In the second year of their training in my one-hour lecture spot, I wanted students to understand that the white gaze is a specific historical practice, where the values and assumptions of the white slavers and colonisers created institutional structures to maintain white power that underpins racism today. I wanted to enlarge their frame of reference, to come to terms with the way they are marked by a history they did not create but will more than likely perpetrate. I wanted to disrupt that perpetration, to see that history has given them their frames of reference and their identities and yet they are largely ignorant of that history, a history that is made up of individual stories that are manifest today in the lives of children they will teach. Drawing on ‘we were here because you were there’, I told them stories of BAME children and adults I had worked with – of the racism experienced by the Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean children in Reading, of the struggles of refugee families coming to Swansea and through these stories we did a brief excursion into the British history of slavery and colonialism. I asked them what it would be like to never see yourself reflected in the curriculum.
Sunday, 7 June 2020
My journey to understand racism and white privilege
The murder of George Floyd by a police office in America has sparked an upsurge of protest against racism across the world. White people are joining the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign to demonstrate their solidarity with people of colour. A focus on the brutality of the American police makes it easy for us in the UK to believe that racism is something that happens elsewhere and has little to do with us. The truth is that racism is a system of discrimination that white people everywhere benefit from. Racism is a fact. It is endemic in white majority countries across the world. Structural racism is evident in all our UK public institutions. Recently we learned that deaths from Covid19 disproportionately affect the BAME population.
Discussing George Floyd in a Zoom coffee morning today, many agreed they know very little about the history of racism and Britain’s role in it. This is not surprising. School history is white history. I studied history at GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level. I did a history degree and trained to teach history in our schools. At no point did anyone think I should learn anything about racism or indeed about world history outside of Britain. I wasn’t taught how racism in the US began with British colonies and the accompanying genocide of the indigenous peoples. The slave trade was vaguely mentioned but I was not told how the wealth of Britain was built on slave labour. No-one told me how Britain initiated systems of apartheid in the African continent, how we appropriated African land, resources and labour. No one told me how India was reduced from one of the wealthiest countries in the world to one of the poorest. How Africans and other colonized peoples fought and died in both world wars. How post-war, short of labour, we actively recruited from the Caribbean and South East Asia to rebuild Britain and establish the NHS and public transport in cities.
I had to self-educate and I began that journey in 1983 when the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) (the alas no more education arm of the newly established Channel 4) produced the wonderful TV series, Africa. The education materials written to accompany the series encouraged communities to form study groups. I put posters up in Reading where I lived at the time, including the University. On the first night the series was to be broadcast I was disappointed – no-one had contacted me, and I thought I was going to watch it alone. Then about 5 minutes before it was due to start there was a knock on the door. On my doorstep were 12 African and Caribbean men – they had come to watch the programme and over the next 6 weeks we watched and studied together. I learnt that it wasn’t only me who knew nothing about African history. I knew a small amount about Britain’s involvement in Africa, but it had been presented as if there wasn’t any history before the Europeans arrived. And it turns out my African friends had studied the same history and geography as me: the coal mines of Wales, The Romans in Britain, Tudors and Stuarts, The Fens of East Anglia, the industrial revolution – the colonial reach dominated education. Despite studying these topics, we didn’t know there was a black Roman soldier buried in North Wales. We didn’t know there were Africans at the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1. And worst of all, focused on all things British, the black students had been denied the opportunity to study their own histories. Those six weeks had a profound impact on me. I wanted to learn more and do something! I was lucky enough to get a job supporting the Anti-Racist policy of Reading County Council as an advisory teacher and together with an incredible team worked to develop classroom and school approaches to tackling racism.
We soon found out that if we were going to understand British history and the role racism has played in building the country, we had to listen to others and research for ourselves (not easy pre-internet!). And, having informed ourselves we had a responsibility to inform the children and young people we were educating. Today it is the youth that is leading the demonstrations against racism taking place across this country and others and they deserve the truth. This blog is aimed at parents, teachers and any citizen who wants to start on the journey to educate themselves. And beware of the Internet – what a wonderful source of information it can be, and what a purveyor of false news. In educating ourselves we need to have all our antennae tuned to the propaganda and misinformed opinion that is driven by racist attitudes, fueled by our tabloid press and social media and often supported by our politicians. We need to be committed to telling the truth.
Training the teachers
I was a teacher educator for over 20 years. For ten of those years I was allowed one lecture a year in the 3-year teacher training degree to ‘cover’ racial equality – and I had to fight for that! In the first year I asked my overwhelmingly white students – 18-19 years old – to write down on a piece of paper how many Black or Asian people they thought lived in the UK. I gathered in their responses, quickly sorted them and one-by-one read them out. Less than 5% of them in each of those ten years got the answer right (at that time around 9%). A small minority (around 10%) thought people of colour constituted over 70% of the population. The vast majority guessed between 30-50%. They found it hard to believe the official statistics (polling has consistently found the general public also over-estimate the BAME population). I asked them to reflect on why the majority of them held such distorted views of the make-up of the country.
