This week’s news has been dominated by racism both in the UK and abroad. The Dani Alves incident, Jeremy Clarkson mark one and two, various UKIPpers, and a US basketball team owner (who ironically owes his successes in that position to the very people he seems to hate).
High profile recognition that racism is unacceptable should be a good thing. We should be welcoming all of this discontent about racist language. But look a little deeper and it soon becomes clear that this week’s debate is no cause for celebration.
What should have been an opportunity to highlight the fact that racism is alive and kicking has somehow morphed into a tit-for-tat argument around semantics and the meaning of free speech. The main problem with this is that only a handful of the current commentators seem to properly understand the semantics of racism in the first place.
One key point they’re missing is that the word “racist” is not an insult. It’s an adjective to describe something which prioritises the importance and value of one ethnic group’s identity, appearance, culture or way of life over others. It’s the assumption that your cultural viewpoint is the right way, the best way – everything else is an anomaly, to be tolerated at best and eradicated at worst.
Another misunderstanding (which can even be seen in some of the supposedly anti-racist coverage of these incidents) lies around why racist language is not acceptable. Racist language is not just a social faux-pas showing how out of touch, ignorant or unpleasant the user is. It’s part of a deep rooted structure that can’t be explained in a few column inches, however critical they may be.
Every racist comment serves as a reminder of racial stereotypes and all of the assumptions and hostilities they imply. These words feed directly into the subconscious mind-set that keeps communities apart, breeding doubts and fears. This is the gateway to serious racist assaults, direct discrimination and fascism. It also has more subtle outcomes. An underlying feeling that you don’t want to sit next to that guy on the bus. A nagging sensation that this job applicant won’t fit in well with your team.
Over time, the constant background hum of this mind-set wears people on the receiving end down (various student led campaigns have recently helped to bring the concept of racial micro-aggressions to a wider audience). ‘Everyday racism’ is not just offensive; it’s death by a thousand cuts, each of them delivered by an individual person who sees you in light of your ethnicity instead of all of the other things you are and could be.
Popular fascination with verbal racist incidents is a step in the right direction, but it tends to minimise and even detract from the impact of structural and institutional racism. If minority ethnic people are absent in positions of power in the workplace, politics and the media, stereotypes will go unchallenged. They’ll continue to be played out through everyday racism in the street and on the football pitch.
So we must continue to call out all forms of racism, just as we would point out any inaccuracy or unfairness that damages people’s life chances or wellbeing. And if you’re accused of racism, stop and think about what that really means instead of automatically going on the defence. The only way to combat racism is for each person to recognise it in themselves as well as in others, to question it and to deal with it.