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  • Judy Ryde

Own our own racism

click here to read more ......There is a lot of talk in the press, and in the country, about whether or not someone is a racist. This is a tricky area as racism and being called a racist, falls somewhere between an objectively described characteristic and a personal slur. If someone has committed murder, they can reasonably be called a murderer; if they have stolen something, they can be called a thief. No doubt, even in these cases, there are mitigating circumstances that make this description less clear but, compared to racism, this portrayal is pretty hard and fast. Racism, along with other behaviours and attitudes based on prejudice, is much easier to deny. In fact, most people would deny that they are racists. So, what is the definition of racism and why is it so easy to deny?


What does it mean to own our racism? There is a lot of talk in the press, and in the country, about whether or not someone is a racist. This is a tricky area as racism and being called a racist, falls somewhere between an objectively described characteristic and a personal slur. If someone has committed murder, they can reasonably be called a murderer; if they have stolen something, they can be called a thief. No doubt, even in these cases, there are mitigating circumstances that make this description less clear but, compared to racism, this portrayal is pretty hard and fast. Racism, along with other behaviours and attitudes based on prejudice, is much easier to deny. In fact, most people would deny that they are racists. So, what is the definition of racism and why is it so easy to deny?

I guess that most people’s definition of racism is ‘a prejudiced attitude to other races’. This is a fairly simple explanation and one that is easy to deny as it describes an attitude rather than an act. If an act is apparently racist, it is easy to deny that a racist attitude was behind it. Boris Johnson has recently said ‘There is not a racist bone in my body’, for example, even though he said that women wearing burkas look like letter boxes. Trump denies he is racist even though he asked American’s of colour to ‘go back to where they came from’. In fact, racism is usually something other people accuse you of, not a description you give yourself.

In my books, ‘Being White in the Helping Professions’ and ‘White Privilege Unmasked’, I suggest that we white people (I include myself in this) turn that on its head and be more interested in unveiling our own racism, which is often hidden by our desire to be seen as ‘good’, and our shame at being thought of as prejudiced. This hiding of our shameful racism means that we do not think very hard about what racism means and how it is displayed. We are all embedded in our history and culture and cannot easily extricate ourselves from it. However, it is not so long ago that black people were equated with monkeys by white people, thought of as ‘simple’, unsophisticated and ‘primitive’. Indeed, our new prime minister said in 2002 in the Spectator that "The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more... Consider Uganda, pearl of Africa, as an example of the British record. … the British planted coffee and cotton and tobacco, and they were broadly right... If left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain. You never saw a place so abounding in bananas: great green barrel-sized bunches, off to be turned into matooke. Though this dish (basically fried banana) was greatly relished by Idi Amin, the colonists correctly saw that the export market was limited... The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.“ Source: https://quotepark.com/quotes/1892610-boris-johnson-the-problem-is-not-that-we-were-once-in-charge-bu/

Although Colonisation and slavery seem a long time ago those attitudes are hard to eradicate completely. Slaves were thought of as being ‘other’, ‘not like us’ so that they could be bought and sold and put to work, much as an animal would be. These attitudes do not disappear overnight but remain with us to a greater or lesser degree. They may be just a whisper in our souls, but black people know that white people harbour them, even when they are well hidden. That is why Reni Eddo-Lodge no longer wants to talk to white people about race – they are deaf to understanding their racism and are not open to hearing about it (Eddo-Lodge 2018: “Why I am no Longer Talking about Race to White People”).

Another definition of racism is prejudice from a place of power. Not only do most people not want to own to prejudice, they certainly don’t want to accept that they may be an abuser of power. After all it is hard to see one’s own, often dearly, held opinions as prejudice, or for white people to understand the extent of their power within a racialised context. We whites tend to think that our own opinions are well founded and that any power that we have is held responsibly. It therefore means that accusations of racism are just that – accusations. Racism is something usually recognised in others rather than oneself.

So how can this denial be turned around. In my books I urge people not to deny their racism but to explore the way in which they are racist. White people often find that it is hard to discover an ease of relating within a multiracial society, as we, white people, are all, to one degree or another, racist. I have described five ways in which racism can be denied by white people. Most of us fit into one or other of them. Here they are, described in brief:

  1. White pride: ‘I am proud of being white’ Here we have a denial that this attitude is harmful and, at this level of racism, being white is thought of as a good thing, something to be proud of

  2. It is not an issue for me: This stage has less hostility, but denial is definitely present: ‘I don’t think being white is anything that affects me or is important. I don’t really care about black people one way or the other.’

  3. Some of them are okay: This stage expresses some hostile but denies its intensity. ‘I don’t much like foreigners and think we should limit the number coming here as they take our jobs and houses but some of them are okay.

  4. Colour-Blind: This stage has less denial. The stance of a ‘colour-blind’ person is to say: ‘I am white, but I have many black friends. I am colour-blind. I don’t see people’s colour – I am not racist.’

  5. Liberal Angst: This stage is well meaning and full of white guilt but tries to short cut the road to full white awareness. They say: ‘I am white and realise I have an easier time in society because of it, but I always make sure that I challenge racist remarks and that anti-racist policies are put in place where I work.’

Even those with ‘liberal angst’ attitudes tend to feel ill at ease with black people and may be dimly aware that they have racist thoughts which are quickly denied. Many black people are aware that this is so but find it hard, if not impossible, to challenge white people’s denial. Despite apparently well-meaning words, a racist society persists.

These different levels of denial of white racism have led, for example, to the ‘hostile environment’ policy from Theresa May when she was Home Secretary and has done so much to ensure an intolerable situation for asylum seekers and other migrants. If we are politically ‘left-leaning’ we may blame Theresa May, but government policies are put in place on behalf of society and our society is one which tolerates or, indeed, welcomes this open hostility.

Following publication of my first book: ‘Being White in the Helping Professions’, I have run workshops in which I encourage people to own to racist thoughts which pop into their minds only to be dismissed as quickly as possible. This becoming aware of racist thoughts is very hard to practice as it feels counter-intuitive to allow them into consciousness. They undermine our sense of ourselves as good people and are often at odds with our espoused values and principles. However, if we are prepared to own our racism, we are more likely to be genuinely thoughtful about our part in the racism of society.

In the present hardly a day goes by without accusations of racism in the news. These almost always lead to a denial. The Conservatives are accused of Islamophobia and the Labour party of antisemitism, for example. Both deny this despite evidence to the contrary. As in many other areas, denial often brings more opprobrium than the original misdeed. This accusation is particularly hard for the Labour party, whose very identity is bound up with an anti-racist agenda, to own to racism of any sort. Whilst there are no doubt other dynamics at play in accusations of racism in the Labour party including the complication of political opposition to Israel, owning to racism or a willingness to be open to the possibility of being racist would show integrity and bravery in the face of a hostile environment. Certainly, denial has not served them well but there is understandably a fear that owning to racism would play into the hands of opponents and therefore, sadly, is felt to be a risky strategy that should be avoided. Maybe they could lead the way to greater honesty, though, and take a step in the right direction.

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