I then asked them to anonymously write down things, on post-it notes, they had overheard other people – not themselves – say about Black and Asian people. I collected the notes in and read them out loud. Apart from ‘they take our jobs’, ‘they should go back where they came from’ there were many words of abuse and denigration. Listening as I read them out made them uncomfortable. I wanted them to see how the racist gaze of white people distorts not only the experience of ethnic minorities in the UK, but all of us. I asked them what they, as trainee teachers, thought they should do about it. I wasn’t accusing them of racism, but of holding a distorted view of actual numbers of Black and Asian people living in the UK and of knowing that racist remarks were commonplace. I didn’t blame them for that, but I wanted them to take responsibility for knowing the truth and to be prepared to challenge those who hold mistruths or utter racist comments in front of them. I wanted them to understand that if they, as future teachers, were not prepared to do that, then they would be implicated in the maintenance of whiteness as power and privilege to the detriment of all the children they would be responsible for. I wanted them to realise that the BAME children they would be teaching were the subject of the racialised gaze of whites, where whiteness is seen as the norm and their black and brown bodies as ‘other’. I would have been surprised to find out that any of these students were actively racist, but their world-views were shaped and limited by a historically inherited racism built by the institutions of slavery, colonialism and post-colonial immigration of which they were largely ignorant – like me, they wouldn’t have learnt this history in school. I wanted them to see that a desire not to be racist is not enough. I wanted them to take responsibility for knowing British history, to see how the claim “I don’t see colour” is disingenuous; that the discursive practices they themselves had brought to our attention constructed people of colour as inferior and needed to be challenged.
In the final year of their training I used the lecture to ask them to reflect on the brutal murder by a gang of white youths of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence as he waited for a bus with his friend Duwayne Brooks in 1993. I asked them to imagine what they thought the white people in their cars were thinking when they didn’t stop in response to Duwayne desperately trying to flag them down to help the dying Stephen. Why did no one stop to ask, “Are you OK? Can we help?” Year after year students suggested the car drivers were afraid – a black person trying to flag them down would be seen as dangerous. Self-preservation was more important that human compassion. I asked them why they thought the police failed to investigate the murder effectively which led to the Macpherson report in 1999 documenting the institutional racism of the police. I wanted my students to confront white hegemony and to see how it impacted on all people of colour and gave them white privilege. I was trying to start them on a lifelong journey of commitment to challenge white racist practices wherever they saw them. And help them see that stories have so much to teach us about the past.
Truth and False News
How do we all commit to self-education on British history and racism? The internet will be invaluable, but how can we distinguish between truth and false news? A scientific definition might be helpful. Any scientist will tell you there are no truths, only interpretation, but they will also tell you there are verifiable facts. We need to ensure we understand the facts and be able to separate these from how those facts are presented and interpreted. Teachers in particular need to be good at this because they have the job of ensuring young people know the facts and have the critical thinking skills to question how they are presented. As citizens we also need to understand how government policy influences how facts are presented and how the press mediate information to us. This has never been more important. The digital revolution allows virtually anyone to create and share news. In many ways this is a good thing as it democratizes the news, however in the same way that our government and the ‘so-called’ free press can distort news for their own purposes, we have to be vigilant on who is sharing and what their purpose and values are. The amount of false news flying around during the Covid epidemic should convince us of this.
Racism is not going to go away. Government and media have failed to ensure that the British people understand the facts of racism. The power axis between government and media create ‘regimes of truth’ and create dominant ways of thinking. We construct society through the language we use and in mediating issues around race and immigration to the public, government and media have created a climate of hostility towards migrants, asylum seekers and Muslims that we should all be deeply worried about. We need to learn how to sort out fact from opinion. Let’s start with some verifiable facts.
Historical background to understanding migration
We have to start with our history. We cannot think about multi-racial Britain without looking at how Britain transformed from a colonial to a post-colonial power after the Second World War. As one migrant said to me in 1975, “We are here because you were there”. From my experience of working with trainee teachers over 20 years, I know that some of the basic facts about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world and how we manage race relations here are not well known, so at the risk of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I am going to give a brief overview here.
A brief history of Empire
The basic facts of the British Empire are well documented and tell the story of imperial exploitation and plunder that enriched Britain and left the exploited worse off. However, this is not the way Empire is perceived by the majority of the British public. In 2014 a YouGov poll found 59% of respondents thought the British Empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds. There is clearly a mismatch here between facts and opinions. Let’s therefore begin with a brief overview of Empire starting with slavery.
