The witless Rozanne Duncan, expelled from UKIP for having a problem with Negroes, and Telegraph columnist @emmabarnett have both been accused of being racist and both have issued strenuous denials, Emma Barnett’s being slightly more convincing. But not convincing enough. Yes, Emma, you are racist and you need to check your privilege. So am I and so do I.
I’ve spent most of my life trying not to be racist, trying to judge people by what they do rather than what they look like. But I still have some prejudices. They’re fed by my experiences, by what I read in the press and online and partly by my own fears. I’m from a highly-privileged background, white, male, middle-aged, middle-class. I need constantly to check my own privilege, and make sure that I’m being fair. I don’t have a problem with Negroes; the problem – such as it is – is with me.
I don’t think anyone can say that they are absolutely “not racist”. I try my level best not to make racist (or sexist) assumptions but I would lie if I said that race or gender had no effect at all on the way I react to people. And I expect it works in reverse. As a customer in a shop, I react differently to a pretty girl serving me than to a callow youth or a middle-aged man. I try to smile at everyone, but – well – a smile comes more naturally when it’s focused on a pretty girl. This is just the way the world works; I am sure the pretty girls I smile at think, oh god not another middle-aged perv – but a smile is a wonderful thing, it’s infectious, if you smile at someone, they’re more than likely to smile back. Pretty girls will even smile back at middle-aged pervs like me. So will the callow youth and the middle-aged man by the way, and I try to smile at them too as I say my pleases and thankyous as they serve me.
Racism: how meaning changes
I’m using “racism” in its modern usage, as a short form of “racially-prejudiced”. We all have some prejudices, in fact we couldn’t operate without them. But we do have to be aware of them. Usually, though, the -ist and -ism suffices indicate a belief or an ideology. Subtly different to a prejudice. The Nazis were racist; their whole ideology was based on the superiority of the Aryan “race”. Apartheid South Africa was racist; Governor Wallace of Alabama was racist but later recanted. The BNP and National Front parties in the UK are specifically racist parties; but racism as a conscious ideology has been almost entirely discredited in the West. Unfortunately it is not yet completely dead. However, racial prejudice is alive and well, and that’s how we now use the words “racist” and “racism”.
Check your prejudice – and your privilege
Because we’re all racist, we all have to watch for our prejudices. People are people, old or young, gay or straight, pretty or plain, pink or brown. It’s an obligation we take on as part of living in a diverse society. In a diverse world. Organisations have to do so even more, because if a group of people share the same prejudices, the organisation can start to behave in a prejudiced way. The police, in particular, have a big responsibility which they have often failed. Racism has a way of creeping up when we stop looking out for it, and in particular when we deny it exists in ourselves or in our organisations.
In Britain, racism affects darker people most. We know that and most of us are trying to change things. It doesn’t help if we deny that racism exists or that we are even a little bit racist; but often, we get called out for saying or doing things that seem racist but absolutely aren’t. In particular, it is racist to say that only people of one colour are entitled to comment on things that affect people of another colour – and a lot of Emma Barnett’s critics have implied that, since she’s white, she’s not entitled to comment on the so-called jihadi brides. What I, as a pale-pink person, can’t do is describe how a darker person feels or is affected – because I don’t have that experience. But I’m quite entitled to comment on – issues of the day affecting people of any colour. You don’t have to listen to or agree with what I say. It would be inaccurate, and racist, were I to say that jihadi brides are vulnerable because they are brown. They are vulnerable because they are young; teenagers of all colours have always rebelled, run away to join the circus, to go to sea, to annoy their families, to have an adventure. It is not racist to say that what has happened is a tragedy for them and for their families and that we as a nation (and Turkish Airlines) should have done more. We have failed them as we have also failed the victims in Rotherham.
Racism is certainly not confined to white or pink or pale-brown people; it’s just that when the privileged group acts in a racist way, it affects the less-privileged worse. In the UK, white-on-brown racism is worse than the reverse, because white people hold most of the positions of authority. Brown-on-white racism exists but isn’t yet a problem. However, it could quickly become one, because it isn’t checked or recognised. “I’m black so I can’t be racist, so I don’t have to check my privilege”. Yes, my sister, you can be racist. If you just judged me because I am white, you made a racist judgement. Right now, not a problem. But not right, either. So everyone, check your privilege. And white, middle-class men like me, check it more because we have more privileges.