at the hands of the State with families forced to fight for many years for justice
- Unemployment rates of black people due to cuts impacting disproportionately, with 1 in 2 young black people unable to get work because of the discrimination in the labour market that existed before the programme of job cuts
We now pass to the next generation of young Black people, a worse future than that passed to those of us like me who are second generation, by our parents’ generation, who faced horrific racism.
Institutions and governments have a collective responsibility to eradicate race discrimination, to create equality of opportunity and safe environments for all to live in without fear of discrimination. It is clear that the racist agenda of the Con-Dem coalition empowers individuals to express racist views but individuals have responsibility for their own actions so if they behaviour in a racist manner this should not be excused or accepted.
Whether its Miley Cyrus’s and Lily Allen’s portrayal of black women in their music videos / performances, the people who racially abused news reporter Charlene White for refusing to wear a poppy whilst reporting the news without finding out let alone considering the reason why and not responding in the same way to white news reporters who did the same, football fans hurling racist abuse at black players or a woman on the tube who hurls racist abuse at non-white passengers telling them they don’t belong here, these individuals are all responsible for their own actions. That’s not to say that the production team and director of the music video aren’t accountable too but pop stars have huge followings who will be influenced by and mimic what they see their ‘idols’ doing. They are ultimately responsible for their videos and performances. Whilst some in the football industry may be outraged when a racist player is abused by fans are they concerned by the lack of black football managers in the UK and will they speak out about this and will they turn their outrage into action to kick racist abuse out of football?
Politicians, government and media may create the environment for racism to thrive and there is no doubt that their actions have led to the rise of racists on our streets and a climate where individuals feel confident about expressing racist views openly but it is does not mean we should let these individuals off the hook.
As an anti-racist campaigner I spend a lot of time representing and supporting those on the receiving end of racism. I know first hand that racism hurts. It impacts emotionally, economically and socially, it impacts not just on the individual on the receiving end but their families too but the personal, individual impact is something that is often overlooked with focus instead of whether it was unlawful, whether it breached a policy or trying to put it back on the individual – do they have a chip on their shoulder? Are they playing ‘the race card’?
Every time we are discriminated against, negatively stereotyped, labelled, oppressed or ostracised it is painful and soul destroying. We’re told to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and carry on, to be strong. Many young black people are raised with a belief that they must work twice as hard as their white counterparts to achieve the same results and if a black person makes a mistake in the workplace they are deemed failures, judged and punished in a way that doesn’t happen to their white counterparts.
As a mother I want to see our children have equal access to opportunities, for them to be judged on merit and to pursue their dreams and aspirations without the hatred of racism stamping on them. Why should we have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to receive the same rewards as our white counterparts? If we accept this as the norm then we are accepting that there should be different standards of achievement for black and white people– it is a form of discrimination like all forms of discrimination that we should reject. All too often when victims of racism speak out they are told that they have a chip on their shoulder, they are over sensitive, its political correctness gone made or they are playing the race card. Effectively made to feel guilty for daring to raise the racism they experience – it’s a tactic used to detract from the discrimination and discriminator and put the focus on those on the receiving end as the problem. Black women are constantly labelled as angry and aggressive when if they were white and male they’d be told they are assertive and would be congratulated for the very same behaviours and actions. If you are constantly put down, oppressed and discriminated against is it any wonder that you are going to reach the point where you express your angry about the situation? Malcolm X said ‘Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change’. So we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about being angry about racism. It is a necessary emotion to move forward and challenge it. It takes courage and strength to stand up to racism and even more to stay standing when in response others try to knock you down.
Some people seem to believe that tackling racism is the responsibility solely of those on the receiving end. It’s not. Some who claim to oppose racism will go to a counter protest against the far right, sign an anti-racist petition but easily turn their back on their neighbour or colleague who is experiencing racism. It’s not enough to say you are against racism, it’s not enough to sign your name to a petition or join a demonstration if you ignore the racism growing daily in your workplace or community. When we witness racism or any other discrimination we all have a responsibility to challenge it whether or not it is aimed at us.
White privilege is the set of privileges throughout society that white people benefit from beyond those usually experienced by Black people which very often white people do not recognise they are in receipt of, as they are things they may take for granted but which Black people constantly have to fight for.
White privilege can be used to change the minds and actions of other white people around as can be seen in Dr Joy DeGruy video: ‘A trip to the grocery store’ on how to use your white privilege. Dr DeGruy who I was privileged to meet this year as the key note speaker at The Enduring Effects of Slavery and Institutional Racism seminar in London, is an internationally renowned researcher, educator, author and presenter. In the video she gives an account of how she went to her local grocery store with her sister in law who is half black and half white, but looks white. At the checkout desk the operator was friendly and chatting to her sister in law and accepted her payment cheque with no checks. When she rang up Dr DeGruy’s groceries there was no friendly chatting and when she gave her a cheque, she asked for 2 forms of identification and then checked her name in a ‘bad cheque book’. Dr DeGruy was humiliated and her 10 year old daughter was upset and hurt recognising it was because of racism this was happening. But then her sister in law who is aware she looks white stepped in and asked why the check out operator was doing this, who responded that it was policy. When she pointed out that it can’t be policy because she did not do it to her she says it is because she knows her to which the sister responds that she has only lived in the neighbourhood for 3 months and Dr DeGruy has lived there for years. This led to two white women in the line behind joining in and stating that it was outrageous and a manager coming over and intervening. Her sister in law used ‘white’ privilege because she understands how it can have an impact and to educate. Had she not been there we can all imagine if Dr DeGruy challenged it herself she probably would have been labelled the angry black woman on top of the negative labelling as a potential criminal because of her race she had already experienced.