The first British slave voyage was led by John Hawkins in 1562 in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Africans were captured and sold as goods in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Slave Trade was finally ended in 1827 and historians estimate that British ships carried 3.4 of the 12 million slaves as part of the triangular trade. Ships left the ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool carrying goods made in Britain. They arrived in West Africa and exchanged these goods for slaves. On the third part of the journey they would arrive in the West Indies (Caribbean) where they were sold to plantation owners. The profits made from slavery financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Caribbean Islands became the hub of the British Empire.
Imperial expansion began with the acquisition of Newfoundland as a colony in North America (1583-1818) and then moved into Central America and the Caribbean beginning with Barbados in 1628. Britain moved into South America and Asia in the 18-19th century, Australasia and the Pacific from 1832-1907. The first African colony was Natal in 1856, and Britain colonised most of South and East Africa and much of West Africa in the 19th century.
By 1913, Britain controlled 23% of the world population and 24% of the total land area. At the peak of its power, the phrase ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ was used because Britain’s expanse around the globe meant the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. After the second world war Britain divested itself of its colonies and since 1948, 59 countries have gained independence from British rule.
The impact of Empire on the colonized took myriad forms. In some places like Australia, North America and New Zealand conquest was so successful that an estimated 90% of the indigenous peoples of those lands died and are today small minorities whose lives are frequently blighted by poverty and discrimination. Those of white European descent dominate, racism towards these first nations’ peoples is well documented and verifiable discrimination abounds.
Other forms of empire took the form of conquest followed by ruling from a distance, usually with the cooperation of local people who worked as civil servants and tax collectors. In this way Britain controlled India, much of Asia and the Middle East during the 19th century and conflict over land and between peoples today can often be traced back to the straight lines drawn on maps by Britain and the other European colonizing powers as they fought each other for domination. In Africa there were different approaches to colonization from the widespread settlements of British immigrants in East and South Africa, to the rule from a distance in West Africa. Empire is nothing if not complex.
History attests that the colonial enterprise was for the benefit of the colonizers, the flow of people under slavery, resources and raw materials under colonialism, from the territories to Britain made it the wealthiest country in the world and resulted in impoverishment for the colonies. Some of the worst atrocities against people were committed by Britain under colonialism. This included the creation of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-2002); the massacre of 379 Indians carrying out a peaceful protest against British colonial rule in Amritsir in India in 1919; the partitioning of India into India and Pakistan that displaced 10-12 million people and created an overwhelming refugee crisis in 1947 where 1-2 million died in the violence that erupted. Hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan are a legacy of partition. In 1757, when the East India Company established company rule in India, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating 23%. By 1940, Britain accounted for 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a destitute country with millions starving.
During the potato famine in Ireland (1852) 1 million died of starvation and another million became refugees; between 12-29 million Indians died of starvation under the British Empire between 1765-1947). In 1943, up to 4 million Bengalis staved to death when Churchill diverted food to British soldiers during a famine in Bengal. Today thousands of Kenyans have launched damages claims against the UK government for the mistreatment, rape and torture of 100s during the Mau Mau uprising against colonialism (1951-1960). We cannot tell the story of Empire without including slavery, partition, torture, famine, concentration camps and massacre. The roots of our current environmental crisis were laid down during the colonial era according to Lewis & Maslin (2019), “The Anthropocene began with widespread colonialism and slavery; it is a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other.”
End of Empire
Over a million Indian soldiers fought for Britain during the first world war and over 74,000 died. Caribbean soldiers were deployed to do the spade work for white soldiers – digging trenches, building roads, bearing stretchers. Two million Africans died during World War I. Britain forced 600,000 African troops to fight during World War II and treated them very badly. These mistreated soldiers returned home and when Britain didn’t deliver on their promise to free the colonies, anti-colonial movements gained momentum. Rebellions in Ireland, India, China, the Caribbean, Egypt, South Africa, Malaya, Kenya, Iran and other places in the early 20th century were subjugated but could not be contained. The victory of the second world-war left Britain bankrupt and unable to continue operating as a colonial power. First to divest was India. Always considered the ‘jewel in the crown’, the people of India had engaged in sustained resistance to British rule for much of the 20th century and finally won its independence in 1947. Britain partitioned India to create Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan was divided into East and West Pakistan, separated by the Republic of India. Unsurprisingly this arrangement proved disastrous and resulted in revolution following West Pakistan’s genocidal attacks on the East that ended with the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. For over 200 years Britain took what it wanted from India and when they left 90% of the population lived in poverty, life expectancy was 27 and literacy was only 16% (Tharoor, 2017). Other places colonized by Britain and Europe includes Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine referred to as the Middle East today and important places such as Hong Kong and Malaysia. This history of conquest is complex and important but the focus of this blog is those peoples who were actively recruited to come and live and work here, so I am not going to try and summarise the rest of Britain’s colonial history here.
