By accident, ignorance and malice; and why the little things matter.
To celebrate the birth of a mixed-race member of the British royal family, Danny Baker, a well-known and experienced BBC radio host, tweeted a picture of a monkey.
Oh no! He said. I didn’t mean it in a racist way! My mind isn’t diseased, so I don’t see racism (paraphrased).
This is a big problem.
How are we going to learn to value race and root out racism if we are unconscious of it? If we are unconscious of its history? If we are unconscious of its hard and soft edges? If we are unconscious of the oppression that many in our society experience because of it? And most fundamentally, if we don’t even see it?
By ‘we’, I mean white, British, middle-class communities. This is what I am and this is the sort of community in which I grew up. Communities of individuals who will proudly claim no racist bone in our body, but whose luxurious life cannot be separated from our history. No racist bone in our body, but no understanding of race and racism.
It has become a badge of honour to claim that we are so un-racist that we ‘don’t see race’. On the contrary, we must take the time to ensure that see it more clearly. Only then will we be able to do our bit to make this society a little more liveable.
It is not as though we have not been told. Sticking with the black/white racial divide (although of course the point carries further), black people living in Britain have been explaining their discontents with British society for at least 200 years — longer still if you include those living throughout ‘the empire’.
And yet, it seems to elude us.
We know that there was (and still is) a thing called slavery and that the British have played a role, but I am not sure we appreciate the depth of it. In April this year Cambridge University announced that it is going to examine its archives to see whether it benefited from slavery. Are you serious? That is like asking whether the University today benefits from oil. Or whether a car’s engine benefits from its tyres. It reveals more ignorance than any answers will remedy. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was part of our system. It was a central ingredient in our 18th Century growth and subsequent emergence as a global superpower. That means every institution in Britain, then and today, benefited from it. Your history and economics departments should be able to tell you that! But we don’t get it.
We know the very basics about the American Civil Rights movement. We know about Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and have heard of Rosa Parks, Malcom X and the Black Panther Party. But most of us couldn’t go much further, and who among us knows about the British black power movement? Who was Altheia Jones-LeCointe? Who was Darcus Howe? And what was the trial of the Mangrove Nine? These are not names I remember from my ‘world-class’ secondary, sixth-form or university educations. Their absence from our consciousness helps foster a mistaken belief that a racial struggle has not been necessary here in Britain; so we don’t get it.
We know that a ‘Windrush Generation’ came to Britain after the second world war, largely from the Caribbean. But do we know why? Do we know that they were invited? Asked to leave their homes to help us rebuild ours? Now seventy years on, wherever possible, we deport their children. We simply don’t get it.
And look around you today. So many people are trying to explain it to us. Look to authors like Zadie Smith, Benjamin Zephaniah and the recently deceased Andrea Levy (among many, many others) for their accounts of black life in Britain. Watch Trevor Noah as he patiently dedicates large segments of his talk-show to explain the racial landscape as he sees it . Watch Dear White People, a Netflix production that literally takes the audience step-by-step through a variety of simplified race-relation issues in sexy, bite-size chunks. While both of these shows come from the United States, they apply and are widely consumed here in Britain too. In music listen to Stormzy. Recently due to headline an Austrian festival, he took the drastic step of cancelling last minute. He wanted to send a clear message after his manager was racially profiled by security staff. The rapper has also accused British police of publicly associating black events with drugs busts but keeping quiet elsewhere (think Notting Hill Carnival vs Glastonbury), of breaking down the door to his flat only to find him sleeping inside, and of excessively stopping him as he walks south London’s streets. Now that he has a nice car, he says, he gets pulled over instead. Last year he established a scholarship to help black children study at Cambridge University, where they remain significantly under-represented.
