R, my Black American partner, is constantly asked whether the UK is less racist than America. Now R is compulsively honest. It is obvious that the people who ask want her to say how much nicer everything is over here. She doesn’t. Generally, she tries to be diplomatic and say something vague like “Every place has its plus and minus sides”. It never works. They press her and try to force the issue. I can only assume that they think her patriotism is getting in the way of the truth. Eventually, there is no evading the issue. “It’s different here, but it’s just as racist,” she says. And it’s game on.
We think we know what racism looks like. It is a member of the BNP. It has swastika tattoos. It uses the ‘N’ word. It graffitis people’s houses and attacks people of colour. No one we know does that, therefore, no one we know is racist. If you don’t agree, “there are plenty of airports”, as R was told on the weekend after yet another round of this game.
By this definition, it’s true; very few people in Britain are racist. I really wish that this was the case. If it were, I wouldn’t have to say things like “There are two of us, one of us is Black. Do you have a room for the 14th?” in order to avoid being stared at by the entire hotel staff over breakfast. I wouldn’t have to be the one who does all the shopping whenever we leave London to protect my wife from being refused service. I wouldn’t be working with kids whose chronic dyslexia was written off as behavioural issues until they were 13. I have to do all of these things, because this is what racism looks like in this country.
We are not an expressive people. Much of our communication relies on nuance and shading. In the same way, our racism is generally not the overt kind which hits the headlines, it lies in smaller, more insidious acts and behaviours. The stereotypes and negative attitudes which lie behind the actions are no less dangerous. Quite the opposite, because we silence those who would seek to talk about racism or ask us to examine our own attitudes. We are hurt and outraged by the suggestion that we might have racist attitudes, so hurt and outraged that we are unable to consider whether it might be true.
Only identifying overtly racist behaviour allows us to find other interpretations for actions which are racist. The person might have been in a bad mood. Perhaps the bar tender didn’t see you as you waited while he served everyone else. R Is constantly asked “Well what did you say to him to make him act like that?” This is even worse than silencing the person who wants to talk about racist attitudes because it actually shifts the blame on to the person who has experienced the attack.
Racism thrives in the UK because we persist in not listening to the people who want to talk to us about it. We persist in thinking that we know what racism is rather than being open to new ideas about what it might be. Of course, the majority of the people who want to raise the issue are the people who are most affected by it; people of colour. In not listening to them, we show how racist we really are.