By the mid-60s the bulk of the British Empire had been decolonized, frequently through armed resistance with resulting bloodshed.
Events at home
Having provided this extremely brief overview of part of Britain’s Empire, I turn to events at home. Members of the British Empire were considered British and in 1948, the British Nationality Act gave the right to enter, work and settle in Britain to all colonial and commonwealth citizens. Following this, in 1949, a Royal Commission on Population identified a significant shortage of labour in Britain. The Commission thus paved the way for active recruitment from the former colonies to the labour market in Britain.
Following this, British Rail, the NHS and London Transport deliberately targeted labour recruitment from the commonwealth and hundreds of thousands of people were recruited, initially from the Caribbean and India, to fill labour gaps in the economy.
In 1948, the first migrants arrived from the Caribbean on the good ship Empire Windrush. It is important to remind ourselves slavery had transported Africans to the ’West Indies’ over the three centuries that Britain was involved in the slave trade and one could argue Britain had obligations towards these descendants of former slaves who, following decolonization, had few means to create viable economies. Britain was ‘the motherland’ and the motherland said it needed them.
How would this much needed labour be received in the ‘mother country’? How would government and media respond to their arrival? At this time the vast majority of the population in Britain had never seen a person of colour and information about the new arrivals and why they were here was largely drawn from the media. How the media, in particular the tabloid press, chose to represent these people was overwhelmingly negative.
The newcomers had been actively recruited to fill Britain’s labour shortage and surely had a right to be treated fairly. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Neither government nor the press did anything to ensure the general public was properly prepared for immigration. Rather, the period 1948-1970s saw the racialization of British politics whilst governments of both parties stood back and watched it happen.
The new post-war Labour government introduced the NHS that needed to be staffed, they committed to a large house-building programme that needed workers, they established a comprehensive transport system in London that needed recruits. The need to recruit workers was especially necessary as many of the indigenous white population were migrating to Australia, Canada and New Zealand – this was in fact a time of net migration. Labour was recruited to support the economy, but the British people were not prepared to support the migrants.
Mediation of history
A pattern began to emerge that established how Britain responds to migrants that is true to this day. Now we shift from the facts to the way those facts are presented to the public. We see how government and media present the truths of migration to the country. As stated above, the state sought to recruit labour to meet the needs of the expanding capitalist society. Labour came not only from the former colonies including Ireland, but also included hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans. The presence of the white migrants was largely ignored by the media who focused instead on those who were visibly different because of the colour of their skin.
At this time a group of white racists, both inside and outside the government, began to ferment fear over competition between the indigenous population and immigrants for limited resources: jobs, housing, education and health care, and thus started what has become a familiar mantra – the immigrants ‘take our jobs’ and ‘cost the country too much’.
Soon this repeated mantra manifested itself in trouble and here we can identify biased reporting in the media. In 1958, when groups of white youth attacked black youth from the Caribbean, the media named this racist event as ‘The Notting Hill Riots’, that disguises the reality that white working class males, inflamed by far-right groups had instigates violent attacks on black people. Reported by the media as evidence that there were just ‘too many’ ethnic minorities, the British government responded not by challenging the racist claims made by the press, not by naming this as ‘opinions’ which were not supported by the facts, but by pandering to the tabloids and restricting immigration. And so, cycles of racist attacks and media misreporting stimulated cycles of immigration restriction. We have here the fact of migration, but the decision to focus on ‘coloured’ migration as problematic. Instead of challenging this and making the case for migration from the former colonies the British government set about a policy of restricting such migration.
In 1962, the Conservatives introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act that restricted black and Asian migration, not people from the white Commonwealth, the thousands of Canadians and Australians that came here, just people of colour. This could have been an opportunity for government to start making the case – to help the British white population understand our colonial past, our obligations to our former colonies, our need for labour, the perceived necessity of migration, but they did not. This decision was shared by both of the main political parties; when Labour came to power in 1968, they introduced an even more restrictive Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The Acts specifically denied the automatic right to entry and abode of black and Asian British citizens from the Commonwealth.
It became apparent that both parties in power wanted to present themselves as responding to public fears of black immigration that had been stirred up by politicians, other public figures and especially the media. Rather than make the economic case for policies of labour recruitment or the moral case of obligation to those whose resources and labour had been exploited under colonialism, exploitation that had made Britain the wealthiest country in the world, they chose to fuel fear and resentment.
Managing Race Relations
Alongside restrictions on immigration came three Race Relations Acts in 1963, 1968 and 1976, requiring the state to ban discrimination on grounds of race, colour or ethnic origin. This was important, however, the Acts made little difference to ongoing discrimination and racist attacks. Race relations in Britain had become a significant political issue that would be a feature of every election to come. The opportunity for government to challenge media representation had been lost.
