We still have a race problem

Finding a shared British identity is vital to overcoming racial tensions.

My parents came over from India in the late 1970s in response to the calls from the NHS for skilled clinicians and in the hope of better opportunities for their family. Adapting to life in the UK was far from easy – South Shields is far less sari-friendly than Calcutta – but they persevered, worked incredibly hard and are now very much part of the communities they migrated into, my father a GP and my mother a social worker.

I owe my schooling, subsequent entry into a decent university and anything I’ve done since entirely to their struggles and sacrifices. They were relentless in giving me a strong sense of Indian heritage; language, food, Bollywood et al, whilst encouraging a firmly colour blind and unequivocal acceptance of my Britishness and all that it entailed. This was far from easy for them, as they themselves were learning an entirely new culture as they went along – but they adapted, tolerated and challenged where appropriate and as a result gifted me both passionate patriotism and a solid connection with my roots. They are delighted that I’m marrying a girl from the Welsh Valleys, a joy only heightened by her ability to handle spicy food.

The cosmopolitan experience suggests that most children of immigrants (how I wish there was another word to describe my parents, so sullied has it become!) have grown up in a similarly open-minded households, proud to be British and aware of their heritage. London in particular is populated by a jumble of colours and dialects, seemingly happily co-existing with one another, intermarrying, playing social snakes and ladders and getting on without reference to skin tone.

Unfortunately, across the country (and even in the capital) the reality is somewhat different, at least in two ways. Prejudice against people of different colours hasn’t gone away. The Ministry of Justice just published a report describing attitudes to race in the North of England as stuck in a “time warp”; with physical and verbal attacks commonplace. In London there have been 1,400 complaints of racism made against the Metropolitan Police in the last three years. On average, approximately five times more black people than white people are imprisoned in England and Wales. Last season two Premiership footballers were accused of racially abusing fellow professionals, with one found guilty and the other awaiting trial. Racist language continues to be picked up in our streets, police stations, football pitches and across the internet, and is just as vile as ever.

Further, large groups of us live in racially segregated enclaves. London has mini-towns populated by people of the same origin, Bangladeshi to Somali, Caribbean to Chinese. Of course there is mixing in between, but in many of our towns and cities there is still remarkably clear separation in schools, leisure and location between those with brown skin and those with white, particularly in some poor communities where the BNP or EDL hold currency. The state even inadvertently encourages segregation through faith schools, which can often proxy for ethnicity. Race riots in Oldham shocked the nation; yet we hardly debate that some people born and brought up and Britain still choose to live, socialise and marry within (self?) imposed ethnic ghettoisation. In a modern society this is undesirable for all sorts of reasons, a scandal that we have nervously swept under the carpet.

I don’t want to write about race. I’d much rather it didn’t matter, and that I could focus on trying clever prescriptions for Europe or acerbic indictments of education or healthcare reform. But those ranks are swelled; discussing race and colour, on the other hand, is unfashionable, a relic of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Things may have improved since then, but the problem hasn’t gone away. We have found euphemistic ways to skirt around it: gangs, radical Islam, forced marriages, asylum seekers – even the term immigrant. Race, culture and religion are understandably complex, confused, and often conflated, but some sections of the press deliberately stoke the fires of discontent without ever really letting them ignite; others are simply lazy, using terms like ‘Asians’ (placing the subjects in one of approximately 50 countries of origin – not politically incorrect, just imprecise) and talking only to self-appointed, self-important ‘community leaders’ for the low-effort minority representation voice. Meanwhile parts of real Britain smoulder with a tension that mounts by the day as the economic situation worsens, a trend seen across Europe and beyond.

Many will think this is hyperbole. It isn’t, and it is important. There are lots of cleavages in society, but race is instantly identifiable, historically more prone to violence; and a mistrust of the ‘other’ has serious consequences for all that depends on a sense of national unity – democracy, welfare, taxation, shared public goods. On a personal level I had my fair share of name-calling, beatings and graffiti growing up, and I don’t want my children to have to go through the same. So I ask that we do two things, as befits 21st century Britain:

First, accepting we have a problem, we need to create platforms that allow the people of this country to complain, argue and discuss race – part of, but nevertheless distinct, from immigration -  without constraint or fear. Legitimate worries around language or cultural assimilation must be both aired and distinguished from attitudes towards colour, exposing stupidity and prejudice, guided by a confident and unapologetic media and leadership that in turn take on the responsibility for emphasising commonality. Rather than trying to deal with racist language only on occurrence, schools must proactively educate their young people early as to where racist language comes from, how it might feel to be on the receiving end and why casual use is simply unacceptable. When politicians talk about immigration, they must make extra efforts to not conflate it with colour. ‘Respect’ within football is all well and good, but confining an anti-racism campaign to the stands ignores the fact that racism there is symptomatic of a broader malaise in society. We need to use all our channels - schools, social media, television, comedy, news, music, sport – to elevate the problem from its current mistaken categorisation as both niche and largely addressed.

Second, we have to ask the unasked (at least beyond the think tanks) – why do some who are born and bred here fail to fully integrate into the society around them, choosing instead residing within sub-cultures that are often even more specific than skin colour or country of origin? Do they identify themselves as British? Multiculturalism should mean a canvas vibrant with haphazard shape and colour, not distinct blocks separated from one another. If we accept this as an unwanted state of affairs, then why does it exist? Whose fault is it? And how can it be addressed? Citizenship classes can’t be the answer when whole towns are divided by colour. For example we must reconsider the impact of faith schools; housing policy that has for decades ended up (on purpose or by accident) grouping people of similar ethnicities together; and the attitudes of particularly the children and grandchildren of immigrants towards Britain.

The two go hand in hand. As long as people of different colour sometimes appear to belong to different countries, it will be hard to forget about their distinguishing physical features, exacerbating both racism and segregation and making it harder for people like my parents to embrace, and be embraced, by Britain. There is much to unite around; the great liberal tradition, centuries of tolerance and integration, an open political system, free healthcare for all, religious and press freedom, a judicial system revered around the world, and much more. Unfortunately inculcating a sense of fellow-feeling built on these virtues requires more than flags, flotilla and fireworks. But we have no choice - little else but a shared British identity can override the basest reactions to superficial differences.

 

Newly-arrived Bengali women on Brick Lane in 1978. Photograph: Getty Images
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.