“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” – Dr Carter G Woodson, The MisEducation of the Negro
Over the last few days I have been pondering how we as a wider community deal with the discussion around racism and race equality. Whilst there have been some interactions on Twitter with some of my colleagues on this I realise that 140 characters is not enough, and to be fair, as a whole that platform is not conducive to a sensible or focused conversation on this.
I do not wish to get into whether or not race actually exists scientifically or not, because my approach is how it is used as a social construct. Racial profiling is here and ever present. Our census is based on it. Nearly every form we fill in for political, educational, financial or health surveys have some link to race and or ethnicity. The police record crimes or potential criminal codes referring to people with ethnicity codes knowns as IC Codes. I would be an IC3. Since 1991 the National Censusi in the UK have grouped people by White, Mixed, Asian British, Black British, Chinese or other ethnic group. Nearly ever major country in the world conducts their censuses by racial and ethnic grounds so this not a construct that is going away anytime too soon.
I have no truck with those who believe that we are all part of a human race, of course we are. However when it comes to tackling issues of social, political and economic equality where race is often used to play a part in profiling, you try telling certain sections of the human race they are six times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than other numbers, who by some chance of nature are a different skin shade. You try explaining to a child why flesh coloured tights don’t span the contrast of human complexion? Why in many communities aspiring for lighter skin, straighter hair is deemed the pinnacle of beauty if race does not play in such inferiority complexes. Utopian ideals are great but right about now in the here and now a constant conversation is necessary.
A couple nights ago I happened across the work of a talented up and coming poet in my wider network called Nego True. The piece he did was entitled Dear Mr Racist. See below for the entire clip which is garnering a lot of views on YouTube.
My first response to this was as talented as you are son, how do you actually define racism? Here is how I define it.
Racism is a systematic thinking of superiority or inferiority from once race to another. Supported by language and behaviours that reinforce that thinking.
Again that is my definition and not too far from some of those held by some of the more formal dictionaries which you can find here, here and here. My friend Melody challenged me on this today. We begged to differ but if we are going to have consensus on this it wholly depends on how we define racism.
Given my own definition and those I referenced I find it nigh on impossible how a black person can be racist to another black person. Or a white to a white, brown to a brown…I think you get the point. Now within cultural, regional or sub ethnic groups I can understand that there can be hatred. The Irish suffered from jokes from English. Caribbeans and some West Africans. Indians and Pakistanis. Turks and Cypriots. I have seen the gamut of jokes and sometimes hardline hatred between such ethnic groups, but as those mentioned belong to the same race I fail to see how they can be racist to each other. Xenophobic yes. Denial and self hatred of course, but if no matter how you identify how can you actually be racist to your own race. Of course it becomes more complex if you identify as mixed, but even then I still believe you cannot be racist to those racial groups which you belong even as a small proportion.
The interesting twist in law was that once upon a time you could actually use a law in England like the Race Relations Act to sue someone from your own race of racial discrimination if they hired someone else based on their race. The absurdity of such law, and the difficulty of proving this was dealt with when Equalities Act was implemented in 2010. Of course you can hold prejudice against those who share your ethnicity but it is not the same, by definition, as racism.
Focusing on Self Hatred
Coming back to the video one of the things that jumped out at me was the notion of self hatred not racism. There is supporting data to prove that violent crime between members of the black community are major issues in London and other metropolitan cities. By the same token there is also an incredible amount of crime between other racial and ethnic groups, from drunken brawling to out and out gangland violence. Yet the only racial group who has ever been targeted for this was the black community. Operation Trident.
Being involved in youth work there were a range of ethnicities I know I could have asked to have access to weapons and drugs. Yet the only group targeted in these programmes were members of sub Saharan African and Caribbean heritage.
For me whilst this talented poet, Nego True can create a serious debate on this issue around racism I don’t think it can be left open ended. Like any discussion around racism and racist ideology I think it is way to easy for social media commentators to retweet, like and drop “their wisdom” in absence of a bigger picture around racism. In short for many this reinforces a stereotype that people have around blacks, especially males, as unruly, uncultured feral individuals without cause for addressing the wider issue around racism. Whilst the poem doesn’t outright suggest that blacks are the only ones racist (and by the way I think blacks can be as racist as any other group) I can bet your bottom dollar a lot of viewers with a more myopic view of race relations and ethnicity in this country will see it that way.
It takes a lot of years to unlearn the messages of self hatred that permeate many ethnic communities. As someone of Caribbean heritage I can only share mine. Work twice as hard as white students to be successful. Don’t argue with authority. Trust the police regardless because you don’t want to get into trouble. If you have nothing to hide then there shouldn’t be a problem if you get stopped countless times. Advising young ladies on how to conduct conversations with people who do not understand natural or unpressed/weaved hair. Bleach your skin. The default of your skin is so pretty (the lighter your complexion). Aspire to blend in. Attend Ascot. Get an OBE/MBE. Etc, etc.
What lies beneath those messages? Why should one have to work twice as hard? Why do special programmes have to be set up use to get people of colour into top universities or places of employment? Why should I be coaching ladies of colour who have identity crises when their assertiveness is perceived as aggressiveness and confronting this mismatch sees them defined as trouble makers, angry black women with chips on their shoulders?
Again this is my perception of this video and the conversation around racism. Others will view it through their own lens just like the poet said he did. Shaped by their experiences, culture and definitions around racial inequality. Racism in my mind, especially in the UK, as I can’t speak for other countries is shaped by systems. Education, housing, crime and justice, media all lend themselves to perpetuating stereotypes. Not only on race, of course class plays a big role too, but the focus for this essay is tackling racism.
It is important that we tackle race and ethnic inequalities within the boundaries we have. Yes we wish for ideals and lofty dreams but our present reality is what we have. To speak about racism and racial inequality requires a continuing debate and not perpetuation of myths and stereotypes. Where people speak and listen and appreciate each other’s journey.
In closing, I refer back to Dr Carter G Woodson who I quoted at the beginning of the text.
“The mere imparting of information is not education.”