The media had done a good job – the majority of the indigenous white community in Britain believed there were too many people of colour in Britain. Despite the 1991 census that showed only 5% of the population came from minority ethnic backgrounds, polls asking people to estimate numbers of Black and Asian migrants consistently found people over-estimated the actual numbers by massive amounts. And yet, successive governments did nothing to challenge these misconceptions and study after study through the 1980s and 1990s showed that ethnic minorities were systematically excluded from equal participation in Britain because they were discriminated against. ‘Coloured’ immigration was constantly on the front page of the tabloid press. Gallup polls in the 1960s consistently showed over 70% of the population wanted further immigration control and the government responded with further restrictions.
The National Curriculum
And how did education respond? This is a huge topic, my focus is history and prior to the 1988 Education Reform Act, there was no written curriculum in the UK and therefore no obligation to teach about Britain’s colonial past. The first National Curriculum was introduced in England and Wales in 1988 and for the first time, history was a compulsory subject. This was an opportunity to ensure everyone was taught about the British Empire to understood migration to Britain, unfortunately the opportunity was lost – the new curriculum did not include the history of Empire. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of British people think the Empire was a good thing, something to be proud of. Considering the brief history presented above, the polls indicate that the general public have very little understanding of the true nature of Empire where Britain used violence to rule other people, deny them independence, exploit their labour and take their resources. And without proper teaching why would they?
Academic historians have called for honest history teaching if our children are to understand our past. Dr Andrea Major at the University of Leeds, for example, has called for improved teaching about the British Empire, claiming there is “a collective amnesia about the levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved in many aspects of imperialism”.
Education about all aspects of British colonial history can’t be the sole responsibility of schools. The media has to take some responsibility to generate more open debate to ensure all the public gain a better understanding of the world around them and in particular our fellow British citizens whose heritage lies in the countries of our colonial past. As Dr. Esme Cleall from the University of Sheffield says, “The violence of the British Empire has long been forgotten. We need to face up to this history and education is crucial if we are to do so.”
Teaching of course can only do so much. Young people deserve to know the facts of Empire, but they need also need critical skills to understand how a lack of open and honest appraisal of the past creates false facts and biased opinion.
We cannot lay the blame for the misrepresentation of history and in particular of immigration entirely at the door of the media. Politicians are also culpable. In 1968 the now infamous Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell made what has come to be referred to as his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he criticized Commonwealth immigration and the government’s anti-discrimination legislation. Powell was a powerful speaker who voiced fears that immigration would lead to bloodshed and it caused a political storm and his dismissal from Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. But his rhetoric also caused a media storm and is considered a significant turning point in race relations.
He was not the first Conservative MP to use race relations as a means to gain popularity. The 1964 General Election saw Labour come to power, however in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate gained the seat using the slogan, "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour".
Events such as these influenced the decision by the Policy Studies Institute in 1968 to carry out research into racial discrimination in Britain and found it was "from the massive to the substantial". The tabloid press was found to play a large part in this, particularly with a campaign during the 1960s to criminalise black youth. They consistently presented street violence with scant regard to the truth.
Much research has been done into media representation of ethnic minorities and there is a consensus that representation has been distorted and has reinforced existing prejudice among the public. The presence of media bias has been established through painstaking analysis of headlines, articles and space given to minority issues in British newspapers. The media, particularly the Tabloid press, use stereotypes to portray minority ethnic groups and over-report black crime fueling fears about threats allegedly posed by blacks to the white majority. In contrast, black experience as victims of crime and police harassment of black families has rarely been reported. Ethnic minorities are more frequently associated with negative personal characteristics and tendencies to crime and violence, not as victims of discrimination. This misrepresentation has been shown to be consistent over time and has made a huge contribution to Britain’s endemic racism.
Governments must take their share of the blame for deciding to exploit the public’s fear of immigration for their own gain. In 1968 Enoch Powell’s rhetoric inciting fear of people of colour and streets running with blood won votes. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher suggested “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture,” and in 2014 Michael Fallon repeated it by claiming British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants and their residents are “under siege [with] large numbers of migrant workers and people claiming benefits”. The Conservative anti-immigration rhetoric surfaced again when David Cameron (2016) described refugees fleeing from persecution as “a bunch of migrants”, or the numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe as a “swarm”. Cameron took the rhetoric further by claiming the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women’ put them ‘at risk of radicalization”, or when he announced Britain could deport people who fail to learn English – all grist to the mill of a racist press and an ignorant public. Our present Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has referred to black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and compared Muslim women who wear the burqa to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. And so it goes on.
Politicians and government are part of the problem and the press should be holding them to account. Parents and teachers have to be able to recognize how prejudice expressed by politicians and repeated in the media influences how children and young people see the world and make a determined effort to challenge racist rhetoric.