In sport look at Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling — two of the most successful professionals in what is probably our country’s most competitive industry (Premiere League football). Rose has publicly stated that he “can’t wait to see the back of football” and Sterling is writing in to national newspapers because “racism…in football is so bad, runs so deep and is nowhere near being sorted.” In academia, look at the work by Safiya Noble on how our new super highway to information, google, systematically perpetuates racist stereotypes through its algorithms. And in politics, listen to Rt Hon David Lammy as he tirelessly points out, again and again, that there has been and still is racism within our institutions, particularly within our police.
These people, and many others, are taking the time to explain a point they would really rather not have to. More than that, they are taking the time to explain it in a way that ‘crosses over’ — so it doesn’t remain confined to ‘black culture’ and is readily consumable by us white middle classes. They have brought their explanations to our front doorsteps. Now we have to take the time to sit back and just listen — no excuses, no justifications, no counter arguments. Because, at the moment, I think we just don’t get it.
Let’s take a look at 2019’s high profile blunders so far:
Right at the beginning of February Liam Neeson (OBE) publicly recounted walking the streets with a cosh “hoping some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at [him] … so that [he] could … kill him”. He was plugging his latest movie, trying to tell a personal anecdote about wanting revenge for a friend’s rape. Racism wasn’t even part of his point. As Spike Lee pointed out, the anecdote’s links to a long history of white violence towards black men out of fear for white women seem to have gone completely over his head.
Later that week, Gucci released a balaclava sweater that clearly resembles blackface. Don’t worry, they deeply apologised and withdrew it.
Less than a week later, seemingly not wanting to be out-blackfaced in the fashion industry, Katy Perry release these shoes, and then apologised and withdrew them.
It’s not that the imagery is innately offensive. It is that we (particularly white people) shouldn’t use it now because of how we have used it in the past.
In April Waitrose released a little Easter treat of three chocolate ducks — the darkest labelled the ugly duckling. If you want to question why this is racist, ask yourself ‘in what world would the white chocolate duckling be labelled the ugly one?’ Not ours. That’s why. They apologised and re-branded the packaging.
And then in May, Danny Baker accidentally compares the highest profile mixed race baby in Britain to a monkey, then apologises; he didn’t see the connection until it was too late.
These examples are not as bad as things that Rose, Sterling, Sormzy, Noble and Lammy are highlighting. But they are indications that racism is not something that white middle class communities are aware of or in any way understand. That it is not really something that we are taking the time to think about.
Back in 2015 Rebecca Caroll lamented the frequency with which white celebrities were being accidentally racist, acting publicly horrified with themselves, issuing apologies with explanations of their underlying good intentions, and proceeding on with their careers. No harm done. Not realising that there actually is harm done: for everyone who has to put up with the accidental insult that also serves as a sign that their grievances with this society are simply not respected.
Neeson’s movie did just fine at the box office, more than recovering its production costs. Waitrose remains a stalwart of high-end grocery shopping. Gucci released their fall/winter 2019 collection as normal. Katy Perry treated audiences to a surprise appearance at Coachella. And Danny Baker got a standing ovation at his first public appearance after making his ‘mistake’, I presume from a largely white audience. Before the month was out his shows were back on the radio.
As a white, middle class general public, it seems that we simply don’t mind a little Great British Racism. Is this because we don’t understand our past? Or we don’t understand the experience of being on racism’s other side? Or because we ourselves are a little racist? I suspect all three.
It’s not OK to remain unconscious of the oppression that others in our society experience, especially when so many have tried to explain it to us. This endless merry-go-round of accidental racism and apology is getting us nowhere. An apology only applies if you stop doing the thing. Perhaps we need to stop expecting that our apologies be accepted?
Because of our history, and out of respect, don’t accidentally compare a black person to a monkey. Don’t accidentally bring back blackface. Don’t accidentally associate dark skin with ugliness. And don’t accidentally ponder on the desire to kill a random black man out of revenge. These are the very simplest of requests that have been made to us. If we can’t even manage or understand these little basics, what hope do we have with the bigger, more serious things?