Am I a Racist?
The killing of George Floyd, and the world-wide reaction to it, has brought the issue of racism to the fore once again. So this is a good time to think a bit about what we mean by ‘racism.’
The dictionary definition starts with “belief in the superiority of a particular race”. Leaving on one side the absence of any scientific meaning to the term ‘race’ in this context, this definition is rather an extreme position; we really need something broader. The second definition in my dictionary – “antagonism towards other races” –gets nearer to the current issues, but I maintain is still inadequate. I would certainly not admit to being a racist on either of those definitions.
Basically I don’t like the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’. I would prefer to redefine my starting question as ‘Am I racially prejudiced?’ To which, if I am honest, the answer must be ‘Yes’. That needs some explanation.
I think, as a white person living in a society such as Britain that is historically ‘white’, (and still remains dominantly white, politically, economically and culturally), a degree of racial prejudice is inescapable. I say nothing about how someone from another ethnic background would feel; how could I possibly know? The challenge that we face is to recognise, and try to deal with, that prejudice.
One example. I’m walking along a street and I see ahead of me a group of people largely blocking the pavement. Do I a) continue and hope they make way for me to pass. b) step out into the road to pass them, or c) cross over to the other side of the street. I know that my instinctive reaction would be different if they were black. I know nothing else about them; I have no reason behind my reaction. I am pre-judging the situation – which is prejudice. You can extend this scenario to other forms of prejudice – contrast my likely behaviour if they were young males as opposed to elderly women.
Another, real, situation. When I was a University lecturer, many years ago, students had to put their names on the front of their exam papers. Some of us thought this was not good practice, and we argued (eventually successfully) for anonymous marking. There was opposition to this – some of my colleagues were actually offended by the implication that their marking might be affected by knowing who the student was. They said they weren’t prejudiced. I knew I could be, and so I always tried not to look at the cover page. But after I had given a mark, I sometimes thought, when I did see who the student was, ‘That can’t be right. She’s done much better than I expected.’ And I was tempted to go back and re-mark it.
So, yes, I admit to prejudice. And I come from a Quaker family background, with deep roots opposed to all forms of prejudice. Hence my contention that all (or at least all white people in a society such as ours) must also be prejudiced. The people who worry me are those who deny their prejudice. Until you recognise it, you cannot deal with it.
On a larger scale, this applies to organisations and institutions as well. To refer to an organisation as ‘institutionally racist’ does not mean, as it is often taken to mean, that every individual in that organisation is overtly racist. Rather it means that the organisation has failed to recognise the possibility of racial prejudice inherent in its practices and procedures, and by failing to recognise them it has failed to deal with them.
How does this relate to the killing of George Floyd – and very many other similar incidents, in this country as well as the USA and elsewhere? I have to resort to the rather hackneyed comparison with an iceberg. The tip of an iceberg showing above water only exists because of the very much larger mass of ice out of sight beneath the water. If you tried to cut the tip off, the iceberg would float higher in the water. In other words, it is not sufficient simply to campaign against such incidents of racial violence. Nor is adequate to tackle the inequalities in society. These actions are necessary, but incomplete. To banish ‘racism’ we have to work to eliminate all forms of racial prejudice – in our institutions and organisations, and in ourselves. This requires all of us to recognise the existence of our prejudices, and take appropriate action to counter them..
6 June 2020.