Change for the better
That is not to say things have not changed, there is evidence that responsible journalists have tried to change attitudes related to ethnic minority issues and there is evidence of more positive reporting in the 1990s, particularly in the quality press where the voices of ethnic minorities are heard and the problems they experience given a hearing. It is true that Black African and Asian minorities are now treated in the media far better than in the 1970s and 80s. That doesn’t mean negative portrayals have stopped, they have simply shifted their focus towards newly arrived groups such as asylum seekers, Muslims and some EU members.
The real increase in immigration however, came not from the Commonwealth, but with our membership of the European Union and the free movement of people. Today the immigrant population is mainly white, but despite this, prejudice, discrimination, violence and hatred against people of colour prevails.
The election of New Labour in 1997 saw a stated commitment to social justice for racial minorities for the first time. Following the murder of Black African student Stephen Lawrence, stabbed by a gang of white youth whilst waiting for a bus, Labour established The Lawrence Enquiry and the subsequent report by Macpherson (1998) did help shape Labour’s thinking about institutionalized racism and led to changes in police training.
The subsequent Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) signaled a commitment to ending institutionalized racism in our public services, especially the police and the parallel ‘duty to promote’ racial equality was established by the Commission for Racial Equality in 2003. However, Section 19 of the RRA 2000 excluded asylum and refuge. This is significant as restrictions on immigration now meant the majority of people of colour entering Britain are asylum seekers.
The Macpherson report uncovering institutional racism was our best opportunity to start a national conversation about eliminating racism but it didn’t happen and a few years later the events of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London changed the terms of public discourse about race forever, leading the tabloid press to shift towards a focus on those of the Muslim faith. Today alongside racism based on skin colour is cultural racism identified as Islamaphobia.
Where are we now?
The Race Relations Act (1965) outlawed racist discrimination that was the daily experience of migrants from the Empire during the 50-70s. It certainly did help to reduce prejudice. Today we have measures in place so the state can act decisively to challenge racism, but little has been done to actively challenge the expressed racial prejudice of very large and significant sections of the white British population or to condemn the tabloid press. Report after report (usually following significant racist incidents) has found that racism is endemic and discrimination is pervasive (see, for example the Scarman Report (1981) following the Brixton riots; the Burnage Report: Murder in the Playground (1989) following the murder of an Asian youth in a Manchester school playground; The Macpherson Report (1998) following the murder of Stephen Lawrence). Government has done very little to challenge racist views and instead has gone along with the idea that immigration is inherently problematic. Extreme far-right racism embodied by such organisations as the National Front and the English and Welsh Defence League continue to exist and racially motivated attacks are common.
Most recently in 2018 the Windrush scandal erupted. Many of the 500,000 Caribbean people resident in the UK today arrived between 1948-71. Many were children travelling on their parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents. The Immigration Act of 1971 ended further immigration and gave those already here, indefinite leave to remain. However, without paperwork it is difficult for Windrush arrivals to prove they are in the UK legally and they never expected to have to do so. In 2010 their landing cards were destroyed by the Home Office. Under Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy many of these now grown up children were told they could no longer work, some were arrested, some deported. On Monday 8th June a BBC drama ‘Sitting in Limbo’ tells the story of Bryan who arrived in the UK when he was eight and at 58 was arrested and detained awaiting deportation. He was caught up in the Windrush scandal where many have lost their jobs, been made homeless, have been refused vital healthcare or social assistance, arrested and even deported. We don’t know how many have been forced out of the country. This is institutionalized state racism in action.
It can’t be denied that the lives of many ethnic minorities have improved, they are represented in parliament, in the media and the professions, this is all good, but the main point is that it is one thing to tackle prejudice that restricts opportunities for people of colour, it is quite another to tackle the endemic racism that still exists in Britain that has come to the fore post-Brexit. Racism is still a systemic, structural problem in Britain. The unemployment rate for all ethnic minorities is twice as high as for whites – these are verifiable facts. Whatever issues we look at – health, education, housing, over-representation in the criminal justice system, deaths from Covid19 – things are worse if you are a person of colour. Racism is alive and well and rooted in our colonial past. As a nation we have avoided dealing with it.
Immigration and race relations have always been and continue to be framed by the media; their focus on the problems of people of colour, on the competition for health, education, housing and jobs between the white population and people of colour sets the tone. BAME people are presented as having problems – they don’t speak English; they prefer to live in ghettos rather than assimilate. The tabloid press fails to report widespread racial discrimination that empirical studies have consistently found – from employers, housing agencies, Trade Unions, local government or to condemn the physical and verbal abuse BAME people frequently experience on the street.
Today with the successful reduction of immigration from the former colonies, most BAME people in Britain are second or third generation and the press have shifted their focus towards problems of cultural adaptation, intergenerational differences and disagreements, gender roles, religious extremism, dangers of radicalization etc. The issues are presented as arising from the minority communities and not with the racial prejudice of the white majority.
