Structural Racism in Britain: a case study

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Some people declare that we live in a post racial world. Many insist that they are colour blind, whilst others refuse to engage with the idea of quotas for ethnic minorities. Which is unfortunate.

British society today is actively involved in racism, but it’s more unconscious and wide-spreading that anybody could have anticipated. In my last post on the consequences of Brexit, I discussed the mindset of those who were involved in the hate crime shortly after the referendum. Here, however, I can reveal that there is a further-reaching biased agenda is at play, and the worst thing is; it’s (mainly) unconscious.

After reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race, shocking figures were unveiled. The media often portray racism to be seen in two categories: one where people are in full-out equality campaigns, posters and all, and one where others are openly spreading malicious messages online. Two opposites. But after reading this book, it turns out that in reality things are much more subtle than this; it’s not simply a black and white divide of personal choice, but something which through societal cues has seeped into our everyday life. From under-represenatation of BAME actors in the media to the dubious dealings of police (yes, even in Britain), these are the things which shift our everyday perception of the people around us. Don’t believe me? An excerpt from Eddo-Lodge’s book points out that “In 2009, a study by the Department for Work and Pensions found that applications for jobs to a number of prospective employers were not treated equally: applicants with white-sounding names were called to interview far more often than those with African- or Asian-sounding names.” Uncanny, yes, but is it that really that unsurprising? The book is filled with many other statistical and even anecdotal examples, from discussing the Bristol bus boycott to the role feminism has to play in levelling out the playing field, all of which are used to illustrate the point that structural racism exists today.

The reason why this book is so impactful is because often people think that structural racism doesn’t affect them, that is belongs to angry magazine articles and indignant interviewees. Not quite; although America is rife with unpleasant events surrounding discrimination, with alternative figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. being held up history class, we need to look no further than our own country for information. Then there are other factors such as white privilege, which is an interesting example. Eddo-Lodge points out that if you don’t know what it means, it means it’s probably in your favour. This relates more to subconscious relativity than anything else: in an interview, if you share something in common with the interviewer, they’ll assume that when you make a mistake it’s because of nerves, not incompetence. If you are a different race or gender to the interviewer, it’s far more likely that a negative assumption is placed upon you, which could be as drastic as to have the consequence of increasing your period of unemployment.

This is an enlightening read because it reveals how the nature of Britain’s society is interwoven with biases, with countless examples from not only history but modern-day to prove this. This is instrumental in pointing out existing structural flaws which many might not concede exist. However it seems to me that the type of people who will be reading a book entitled something as seemingly abrupt as “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, probably aren’t the people who need to see this the most. But why is the title so unpalatable to many? The simple fact is that people with pale skin are unused to being called ‘white’; they have entitled themselves to so much pride and individualism, that to be pigeon-holed into a demographic almost appears to be rude. After all, the term is only accurate and it’s been illustrated consistently that pointing out other ethnicities’ skin colour is acceptable. (I won’t get started on the hypocrisy of the title, because that would take too long, although it seems that since publishing the book Eddo-Lodge has mainly been giving talks to white people about it… I don’t know, maybe it’s ironic.)

That is not to say that Eddo-Lodge’s book can sail past without any criticism though. Sadly not: firstly I would say that there is a lot of indication of the problems at hand; after all, if we are to discuss how to target a problem, we must not only identify the problem first, but get people to acknowledge the issue’s existence. Fine. Around 220 pages of this endless finger-pointing later, we have about 2 paragraphs of what can be done in the future. So, after lengthy discussions of structural rascism, what does the author thinks is the main way to solve this heart-felt problem? Talking. As simple as that.

Now, that might be useful for spreading the word amongst friends, but realistically this can’t be implemented to a life-changing effect on an international scale, which presumably is the result she wants. Talking, whilst powerful amongst small social circles (we all know what a rumour can do), or even, taking this example at it’s best, flitting past the newspaper headlines, is not going to change people’s innate societal biases which Eddo-Lodge has so expertly referred to earlier on. There are such sweeping statements such as: ‘The mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people.” Yes, I understand now. Excuse me, I thought the issue of structural racism could be solved by walruses. It seems a bit poor to devote such a pitiful few sentences to a solution, because what use is highlighting a problem when you don’t as equally highlight the way the tackle it. If Eddo-Lodge had been a bit more specific in a mechanism for implementing this societal change, I would be satisfied, understand how we can all move forward because I know that vast swarms of people who are currently reading this book will sincerely want to help. Some may have massive platforms, other funds, and if they knew where to channel that maybe some work could be done. However, most people aren’t like Eddo-Lodge, and will only remember the injustice the book made them feel, not the facts or insights. Many won’t want to, out of a fear of public speaking, not the topic, speak to a large crowd about what they’ve learnt. If the reader is captive in the text, so to speak, at least they could have been offered alternative ways of spreading the word, such as specific organisations or campaigns. I’m not writing these things out of anger, but because we as writers have a limited chance to make an impact on an audience, but I wanted to see Eddo-Lodge use that literary platform so that it had the most influential outcome. It was borne out frustration at the missed opportunity more than anything else.

Also some of Eddo-Lodge’s comments made me prickle. For example, she writes in the section entitled ‘The Feminism Question’ that feminism “must demand pay for full-time mothers and free childcare for working mothers.” As somebody heavily involved in economic affairs and moral values in modern society, believe me when I say I have spent hours debating this topic. You cannot simply mention something as complex as the subject as the financial struggles of mothers in a single sentence then fling yourself off onto another world problem. Each of these issues, such as “Feminism must demand affordable, decent, secure housing” seems to be shoved into the text as the author attempts to find ways through an ideology to solve every global issue. These are problems which demand the respect of being fully explained, that each require countless books of their own to be fully comprehended and palming them off for feminists to fight for as well as gender equality seems groundless. Then there were mystifying phrases such as “I have no desire to be equal” and “It’s clear that equality doesn’t quite cut it.” This is fine for a personal preference I suppose, but the latter sentence doesn’t sit right with me. I understand what the author means when she says that the “onus is not on me to change. Instead, it’s the world around me.” but that doesn’t mean that she can just cast off equality as some dirty word. What more should anyone in society want than equality? What else is there to strive for?

Having said these things, it is generally a superbly written and eloquent read that is essential for those interested in economics, current affairs and psychology. Or everyday life really, but there were flaws nonetheless, which I think many critics have ignored due the heavily moral aspect of the book, so they feel if they attack a part of the book, they are in some way defending structural racism, which obviously is a false claim. Sincerely though, it was a relevant and pertinent piece.

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