I first felt the force of racism as a six- or seven-year-old in the playground. I was the only black child at school, (and a fairly light-skinned one at that), yet I was marked out as different by my class “friends”, whose daily entertainment was to surround me in a circle and, together, repeatedly shout, “Nigger!”.
As soon as I went to one child to get him to stop, he’d laughingly say: “Sorry, I didn’t mean it”. Then I’d approach the next child, and he’d say the same; meanwhile, the first would start the chant again. This would carry on for the full break time, or until the group was bored, with no intervention whatsoever from the teachers.
Why did these children act like this? It was the early 1970s, a few years after Enoch Powell’s race-stirring “rivers of blood” speech. But these kids wouldn’t have been aware of the political debate taking place at the time. Nor can I imagine that it came from their parents – why would they want to embed such bigoted thoughts in their kids at such an early age, in a city – Hull – that had such a small black population?
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For me, it felt far more visceral. In attacking me (as I see it now), they were forming a basic in-out group, which made them feel connected to each other and superior to the outsider. And the more they vilified me, the more strongly they bonded. At other times, bizarrely, I got on fine with these kids: they included my best friends at the school, and I’m sure that after each race-baiting incident they forgot about it and saw me as a person again. But I couldn’t forget it quite so soon.
Even earlier than that, I was aware of race. In my nursery school, at the age of four, I met another brown child for the first time. We instantly became best friends, and I remember being upset when I learned she would be going on to a different school to me. For good or ill, it’s clear that all of us can be aware of race from a very early age, and make decisions based on it. As we grow up, and learn that judging people by their ethnicity is wrong, how much of the playground do we leave behind?
Prejudice is, of course, a universal trait. We all prejudge others: this probably evolved from our survival instinct, which required early humans to make instant decisions when assessing external threats.
But to prejudge is to make a decision about someone based on minimal information – and despite the obvious flaws in this thinking, research shows that it endures. Some studies even show that we form a strong opinion about others within 15 seconds of meeting them. Last year, an investigation into employers’ impressions during job interviews showed that they were heavily swayed by eye contact, personal appearance, quality of small talk, and strength of handshake. All of these may have a racial or (race-related) cultural dimension.
The interviewer makes judgments based on his or her own experiences, but these could well be incorrect if the interviewee has a different background: the appropriate strength of handshake, eye contact, or even personal appearance is entirely subjective. And that’s even if they don’t make a direct judgment on the interviewee’s race.
To pre-judge is to make a decision about someone based on minimal information
So what do we mean by “racist”? This is contentious: what do we even mean by race? Does “race” even exist – is it an artificial construct?
For practical purposes, I’ll define it as the visible physical difference between people based on their geographical background (skin tone, curliness of hair, eye colour, for example). And I’ll define racism as prejudice based on race, combined with power.
In its purest sense, a racist is someone who believes another person is inherently inferior due to the biological fact of their race. This belief drove the centuries-long enslavement of Africans by Europeans, and also the colonial era that followed, in which Africans were deemed incapable of running their own lands. Part of this discourse involved associating Africans with a plethora of negative personality traits: they were supposedly primitive, simple-minded, lazy, aggressive and sexually uncontrolled. This became a convenient way of justifying a system of exploitation that created massive wealth throughout the western world.
Asians and native Americans were never enslaved in the same way, so the justification of their treatment did not go to such extreme lengths: the common perception held, though, that their culture and religion were inferior, and they needed the civilising hand of European conquest.
Yet though slavery, apartheid and colonialism, in those specific forms, have long since been swept into history, the underlying thinking behind them endures. It’s there as a justification for the massive numbers of black people who are stopped and searched, for instance. (The thinking goes that this must be because black people are inherently more likely to commit crime – conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of those stopped are innocent.)
And it’s there in the way Muslims are commonly perceived as a threat – be it from terrorism or grooming, despite the numbers committing these crimes being relatively tiny – because their religion is considered, by some, to be primitive. And although Islam is a religion rather than a race, these attacks are often racist in essence, because of the religion’s strong association with people from a Middle Eastern or Asian background.
Many people are aware only of overt racism: the kind displayed by the Chelsea fans who were caught on video chanting “We’re racist, and that’s the way we like it,” or by people who take to the streets to demand that those who look different be eradicated from society.
This kind of person could correctly be labelled a bigot – though in their own mind, their beliefs could be a rational response to a perceived threat to their own ethnic group by outsiders. It could be their local neighbourhood changing in appearance, or a sense of unfairness that help is being given to another group. Whatever the case, it’s quite clear that policies can be put in place to prevent those who hold such views from discriminating against others directly.
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More difficult to tackle is covert racism: either by individuals who have subconscious prejudices or by institutional structures that discriminate indirectly by default. In any given organisation, successful qualities are seen as those possessed by its leaders - in the UK those could include, for instance, an Oxbridge degree, excellent grammar, membership of a golf club. Different personal qualities are overlooked, effectively excluding large swaths of people who may be perfectly able to do the job in question, but have a different cultural background. Wilfully or not, there’s a strong pull to recruit “people like us”, who “fit in”.
This kind of racism is far more prevalent, and far more damaging, than the overt type – yet because it doesn’t have the dramatic impact of, say, cameraphone footage or a celebrity gaffe, it’s little reported.
It’s this covert racism that underpins lasting inequalities and denies opportunities to millions, year after year. Yet barely anyone who plays a part in it would consider themselves a racist.
Many people fail to comprehend the centrality of power to racism. Why are black and Hispanic Americans incarcerated in such huge numbers? Because the system is set up by and for white people. Let’s face it, black people were only given the right to vote in the US 50 years ago.
We can see how those power structures work by considering the presidency of Barack Obama. He is supposedly the most powerful man on the planet, but has he been able to eradicate racism? To stop police killings of black people? To end inequality? Not at all, because he still works within a white system of power that seemingly blocks every attempt to change the status quo, from “Obamacare” to gun control. The US senate and congress, which he has to answer to, are both white-dominated, as is the US supreme court.
Globally Europeans and, by extension, white people, have been the dominant group for centuries. This may continue for many more. But it’s at least conceivable today that the rise of China might change that: the profound economic and military setbacks the west has suffered in the last decade could be an opportunity for the east to take over. In which case, colonialism, plunder and exploitation would have a different face, a different beneficiary, and a different victim.
Racism, as we know it, would be over; but racism in a new guise would continue.
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