No government has ever taken seriously the problem of tackling white racism; rather it has encouraged and exacerbated it. Rather than challenge racism, successive governments have opted for multiculturalism to emphasis difference and separateness, to ‘celebrate’ cultural diversity and despite a brief flirtation with anti-racist education in the 1980s with the publication of The Swann Report (1985), multicultural approaches prevailed and have done nothing to challenge white racism.
In his 2012 speech Cameron also claimed, ”…when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.” And yes, the law does condemn, but when government provide grist to the tabloid press mill with its racist rhetoric it is hard to take it seriously. The media consistently presents one-sided, distorted or alarmist stories about BAME people, and recently in particular, inaccurate stories about Muslims and asylum seekers have prevailed.
We live in a country where a sizeable portion of society, maybe the majority, is hostile to BAME people and most recently this has been extended to our fellow Europeans, many of whom don’t feel welcome here anymore. Victims of prejudice find their exercise of freedom of opinion and expression reduced – a supposedly fundamental British value.
Reporting in a truthful and balanced way has always been an important professional goal for journalists. Today the integrity of journalists of all persuasions is being challenged. Journalists who in the past have expressed opinions by describing black youth as ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’ or Muslims as ‘terrorists’ have created stereotypes and reinforced prejudices that have contributed to the endemic racism that is present in Britain today. When opinions held by the majority of the public are actually based on ignorance, or false facts that have been fostered by politicians’ rhetoric or tabloid opinions, then it is hard for any of us to sort out truth from falsity, and in the field of immigration and race relations trying to distinguish fact from fiction is a minefield. As parents, teachers and citizens we have a responsibility to ensure young people know the facts and can sort out the difference between fact and opinion. If we are to prepare our young people for democracy, (now extended to 16 year-olds in Wales), this task has to be built into everything we do. And we must start by ensuring we have the knowledge, skills and understanding to do it.
We can start by acknowledging white privilege. In a nutshell this is the automatic, taken-for-granted advantage given to white people as a result of living in a society where white is seen as the norm and BAME people are seen as other than the norm. That is not to say that many white people don’t struggle or face barriers in this society, but they don’t struggle with racism. By being white in this society you won’t be called names in the street because of the colour of your skin, you are far less likely to be a victim of crime, unemployed, in prison and generally have a better chance of getting ahead. To be born BAME in this country is to spend your life being asked where you come from, to be made to feel alien in the country you were born in, to be up to 17 times more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be excluded from school, less likely to get into a Russell group university, less likely to be called for interview if your name isn’t white-sounding, more likely to face austerity, unemployment, and more at risk for admission to a psychiatric hospital. Less likely to find a book, a magazine or even a birthday card that reflects your colour or experience. Why? Because as the Macpherson report found, our society is structurally racist. To be born white is to be born into privilege, white privilege is an “absence of the negative consequences of racism…. an absence of your race being viewed as a problem… an absence of funny looks directed at you… an absence of violence enacted on your ancestors because of the colour of their skin, an absence of subtle marginalisation and othering”(Eddo Lodge, 2018). Regardless of class or gender, “being born white will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (Eddo Lodge, 2018).
To conclude, many people see what’s happening in America following the murder of George Floyd as ‘not our problem’. I hope that this blog will be helpful to anyone who wants to understand why it is and should be our problem. We live in an institutionally racist country that supports white privilege and has exported this all over the world. Such privilege is so normalized that most of us don’t see it. And being a beneficiary of white privilege does not mean you are racist, but it does mean you probably benefit from the oppression of people of colour.
Back in the 80s I was lucky. That TV series on Africa started the long process of self-education. On my journey I have read a lot over the years and more recently Black British writers are articulating what it means to be black living here. I recommend Reni Eddo-Lodge (2018) Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race and Afua Hurst, Brit(ish) as are good places to start. Black Bodies, White Gazes The continuing significance of race in America by George Yancey is for those who wish to understand white racism in America.
However, without doubt the only way to really feel empathy and compassion and understanding is through narrative. In 1990 I wrote a teaching pack, “Understanding Through Literature” on the experience of prejudice and racism in Wales, Africa and the Caribbean. I used poetry and prose to help young people understand the impact of colonialism through real voices. For me, novels have been my constant companion and I’ve learnt so much from them. Seeking to understand racism intellectually is necessary but not sufficient. We have to feel it. I’m including a list of novels that has given me insight and a deeper understanding of how racism impacts on us all.
I’ve selected ones I have particularly enjoyed and tried to cover some of the key topics of slavery and colonialism and the immigrant experience. I’ve included Africa and South East Asia, the Middle East as well as Britain and the US. All cover historical events. Some are biographical, others are memoirs, all are well researched. The list is in reverse order that I read them, with the most recent first. Most are by writers of colour.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi follows the lives of two sisters with very different destinies, one sold into slavery, the other a slave owner’s wife.