This demonstrates how white privilege can be used by white people who witness racism to change attitudes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf9QBnPK6Yg
The incident did not just impact on Dr DeGruy but it impacted on her daughter who as a child understood that this was racism. If we don’t challenge racism we send a message to our children black and white that it is acceptable and the pattern continues.
I have had that experience many times and my child was the driving force in me challenging it because I did not want him to grow up accepting racism as the norm or believing that he had to be twice as good as a white person to achieve the same results and as his parent I have a responsibility to him, for his mental and spiritual well being.
Often when Black people raise issues of racism and under representation with those who claim to understand racism and stand for equality, they become defensive, instead of addressing the issues and showing respect and understanding we get the ‘some of my best friends are black’ response. I don’t care if the person’s best friends are black, blue, orange or green, it does not negate the racism I am raising at the time and doesn’t make it any less offensive. It still needs to be addressed. What is needed is action to address the issues and lessons learnt but on occasion the ‘some of my black friends are black’ response go beyond this and ends in a vicious attack on those raising the issue of racism. This is another experience I have had time and time again.
An example of this is when I raised the issue of black under representation in a particular project with some helpful advice on how this could be addressed for the future and an offer to assist. There were two people in charge of the project. One responded by welcoming my suggestions and giving a commitment to take them onboard and address the issues I raised. The other person went on a huge defensive, listing all the times they had stood against racism in their life, the anti racist protests they had attended and campaigns they had been involved in. It was ridiculous. Nobody was disputing their track record or attacking them personally, it was about the issue that needed to be addressed now but they offered no commitment what so ever to address the issues but took it as a personal attack on them for failing to address them in the first place. This indicated to me that they were feeling guilty about their own failures. But instead of addressing those feelings themselves they launched a ‘secret’ campaign against me that went on for months. They were too cowardly to let me know they were doing it so went behind my back but of course others presented the evidence of their actions to me. They even went so far when it came to an election to identify another Black candidate to stand against me and campaign to discourage people from voting for me. It happened that I knew the other Black candidate and discovered directly from them that they did not even want to stand for election but had been ‘bullied’ into doing so by the person campaigning against me with no knowledge of the real reason behind it. When I told them they were horrified to be used in this way. There was also a deeper issue in that nobody had questioned why there could only be space for one black candidate when there were several positions and tens of white candidates who were not being pitched against each other.
A few years back I wanted to put myself forward for a position that required the endorsement of a group. The group refused to support me with a 50/50 split in favour of supporting me and not and a chair’s casting vote deciding I should not be supported. Those who opposed me being supported claimed that I was not good enough and was not ready yet – disregarding my 10 years plus positive track record. I resigned from the group and went my own way without them, I told them the reasons including not being able to live with myself telling my child that I did not achieve what I wished to achieve or go for an opportunity, not because I did not feel ready or able but because a group of white people had told me I was not good enough. Their response was to attempt to spread lies about me and create a fake story about my resignation. This is a typical response when individuals challenge racism and oppression so the focus is not on them or their behaviours, it is denial and it is insulting. Further it supports the idea that Black people must work twice as hard or be twice as good as white people.
Another time I was about to board a plane to the USA with my son to spend Christmas with family when we were singled out for further checks and told to take off our shoes so they could be searched. When I looked to the left and right of me all the people pulled out of the line were Black. I looked at my little son who had been excited about the trip and felt angry that the start of it should be spoilt by racism. I complained to the officials searching us and challenged them when they claimed it was not racial profiling. I was angry and I insisted on seeing a manager to complain. In my mind I was thinking that we were not going to be spending Christmas with our Californian family after all and would probably be removed from the airport, but I was not going to stand by in silence and have my son believe that this is what he must expect throughout his life – to be singled out and suspected of wrong doing – when this was supposed to be a fun, uplifting family trip. We did end up boarding the plane after I had told the manager I worked on the implementation of Article 13 law, was a trade union and anti-racist activist and was very aware of race law and racial profiling so not to insult me with denial and insisted on taking his details to lodge a formal complaint on my return and challenging him to prove to me that this was not racial profiling. As I glanced back over my shoulder I chuckled to myself at the dozen surprised and indignant white people being pulled out of the line to be checked but sadly I knew that as soon as I had boarded they would go back to racial profiling of Black travellers.
These are just small examples of the every day battles that those of us on the receiving end of racism face. Nobody used their white privilege to stand up and support me but if everyone who witnesses racism were to stand up and challenge it when they see it it would make a difference overall and perhaps some of the vicious long lasting campaigns against those of us who raise racism would be prevented.
That is not to say that we don’t still need to collectively challenge the institutional racism that allows systems, organisations and structures to get away with discrimination and create economic oppression. But when somebody tells you that they feel racially discriminated against don’t start from the position that they are making a fuss about nothing. Stand beside them in solidarity, offer support and challenge when you witness racism. If we are to change behaviours, hearts and minds, we must examine our own behaviour and responses to racism so that we can start from a position of zero tolerance for racism what every form it takes.
Zita Holbourne is a trade union and community activist, poet, writer and artist and anti-racist campaigner and winner of the positive role model for race 2012 at the National Diversity Awards
She is elected to the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) National Executive Committee, the TUC Race Relations Committee and is the co-founder and National Co-Chair of BARAC UK. HYPERLINK “http://www.blackactivistsrisingagainstcuts.org.uk” www.blackactivistsrisingagainstcuts.org.uk
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