The Underground Railroad by Colin Whitehead. This is a novel, but it provides an accurate and chilling narrative of slavery drawn from the slave narratives collected in the 1930s and it links us to the present. The book gives white people a chance to learn from the experiences of slaves.
Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D’Aguiar tells the historically true story of the slave ship Zong and shows slavery as the cruellest trade ever conducted that both created and justified racism.
A Beautiful Lie Irfan Master. Set on the eve of the creation of India and Pakistan it tells the story of one Muslim boy and his friends. Suitable from year 6 onwards it helps children and us know the history of partition through a child’s eye.
Hidden by Miriam Halahmy. A teenage novel that tackles current issues around asylum seekers and refugees in a way that creates empathy for the Iraqis struggling to survive here.
Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye, a local writer traces her journey between Wales and Israel as she discovers the truth about the displacement of Palestinians in 1948.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian biography that helped me understand what is happening in Israel and Palestinian occupied territories.
Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi. If you want to understand modern Iran through a personal memoir and the colonial legacy this is a good place to start.
On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe tells the story of the African women who are modern-day sex slaves trafficked between Nigeria and Belgium, another legacy of colonialism.
Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. The story is set in Egypt, a British colony in 1901 and in America in 2001. It unravels a love story from the past and I learnt so much about British and French involvement in Egypt.
The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk/Palace of Desire/Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz. A family saga set in colonial Egypt and spans the 20thC until after the second world war.
Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set in Nigeria, this is the story of Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic shortly after independence from Britain through the eyes of a house boy, his mistress Ugwu and English Richard, her sister’s lover.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This book about the Japanese internment during the second world war in the US is relevant reading as xenophobia reaches new heights among White Europeans across the world.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set in India, an historically accurate novel of four characters struggling to live on our broken planet.
Honor by Elif Shafak. A must if you want to understand the migrant experience. It exposes all the challenges of living in a globalised, intercultural world and the lives of women.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Set in Afghanistan’s last thirty years from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban through the tales of 2 generations of family and friends.
What is the What by Dave Eggers. Based on the true story of Valentina Achek Deng who was forced to leave his village in Suden at the age of 7 (along with 1000s of other children) and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers and while animals.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Ishmael lost his entire family in the war in Sierra Leone and becomes a boy soldier, one of 300,000 child soldiers currently fighting across the world.
Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne. Set in Sri Lanka and Brixton – insight into the migrant experience.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Now a film, the book exposes the depth of inequality between black and white in the USA in the 1950/60s.
Small Island by Andrea Levy. The post-war experience of Jamaicans in London from 1948. It encapsulates the immigrant’s life.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The story of the missionary to Belgian Congo in 1959 told through the eyes of 5 women with very different views of life. I love it!
Anil’s Ghost by Micheal Ondaatje. Set in Sri Lanka it provides insight into this ancient civilisation and the civil war that tore it apart.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou. Anything by Maya should be read. This is my particular favourite in her biographical series. It tells how she joins a ‘colony’ of Black American expatriates in Ghana – only to discover no one ever goes home again.
Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. On the surface a murder mystery it paints a devastating picture of independent Kenya that led to the author’s imprisonment. I first learned about the Gikuyu Not in this book and realised the Welsh Not had been imposed across the Empire.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali. The novel brings the immigrant milieu of East London to life through the eyes of two Bangladeshi sisters.
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A powerful biography of an amazing women who began life in the Sudan and became an MP in Holland and is an academic in the US today.
Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Biographical account of her childhood growing up as the daughter of the only Punjabi family in a British Village in the 1960s. Funny and informative.
Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher. A journalists’s account of his journey through the Congo in 2000. If you want to see what colonial misrule and abuse looks like once the Belgian colonists have gone this is the book.
Cameron, D. (2012) Speech at a conference in Munich.
Cameron,D. (2016) Prime Minister’s Question Time, 27.01.2016.
Eddo-Lodge, Reni, (2018) Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsbury.
DfE (Department for Education). (2012). Teachers’ Standards. London: HMSO.
HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) (2015) Prevent Duty Guidance: For England and Wales [online}
Fallon, M. (2014) Interview with SKY news.
Lewis, S., and Maslin, M. (2019) the Human Planet: how we created the Anthropocene. London: Pelican books.
Macdonald, I. A. (1989) Murder in the Playground: The Burnage Report. Longsight.
Macpherson, W. (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, London: Home Office.
Scarman, Lord J. (1981), The Brixton Disorders, 10–12th April (1981), London: HMSO.
The Swann Report (1985) Education for All: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Tharoor, S. (2017) Inglorious Empire. Hurst & Company.
Thatcher, M. (1979) In a TV interview on ‘World in Action’.